Just a review of new.

Hellboy: The Island #1 (of 2)

Just to get it out of the way right at the top, even though I don’t even think it’s fresh news: this is the last Hellboy miniseries to be written and drawn by creator Mike Mignola for the foreseeable future, as he turns to focus his art on side projects and shorts. Subsequent Hellboy canon minis will feature art by Lee Bermejo, working off of Mignola’s layouts (Mike will still do the scripts and covers). I hadn’t remembered this news, if I’d ever heard it before at all. But I didn’t need to read it in the letters column in order to get a sense that this is an almost valedictory Hellboy yarn, at least in one aspect, as it’s summing up of the Hellboy art. This is a strange, hyper-atmospheric, downright stately book, incredibly handsome and headstrong in optic aplomb. Fun? Well, yes… though stripped of his supporting cast, Hellboy can’t help but look inward. As maybe his creator is doing as well.

Also in the rear area of the issue, editor Scott Allie dubs this miniseries “perhaps the most redrawn, rewritten comic of all time.” Originally conceived in 2002 as a one-shot, Mignola became sidetracked with the Hellboy movie after having completed a bunch of pages. Then he apparently fell ill, and radically revised the story via fever-dream inspiration while bedridden in Prague; all of the completed art was thrown out, and the story wavered between two and three issues in length, with pages constantly being created and destroyed, over and over. The work is complete now, as Mignola is well into laying out the first Bermejo story, the six-issue Hellboy: Darkness Calls (a sample page is included in the back as a bonus).

But for now, this week, we’ve got 28 pages of ad-free Mignola Hellboy story and art, a slightly larger than average haul, still only $2.99. And it’s particularly lofty, punching stuff. Mignola’s characters seem more rough-hewn than ever; usually his human eyes are little more than dark slits, but here almost every mortal face is a pattern of scratches and dabs of ink, the occasional white tooth shining through in the outlines and pools of the mouth. Seen in long-shot, Hellboy becomes little more than a stick assembly of jabs and shapes, dutifully filled in by colorist Dave Stewart, whose work veers from softly pallid whites and blues into more typical shadow and murk, then blasting through all expectation into yellow. A lot of yellow. There's a huge fight scene in all yellow against a giant monster. But it's not really a giant monster. It’s practically the idea of a giant monster rather than a fully discernible beast. And let’s not get started on the landscapes and details; Mignola’s tendency to zoom into assorted close-ups of statuesque faces and architectural excerpts very nearly reaches the level of self-parody. But it doesn’t. This is a Mignola ultra-focused, totally self-aware as to his visual vocabulary and its prospective limits. This is fugue state work.

As for the plot, it’s a mildly baffling head-on collision between the ever-inscrutable Hellboy background mythos and a renewed emphasis on choppily poetic interior mumbling, with Mignola’s omnipresent interest in pulp adventure and aged folklore spilling over into the dialogue. What else can explain a one and a half page sequence devoted entirely to men singing an old sea shanty while waving around mugs of pure rum, literally lit aflame? This scene leads into one of the most dazzling visual punchlines, a great shift in hue and narrative tone, as Hellboy foolishly glances out the window. There’s a lot of footnotes in this issue, used to point the reader to past Hellboy adventures, yes, but also to cite a few of Mignola’s favorite references. Even Hellboy himself gets into the act, throwing down an extensive quote from Gregory Peck’s performance in the 1956 Moby Dick film. Don’t worry too much; he also spits out lines like “Don’t mess with me, lady. I’ve been drinking with skeletons.” That little bon mot is lobbed toward a key character from several past Hellboy volumes; this isn’t a very good jumping-on point, in case you haven’t guessed, as the storytelling is almost as obsessed with intensifying the past as the art, though it doesn't reach quite the same level of wizened self-drive.

Ha ha. I started that last paragraph with ‘as for the plot,’ and I never got around to saying anything about it. That’s because there really isn’t one. You’re never totally sure how much of the goings on are a hallucination, but it appears that sometime in the past a mysterious magician was skewered to death by devout Christians (excellent use of color here too, handily playing off of the stereotypical ‘red = blood = death’ visual cue), and now he wants to tell Hellboy something, or maybe just possess him. It’s hard to tell. That giant monster fight I mentioned earlier? Almost an afterthought, something that happens because that’s what happens in a Hellboy book, and this is going to be the Hellboy book. But the captions keep calling Our Hero’s name, and skeletons and yellow recur, until the final page dissolves into a miasma of near-abstraction, Kirby energy dots and stone sculptured eyes all over, with suggestions of the heart and The Right Hand imbedded therein.

What will next issue have to say, near what seems like the end of all things?