Hellboy: Darkness Calls
Mike Mignola, writer
Duncan Fegredo, Mike Mignola, artists
Dark Horse, 2008
I think B.P.R.D. is better than Hellboy at this point, whether or not Mike Mignola himself is drawing either one. With John Arcudi as co-writer and Guy Davis on art, B.P.R.D. has that mix of action, horror, sly black humor, and quietly but genuinely unnerving fatalism that has long characterized Hellboy at its best, with art that is totally different than Mignola’s yet in many ways equally accomplished and evocative. But now it’s more grounded in things you can grasp and understand than Mignola’s increasingly unfettered “main” series–there are still recognizable human concerns, likable characters, and dramatic stakes at play, rather than Hellboy punching his way through esoteric world mythologies inhabited by an increasingly prodigious cast of hard-to-discern faerie-demon-god-witch-ghost things. I also think that of all Mignola’s recent artistic collaborators, Duncan Fegredo is doing my least favorite work; that’s a pretty faint damnation since it’s still pretty good, but there’s something about the way he apes Mignola but throws in more lines and details that just doesn’t satisfy the way the work of Mignola himself or the not-at-all-imitative work of Guy Davis does.
All that being said, you know what? I reread this graphic novel the other night and had a grand time with it. In large part, I think that’s because reading it all between the same set of covers in one sitting enabled me to finally figure out what the hell is going on! Basically, Hellboy’s living in the estate of a very old friend of his mentor’s. He goes out for a stroll and happens across a trio of weirdos who turn out to be the anthropomorphized familiars of medieval witches slain by a witchfinder-general type. They resurrect their old mistresses, but the witchfinder guy still haunts the area and attacks. The familiars split. Witchfinder-zombie kills two of the witch-zombies, but the third snags Hellboy and brings him to a big meeting of all of England’s witches. They’re seeking a new ruler, since the witch-queen Hecate was previously vanquished by Hellboy and was since unsuccessfully resurrected by a half-man half-devil named Igor Bromhead who tried and failed to take her powers for his own. They ask Hellboy to be their king, and he says no. A servant of HB’s old enemy, the Russian mythological baddie Baba Yaga, offers to take HB off their hands by way of vengeance for his spurning their offer, so that Baba Yaga–another HB vanquishee–can get her own revenge on him. They say yeah sure, so HB finds himself in the dreamworld-Russia of Baba Yaga, who sics an army of skeletons and an immortal warrior named Koschei the Deathless on him. She promises to let Koschei die if he kills Hellboy–she has possession of his soul–but I guess it turns out that Hellboy can’t be killed in this dimension either. (Or maybe not at all?) While Baba Yaga does manage to kill Perun, the pagan Russian god of the earth, her and Koschei keep coming up empty against Hellboy himself. With the help of a spirit of the forest, a little house-elf type guy, and a creepy little girl who once used a gift from Baba Yaga to kill her abusive step-family, Hellboy keeps schooling Koschei, who keeps getting revived by Baba Yaga, but each time she does so she throws more and more of her own power into him. Finally she runs out of juice (even tossing old Rasputin’s soul into the mix), but in one last-ditch effort she gets Koschei to lob a knife into Hellboy’s back. This still doesn’t work, but it makes HB drop a magic piece of paper the creepy girl gave him, which turns into an ocean and allows him to swim back to the real world. There he dispatches that witchfinder-zombie from earlier on. That guy’s sword is inscribed with the name of Igor Bromhead, the half-man reptile dude who we saw swing and miss in his attempt to take Hecate’s powers as his own. Turns out he’s been slithering around Italy eating sheep and things ever since. Hellboy kills him but not before he can get out a prophecy about HB leading Hell’s army, which after all is HB’s whole reason for being around. This ties into something one of Baba Yaga’s undead Russian comrades told her earlier–that Hellboy wasn’t “ready” to give her an eye in exchange for the one he poked out of her years ago, but the implication being he might one day. Meanwhile, as all this is going on with Hellboy, a little pig-guy named Gruagach has pitched the witches on resurrecting a mysterious “HER” to use as their new queen now that Hecate is out of commission and Hellboy is a non-starter. He and some minions find this big giant who’s in charge of keeping this mystery lady’s pieces in a box in a deep dungeon and explain that the witches want the box. The giant gives it to him but then crawls into the dungeon himself since he wants no part of the bad stuff that will go down once whatsername gets loose. On their way back to the witches Gruagach and his pals come across Dagda, who I think is king of the faeries or something and who doesn’t want them to open the box. One of the minions kills him and then feels terrible about it and kills himself. Gruagach proclaims to assembled faeriedom that whoever’s inside the box will now be their queen as well. Then there’s a pair of epilogues: In the first, the BPRD gets their first letter from Hellboy in six years, just a quick note telling them where he’s hanging out now. They realize that the old friend he’s been staying with has been dead for 24 years or so. Uh oh! In the second epilogue, an old witch-hunter-type guy we’ve seen mentioned here and there named Edward Grey does a seance with Hecate to ask her life story, and she explains that she once upon a time helped ruin the proto-kingdom of Hyperborea by delivering unto them promethean knowledge of the workings of the universe that she stole from the fallen angels its ruler had penned up. (It’s kind of a Sauron/Numenor deal.) She makes it sound like it’s going to be Grey’s mission to stop Hellboy from unleashing the apocalypse (her included), which she says Hellboy will not survive regardless. The end!
Okay, I got a few things out of writing down that summary. First, now I think I finally understand what happened. Second, it becomes obvious that this story is waaaaay too convoluted, even for Hellboy. There’s upward of a dozen factions at work, each trying to do something that’s a little ambiguous and mysterious to begin with. Put it all together and it’s borderline incomprehensible–you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and unless you sit and bang one out like I just did, none is forthcoming. Third, the art really doesn’t help. Fegredo’s spin on Mignola is already a little too manic and cluttered–he admits in the sketchbook section reprinted in the back that he’s not really adept at spotting blacks, certainly not on the level Mignola is–and a lot of it hits your eyes and brain as a wall of noise. Meanwhile, a lot of the different characters are pretty hard to tell apart–I thought the pig guy was part of the cat/frog/bird crew, i thought piggy’s minions were Baba Yaga’s minions, I thought the faeries were the witches, and on and on and on. Add these problems to the already murky plot, and whoo doggie.
But I mentioned the fatalism of the Hellboy books earlier, and I think that’s what comes through the strongest here for me. The Hellboy-proper comics have flirted with incomprehensibility for quite some time, so that’s really no surprise; what is sort of surprising to me, given how ongoing genre titles usually work, is that Hellboy and the BPRD seem to be headed for an unhappy ending. When you think about it, ever since Hellboy left the BPRD and struck out on his own, the status quo for both halves of the equation has actually gotten worse with the close of each new adventure. This story all but says that Hellboy, our cute sardonic two-fisted hero, will indeed become the Beast of the Apocalypse he was born to be. That’s what I take away from Darkness Calls–that underneath the sea of crazy that flows from humanity’s collective unconscious, underneath the haze of mythology and Lovecraft that Mignola is increasingly untethered in, something terrible is happening. That’s a fine, black beating heart for powering a mythos.