This week marks my fifth year of blogging here in my quiet corner of the internet, and to celebrate, I’m taking a look at one of my favourite comic books, the classic Hellboy. Let’s start with the first two books, Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil.
Seed of Destruction is very much the origin story for Big Red, and while creator Mike Mignola had previously written a short story introducing his concept for the character, it’s here that we start his story proper. Back in December 1944, in East Bromwich, England, American troops and three paranormal investigators are drawn to a convergence of energy that seems to indicate something is about to happen, thanks in part to the precognition of England’s premiere medium, Lady Cynthia Eden-Jones. However, at the critical moment, Lady Cynthia realises it is far to the north that a second epicentre has opened – it is there that the Nazis have gathered, led by a mysterious monk figure who is intent on opening a portal to another dimension to bring about the end of the world and allow the Nazis to claim victory in the war: Project Ragnarok.
While the portal is opened, it is in East Bromwich that the agent of that doom appears – a tiny red “ape” with a stone right hand. The Americans dub him Hellboy, and take him with them back to the USA, and the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD).
Years later, Professor Bruttenholm finally returns from a two year polar expedition. Bruttenholm, one of the investigators from East Bromwich and Hellboy’s surrogate father, is recounting some of the adventure to the now-mature half-demon when frogs start appearing, and the professor himself is killed by a frog-monster. Hellboy manages to kill the creature, however.
Following the trail of the frog monsters, Hellboy and his colleagues Liz Sherman and the amphibious Abe Sapien travel to Cavendish Hall, home of two of Bruttenholm’s companions on his polar expedition. Lady Cavendish reveals that her family has been inexplicably drawn to the arctic for generations, but the death of her two sons on the expedition might finally mean an end to this. Further investigation brings Hellboy into direct conflict with the monk-like figure who led the Nazis in 1944, none other than Rasputin. He wishes to awaken the Ogdru-Jahad, the seven gods of the apocalypse, and destroy the earth. Rasputin has captured Liz, and attempts to use her fire-control abilities to augment his own and awaken the Sadu Hem, a mystical totem brought back from the arctic by Bruttenholm and the two Cavendish brothers before they were transformed into frog monsters. The Sadu Hem should then have the power to awaken the Ogdru-Jahad, however Abe manages to spear Rasputin through the chest (with the help of the zombie-like Elihu Cavendish, founder of the dynasty) and rescue Liz.
Wake the Devil pretty much picks up where Seed of Destruction ended, with Rasputin’s disciples from the 1944 project – Ilsa Haupstein, Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, and Leopold Kurtz – coming out of a deep freeze in a castle high up in Norway. Meanwhile, the Bureau is tasked to track down the body of Vladimir Giurescu, an almost-mythological figure who is believed to be immortal, and was once hoped to head up one of the Nazis many doomsday projects, ‘Vampir Sturm’. The BPRD teams up to track the body to three separate locations within Romania, where Hellboy quickly finds himself at the correct location, coming face to face with Ilsa Haupstein, and her attempt to revive Giurescu.
Others on the team land at different sites in Romania, and Liz’s team discover an unusually large homonculus in the ruins of Czerge Castle. The homonculus attacks them, attempting to drain Liz’s energy, until Bud Waller manages to shoot it, causing it to run off. Meanwhile, Ilsa sets the cyborg Nazi Unmensch on Hellboy, the two having a massive fight that eventually leads Hellboy to a room in the castle where Giurescu is being revived by the goddess Hecate, who turns out to be Giurescu’s mother.
Hellboy battles Hecate, while Rasputin promises Ilsa immortality if she is willing to step into an iron maiden. The torture device kills her, but is placed at a crossroads with a chained Hellboy just as Giurescu comes back to life and tries to kill him. Hellboy defeats Giurescu, a fragment of whose soul then enters the iron maiden. However, in the extraction from Romania, the BPRD manage to lose the body of Giurescu, and the iron maiden mysteriously disappears.
The first two books in the Hellboy series are absolutely cracking. While the first story remains relatively straightforward in the telling, with some folklore thrown in among the tale, by and large it is the story of a mad monk attempting to bring about the end of the world, using frog monster minions to do his bidding. The initial backstory of Project Ragnarok is there, but only to form the initial backdrop to the main tale.
In the second book, we have what Mignola is perhaps best at, weaving mythology and folklore into a story that also takes in the mysticism of the occult and linking strongly with Nazi scientists, to provide a wide-ranging, highly-textured and detailed storyline. While Seed of Destruction is perhaps required reading to give you the background, Wake the Devil is really what Hellboy is all about, and manages to encapsulate the character and the series in just one book.
I think it’s incredibly impressive the way Mignola manages to treat all the various threads of folklore into the narrative, and it’s a bit of a treat to see the way these tidbits manage to make it into the storyline. Overall, the dark gothic feel of the Hellboy universe is wonderful and these first two books in the series really help to put you on the road that the Hellboy books travel.
There is so much to enjoy in these books that I can barely convey the breadth of the story in this review. I’ve tried to hit a lot of the points because I think there will be significant mentions and stuff later on, but I’m now a bit worried that I’ve made it sounds slightly muddled in the re-telling!