The Great Hellboy Re-Reading Project Part II: Wake The Devil
I have recently begun an epic project: re-reading Mike Mignola’s complete Hellboy saga from the very beginning! What began as a series of sporadic mini-series and short-stories featuring the big red occult investigator has deepened over the past twenty years into what is, for my money, the richest and most consistently entertaining comic book universe of stories out there. Click here for part 1, in which I discussed the very first Hellboy tale: the four-part mini-series Seed of Destruction.
The Wolves of Saint August (1995 — originally appeared in Dark Horse Presents #88-91) — One of Hellboy’s old friends, Father Edward Kelly, gets himself killed in a small village in the Balkans. Hellboy comes to investigate and winds up in a bare-knuckle brawl with a very long-lived werewolf. This is a dynamite short-story. I love the big epic Hellboy stories, but I also love the shorter stand-alones, in which Hellboy must face-off against some sort of occult phenomena. It’s delightful fun watching Mike Mignola filter all sorts of mythological stories from all over the world through his particular lens, and this early werewolf story is no exception. I like that this story also spotlights Kate Corrigan, fleshing her out a bit and developing her friendship with Hellboy. She has a different type of bond with H.B. than he has with his fellow field-agents like Abe and Liz. It’s nice. Kate is a phenomenal character. It’s great getting to see a middle-aged woman who is smart and fun and brave. As for poor doomed Father Kelly, he is the first but by no means the last of Hellboy’s old friends who get themselves nice and dead. (Actually, I guess Professor Bruttenholm really counts as the first!!)
The Chained Coffin (1995 — originally appeared in Dark Horse Presents #100 Part 2) — Holy cow I had forgotten all about this short story, I don’t think I’d ever re-read it since it originally came out. How could I have forgotten about this crazy story in which Hellboy returns to the site of his birth/first appearance on Earth and sees a vision of his demon father and the human woman who was his mother?? Turns out Hellboy’s mom was a witch who repented her ways before her death. But her children chaining up her corpse in its coffin (hence the story’s title) didn’t prevent that big bad demon from coming to find her. This is a really crazy-weird tale, and it’s unclear if Hellboy’s mom is/was really in love with that demon or if this should be viewed as a forceful abduction. Is Hellboy the child of a rape? That is dark. The demon impales the witch-woman’s spirit on a hook at the end, so it’s hard to read this story as anything but a creature taking the woman by force. Disturbing. Also, we see Hellboy’s dad roast H.B.’s human step-siblings. It’s interesting to me that, after this short story, it would be until the Darkness Calls quadrilogy of stories a decade-and-a-half later for Hellboy’s human lineage to be explored any further.
The Corpse and the Iron Shoes (1996) — This one-shot collects two short stories, The Corpse (which was originally serialized in Advanced Comics) and The Iron Shoes. The Iron Shoes is a perfectly entertaining little tale in which Hellboy comes across a peculiar demon in Ireland, one who wears a very distinct pair of large iron shoes. The coolest thing about this story is that Father Mike — who had gotten himself killed in the opening pages of The Wolves of Saint August — appears here (briefly), since this story is set back in 1961. This is an early example of one of the most delightful trends of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy stories, in that a character who appears in one story (often getting killed off in that story) might pop up again in another story, sometimes many years later. I love these subtle connections, and the way they make these stories feel like they are a part of a real, tightly-knit continuity.
But the stand-out here is The Corpse, which is a masterpiece and to this day one of my very favorite Hellboy stories. Hellboy visits the home of a poor couple in Ireland, whose baby has been replaced by a demon. Hellboy vows to find their real baby and return her to her parents, but he winds up having to face a number of obstacles to complete this task, including finding a suitable grave for a very talkative corpse. The tone in this story is just perfect Hellboy — it’s weird and it’s scary and there are real stakes, but it’s also a little silly. That is a very subtle, delicate balance, one that Mr. Mignola is able to make look so easy in a tale like this one.
This story is also notable for what I believe is the first in a series of sequences, that we will see now-and-then in the next decade of Hellboy stories, of a series of creatures who seem to be observing Hellboy. It was a mystery for some time as to the identity and motive of these creatures, and I’m not certain if we ever got full clarity on that. (Perhaps my re-read will clarify this.) But here we see what appears to be the King of the Faeries, accompanied by a short, bald man smoking a pipe. I believe this is the same creature who brings the Iron Maiden to Rasputin in Wake the Devil #4. Rasputin calls this creature Koku, and he seems in that scene to have a connection to the Baba Yaga. In later stories those two will be joined in a man in a mask who, about two decades later, we will learn is Sir Edward Grey, Witchfinder.
And who would ever have guessed that the baby, Alice, would many years later become a very important supporting character in the Hellboy universe!
Wake the Devil (1996) — Spurred on by the not-quite-dead-yet Rasputin, a trio of Nazis (two of whom were involved originally with Rasputin’s Project Ragna Rok) attempt to awaken a powerful vampire, Vladimir Giurescu, who originated in the early 1800’s. But their actions set in motion the release of a far more powerful and dangerous foe, the goddess Hecate. Hellboy and his team head to Romania to confront them but are quickly separated and overcome.
Wake the Devil is the second major Hellboy mini-series and it’s a huge step forward from the already-great Seed of Destruction. I loved it when I read it originally, and on every re-read since I have found it to be even richer and more complex, with so much to sort through.
In the opening pages of issue #1 we meet Roderick Zinco. He will meet his end soon enough, but his company will be a running thorn in the side of our heroes for the next two decades. It’s funny, we learn right away in this issue that Zinco is not to be trusted, since when we first meet him we see that he is in collusion with Nazis and Rasputin, and when Hellboy tries to use a new Zinco-produced rocket-pack it explodes on him. And yet, despite that, my recollection is we’d see the B.P.R.D. using Zinco gear for quite a while after this. (We’ll see upon my re-read if my memory is correct.) And we’d periodically check in on Zinco and see the company’s dastardly doings. It’s only in the very latest B.P.R.D. storyline (The Reign of the Black Flame from 2014) that things finally came to a head.
In this first issue we also get our first mention of Sir Edward Grey. This is classic Mignola, as Sir Edward is mentioned in what seems to be just a throw-away line in Tom Manning’s briefing to the B.P.R.D. agents. Years later, when Sir Edward had his own mini-series (Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels), I was shocked to read on-line that he had first been mentioned all the way back in Wake the Devil. But it’s true! Super-cool. (By the way, there have been three Witchfinder mini-series starring Sir Edward Grey to date. They have all been set prior to his confrontation with Giurescu in 1882 that Manning mentions. I cannot WAIT for us to actually get to see that event!! I trust and assume these Witchfinder mini-series are building to that eventual confrontation.)
So many of the characters and ideas that play minor roles in this mini-series will be important down the road. Giurescu is built up as the big bad-guy in this mini-series, but he’s actually dealt with pretty easily, and it’s Hecate who is revealed to be the real threat. But we’ll get to see a lot more of Giurescu in the B.P.R.D. mini-series a decade-and-a-half down the road (specifically B.P.R.D. 1947 and B.P.R.D.: Vampire). In issue #2 and 3 we see the women of Thessaly, the witch-women who turn into birds. They also will get more screen time in those same later B.P.R.D. mini-series.
In issue #2, Hellboy meets a chatty skeleton that turns out to be Giurescu’s dad. This guy has a lot of fascinating things to say. He gives us what I believe is the first mention of Hyperborea, and Thoth, two names that will come up a lot in the future. With everything going on in the B.P.R.D. “Hell on Earth” story-line happening now, as well as the current bizarre transformation Abe is undergoing, I’ve become very attentive to references to “the first race of men,” something Giurescu’s dad also mentions. (Is that what Abe is transforming into in current issues? That remains to be seen…)
Issue #4 gives us one of the most haunting scenes I have ever read in a comic-book, in which Ilsa, spurred on by Rasputin, willingly steps into the Iron Maiden. It is a horrifying scene, brilliantly written and illustrated by Mr. Mignola. I will never forget this chilling moment, it is burned on my brain.
On this re-read, I also found myself fascinated by Kronen’s speech to Von Klempt’s head, in which he outlines their plan with Rasputin: “In the wake of our soldiers will follow plague and famine and so much death that the human race will be depopulated by two thirds, so much death that the dragon will stir in his prison. Then, on the last day, Rasputin will come again. His spirit will enter into a body that we will create. He will stand side by side with the beast, and together they will shatter the prison of the dragon, and call the dragon to earth. Ogdru Jahad. The seven who are one. The serpent who will purify the earth with fire so that Rasputin can raise a new world out of the ashes.”
Even Von Klempt thinks that is crazy, and reading this at the time I of course assumed that our heroes would thwart this crazy Nazi scheme. But it’s astonishing, looking back at this now, how much of this has actually come to pass. Years later we’ll see the folks at Zinco create a new body intended for Rasputin and what follows from that (in the Return of the Master story-line in B.P.R.D.) More importantly: it wasn’t Rasputin’s doing, but many of the “children” of the Ogdru Jahad on Earth have now been awakened in the B.P.R.D. “Hell on Earth” story-line, and the devastation across the globe has been terrible. I don’t think the human population has yet been reduced by two thirds, but is that coming? It makes me wonder about the end-game of the epic story Mr. Mignola is weaving. Will Hellboy and Liz and our other heroes somehow save what remains of the human race? Or will Rasputin’s vision (as shared here by Kroenen), as well as some of the other terrible visions of the future that we’ll see in future issues (like the ones Memnan Saa will share with Liza about a decade after this story) come true? Will humanity fade away and be replaced by a “new race of men” that look more like the Frog-Men and/or Abe Sapien’s new form? I dunno, I am intrigued…
We also get the first mention of Hellboy’s real name! Anung Un Rama!
In issue #5, Abe sees a vision of Rasputin, who vows terrible vengeance. We hear, for the first time, the lines “Do you hear… sunken bells are tolling for thee.” And: “The ocean is calling her children home.” We, and Abe, will here these lines a LOT more a few years down the line, particularly in B.P.R.D.: The Dead and the other early B.P.R.D. mini-series. Here again, at the time I read this, I didn’t really have much fear that Rasputin’s vow of vengeance upon Abe would actually happen — but a few years down the road, it does! Abe is impaled and almost killed (in B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs), just as Rasputin promised. It’s shocking how many of these early predictions of doom actually do wind up coming true. Hmm, I was just talking about this two paragraphs ago!
At the end of issue #5, we again (as in The Corpse) see Hellboy being observed by three figures. There is the Faerie King (who, years later, we’ll learn is named Dagda), joined by the Baba Yaga and the masked figure we will learn (again, years later) to be Edward Grey. (The small pipe-smoking guy is missing here, I am not sure why.) I have spent two decades trying to figure out who these characters are and what their agenda is. It makes a lot more sense on the re-read, though there’s still a wonderfully enigmatic air of mystery to these scenes that I love. I don’t ever quite feel that I have all the answers, which is pleasurably tantalizing.
I’ve written so many paragraphs about Wake the Devil and I haven’t even mentioned that this mini-series also introduced Roger the Homonculus! What seems like a weird throw-away bit of business for Liz and the B.P.R.D. team — something to keep them busy so they won’t be around to help Hellboy — winds up being so important! What a great mini-series!
The only weakness of Wake the Devil, for me, is the ending. I’m not sure I quite understand, even after having read this story several times over the years, what exactly happened to Hecate/Ilsa/the Iron Maiden merged creature. And how exactly did Hellboy survive being chomped in half by her?
OK, that’s all from me for now. I’ll be back soon to discuss Almost Colossus and The Right Hand of Doom!