Another collections of short stories, but this time with a difference. Or two. The first is organization. Stories are divided up into The Early Years, The Middle Years, and The Right Hand of Doom, which are contemporary stories. I was encouraged by this to considered both their chronology and, for no real reason, really, Hellboy’s age at the time each story took place. I also looked back to the previous volume.
I’ve listed them all below (the ones from the previous volume are in bold). Interestingly, they are all in chronological order and the stories of the two volumes don’t really mix much at all. The Early Years, the first three stories from volume 3, The Middle Years, then the rest of volume 3. Note that the Wolves of Saint August is the only contemporary story that is dated. We know it’s a contemporary story because of the date given and the publication dates of the stories generally, but it’s not a part of the larger story arc unfolding in the first two volumes and the other contemporary stories. According to the Hellboy Companion it happens between events in volumes 1 and 2 and after ‘The Chained Coffin.’
Pancakes 1947 (2)
The Nature of the Beast 1954 (9)
King Vold 1956(11)
The Corpse 1959 (14)
Iron Shoes 1961 (16)
The Baba Yaga 1964 (19)
Heads 1967 (22)
Goodbye Mr Tod 1979 (34)
The Varcolac 1982 (37)
A Christmas Underground 1989 (44)
The Chained Coffin - contemporary
The Wolves of Saint August 1994 (49)
Almost Colossus - contemporary
The Right Hand of Doom - contemporary
Box Full of Evil - contemporary
The other difference is a connecting theme: who is Hellboy?
‘The Early Years’ gives us three stories of Hellboy, aged 2 to 11. The first one is ‘Pancakes.’ Who doesn’t like ‘Pancakes?’ Its only two pages, so there’s not a lot I can say without recounting it, but it says a lot for the series that it can so seamlessly integrate such a silly story into its greater narrative. The second is ‘The Nature of the Beast,’ one of Mignola’s first story ideas. Bruttenholm loans Hellboy out to an occult group called the Osiris Club. This story is based on an English folk tale, St Leonard and the Dragon. Leonard is wounded fighting the dragon and where ever his blood fell lilies bloomed. Hellboy fights the dragon, which looks like a crocodile with an elongated, serpentine body. He’s wounded and where his blood falls lilies bloom. The third story, ‘King Vold,’ is the strongest of the three, in spite of Hellboy doing little more than he’s told. That is what I think really sums up The Early Years. Hellboy is naive. Like a child, he does what he’s told. Like a good child, anyway. He’s trusting.
The connection between these stories and our hero’s identity is some what tenuous. The first story is about him severing ties to Hell, though he doesn’t realize it. I’m probably reading too much into it, but pancakes do have a place in Christian symbolism. On Shrove, or Pancake, Tuesday people ate them in order to use up things they would not be eating during Lent. It was a way to, quite literally, ‘put away’ earthly things. In Hellboy’s case, to put away Hellish things. The second story is all about who he is, but there is no real answer--though the blood-lily thing seems to put him on the side of the angels. In the final story he is addressed by his real name, but that seems to be about it.
The Middle Years don’t really say much about who he is, but they show him as a mature, independent agent of the Bureau. The three stories are all solid adventures, though ‘Goodbye Mr Tod’ is a bit weak. The first, ‘Heads,’ is the most widely known of the three and has been turned into an animated short. Reading ‘Tod’ I couldn’t help but wonder if it played any role in inspiring Johann’s character. I read Mary Roach’s book Spook a couple of years ago. She has a chapter on ectoplasm. Apparently is was cheesecloth, usually secreted in the psychic’s person. When I say ‘in’ I mean they either regurgitated it up at will, or, in the case of some women, hid in their… well, some where gentlemen wouldn’t look. There isn’t much of a story to ‘The Varcolac,’ but I love the concept of a vampire god. If I were to write a vampire story, I would certainly incorporate it.
That brings us to the contemporary stories, in the third part, ‘The Right Hand of Doom,’ which are two interrelated stories. The first, the title story, is little more than a summing up of what we know about Hellboy, plus a little extra about his hand. It all comes out in a conversation with a priest. Again I was struck by how accepting they are of Hellboy. The last story introduces Igor Bromhead. Bromhead is a great character, greasy little spot of a man that he is, and Mignola really captures the character from his first appearance. In a nutshell, this story puts Hellboy into contact with a couple of demons for an extended discourse and through it gives us some sense of who Hellboy was meant to be and the choices that hang over him. In re-reading this I was a bit surprised by Hellboy’s speech at the end. For some reason I had remembered it as being in the next volume. Also, and finally, I wonder if the demon at the end is the same one from ‘Pancakes,’ Astraroth?
As a collected volume, this one is stronger than the previous one, but that’s more a reflection of its organization. Looking at the stories individually, I like them about the same. The last two stories are the most important, but my favourites are ‘Pancakes,’ ‘King Vold,’ and ‘The Varcolac.’