Pick up pretty much any Mike Mignola Hellboy comic, and you have a reasonable chance of knowing what to expect; some darkness, a healthy dose of wit, a little character development and some classic Hellboy ethereal artwork. You get all this with Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1953, but this book also subverts expectations – and whether that works is down to the readers’ personal tastes.
Hellboy and his mentor Bruttenholm travel across England and confront the phantom hand of a murderer, a demonic water spirit, and some of the most horrible figures of British folklore—Rawhead Rex and Bloody Bones. Back in the States, Hellboy rejoins the team from 1952 as a monster with possible ties to an earlier mission ravages a suburban community.
This book collects 6 stories from Mignola with a variety of artists. We have The Phantom Head, Rawhead and Bloody Bones, The Witch Tree and The Kelpie with art from Ben Stenbeck, who worked with Mignola on the Baltimore series. Chris Roberson (Fables, iZombie) co-writes both Wandering Souls and Beyond the Fences. The former of these has artwork by Michael Walsh (X-Men: Worst X-Man Ever) while the latter comes from Paolo Rivera (Mythos) and his father Joe Rivera. Colours on all stories of course from Dave Stewart.
The opening page us a delicious black and white image of our hero battling some armoured skeletons. A terrific opening to the book. And onto England, 1953.
The Phantom Hand. In a shadowy tale we’re introduced to Trevor Bruttenholm, Harry Middleton and Hellboy who are investigating a disembodied hand. Remember, this isn’t an experienced Hellboy, but a fairly green recruit to the B.P.R.D. These stories are meant to show us how he evolves from boy to man. The story is fine – pretty much what you’d expect, as Hellboy unwittingly discovers what the hand is, and ends up in a fist fight with a demon. It is also revealed that Bruttenholm understands exactly what Hellboy is, and what he might become. More of the same follows in the darkly amusing Rawhead and Bloody Bones and the more horrific The Witch Tree. Darkness and horror ensure; and Hellboy seems to be surprised by the situations he finds himself in. The Kelpie is a short, grim tale spotlighting a moment from Bruttenholm’s past. The art from Stenbeck is simply beautiful, and while detailed, very consistent with the Hellboy universe. All the monsters look as they should and backgrounds are often sacrificed to bring out the characters. It is hard to know how much of the familiar feel comes from Stewart’s colouring, but these are very pleasing stories.
Wandering Souls begins in a snowy Wyoming, with Hellboy and Agent Xiang. Hellboy seems to be leading the mission now. A little known fact about the conquest of the American mid-west is that Chinese immigrant labour helped build many of the towns. This story reflects that fact. Hence the presence of Xiang. The art from Walsh is a lot rougher in style than Stenbeck, but again, is totally appropriate. The Chinese spirits are amazing, in a mystical green glow. Again, the story moves on to Hellboy hitting things and quipping. This story has a message about the history of America and is resolved neatly.
We reviewed the first part of Beyond the Fences previously on Geek Syndicate. It goes against the grain of the majority of Hellboy books. It begins fairly routinely. Agent Xiang is back and some children have gone missing. The story is routine but the style, the art, stands out. Unlike the timeless art of the previous stories, this looks like 1950s America, especially in the art characterisation. Only the visions of Xiang feel familiar to the Hellboy universe. There is even a nod to Wandering Souls which is nice, as it makes this collection more coherent.
I like Hellboy hitting things and learning something about the world he exists in. This collection hits my buttons, in both art and story. Even Beyond the Fences works, although the art is more traditional and less Mignola. The creatures and the mythologies are perfect. All the dialogue is brilliant, from Hellboy to Xiang to the supporting characters! There are hints of stories to come too. This collection also includes the terrific Sketchbook with notes by the artists: 20 pages of character sketches and rough pages. A real treat. Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1953 is far from perfect but there’s enough in the book to keep every fan happy.
Title: Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1953
Publisher: Dark Horse
Reviewer: Ian J Simpson