Back Issues: Face of a demon, heart of a hero

New ‘Hellboy’ adaptation on the big screen

AP Photo David Harbour in a scene from “Hellboy.”

Hellboy returns to theaters tonight, and this time, I know he’s on the side of the angels, more or less.

When the character debuted for Dark Horse Comics in the ’90s, I was pretty sure he was satanic and assumed the title was dismissive of or even outright hostile to Christian beliefs.

But in the run-up to writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 film featuring the character, I gave the comics a chance and found out Hellboy wasn’t inherently bad.

While not always reflecting my beliefs and worldview, the stories of Hellboy are tales of legend, horror and a flawed-but-steadfast hero in the ongoing battle of good-versus-evil. Creator Mike Mignola pits his monstrous-looking paranormal investigator against all manner of mythology, fighting the good fight and defying his demonic heritage.

Hellboy was brought to Earth in the waning days of World War II, intended to be a supernatural weapon for the Nazis. His arrival was actually part of an even more sinister plot (that’s right: more sinister than Nazis) by the seemingly immortal sorcerer Rasputin to bring about the end of the world. Despite his red skin, horns and massive stone hand, the Allied soldiers and scientists opted to take the creature in rather than destroy him, setting in motion an epic struggle of Nature vs. Nurture.

Raised by Prof. Trevor Bruttenholm, Hellboy was a ward of and agent for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. The original limited series, “Seed of Destruction,” jumps from his arrival to the ’90s, but numerous stories by Mignola and others have fleshed out Hellboy’s history in the intervening years.

“Hellboy in Mexico” is a particularly weird and wild ride, in which the character teams up with demon-slaying luchador wrestlers south of the border before things go so horribly wrong he loses himself in a drunken stupor, clashing with all manner of weirdness. Oh, and getting married.

In “Seed of Destruction,” Hellboy and fellow BPRD agents Abe Sapien, an amphibious fish-man, and Liz Sherman, a powerful pyrokinetic, encounter Rasputin as he attempts to bring about the apocalypse to which the demon-turned-hero is key. His adoptive father having been killed by the sorcerer’s machinations, Hellboy has little interest in aiding Rasputin or fulfilling his destiny.

With that story so key to the fabric of Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy” adaptation, the filmmakers of the new movie are going in a different direction. Hellboy’s main supporting cast will consist of Ben Daimio, in the comics an ex-Marine who had his own brush with the supernatural when he returned from the dead under mysterious circumstances, and Alice Monaghan, an Irish woman who was kidnapped by fairies as an infant.

The story of Alice’s abduction and rescue by Hellboy was told in “The Body,” a classic tale visually referenced in del Toro’s first movie. The adult Alice was a major player in the 2008 Hellboy series, “The Wild Hunt,” which revealed the truth about the character’s origin and introduced the new film’s main villain, the Queen of Blood.

With their emphasis on dark myth and horror, Hellboy comics are often gruesome, which works in both harmony and contrast with Mignola’s stylized, cartoonish-yet-gritty art. Del Toro’s two films were rated PG-13, but this one promises a strong R rating, which to me isn’t a requirement, but also not a departure from the source material.


Recommended Reading

* “Hellboy: Seed of Destruction” — The first Hellboy series, introducing the title character, the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, fellow agents Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman and the villainous Rasputin. Many elements were included in the original “Hellboy” movie.

* “Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories” Vol. 1 — Features the work of a variety of creators, including “Hellboy in Mexico” and “The Body.”

* “Hellboy: The Wild Hunt” — No longer working for the BPRD, Hellboy gets invited to a clandestine hunt for giants, setting off a chain of events that leads to the truth about his heritage. This story also introduces the Queen of Blood.