Collecting the four-issue mini-series from Dark Horse, plus significant extras.
Writer/Artist: Mike Mignola
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Plot: During the final hours of WWII a team of Nazi scientists launch a manned rocket into space. They hope to capture an ethereal, alien presence trapped for eons in the stratosphere then use it to thwart the Allied forces. But the capsule and its Astronaut (Nazinaut?) are lost, and the Nazi’s are soon defeated. Fifty years later, the capsule suddenly returns to earth, crashing deep in the Austrian Alps. BPRD agents Hellboy and Roger the Homunculus are sent to investigate. Significant mayhem ensues.
Comments: Mike Mignola has grown as a storyteller. His early Hellboy stories were largely adaptations of fairy tales and regional folklore -- with a bit of Nazi-angst weaved in. His Jack Kirby-inspired visuals were, and still are, breathtaking. Mignola conveys an energy and complexity through his art that belies its apparent simplicity. Over the last few years he has simplified his style. Rendering has been minimized, replaced by heavy blacks and solid colors. His imagery is consequently stronger and more readable. But it is as a writer that Mike Mignola has truly evolved.
Conqueror Worm is more a character study than an epic battle between good and evil – though there is still quite a bit of the latter. Hellboy is shown to be a character of much greater depth than ever before. He is forced to carry with him the knowledge that at a critical moment he will have to choose between the life of one friend and the lives of millions of strangers. The burden tests his faith and threatens his “humanity." Despite the fact that he is a surly, hell-sent demon, Hellboy elicits tremendous sympathy. Mignola invests so many meaningful characteristics in Hellboy that he seems more human than most earth-born characters in other comics.
Conqueror Worm employs a smaller cast than previous Hellboy adventures. Fortunately, each player is a great, big freak. Roger the Homunculus with a heart of gold is back. He joins Hellboy on his quest to locate the missing space capsule. Along the way they encounter Lobster Johnson, a pulp-hero from WWII who was thought to have perished during a final assault on an Axis stronghold. The Nazis have returned, although their previous legions have dwindled to just a few conspirators. Herman Von Klempt, the disembodied-Nazi-head-in-a-bottle leads them, accompanied by his Kriegaffe – an artificial, talking gorilla with a thirst for violence. Finally, long-time nemesis Rasputin lurks in the shadows, compelled to acknowledge that his lifelong pursuit to control Hellboy might be a failed enterprise.
The art in Conqueror Worm is remarkable. Figure models and backgrounds are simplified in order to place more emphasis on design and atmosphere. The result is much clearer storytelling. Every panel and page has been carefully arranged to lead the eye and convey only the information necessary to further the story. Mignola’s trademark use of static panels of period architecture, animals and skeletons are prevalent throughout the story. He uses these as a technique to control the pace of the narrative and it works wonderfully. It allows Mignola to minimize background detail in the story panels while reinforcing location and mood in the static shots. I wish that more artists would exploit this concept.
Yet the colors in Conqueror Worm might just be the strongest artistic element. Colorist Dave Stewart employs a simple, uniform palette, emphasizing lots of secondary colors and muted tones that counterbalance the heavy black inks. Action scenes are painted in bright yellow hues while establishing shots and story elements are shown in shaded blues and muted greens. When evil characters or a dark mood take the stage Stewart’s colors shift to a sick, muddy yellow-green. I can’t express how much the colors positively impact the storytelling –- Hellboy wouldn’t be the same in black & white.
Final Word: Hellboy: Conqueror Worm does not tell a superior or terribly memorable story, but it is far from a simple action yarn. True, the central villains aren’t as menacing as in previous arcs. But the true strength of this tale is the emphasis on Hellboy himself. Mignola subtly portrays the BPRD as the true antagonist who forces Hellboy to compromise his integrity to the organization over his loyalty to a friend. We learn more about what makes Hellboy tick then ever before, and that more than makes up for any lack of depth to the plot. You could infer that Mignola is getting a bit soft, toning down the gothic horror in lieu of portraiture. But I think that he is just becoming a better and more complete storyteller.
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