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Underwhelming but atmospheric
on 24 May 2014
The short version of why Hellboy’s in hell is that at the end of the last Hellboy book, The Storm and The Fury, he slew the dragon and saved England but died when he was caught off guard and the ghost of the witch Nimue plucked out his heart. This is what happened next…
Hellboy in Hell isn’t just the title of the book but a pretty accurate summary of what happens in the book. There isn’t a plot, it’s just Hellboy wandering around hell looking at stuff with a variety of different Virgils explaining what he’s looking at. This is weirdly the book’s strength and weakness because this is the first Hellboy book Mike Mignola’s both written and drawn in years, and his art has only improved with age. So while Hellboy meanders, the creatures and backgrounds he comes across are visually incredible.
Here hell isn’t the fire and brimstone Christian stereotype but in Mignola’s hands becomes an ethereal, perpetually twilit land of eerie shadows against Victorian buildings. The effect is quietly chilling as wonderfully ancient structures give an old world atmosphere and provides a gorgeous backdrop to the flying demons and Lovecraftian monsters that float around. Pandemonium sits in the midst of the muted yet ominous Lake of Fire, a looming collection of ancient Roman-esque architectural buildings surrounded by creepy talking statues housing the seat of hell’s power, the Citadel of the Fly, and the Devil himself. If nothing else, Hellboy in Hell is worth picking up for Mignola’s first-rate art.
But when it comes to story, things get a bit messy. Ideas like Hellboy going to the place where he’s been banishing monsters for decades, like a cop sent to prison and meeting all the criminals he’s put away, is touched on for a spell before being shuffled away and forgotten. Literary allusions pepper the script from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol being parodied, to lines from Shakespeare and Milton being quoted, all of which give the impression of a deep, complex read when it really isn’t. Hellboy doesn’t want the throne of hell so Mignola throws in a line or two from Macbeth which says something similar – kinda obvious.
The more successful elements of the narrative are things that have been explored in previous Hellboy books – Hellboy’s purpose for existing and his right hand of doom, which mark him out to be the heir to the throne of hell. Mignola re-treads some of this material but adds more detail behind Hellboy’s birth mother and introduces his demonic half-brothers who want Hellboy’s power even if he doesn’t. What happens when Hellboy encounters Satan himself is the most interesting part of the book as it makes the reader wonder what happens to hell afterwards but Mignola doesn’t take that thread any further (maybe to explore in later issues?).
I appreciate Mignola’s ambitious vision where he’s literally creating his own idea of hell utilising numerous artistic sources throughout human history while making it distinctly his, and Hellboy’s, own, but I kept waiting for Hellboy to try to figure out a way to come back to Earth. He seemed more than happy to simply be just in hell – is this it? Is Hellboy going to be in hell, walking about while remaining nonplussed, forever? The final story in the book is a standalone piece where Hellboy’s having a smoke when a lost spirit asks him for help and they go on a little adventure. It seems indicative of Mignola’s approach to Hellboy’s new situation – that he’s content to keep Hellboy in hell for the time being and be in no particular hurry to return him to Earth, or point him in any narrative direction at all.
The Descent isn’t the best Hellboy book if you’re looking for a more driven narrative but it’s fine for what it does which is establish and explore the fascinating new setting for Hellboy – though I’m assuming this is done because Hellboy’s staying in hell for a while; if not, then this is a lot of pretty filler. I would like to feel that there was a point to all of this but the ambling way Mignola writes these days shows that urgency isn’t something he’s overly concerned with and that he prefers to show interesting things rather than tell interesting stories – a quality that doesn’t make for amazing comics.
The art really is gorgeous though and it isn’t hard to see why the book looks amazing when the art team is Mignola, Dave Stewart on colours and Clem Robins lettering, and parts of the book are entertaining to read but the overall impression of Hellboy in Hell Vol 1 is of a fragmentary and unsatisfactory story. Which is a shame because after Batman and Superman, Hellboy’s my favourite superhero and I really wanted Hellboy in Hell to be the masterpiece I hoped it would be but it turned out to be an underwhelming next chapter in the Hellboy saga.