Hellboy in Hell
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.
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.
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.
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.