Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hellboy Volume 3: The Chained Coffin and Others (August 1998)

The third Hellboy collection is one of the favourites in the series and introduces a format Mignola seems to excel at, the short story. There are seven stories ranging from six to forty four pages (so I guess they’re not all that short, really).

The last two stories are the longest, “The Wolves of St August” and “Almost Colossus.” “Wolves” is actually the second Hellboy story published and “Colossus” is the epilogue to Wake the Devil. “Wolves” doesn’t really add anything to the Mignola-verse, but it’s a solid bit of storytelling. We get to see Hellboy and Kate’s friendship and we get to see Hellboy’s relationship to organized religion. He’s not a follower, but he is both friendly and respectful, which is interesting and pretty much unique in modern media. (It’s also interesting that whenever Hellboy runs into civilians they tend to look past his devilish appearance altogether. Maybe they think he wearing goggles too.)

“Colossus” is a much better story. It introduces a major character, Roger, but it also raises perplexing questions about Liz’s fire powers and recent events in B.P.R.D. I don’t know how far to go in talking about those here. When we started I assumed that those interested would be people who had already read the series, but some of you are just reading things now, so maybe I should leave it at that.

Now for the actual short, short stories. The first is “The Corpse.” “Corpse” has long been a fan favourite. Many people’s number one Hellboy story. Its so popular that they even made a clumsy attempt to include it in the first movie. Hellboy is brought in to save a baby, who has been replaced by a changling. In medieval times the birth of a deformed or otherwise handicapped child was explained by the belief that goblins had replaced the baby with a fake, a changling. Much crueller things than touching the child with iron were done in real life in order to verify whether of not the baby was real. But not all the tests were cruel. One was to fill broken egg shells with water and boil them on a fire (as though the shells were pots). The changling, if indeed it was a changling, would be mystified and say, “I’ve lived a long time, but I’ve never seen anything as strange as that!” Hellboy finds the culprits and agrees to a bargain to get the baby from them. He has to bury a corpse by dawn. Of course, there are complications. Two important characters are introduced here: The changling, Gruagach, who’s hatred for Hellboy starts here and leads to some pretty cataclysmic consequences in later issues, and the baby, Alice Monaghan, who grows up to be a love interest for our star. She certainly doesn’t look fifty!

The second story, “Iron Shoes,” and the fourth, “A Christmas Underground,” are both solidly written pieces. I liked them--what’s not to like?--but I don’t really have anything to say on either. Perhaps I’ll leave them up to others. The third story, “Baba Yaga,” was written specifically for this collection. Baba Yaga is an important part of Slavic folklore, and was first brought into the Mignola-verse in Wake the Devil, when we were told Hellboy had shot out one of her eyes. The fifth and remaining story, “The Chained Coffin,” brings Hellboy back to his birth place, where he meets his parents. Seriously.

What I like most about these stories is the writing. Mignola writes as though he were relating a folktale and not an action story. He creates a series of vignettes that bring us into the life and world of his star and makes it seem real.

A couple of final thoughts:

Back to the changlings. There was a group in French speaking Switzerland that wanted to save babies from the mistreatment the accusation of changling inevitably brought. They made sure the child was baptised and made it a point of calling it a Christian, or Chr├ętien in the local dialect. Just as special has developed negative connotations after being applied to people with disabilities, Chr├ętien gave rise to the word cretin.

Alice isn’t Hellboy’s first love interest. That would be Anastasia Bransfield, a character in the Christopher Golden novel Hellboy: The Lost Army. She’s never been in the comics, but I remember Mignola liking the idea and I do believe their relationship is considered canonical. Both Anastasia and Alice and completely normal humans.

In his introduction to “Colossus” Mignola admits Liz wasn’t supposed to survive the second trade. I’m glad he was talked out of that!

And, finally, for the record, while “the Corpse” was my favourite Hellboy short story for some time, it was eventually replaced by “The Hydra and the Lion.”

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