19 November 2021

Alan Moore: Hellboy by Mike Mignola

Hellboy: Wake The Devil (1997)
by Mike Mignola

(from the introduction to Hellboy: Wake The Devil, Dark Horse Comics, 1997)
The history of comic-book culture, much like the history of any culture, is something between a treadmill and a conveyer belt: we dutifully trudge along, and the belt carries us with it into one new territory after another. There are dazzlingly bright periods, pelting black squalls, and long stretches of grey, dreary fog, interspersed seemingly at random. The sole condition of our transport is that we cannot halt the belt, and we cannot get off. We move from Golden Age to Silver Age to Silicone Age, and nowhere do we have the opportunity to say, "We like it here. Let's stop." History isn't like that. History is movement, and if you're not riding with it then in all probability you're beneath its wheels. 

Lately, however, there seems to be some new scent in the air: a sense of new and different possibilities; new ways for us to interact with History. At this remote end of the twentieth century, while we're further from our past than we have ever been before, there is another way of viewing things in which the past has never been so close. We know much more now of the path that lies behind us, and in greater detail, than we've ever previously known. Our new technology of information makes this knowledge instantly accessible to anybody who can figure-skate across a mouse pad. In a way, we understand more of the past and have a greater access to it than the folk who actually lived there. 

In this new perspective, there would seem to be new opportunities for liberating both our culture and ourselves from Time's relentless treadmill. We may not be able to jump off, but we're no longer trapped so thoroughly in our own present movement, with the past a dead, unreachable expanse behind us. From our new and elevated point of view our History becomes a living landscape which our minds are still at liberty to visit, to draw sustenance and inspiration from. In a sense, we can now farm the vast accumulated harvest of the years or centuries behind. Across the cultural spectrum, we see individuals waking up to the potentials and advantages that this affords. 

It's happened in popular music, where we no longer see the linear progression of distinct trends that we saw in the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, and so on. Instead, the current music field is a mosiac of styles drawn from points in the past or even points in the imagined future, with no single nineties style predominating. It's happened in the sciences, where mathematicians, for example, find valuable insights into modern theoretical conundrums by examining the long-outmoded Late Victorian passion for the geometric study of rope knots. It's happened in our arts and one could probably make a convincing argument that it has happened in our politics. Without doubt, it has happened in the comics field: the most cursory glance 'round at the most interesting books, whether we're talking about Seth's Palookaville or Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library or Michael Allred's Madman, will reveal that in even the most contemporary of modern comic books, our previous heritage looms large, and is in many ways the most important signifier. Which brings me to Mike Mignola's Hellboy

Hellboy is a gem, one of considerable size and a surprising lustre. While it is obviously a gem that has been mined from that immeasurably rich seam first excavated by the late Jack Kirby, it is in the skillful cutting and the setting of the stone that we can see Mignola's sharp contemporary sensibilities at work. To label Hellboy as a "retro" work would be to drastically misunderstand it: This is a clear and modern voice, not merely some ventriloquial seance-echo from beyond the grave. Mignola, from the evidence contained herein, has accurately understood Jack Kirby as a living force that did not perish with the mortal body. As with any notable creator, the sheer electricity inside the work lives on, is a resource that later artists would be foolish to ignore just because times have changed and trends have fluctuated. Did we stop working in iron and stone the moment that formica was discovered? No. We understood those substances to be still-vital forms of mineral wealth that we could build our future from, if only wed the wit and the imagination.

Mike Mignola has these qualities in great abundance. Hellboy's slab-black shadows crackle with the glee and enthusiasm of an artist almost drunk with the sheer pleasure of just putting down these lines on paper, of bringing to life these wonderfully flame-lit and titanic situations. Images, ideas, and thinly disguised icons from the rich four-color treasure house of comics history are given a fresh lick of paint and are suddenly revealed as every bit as powerful and evocative upon some primal ten-year-old-child level as when we last saw them. This, perhaps, is Hellboy's greatest and least-obvious accomplishment the trick, the skill entailed in this delightful necromantic conjuring of things gone by is not, as might be thought, in crafting work as good as the work that inspired it really was, but in the more demanding task of crafting work as good as everyone remembers the original as being. This means that the work must be as fresh and as innovative as the work that preceded it seemed at the time. It's not enough to merely reproduce the past. Instead we have to blend it artfully with how we see things now and with our visions for the future if we are to mix a brew as rich, transporting, and bewitching as the potions we remember from the vanished years. 

Hellboy is such a potion, strong and effervescent, served up in a foaming beaker from an archetypal Mad Scientist's dungeon or laboratory. The collection in your hands distills all that is best about the comic book into a dark, intoxicating ruby wine. Sit down and knock it back in one, then wait for your reading experience to undergo a mystifying and alarming transformation. Hellboy is a passport to a corner of funnybook heaven you may never want to leave. Enter and enjoy.


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