December has been a big month for Dark Horse, with two much anticipated books finally hitting the shelves: Mike Mignola’s HELLBOY IN HELL #1 and Evan Dorkin’s HOUSE OF FUN. Coincidentally, both books signal the return of their respective creators to solo work; for Mignola, it’s been 7 years since he drew and scripted a HELLBOY comic, and for Dorkin, it’s been 6 since a solo issue appeared. For Mignola and Dorkin fans, this alone is enough to drive people to their comic dealers as soon as they unlock the doors. The iconic content weighs in as the second frenzy-inducing factor.
The HELLBOY series, and indeed, the HELLBOY universe complete with B.P.R.D., ABE SAPIEN and the lot, has been building steadily toward the HELL arc with plenty of conjecture over what exactly Hellboy’s role will be in the end of the world. THE WILD HUNT arc revealed Hellboy’s role as the rightful heir of the throne of Britain via intricate mythological storylines, only to culminate in what seemed like the worst fate imaginable for fans: Hellboy’s death by having his heart ripped out. No amount of hinting from Mignola and Dark Horse that this was not the end for the well-meaning devil could really erase the sense that Hellboy’s story was drawing to a close, and it was a bitter sweet revelation. Fans want to know how his story ends, but of course do not want his story to end at all. At New York Comic Con 2012 in a panel devoted to HELLBOY IN HELL, Mignola painted a cheerier picture. It’s been a long road for Mignola, and Hellboy, and tying up all the loose ends, the meaningful details, and the wider apocalyptic thrust of the B.P.R.D. series must be a logistical nightmare, and one which Mignola felt very keenly must be done well, and satisfyingly, or not at all.Some of Mignola’s prophecies at NYCC 2012 have already come to pass in issue #1. For one thing, characters who die in HELLBOY “become more interesting”.
That’s no surprise to readers, who have watched Hellboy battle ghosts, monster, and demon-princes from the Netherworld time and again, but leave it to Mignola to find a way to reverse the typical encounter paradigm. With Hellboy himself dead, he faces the dead or the never living on their own turf, turf which theoretically Hellboy finds native. That very fact, however, provides unique dramatic tension. It’s the equivalent of throwing Batman into Arkham Asylum with the inmates he has personally incarcerated over the years. Many of the dead in Hell were sent there by Hellboy and are burning for a little payback. This is essentially a new situation for Hellboy, and therefore a treat for faithful readers. What’s surprising is that even Hellboy’s going to need a little help to deal with his descent into Hell. Mignola has always been masterful at sculpting folklore traditions to suit the needs of his stories, but keeping interpretation loose enough to allow him to tell his own tale. HELLBOY IN HELL is bound to be shaped by literary and folklore traditions about the underworld, and most cultures have a version of this descent in their collective memories. There is usually a guide, for instance, a Virgil to guide Dante. Here Sir Edward, corpse-like with a creepy mask, volunteers, employing necromantic skills to protect Hellboy from the immediate wrath of enemies. Leave it to Mignola to manage to bring in a haunting puppet-show and thematically relevant lines from Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL this close to Christmas to strike a little fear into the hearts of readers.
No good HELLBOY issue functions without a knock-down, drag-out fight, and this is no exception, only this time, Hellboy has nearly met his match in Eligos, a “Duke and Knight of the Order of the Fly”, whom Hellboy cast into the pit previously. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the issue is when readers learn that these encounters are taking place in “The Abyss”, only “the outer edge” of Hell. It certainly makes you wonder what grander revelations are to come, especially since the next issue is entitled “Pandaemonium”, which is the capitol of Hell in Milton’s PARADISE LOST, the gathering place of Hell’s elite. Mignola’s return to HELLBOY does not disappoint, from it’s lavish full page spreads of “The Abyss” to the sepulchral eeriness of the puppet show, but if there are any drawbacks, it’s only that the issue is a very quick read due to limited dialogue in a comic that shows astonishing things rather than tells about them. The visual details that remain unexplained, however, invite readers to start putting the pieces of the puzzle together on Hellboy’s final journey, and I don’t think you’ll hear many complaints. HELLBOY in HELL returns to the grandeur of earlier HELLBOY stories with Mignola as artist and writer in an suitably majestic way, reminding readers that all along, Hellboy’s story has been epic.
Evan Dorkin’s HOUSE OF FUN couldn’t be more different in format than HELLBOY IN HELL; HELLBOY’s expansive page and panel layouts, conjuring the voids of the netherworld meet a comic so packed with art and storytelling that no reader could accuse HOUSE OF FUN of being less than its worth in cover price. In fact, HOUSE OF FUN is like getting an entire collected edition in one shot, reminding readers what they love about Dorkin: his work is a wild informational overload via both imagery and language. Dorkin’s never been absent from the indie comics scene, but the past year has seen a steady build in press for him, from the award winning BEASTS OF BURDEN with Jill Thompson to the repeatedly back-ordered hardcover edition of MILK AND CHEESE, and HOUSE OF FUN strikes another high-note for fans. This one-shot collects several shorts that originally appeared in DARK HORSE PRESENTS #11-12, but Dorkin’s avatar on the inside cover also warns readers, “It’s been awhile since I made a bunch of comics all by myself like an immature adult, so I hope you like reading them as much as I liked making them! Yeah.”. I’ll go out on a limb and speak for readers by saying, please, Dark Horse, allow Dorkin to be an immature adult as much as possible if this is the result.
The MILK and CHEESE segments of the comic alone are worth the cover price of the book, maybe even just the opening page wherein the due order “X-Ray Spex” and attain superpowers of the utmost degree, declaring “Our eyes now have mad skillz!” and they “can see through everything now! Feng Shui! Scientology! Family Guy!”. Unsurprisingly, violence ensues, but not without plenty of psychological commentary on the power of suggestion. THE MURDER FAMILY “living next door” takes readers deep into the dark heart of suburbia with household chores like “dusting, vacuuming, embalming” and fears that Dad’s “been going out killing with another woman!”. The “fun” compressed into this issue includes “The Haiku of the Ancient Sub-Mariner”, “Broken Robot”, and even “Dr. Who: the 25th Doctor” in unrestrained satire of pop culture storytelling grounded in detailed, and biting observation.
“The Eltingville Comic Book. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role Playing Club” appear (and that must be one of the longest names of a fan group to appear in comics, though certainly accurate of real-life counterparts) to deliver weighty prose commentary on zombie-fever in the media, for instance, Gary’s rejoinder, “Surely, you are high. Everybody knows slow-moving zombies are lame and boring and about as scary as Scooby-Doo. Why do you think the base locomotion of the modern film zombie has steadily been on the rise?”. You could call this meta-commentary on the medium, since the club members themselves appear as zombies on a zombie walk, but “meta” disappears in HOUSE OF FUN within the increasingly intricate layers of sub-text. This one-shot also contains an added bonus for fans: Dorkin’s sketches for a comic that he once planned to contain many of the included stories, DORK #12, as well as a few of his zombie layouts.
While HELLBOY IN HELL #1 encourages re-reading to scour for hints and details that may indicate the direction of future issues or help tie #1 to the vast and varied HELLBOY past, HOUSE OF FUN will have fans re-reading to pick apart the corresponding gags between the mile-a-minute text and the elaborately dense panels. One thing is certain: neither comic will easily end up in a dollar bin. These are keepers, milestones for both Mignola and Dorkin, and are the likely candidates to turn up again and again at signings in the near future. Snag your copies while you can.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.