I go through these phases where every couple of months I’ll pick up a Hellboy trade of my ol’ library shelf and flip through it and I’ll catch the holy ghost, so to speak. Some random panel by Mignola will strike me, or a bit of strange Hellboy storytelling will jump out and I’ll suddenly become obsessed with everything related to the property (of which there is plenty to go around). I’ll go back to the novels I have yet to finish, or pick up a B.P.R.D. trade I missed out on, or maybe even just read “Conquerer Worm” again for the twentieth time. It’s a strange universe to dip into, and, for me at least, it’s not something that you can just dip into on a regular basis. It’s the kind of world that just inhales you every couple of months and, for a while, you can’t read anything else.
And so, just recently, I came across “Darkness Calls” on the “Almost New Release” wall of my local comic shop and flipped through it. In the opening sequence, there’s a scene in which a human (male) witch imprisons the spirit of the god Hecate. It’s kind of a long story, but during the proceedings, between the back and forth storytelling of their conversation, Fegredo (presumably at the behest of writer Mignola, because it’s the sort of thing he’s done countless times in the Hellboy stories he drew himself) “cuts” to a shot of two haunted animals drinking from a large pool of Dave Stewart Red (I think we can make that an official color at this point) blood. It’s wordless, and just leaps out at you in both its incongruity and its simplicity. It’s a classically Hellboy moment.
And now I’m reading Hellboy novels on the train again.
“Darkness Calls” continues the story of Hellboy’s post-B.P.R.D. adventures. Long gone are the stories of charmingly pulp Nazi machinations and strange Lovecraftian monsters. Much like Dave Sim’s “Cerebus”, Mignola has taken “Hellboy” and slowly turned it into a meditation on his specific interests, in his case: Folklore. Some might miss the gorillas and bombs (I’m pretty sure there were gorillas and bombs at one point, either way, “Hellboy” was once a bit of a different kind of comic than it is today), and I might too if it weren’t for the one thing that never changes: Hellboy’s irascible charm.
Whether it’s Nazi Ghosts then or the spirit of old Koshchei The Deathless trapped in servitude to Baba Yaga (I told you. Heavy folklore.) now, Hellboy is still unflappable in his constant dejected sense of mild frustration. It’s a bit of an unquantifiable personality trait, but it’s the invisible thing that makes Hellboy so unique. Mignola and Fegredo provide captivating tableaus of Gothic unease, looking just a few bits of lettering and color shy of an authentic piece of inkwork from a book of Russian Folklore, and yet Hellboy’s bright red figure stands wonderfully incongruous in every one.
He’s still haunted by the future everyone says he inevitably has: King Of Hell, master of its evil armies. But it’s hard to imagine someone with such a homespun sense of right and wrong and such a limited tolerance for any inconvenience suddenly waking up and, to be pat, getting upset enough about anything to really lead an army anywhere. And that, of course, is the great strength of Hellboy’s ongoing narrative. As all these monumental shifts in supernatural power swirl around him, their very center, he stands as just a regular guy, generally ticked off at having to deal with more crap.
“Darkness Calls” marks the debut of Duncan Fegredo as a kind of “regular art team” to Hellboy stories. And while his work is naturally similar to Mignola’s (who does provide a few pages of epilogue at the end of this collection), he brings enough of his own style and approach to leave his own stamp on the artwork. It’s a great choice, especially for this story, where the conflicts call for just a slightly more dynamic touch than Mignola’s work might be comfortable rendering. Most importantly, as noted at the beginning of this review, at all times this book never stops feeling like a Hellboy story.
So, while many things about Hellboy have changed since its inception, Mignola still takes great pains to ensure that the most important things never do. This is still a great and wild adventure, with lots of gigantic things for Hellboy to wallop, and lots of striking vistas in which to do it; with plenty of insets of haunting architecture, sculpture, and landscape that are inevitably about to be destroyed or, at the very least, engulfed in hellfire.