Right Hand of Doom. The Beast of the Apocalypse. The World Destroyer. These are just some of the many aliases bestowed upon Mike Mignola’s most famous creation. To us regular old humans, he is simply Hellboy, the World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator. While he may defend the human world against the forces of darkness and seek to indefinitely postpone its destruction, the true nature of Hellboy’s being is something far more sinister entirely. This article will explore the character’s origins and provide a general overview of Hellboy and his place within this fictional universe.
What truly separates Big Red from his other ‘superhero’ brethren is not only his origin, but more insidiously, his true purpose on the plain of the Earth. While most superheroes that fight to defend our species against evil tend to outgrow and move past their origins, at worst dwelling upon them in an unhealthy capacity (e.g. Batman), Hellboy’s fate is forever tied to his beginnings: it is his ultimate destiny to bring forth the apocalypse. That may seem like jumping in at the deep end, but there are very rarely any half-measures when it comes to Hellboy and his universe. After all, we’re talking about a half-demon whose day job is to fight grotesque Lovecraftian beasts originating from other dimensions. As intense as that may sound, Hellboy is, in fact, a very laidback sort who tends not to treat certain situations with the severity they demand, regularly mocking his enemies and using crude expressions like “oh crap!” when under stress (he does possess a fierce temper, though). If you think Hellboy is a big red teddy bear, then you’re absolutely correct, although that’s not to say you should underestimate him under any circumstances. He’s more brawn that brains, but at heart is a gentle, well-meaning soul who will not allow harm to come to the innocent. He’s generally fair and merciful, but find yourself in his bad books and he won’t hesitate to show you the true extent of his wrath. In other words, he’s an overgrown kid.
Born Anung Un Rama, Hellboy is a half-human, half-demon that was first summoned to Earth on December 23, 1944 by Grigori Rasputin, as depicted in ‘Hellboy: Seed of Destruction.’ Although he would live the bulk of his life in our world, being raised by human beings and gradually integrated into our culture (so far as an oversized red ape is capable of integration among humans), Hellboy’s conception first occurred on October 5, 1617. His mother, a human witch by the name of Sarah Hughes, came from a long line of witches that could be traced back as far as the time of Morgan Le Fey. His father, a Duke of Hell by the name of Azzael, married his mother and became the Lord over the witches of Lancashire and Abbotsbury. On her deathbed, Sarah Hughes confessed the sins of her youth and repented her evil deeds in the presence of her two children, the half-siblings that Hellboy would never come to know. If her children could keep her husband away from her body for three nights, Azzael’s claim over her would be broken. Alas, on October 6, the first evening following her death, Azzael incinerated Sarah’s children and took Sarah into Hell. Her body engulfed in flame, the child that would later become known as Hellboy was born. Moments after his birth, Azzael severed the infant’s right hand and in its place he grafted the Right Hand of Doom. Although the nobility of Hell stripped Azzael of his title and froze him in ice as punishment of for his actions, the deed had already been done, as the infant had long since been sent away, his destiny seemingly assured.
It would not be until the evening of December 23, 1944 that Hellboy would first enter our world and the course of his fate would be altered. On a small island off the coast of Scotland by the name of Tarmagant, a group of Nazi cultists prepared an operation led by Grigori Rasputin himself as part of Project Ragna Rok. The project’s purpose: to create a Doomsday weapon that would bring a swift end to the Second World War and ensure a complete victory for Nazi Germany. Despite Rasputin’s promises to Hitler, his true intentions were far more sinister still, as he planned to trigger a global apocalypse that would give rise to a new Eden. However, Rasputin’s plan went quickly awry after his attempt to summon Ogdru Jahad instead summoned an infant Hellboy, who manifested in a church in the English village of East Bromwich. Delivered safely into the hands of the Allies, it was here that the red-skinned demon child was dubbed ‘Hellboy’ by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, an expert in matters of the paranormal.
Soon after, Hellboy was transported to an air force base in New Mexico where he would be raised under the tutelage of Professor Bruttenholm. During this time, the newly emerging Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence (B.P.R.D.) would also become Hellboy’s home, and he would officially join the organisation in 1952 at the age of eight. As a boy, Hellboy was a relatively typical child in spite of his otherworldly origins and appearance, seeming to enjoy hot noodles and developing a love of pancakes despite his initial skepticism (as depicted in the one-off comic strip ‘Pancakes’). During his adolescence and youth, Hellboy gained experience by travelling the world and investigating numerous paranormal incidents, garnering a reputation as the World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator (an obvious spin on Batman’s ‘World’s Greatest Detective’). Despite increasing his experience and investigative skills, one of the most noticeable aspects of Hellboy’s personality is that he does not mature beyond physicality. Although appearing as a middle-aged man in most comic strips, Hellboy’s mental and emotional state developed little beyond that of a rebellious adolescent, retaining the short temperament and limited attention span associated with youngsters. While not unintelligent, per say, Hellboy generally prefers to solve problems with his fist rather than with his brain, often to the frustration of the highly organised BPRD which Hellboy is supposed to represent.
While working for the BPRD, Hellboy would gain numerous friends and allies that he would come to consider as family. One of Hellboy’s oldest friends was Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Sherman, a human with pyro kinetic abilities who had spent the majority of her life living with the bureau after destroying an entire city block at age eleven, in the process killing thirty-two people, including both of her parents and younger brother. Due to her struggle to control her abilities, Liz spent much of her early years at the bureau living inside a fireproof room, where she and Hellboy began to develop a strong bond, with Hellboy serving as an older brother figure for much of her life. The other was Abraham ‘Abe’ Sapien, a humanoid amphibian who was first discovered in 1978 lying comatose in a water-filled capsule. Although originally experimented on by the BPRD scientists, Hellboy took pity on Abe, demanding that any further experiments on the amphibian be shut down and later insisted that Abe join him and the other BPRD agents on various field operations. Although Abe’s backstory remained a mystery for many years, Abe’s quest to learn the truth about his origins and true identity became one of the biggest motivating factors in his life. Hellboy, Liz and Abe developed a strong and long lasting friendship that became one of the key staples of the Hellboy saga.
With the upcoming reboot of the Hellboy franchise on the big screen scheduled for a January 2018 release, there’s no better time to start your adventures with Brother Red. With a vast selection of comics, a handful of movies both live-action and animated, and a couple of videogames, it’s true that the Hellboy universe is a little more modestly sized than most of his more mainstream brethren over at Marvel and DC. But although the Hellboy universe lacks the mainstream appeal or gargantuan size of those brands, one advantage that this property has is that it remains under the control of its original creator, Mike Mignola, who has been steadily penning and illustrating the Hellboy series since its inception in 1993. Those looking for an ideal entry point into the world of the comics would be best served by starting with the first issue of ‘Seed of Destruction.’ While touting the beginning of the story as the ideal starting point may sound a little too obvious, Hellboy’s origin and connection with Grigori Rasputin is really something that ought to be experienced in order to enjoy the Hellboy saga to its full extent. Although the heavyweight ‘Library Edition’ volumes are now out-of-print, the upcoming ‘Hellboy Omninus’ (the first volume of which is released this May) will collect every moment of Hellboy’s journey, from ‘Seed of Destruction’ to ‘Hellboy in Hell’. What better opportunity to start your collection?
If you find that you take a liking to Mignola’s storytelling and art style and find yourself craving even more Hellboy goodness, you will be pleased to know that the Mignola-verse extends beyond the main Hellboy series. B.P.R.D., a spinoff based around the titular organisation that served as Hellboy’s home and workplace for the duration of his life, exists as a fully-fledged comic book series of its own, and also stars Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien as two of its lead characters. Those looking to expand their Hellboy collection with B.P.R.D. (you may choose to start with this spinoff first, although I would still recommend familiarising yourself with the main series before doing so) will likely wish to start with the first volume, ‘Plague of Frogs’. Those wondering why Hellboy himself is absent from these stories: he quit. Not the most romantic way to end a relationship, but there you have it.
In regards to the film series, there are a pair of live-action films directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Ron Perlman, the third installment of which was sadly cancelled due to del Toro being unable to acquire the gargantuan budget he required to make the grand finale he envisioned and replaced with the upcoming reboot. If you’re getting ‘Spider-Man’ flashbacks, I don’t blame you. In short, the films are good, especially if you’re new to the saga. The original 2004 movie is an effectively told origin story ideal for newcomers, and the 2008 sequel, subtitled ‘The Golden Army’ (which doesn’t actually appear in the comics), is a lavish, beautifully told story with a noticeably larger budget and slightly more lighthearted/fantastical tone. Of course, del Toro and Perlman himself are the biggest selling points, with del Toro bringing his usual directorial charm and gorgeous visuals and Perlman making for an outstanding (and very funny) Hellboy.
Naturally there’s a good deal of skepticism in regards to the upcoming reboot, directed by Neil Marshall, known for his work on ‘Dog Soldiers’, ‘The Descent’ ‘Doomsday’, ‘Centurion’ as well as a pair of award-winning ‘Game of Thrones’ episodes, and starring David Harbour, currently best known for his role as Jim Hopper in Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’. Both have potential to impress, although what makes me cautiously optimistic in regards to the project is the fact that screenplay is co-written by Mignola himself, whose storytelling (hopefully) translates well to cinema. In addition to this are a pair of animated movies, entitled ‘Storm of Swords’ and ‘Blood and Iron’, both of which boasting the voices of the original Hellboy cast members. As for videogames? You may wish to give ‘The Science of Evil’ a quick blast, although there’s little to recommend beyond its blockbuster voice cast (kudos to the original cast members for reprising their roles). For the time being, I’d recommend sticking to the comic series and the movies if you’re looking to get the best ‘Hellboy’ experience possible.