By chance, I discovered that the second Hellboy story to appear in print, and the first that I ever saw, is now going for truly eye-watering amounts of money. A four-page black and white mini-comic that came with 1993’s Comics Buyer’s Guide #1070, it’s a slight and overly wordy tale that, for all the glee that radiates off the page, shades closer to apocrypha than canon. Now known to Hellboy aficionados – to whom I tip my hat – by the title of World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator, which I suspect was originally intended as the series’ tag-line
, it sees creator Mike Mignola’s storytelling supplemented by John Byrne’s dialogue, an arrangement that, rooted in Mignola’s initial insecurity, soon fell by the wayside. When the story was reprinted in 1994’s Seed Of Destruction collection, it was coloured by Martin Hollingswoth and featured but a few amendments. (As such, as you can see below, the opening splash has had mention of the painfully short-lived Legend imprint, Dark Horse Comics and Comic’s Buyer’s Guide removed.) It’s the form in which the story has survived, as reprinted in collections ranging from the traditional to the expansively, expensively over-sized.
What remains is a tale that’s as joyful as it’s awkward, with influences that are so guilelessly, charmingly obvious that it almost feels petty to nod towards them in any way. But in the day, before Mignola’s ever growing command of his style integrated everything on his pages to a unified, convincing and compelling universe, World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator seemed less a statement of singular intent and more a scattershot love letter to a host of beloved pop culture landmarks. There’s Hellboy, a distinctly 70s kind of superhero/horror protagonist. There’s von Klempt and Brutus, who, it’s impossible to avoid, really couldn’t be clearer knockoffs of The Brain and Monsieur Mallah from Drake and Premiani’s Doom Patrol, lent distinctiveness of a sort by their B-Movie Nazism and Mignola’s characteristically beguiling retro-tech. Torture, monstrous villains, monstrous heroes, dark-blocked shadows, dungeons, fascism, semi-naked writhing female victims, a pithily wisecracking protagonist: the sense is of items on a list of favourite traditions being mirthfully ticked off. It’s fun, but in truth, it’s really not that much fun. The nameless, characterless female victim who, rescued from her fiendish Nazi captors, ‘leans against (Hellboy) and sighs kind of contentedly’ is, at the very best, an embarrassment of blokeish thinking. Even Mignola’s artwork, so close in the period to his signature excellence, feels unconvincing in places. Some of that lies in the detail, such as the brickwork in the tale’s third-last frame. Some of it in more fundamental flaws, such as the composition of the title page, in which no amount of bold shadows can make Hellboy’s leaping figure feel necessarily dynamic, substantial and powerful. Mignola’s work to simplify form while accentuating, rather than sacrificing, content, still had a way to go.
Few could have predicted, and certainly not I, that the following year’s Seeds Of Destruction mini-series would see Mignola rising far above any and all of these limitations. Even though the Hellboy stories would continue to develop in terms of style and content, and sometimes do so in remarkable and unprecedented ways, the basic DNA of the series had been brilliantly sequenced. No longer less than the sum of its parts, and best praised for its potential rather than its accomplishment, Hellboy now stood alone and above both its progenitors and competitors. Few succeed in establishing what’s in effect a tradition of one, and yet, even a quarter of a century after its first appearance, the series still retains a freshness and quality undiminished by the number of creators whose work has clearly been influenced by it.
And yet, there’s a fascinating quality to the second Hellboy tale that Mignola never recovered, and never could. Because World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator involves the reader in a way that all auspicious and yet coarsely mixed genre fiction does. For when we’re presented with stories nailed together in rude and exciting ways from disparate and obvious influences, it’s next-to-impossible not to become involved in a fashion that’s distinct from speculating on particular plots and character arcs. Surely part of what we might call genre fiction’s appeal is the manner in which it demands the audience collaborate in a whole-hearted and imaginative fashion. How are these elements that we love and yet know so unhelpfully well to be refashioned? How can the potential suggested by the juxtaposition of this genre and that be best exploited? Without such efforts, many, if not most, readers would abandon encouraging projects before they’ve had time to fulfil their potential. In that second Hellboy story, there’s a universe of what-ifs demanding that we either become involved and imagine how all these promises and problems might be made to work, or, faced with a great weight of the over-familiar, simply give up. It’s an encouragement to imaginative alchemy that so many of the age’s favourite, all-conquering franchises originally inspired. All it takes is a sign that the wellworn is being approached in what might just be a fresh fashion and we sign up to watch the process being played out. Nothing is too hackneyed to be reworked and redeemed. If J. K. Rowling could reinvigorate the utterly moribund tradition of the private school adventure, then anything might be saved.
If World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator seems paradoxically both mundane and inspiring, it’s because the raw, vigorous potential of its classic components is spiced up by two intriguingly fresh characters. The first is, of course, the laconically wry and hardboiled Hellboy himself, intimidating, absurd, distinctive and instantly endearing. If only a break from tradition by a fraction of a degree, that in itself is more than enough. The second is Mignola’s ever-improving, ever more distinctive and hugely compelling style. Even if the strip had continued to mine the set-up suggested in that second story, it could have quite possibly found its own minor marketplace niche. But it wouldn’t have been a fraction as successful in artistic or commercial terms. Mignola’s brilliance ensured that Hellboy quickly felt both comfortably familiar and entirely new. Lightning in a bottle, it’s an achievement rarely won.
As Mignola’s creative virtues developed in seven-league bounds, his work demanded attention far, far more than it encouraged interpretation and speculation. Yes, there were questions to ask and issues to speculate on. But the trick that was Hellboy was so well played that it stilled many of the strip’s originally inspiring dissatisfactions. (In comics, the closest equivalent I can think of is Gaiman’s Sandman, developed as it originally was with Sam Keith, which was initially interesting and yet took almost a year and a half to grow into its own unique self.) In the months and years that followed Seeds Of Destruction, there was little point in imagining how all the disparate aspects of the strip could possibly be harmonised within a greater framework. Mignola was already doing all of that and far more. No-one with any sense would wish for anything else. There are always any number of clumsily constructed tales to track down, interrogate and reimagine. But there’s few enough works of greatness to, more or less, trust in and surrender to. It was time to leave the stage, with the odd quibble and question here and there as the years passed, to the master craftsman.
Or at least, it was until Hellboy In Hell arrived. But that’s another story ….