Hellboy in Hell

Hellboy in Hell Vol. 1. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini. Hellboy in Hell Vol. 2. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini.
Hellboy created by Mike Mignola
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Clem Robins
Design: Cary Grazzini

Hellboy in Hell is not only the official end (for the time being) for one of the comic industry’s most successful characters within the last twenty years, it also marks the return of creator Mike Mignola to his role as Hellboy’s principle artist. Even now, that Mignola chose to conclude Hellboy’s narrative arc on his own terms, is something of a triumph. It must have been tempting to simply hire new creative talent to maintain the present continuity and cash-in on the character’s ongoing popularity. That Hellboy himself retains considerable name recognition after most of the comics published under the Legend imprint (remember them?) have faded from memory is damn impressive. So if Mignola wants to spend more of his time painting watercolors, the choice is more than well-earned.

Not that Hellboy’s retirement would end the larger universe that Mignola has already wrought. Since Hellboy quit the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.) in 2001, Mignola has collaborated with an expanding circle of writers and artists. The titles now include (but are not limited to) the B.P.R.D., Abe Sapien, Lobster Johnson, Baltimore, Sir Edward Grey, and a prequel called Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. As for the Hellboy comics themselves, Mignola would gradually allow Hellboy’s post-B.P.R.D. adventures to be illustrated by other talents. It almost looked as if Mignola was making a slow exit while handing the reigns to his universe to other, capable hands.

Hellboy in Hell #1. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini.

The initial phase of Hellboy’s career was spent as a paranormal investigator/monster hunter, working under the direction of the B.P.R.D. These were the stories where Mignola laid the ground for him as a gruff, well-meaning figure, staunch defender of humanity, but haunted by ancient prophecies and visions that foretold of him as the harbinger of the Apocalypse and the one being capable of freeing the Lovecraftian horror known as the Ogdru Jahad from its deep space prison. The second phase had Mignola cede his artistic duties while Hellboy would lead a vagabond life in an attempt to learn more about his origins. This ended when he died battling the mad sorceress Nimue (who was channeling the Ogdru Jahad). With the descent into Hell, Mignola reunited with longtime collaborators colorist Dave Stewart and letterer Clem Robins. A new phase for Hellboy was poised to commence.

The first half of Hellboy in Hell certainly operates under that conceit. While Duncan Fegredo was a more than able to play the role of principle artist, Mignola’s signature style has since further evolved. Few artists working today are able to convey gloom with so few strokes of the pen. His characters have become flatter, more impressionistic through the years. But with just the right amount of linework and chiaroscuro to suggest their inner state. Mignola is a master of the kind of decompressed storytelling that places just as much focus on mood and atmosphere as on action. A favorite device is the use of small, rectangular, inset panels to control the pace and reveal tiny details that would be otherwise have been overlooked. With the realm of Hell, there’s more than enough wierdness fighting for the reader's attention. Mignola’s understated approach will forever be associated with Stewart’s equally nuanced use of colors, which keep the panels eminently readable with subtle shading and a minimal palette that maximizes emotional impact.

Hellboy in Hell #2. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini.

All of this serves as a counterpoint to the comic’s very dry sense of humor. Hellboy and his supporting cast are so constantly beset by the weird and terrifying that it’s become characteristic to cope by wearing a deadpan expression while emitting a stoic shrug. Arch-enemy Baba Yaga summarizes her venomous relationship with Hellboy like he was just another annoying coworker: “I never liked him, but even I have to admit he ended well.” Hellboy describes his initial impressions of the underworld like a typical day at work: “Let’s see… I got killed, fell into a hole full of giant bugs, and a big iron guy beat the crap out of me with a hammer. Considering the day I’m having, I think I’m doing pretty good.” Unsurprisingly, his message to his demonic family (who obviously feel betrayed by his life choices) is similarly irreverent: “Well screw you guys!” And don't think that someone wouldn't notice the incongruity of the hero with demonic ties being named after the very place where the wicked are condemned to in the afterlife. Longtime readers will already be familiar with how humor is often used to offset the grim nature of the threats the protagonists usually face. But with Hellboy, it now keeps him sane given his unusual circumstances.

Once he’s got his bearings, Hellboy quickly resumes his wandering ways. He explores the geography of Hell, encounters its varied denizens, dukes it out with numerous demons, even becomes infected with a mysterious ailment, and does his best to save lost souls from eternal damnation. This might have been a pattern that Mignola could have tried to sustain for the next few years with his fertile imagination He even seems to be finding his groove in the episodic nature of events. But then, he chooses instead to end Hellboy’s infernal adventures in an unexpectadly abrupt manner.

Hellboy in Hell #4. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini.

Ending Hellboy’s story means ending the struggle that’s always defined him - his coming to terms with the apocalyptic destiny set upon him by his demonic brethren. He would have continued this struggle by feuding with all the princes of Hell. But that would change nothing. In a chance encounter with a demon he once knew in life, he receives some pretty good advice on finding a way out: “You want to start over? You want a new life? First you have to finish the old one.”

It's advice Hellboy takes to heart. He finishes the old in the most spectacular way possible. The climax is a monumental series of panels composed of stark landscapes dwarfed only by monstrous forms battling like kaiju. In one fell swoop, Hellboy finally breaks free of his fate by embracing it in a way that ends up laying waste to the infernal kingdom’s fragile balance of power. It’s a masterpiece of low key storytelling. And yet, it's still a gloriously epic display of Mignola's penchant for inky shadows and Kirby crackle. In the final chapter, Hellboy never speaks. His actions are narrated by a lone surviving demon witness. This distancing effect is maintained to the very last page. The demon eventually falls silent. And with his task done, Hellboy continues to wander an abandoned Hell alone before finally settling down in a quiet corner. Even here, he finds there is a light in the darkness to show the way. It's an ambiguous, even mysterious, but hopeful conclusion.

So it ends. No fanfare, happy reunions with loved ones, celebrations with allies, or victory speeches. Not even a wry comment coming from Hellboy. Could he return to action in the future? Sure. This is comics, after all. The B.P.R.D. is still desperately fighting to prevent the Apocalypse from happening on the earthly plane. Supernatural forces are constantly at work in this fantasy mileau. But for now at least, Mignola has given his character a fitting, if melancholic sendoff.

Hellboy in Hell #10. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini.


Comic-Con Album Pt 30

Cosplayer, Comic-Con International, San Diego Convention Center, Marina District, San Diego, California. Kodak Kodacolor Gold 400 GC Color Negative c-41 Film ISO 400, 35mm. Sunpak 4000AF Flash.
Cosplayer, Comic-Con exhibit hall

For some reason, I shot this particular event exclusively in color. This may not have been a smart decision. Transitioning to digital was still a few years away in the future, so I was handling several rolls of color negatives. Not a preferred medium of mine, but I figured was still easier than having to expose for slide film.

Pt  29,


Comic-Con Album Pt 29

PVC Figures, Comic-Con International, San Diego Convention Center, Marina District, San Diego, California. Kodak Kodacolor Gold 400 GC Color Negative c-41 Film ISO 400,
Anime PVC figures, Comic-Con exhibit hall

It's time for another round of images for the growing  Comic-Con Album. Another year, another annual pilgrimage to Comic-Con International at the San Diego Convention Center. By this time, I was taking the train from Los Angeles instead of flying cross-country.

Previous photos of the series:
Pt  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28,


Warcraft (2016)

Warcraft (2016). Director: Duncan Jones Starring Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebell.
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebell.

Feature films based on video games are usually terribly plotted, and Warcraft is no exception in that regard. It’s a bit of a mess to attempt to follow, and filled with paper-thin characterizations. But unlike many films falling into this category, Warcraft is bolstered with a considerable degree of storytelling ambition. Director/Co-screenwriter Duncan Jones does his best to create a highly textured fantasy milieu, implying a rich history for the kingdom of Azeroth. This world-building will probably energize many pre-existing fans of the Warcraft video game series, but it won’t be enough to draw in the general audience.

Warcraft lives or dies on its hyper-real aesthetic. Like 300, or Avatar, or Sucker Punch, the stylized but highly detailed setting is meant to draw the viewer into a completely made up world that bears little to no resemblance to any real location. With Warcraft, the film replicates the virtual world of the game. Everyone and everything is bathed in an evenly applied luminous glow that flatters and smooths over surface features. It’s studio lighting taken outdoors. Every magical spell cast involves the release of colored glowing plasma, kind of like the energy outbursts usually associated with Green Lantern. As with the digitally rendered environments found in the aforementioned past movies, the live actors still look a little out-of-place in it. But advances in motion capture technology make the CGI denizens look pretty convincing, especially the weirdly proportioned orcs.

But there’s too much going on. There are a lot of characters being moved around onscreen, and the story suffers from it. The basic conflict revolves around a war between a human-led alliance and an invading orc horde. But muddling things are the type of magic being used by both sides, shifting allegiances, some inter-warrior rivalry, some family melodrama, some coming-of-age tales. Certain characters, particularly the women, hardly receive enough attention. The orc horde gets less screen time than the humans. And the cast playing humans consistently fail to to make any of their roles particularly compelling or sympathetic. Warcraft isn’t complex, it’s just cluttered.


R.I.P. Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016)

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, by Dennis O'Neil, Neal Adams,  Dick Giordano, Terry Austin, Gaspar Saladino,, Cory Adams.
Superman vs. Muhammad Ali
DC - The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke
DC - The New Frontier
Muhammad Ali - Amazing Améziane by Sybille Titeux de la Croix.
Amazing Améziane
Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston II, photo by John Rooney / The Associated Press.
Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston II
Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle", photo by Associated Press.
Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle"
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier III "Thrilla in Manila", photo by Mitsunori Chigita/Associated Press.
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier III "Thrilla in Manila"

"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father... Shoot them for what? ...How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail."
"I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky, my name not yours. My religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” 
“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it—then I can achieve it.” #MuhammadAli

Like many a star athlete, Ali was known for making outrageous and self-aggrandizing statements. But as a child of the Civil Rights era, the "Louisville Lip" also developed a reputation for speaking truth to power. His eloquence on these matters has become just as memorable as his actions in the ring. Or on the comic book page.

Farewell, champ.


DC Universe: Rebirth #1

Dave Gibbon's response to Watchmen's role in DC Rebirth and his thoughts on Batman V Superman (via Alexander Lu). 

Here were my initial thoughts on the announcement of  DC Universe: Rebirth #1:

Does Geoff Johns even hear the words he's spewing when justifying the use of Doctor Manhattan as the antagonist for DC Rebirth?

“It felt like there were things that had gone missing — not the characters but an overall feeling of hope and optimism... ” 
“If you’re going to have a conflict between optimism and pessimism, you need to have someone who represents a cynical view of life and also has the ability to affect this. I know it’s crazy but he felt like the right character to use.”

This is about as ethically and creatively challenged a statement as Johns can make - pinning on Watchmen the trend of dark and cynical comics while ignoring his own complicity in DC's creative output during the last two decades. I haven't forgotten his abuse of the characters from Crisis on Infinite Earths in the horrible Infinite Crisis. Not to mention the gorefest that was Flashpoint. And others could probably point to his time on JLA, JSA, or Blackest Night. So Johns is either being extremely cynical himself, or is demonstrating a staggering lack of self-awareness. Or he's misleading his readers for some reason.

Heidi MacDonald points out that there's a behind the scenes struggle between Johns and co-publisher Dan DiDio. DC Rebirth apparently represents Johns asserting more control over the entire lineup, as Johns has used the "Rebirth" tag on two previous stories which were written as course corrections to what he perceived as mishandlings of those properties. Both stories were characterized by their nostalgic approach. Hal Jordan and Barry Allen were brought back from limbo to reclaim the superhero mantles from their replacements. So it's not hard to read in his call for hope and optimism as code for a repudiation of the whole DC New 52 enterprise (and the DCYou initiative) in order to return to his cherished fundamentals.

This is the first time that Watchmen will play a central role in a mainstream crossover event. From a continuity standpoint, there's no real precedent for using Doctor Manhattan (or any of the other Watchmen characters) as the in-universe antagonist. So the only reasons for DC to make such a move are: (a) to keep pissing on the ashes of their relationship with Alan Moore by taking the final step of reducing his characters into just another mediocre corporate property (b) to grab headlines. For the last two decades, DC's stewards have been swinging back and forth between the two poles of being embarrassed by the company's own superhero properties, and celebrating their childlike appeal. The stakes for this infighting are a lot higher, now that Time-Warner is paying a lot more attention to what happens at their HQ. But coming after so many soft reboots, corporate reshufflings, and marketing gimmicks, this latest move feels like a tacit admission that the DC Universe is broken in such a way that it can't be fixed anymore with yet another editorially mandated change.


DC Universe: Rebirth #1: Story: Geoff Johns Art: Phil Jimenez, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Gary Frank, Alex Sinclair Colors: Brad Anderson, Jason Wright, Joe Prado, Gabe Eltaeb, Hi-Fi Inks: Matt Santorelli Letters: Nick Napolitano.
Story: Geoff Johns
Art: Phil Jimenez, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Gary Frank, Alex Sinclair
Colors: Brad Anderson, Jason Wright, Joe Prado, Gabe Eltaeb, Hi-Fi
Inks: Matt Santorelli
Letters: Nick Napolitano

Having now gotten around to reading Rebirth. I'm struck by how much the comic is aimed at DC's core fanbase. There's an overwhelming sense of familiarity for anyone who's been following DC crossovers since 1985: the time travelling/dimension hopping shenanigans, a speedster delivering an ominous message, a mysterious antagonist with the power to threaten all of existence, the universal timeline needing to be fixed, yet again. And this is also marks Geoff Johns going back again to the well and returning a character from limbo, in this case Wally West. Not to mention that the artists employed here are among the most capable exponents of DC's house style within the last decade.

What is new is the unprecedented level of backtracking on display. The whole comic is basically a parade of ideas that were discarded by the New 52 relaunch five years ago, but whose absence is now being presented as symptoms of how things having gone very wrong since then. The whole spectacle doesn't feel so much an apology as Johns unleashing his venom on his colleagues for letting things get so out of hand. Change is being invoked for the sake of returning to some previous status quo (represented by a teenage Wally), and opposed by unseen forces (Doctor Manhattan). The ham-handed symbolism is only surpassed by the depressingly conservative* message designed to appease the preferences of entitled fans. Furthermore, this backward looking approach has the unfortunate effect of rendering every recent attempt to update, expand and diversify the DC lineup appear insincere in retrospect.

And Rebirth probably won't accomplish streamlining the DC Universe. Johns might believe that returning Wally to his long-abandoned Kid Flash role marks the return of hope and optimism. But this just seems to indulge his usual habit of engaging in intertextually dense storytelling meaningful only to the initiated.
*by that I mean that superhero comics are incredibly resistant to change/character growth, not their politics.