Hellboy: The First 20 Years by Mike Mignola – Advance Review [Bellarius]
Bellarius sees what the celebration of Hellboy’s long history has to offer in Mike Mignola’s Hellboy: The First 20 Years.
“An excellent celebration of the character’s history and adventures, but not for the reasons you would expect.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
The unfortunate problem with this Hellboy collection is that the title is oddly misleading. It’s not a collection of events from his many stories printed in Dark Horse Comics or even recording his path to becoming the paranormal detective of the BPRD. It’s actually an art book, collecting together the best works of Mike Mignola featuring the supernatural world he created. That’s really about it. There’s no story or much in the way of text to speak of, just a great many art pieces produced by a master of his craft. That’s likely going to switch off a few people already, but at the same time it’s not a book you should instantly discard. It does have qualities of its own.
Foremost among these is, most obviously, Mignola’s talent as an artist. Offering a wide variety of takes on his work from basic sketches to full covers and scenes, the collective gives a very clear indication of his approaches to work and styles. Without the drive of the story and it’s much easier to appreciate the often minimalistic and heavily shaded visuals he crafts for scenes. While often known for his toned down, dark subdued visuals, there is a clear method and frequent examples are given of how he crafts the full range of shades, lightings and the distinct differences between the more sombre and action packed moments. Admittedly that is more a credit to the work of award winning colourist and collaborator on these comics, Dave Stewart, but it’s important to see how well the two work together and the surprising range it can offer.
Furthermore, in a way the book does still tell of the character’s history. As the art is collected in chronological order and displays many covers, you do see the character and story develop over time. The events which led him to find new allies, depictions of the early BPRD and other events are all there to see, and those who know of the basic history will witness a kind of evolution within the comic.
More importantly is the actual covers themselves in a way as it shows just how effective Mignola is at constructing them. A common criticism of both Marvel and DC Comics is often that their covers are lacklustre or rarely convey what is actually within the comic even in an abstract manner. By comparison, the covers to Hellboy shown here are far more like film posters. As much as they might seem like oddly constructed visuals of characters and events, you are given a full picture of what is within. Rarely do they resort to single events or simply with Hellboy flying at the reader, instead evoking the pulp science fiction core of the book. While they habitually lapse into repeating certain poses an motifs, it’s easy to appreciate how striking or informative the covers can sometimes be.
Beyond the covers themselves, or even the sketches for that matter, there are also the brief moments of story or text. Along with a brief humorous “team up” with The Goon which lasts a handful of pages, and moments where speech bubbles are use, there is an introduction and forward. One by famed illustrator Peter De Seve which speaks of the work involved, character designs and offers professional outsider’s thoughts on Mignola’s works. The other by Mignola himself, who gives a foreward speaking of how the book serves as more a celebration of Hellboy’s evolution and twentieth anniversary than simply a collection of his artworks. Both are interesting, insightful pieces which make the book worth truly buying and reading through. It’s an honest shame there are not more like them as having every few years milestoned by a page of text covering a creator’s thoughts would be a fantastic addition to the work.
If there is one weakness to truly single out about this work, it’s the lack of truly detailed sketches covering the thought processes behind characters and certain works. Collectors of the trade paperbacks of Hellboy, BPRD and similar works are familiar with the sketches at the back. While hardly unique to the comics from this universe, they are frequently far more in-depth and show some of the greatly detailed thought processes behind minute aspects of characters, monsters, weapons, equipment and even small humorous bits. It serves to greatly impress the level of effort put into these works and it’s truly a shame that there’s nothing to really compare with them to be found here.
At the end of the day though, it’s definitely a book for fans and completionists. You won’t get much in the way of lore, story or written work, but it gives a vastly better idea of the creative process behind the comic. Plus, it wouldn’t be the first book to be bought largely for its imagery and designs as many owners of The Horus Heresy: Collected Visions can likely attest. Give it a look if you’re familiar with the character or interested in the art, but otherwise give this one a miss.