Oh hey, I’m back.
Hellboy is really bloody anticlimactic, you know?
Alright, this is another criticism that’s a bit hard for me, because I love Hellboy. I love almost every aspect of it. I love how the crazy origin, the references to occultism from the past two hundred years, the Catholic saint imagery that pervades so much of it, the one-off stories that are re-tellings of legends and myths from around the world, and how the story explodes from being about Hellboy fighting monsters to an apocalyptic epic about defending the world from Lovecraftian monstrosities.
But dang is the story really bad about throwing away long-running plotlines like the shells of sunflower seeds.
Obviously, some spoilers ahead. But before we jump to that, we’re probably going to need to give some background for context.
The first major villain of Hellboy is a guy named Grigori Rasputin. Maybe you’ve heard of him. In Mike Mignola’s setting, Rasputin made some sort of Faustian deal with the Ogrdu Jahad, the Dragon of the Apocalypse that’s trapped in a crystal prison that only Hellboy’s stone right hand can open. At the end of Volume One: Seed of Destruction, Rasputin is seemingly killed, though he comes up as a ghost a few times after that. It’s pretty much understood and that he’ll be back.
Rasputin, though, overestimates his own power, and ends up going up against another recurring villain: Hecate. He bites off more than he can chew and ends up wrecked by the Black Goddess. One of Rasputin’s benefactors, the Slavic witch Baba Yaga, saves what’s left of his spirit in an acorn, showing an obvious way he could be brought back.
The acorn is brought up again in Volume 8: Darkness Calls, and immediately some nobody villain is like, “Screw that guy!” and chucks the acorn into the Abyss.
This is the end of Rasputin’s story. All that set up, his prophesying, his connection to the Ogdru Jahad—all of it doesn’t actually mean anything. He’s just a starter villain.
There’s some bits in the spin-off, BPRD where he’s remembered, but as a villain in Hellboy’s rogues gallery? Nope, he’s gone, unceremoniously thrown away by the other villains as an unimportant character without another fight.
Let’s fast-forward a bit. There’s a prophecy about Hellboy that worries everyone, because he’s supposed to be the Beast of Revelation. He’s destined to go down into Hell, overthrow all the Lords, Princes, Knights, and other assorted aristocracy, take the throne of Pandemonium from the Devil himself, and go conquer the world with hordes of demons. Hellboy, not being a megalomaniac, of course rejects this destiny because he thinks that’s kind of a dick thing to do.
But at the end of Volume 12: Storm and Fury, Hellboy is dragged down into Hell after an apocalyptic battle, leading to the series Hellboy in Hell. One of the first things he does in Hell is take a tour of the capital, Pandemonium, and his tour guide tells him that all the demons lords have fled at his arrival, fearful of him. All except one—Satan himself sleeps beneath the city, and it’d be all too easy for someone to go kill him in his sleep. Hellboy moves on, not being particularly motivated to kill Satan.
Except turns out he did. Later we find out that Satan is dead, his throat slit, and that Hellboy is the one who did it, even though it’s out of character and he doesn’t remember doing it, or even wanting to do it. It just happened, and it’s a done deal. Deliberate parallels are drawn to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the murder of King Duncan, but that doesn’t add up because Hellboy keeps saying and showing how much he doesn’t want the throne. So instead of it being about the protagonist’s ambition leading him to do morally reprehensible actions and ultimately corrupting him, it just makes no sense.
The other demon lords that plagued Hellboy over the years are quickly dealt with. Astaroth and Hellboy’s demonic half-brothers at least confront him, but then out of nowhere they’re eaten by Leviathan without any foreshadowing. Hellboy’s half-sister, Gamori, who tried to kill Hellboy when he was a child, has a subplot where she tries to tell the Furies that Hellboy killed their brothers. When the Furies are set straight, they just take Gamori away and that’s that. She’s done with.
Maybe some other demon lord can pick up the slack? Welp, not really, no—they’re all dead. At Hellboy’s approach, they all skipped town and were killed by their minions, who decided now would be a great time to go all French Revolution on their asses. So there are no demon lords left.
[Except Varvara, but we’re not getting into that because that’s more into the spin-off BPRD and we’re talking Hellboy, got it?]
A couple of these plot points end up becoming important in the spin-offs, but it’s frustrating because you generally want the narrative arc of the original series to be complete and make sense within the original series. I like BPRD and Abe Sapien just fine, but I don’t want to feel like I have to read all of those just to get any satisfaction out of these stories that Mignola spent years building up. I just want the story to have some sort of satisfying ending. Not even necessarily a happy one, but one that doesn’t feel like a huge letdown.
I get that there are times when there’s a point to the writer adding the anticlimactic resolution to the story, to try to say that evil always turns in on itself or that what we thought we knew wasn’t real the entire time or something. But to have it happen again and again within the same story just seems like a major flaw. I don’t get the impression that Mignola is making a point, it reads as if he doesn’t have any idea what to do with all of the interesting plot elements he’s introduced and so he just awkwardly sweeps them under the rug like an unwanted clan of dust bunnies.
This is basic story-writing: you set up a plot line, you foreshadow it, you give it a payoff. I understand that sometimes it’s difficult to give a good payoff; when you get to the end of a storyline and you have no idea how to finish it. But there comes a point that it happens so many times it’s egregious. Mike Mignola just doesn’t know how to end a storyline in a satisfactory fashion. It’s telling that the spin-offs that do tie up loose ends set up over the years are actually not written by him alone; BPRD, for instance, is written with several other writers, notably John Arcudi, and the Abe Sapien series was written in collaboration with Scott Allie.
And like I said, it’s a damn shame because I love Hellboy. I love so much of the stories and the characters and the setting that it’s downright infuriating that I can’t see these plotlines get the resolution that they need instead of being discarded. If you spend years wondering what’s going to happen to all of these characters and their story arcs, it’s a huge disappointment when it reads as if the man writing it all doesn’t care enough to do anything but throw them away when he’s gotten bored with them.
Those are my thoughts, anyhow.