Monday, November 1, 2010

Hellboy Volume 5: Conqueror Worm (February 2002)

Guillermo Del Toro writes the introduction to this volume. Other than admitting that he too thought the shorn horns were goggles, its not really much on an intro. What it really drew my attention to it, and the reason I am drawing your attention to it, is that both Del Toro and this volume mark a break in Mignola’s work schedule. Over the next few years, his focus will be on movies: the Hellboy movies with Del Toro, the cartoons, and even Disney’s Atlantis (on which Mignola did production design). And when he does return to Hellboy, his primary focus will be writing. The art chores will be largely given over to others. Realizing that as I did, I couldn’t help but read into this book a certain amount of finality, of the wrapping of many points. Some of them are definitely there, but I am ready to admit that others may just be my imagination.

Our story starts with the discovery of a space capsule plummeting to Earth. A space capsule with a swastika prominently painted on its side. Yes, it’s the Nazi space program. Hellboy and Roger are sent to investigate its intended landing site. Roger is the homunculus discovered in Volume 2 and last seen in “Almost Colossus.” In short order it is discovered that Von Klempt, the Nazi head in a jar, is bringing back the capsule in a bid to destroy the world. What follows is a fast paced action story, that includes the ghost of Lobster Johnson and skilfully hit’s a number of emotional and, remembering the comic’s horror/pulp basis, creepy high points.

Given what has recently learned of Hellboy’s origins, this story addresses an important question: why he is still counted amongst the good guys. The answer is free will. Hellboy is not defined by his origins, but by the choices he’s made. We first learned this, explicitly, when he stumbles on the body of a wounded alien. This would be one of the aliens from volume one. We don’t really learn much more about them. They have been watching the monsters that live in the depths of space and have been less than thrilled at humanity’s continued attempts to reach out and empower those monsters. This one was sent to Earth in the guise of a US service man and a mission to kill the baby Hellboy. But looking at him he say something unexpected: free will. Hellboy’s origins need not define him. We later see this in Roger. Roger is put in a place where death seems to only solution. He has taken in all the evil of the story’s big bad and believes the only way to rid the world of it is to die himself. But Hellboy believes in Roger, that he still has the power of choice and that he can choose the good and win.

This book is also the first time we see Lobster Johnson. Kind of, sort of. His first appearance in print would be collected into the first B.P.R.D. trade and this is actually his second appearance. But we’re reading the trades in their chronological order, so Johnson’s first two stories are told in reverse order. Johnson is the truest pulp hero in the Mignola-verse. With so much pulling the story towards the supernatural, he remains an anchor to this important aspect of the stories.

One thing that I didn’t like was the time line. What would American troops be doing attacking an Austrian castle in 1939? America wasn’t even in the war until the end of 1941. Almost the very end. Moreover, the strict isolation policies trumpeted by the political right of the day kept the US military from developing the logistical capacities needed to launch such a mission. Moreover, the helmets they were using weren’t adopted until 1942. I’m going to stop now, but I will say that all these problems could have been solved if the date used was 1943 or 1944.

One of the cool/gruesome things I did like in the story, one of those creepy high points, were the spirit transistors. I don’t know what else to call them. The alien told Hellboy that in the past humans could communicate with the creatures, but only those with “a rare sensitivity of mind. How the dull, evil men of this place managed to do the same I don’t know…” Well, when we get to the communications room we see that, in place of transistors, are the heads of persons with those rare, sensitive minds.

In the previous volume Hellboy confessed to Kate that he’s tired of it all. I had misremembered and put that conversation into this book. Its in this book that he quits the Bureau. It makes sense. He’s only recently lost the only father he’s known. He’s discovered some disturbing things about himself. He’s angered about the Bureau treatment of Roger, who is treated as less than human. He needs time to sort it all out and he takes it, walking out of this story, the Bureau and any further trades for four years. I don’t know how much forethought went into that. I’ve always had the impression that other projects kept Mignola away, but this book also re-introduces the frog men and gives them a new twist. One that will grow in importance as we concentrate of the B.P.R.D. trades. And the next books do exactly that!

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