Sunday, October 25, 2009

Review - Hellboy Library Edition Volume 1

Hellboy Library Edition Volume 1
Containing Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil
Written by Mike Mignola and John Byrne; Art by Mike Mignola
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist for Mike Mignola
1997 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist (Drama) for Mike Mignola
2009 Eisner Winner for Best Production Design

It's rare for an ongoing series by one creator to improve over time. It's far more common for them to spend their effort on the original work and slowly run out of ideas or burn out. With Hellboy I initially didn't care for it. As time went by and people kept raving about the series I decided to give it another chance. What I found was that the earliest stuff was shaky but Mignola found his footing and took things in a better direction. So as I look over the first volume of the Library Edition which contains the first two miniseries and pair of extremely brief preview stories I am inclined to give it a bit more slack because I know what's coming.

The titular character is a paranormal investigator who is usually called in to deal with the problems where hitting the paranormal creature repeatedly is a good idea. He mysteriously appeared in 1944 at a moment the coincided with a failed attempt by Nazi occultists to awaken Lovecraftian horrors. After spending fifty years looking into other people's weirdness his origins come back to haunt him as one of the occultists returns to use Hellboy.

One of the biggest problems I had with Hellboy that I can still see is that Mignola's plots in these books seem to revolve around "What would look cool" instead of making sense. I'll complain loudly when there's too much exposition but the stories in these pages go the opposite route of containing far too little. This is especially a problem in the second story, Wake the Devil, where even knowing what's coming I still have trouble following it. As a broad example of this kind of thing, there is a monster that gets hit and turns into bones and this is a major plot event with no explanation of how or why it occurs. It's just an excuse to show the creature suddenly becoming a skeleton.

Another problem is that when there is a plot it's not a very engrossing one. The first story is essentially Hellboy and crew go to a haunted house where they stay the night and punch deep ones. With the second there's... um... well there's vampires... and a goddess I think... and there's something about an iron maiden that I didn't really follow... well see the above paragraph. There's some exciting action scenes and some spooky locations and some creepy monster monster designs but they just don't come together well. It's stuff that's cool without putting them into a story that's as interesting as they are.

Which isn't to say it's all bad. Occasionally things will come together just right for a flash of brilliance. In particular the climaxes of both stories are better than they deserve to be given their lackluster set up. Yes, the bad guys are going to get beaten and the heroes triumph but the way that things are brought together at the ending is entertaining. The metastory that is being developed in this book is far more interesting than the actual stories and that is what can carry you on to the point where Hellboy starts developing depth.

Mignola's artwork is an acquired taste and when I first read Hellboy I had not acquired it yet. He has a way with heavy shadows that flattens out the perspective. It drove me crazy until I got into the groove of his sharp edged line work that takes advantage of those heavy black areas. It's a very impressionistic style that I've come to appreciate as the look for the creatures of the night.

The Library Edition volumes of Hellboy are the best produced volume of comics that I have on my shelves. They're oversized but not so monstrously oversized that they're uncomfortable to read. They feature the heaviest paper stock I've seen; it's something that I've only encountered before in art books. The cloth binding has no dust jacket to get torn but still looks nice thanks to the embossing and plate set in the front. Oh, and it costs about as much as the first two Hellboy trade paperbacks so it's a bargain as well.

I said a lot of negative things in this review but when it comes down to it I found Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil to be blandly average comics. Mignola uses these as a launchpad and turns the series into something that explores folklore in a way that I have enjoyed quite a bit. Still I'd recommend starting with the second volume of the library edition and then going backward if you're a newcomer to Hellboy. And whether you are or not if you want to get Hellboy then the Library Editions are the best way to own the series. I wish all of my collected editions were as nice as this book.