Top positive review
Mignola's Magnum Opus Drops All Pretenses
Reviewed in the United States on October 28, 2018
The other day I decided to read my way through HELLBOY, with the help of the massive omnibus collections. These tomes collect only the core storylines—the tales pertaining to Hellboy himself and his fate. They, of course, omit the dozens of short stories that Mignola and company churned out through the years, between the volumes of the principal storyline (they are collected elsewhere, and I will get around to them). And while part of me admittedly feels like it's missing out on the evolution of an artist (a process I enjoy seeing with singular, serialized work), I do so enjoy the kick I get from watching the sudden (from my perspective, at least) shift in authorial voice.
These stories must have done Mignola worlds of good, in the sense that he clearly must have gotten progressively better with each tale, because that effort shows in the stories collected in this publication. Mignola the Writer comes through much stronger, much clearer, and much, much brighter than in the previous omnibus collection, and the book as a whole benefits greatly from it.
Here we have a confident writer, entirely and utterly sure of the story they are trying to tell. Ready and willing to follow it wherever it leads.
It's funny, then, that I was a little bit hesitant at reaching the stories that were plotted by Mignola but drawn by other artists. Mignola's art is so distinctive, after all, and part of what made the Hellboy comics so appealing. The very first issues of the Hellboy saga featured Mignola as a confident graphic artist, but, at best, a competent but hesitant writer. They writing was always fine and serviceable to the story being told, but it never really went above and beyond that. The writing was never *great*.
So I was incredibly happy to find out that this wasn't the case here at all. The stories in this collection feature some of the best writing I've ever seen in comics. STRANGE PLACES follows Hellboy, recently having left his position at the BPRD, drifting and wandering about, "wherever the wind blows," as he repeatedly says. The places he visits are indeed strange, and the events that happen in and around them even more so. But Hellboy is the ultimate pragmatic protagonist, taking everything at face value, and dealing with things as they come along. It's a great quality to have in a main character in stories full of weirdness, and indeed, most of the humor (and there's a fair bit of it) comes from the juxtaposition between the outrageous events forever happening around Hellboy and his perpetual and perpetually weary "ugh this again" attitude.
What I really love most about HB's portrayal, though, is that while it seems to be stoic in nature, it is everything but. Hellboy has always been an emotional creature, from the get go, and in these stories more than ever. This is especially evident in the last few pages of "Box Full of Evil", where Hellboy goes existential. It's a small monologue, to be sure, but it is full of pathos and poignancy.
Which brings me to the writing. This is a baroque story Mignola is trying to tell here, through and through. And, with the artwork of these comics being minimalist in nature, this aspect is best reflected in the writing. It is lush and lyrical and purposefully poetic—full of clever allusions and foreshadowing. This is a work of sequential art, yes, but there's also sense of revelry in the written word, which is always a refreshing thing to see in comics. I was reminded often of THE SANDMAN, in the sense that this was a comic that was deliberately attempting to tell a literary story. And in point of fact I would put the writing in some of these stories ("Box Full of Evil" and "The Island" in particular) on par with some of Gaiman's own work at the height of his comic-writing capabilities.
The artwork, as always, is gorgeous—at least whenever Mignola is at the helm. I mentioned earlier my initial misgivings about other illustrators handling the artwork, and, at one point in the collection, I was almost proven right. "Being Human" is a short and, on the surface at least, relatively harmless tale centered around Roger, the contemplative homunculus, that is almost completely ruined by featuring depictions of people of color that border on racist caricatures. It never really veers into wildly offensive territory (to my eyes at least; your mileage, of course, may vary), but it did make me feel uneasy while reading it, and although I quite liked the ending, it is my least favorite story here.
Thankfully, though, it seems to be a solitary case, as the other stories drawn up by other artists are remarkably well-done, with artwork that is nothing if not tasteful.
All in all this is a remarkably strong collection, telling a meticulous story that feels thoroughly and suitably epic, and one which, ever true to its lofty baroquian ambitions, aims to go even further and higher.
Or, rather, deeper.