Review: 'Hellboy in Hell volume 1: The Descent' is spooky comics storytelling at its best

A comic review article by: Bryan Stroud

Mike Mignola's Hellboy has now enjoyed continuous publication for twenty years and there appears to be no end in sight.  "The World's Greatest Paranormal Investigator" has been placed into many different and unique sets of circumstances over this publishing history and keeps coming back for more, but most recently and perhaps inevitably, the character finally finds himself full circle with Hellboy in Hell.

Mike Mignola's imagination seems to be inexhaustible or perhaps Hellboy is just such a versatile character that the options are all but limitless.  Despite that inherent magic, one thing that makes the stories even more accessible is the fact that they tend to stand alone.  You needn't be well-versed in a long and complicated backstory to be able to read a Hellboy adventure.  Hellboy in Hell illustrates this beautifully when the brief history provided lives up to its name by covering all necessary bases in a mere 5 sentences.  

Typically, it takes a lot to surprise Hellboy, which is fortuitous considering the circumstances in which he finds himself ensconced and his dark sense of humor is always on display.  All that being said, he is somewhat taken aback when, in the midst of hand to claw combat with a dragon at the tale's outset, he sees that his heart has been removed. 

With subdued, moody coloring and a strong sense of visual narrative, few words are needed in your typical Hellboy story and sometimes a completely black panel works as well. 

Battling his way through the underworld and encountering threat after threat, our indefatigable hero moves ever forward, occasionally encountering an ally, but more often an antagonist.  Fortunately, our hero is equal to all with his remarkable stamina and that mighty stone hand.  Still, even Hellboy understands that it's often better to use discretion and makes an exit when the opportunity presents itself. 

The problem, of course, is he is uncertain where he will land and who he will encounter.  One turn finds him in the first of a few situations that include classic literature being quoted.  In this case, Dickens' A Christmas Carol. 

Despite each brush with the bizarre, Hellboy continues to be nonplussed.  Just another day at the office, so to speak.  But whoever had such an office?  Even being escorted by a disembodied being doesn't seem to phase Hellboy, who only asks what's next.  

As it happens, what's next is a glimpse right into the hell from which he was spawned.  He is soon shown the place from which he is apparently given the birthright to rule.  None of it is on Hellboy's radar, however and he shows no interest whatsoever in assuming the throne or crown or other trappings of this position of authority.  

Glimpses of Hellboy's origin are presented as well, shortly after quotations from MacBeth.  We see how things begin in the underworld and other elements of the being that would ultimately enter the world above and become The World's Greatest Parnormal Investigator.  It is not a pretty sight, but once again Mignola's minimalist artwork rules the day, setting the mood and stage in such a way that you can all but smell the brimstone.  

Battles for power among the denizens of the underworld erupt.  Hellboy is involved, but takes no sides, other than to continue to shun his place here.  The eerie and the fantastic continue to be the norm and even when destructions ensues, he tends to look on in what doesn't quite equate to amazement, but nonetheless shows intrigue and a degree of fascination.  The dark humor of Hellboy is never far away, even with the seeming cliché of "Didn't see that coming." 

The journeys continue throughout the remaining chapters and Hellboy meets up with more fantastic characters, ultimately seeming to be resigned to his surroundings.  I'll not offer any spoilers, but will offer that the journeying is fascinating and offers surprises at every turn.  This dark journey is well worth the price of admission.

Horror is a genre that seems to have waxed and waned over the decades.  After the Wertham and Kefauver debacles, no one would touch it for years and of course the Comics Code kept things well within established boundaries.  All that being said, Mike Mignola has successfully staked out a place all his own.  Hellboy has adventures that do not grow stale and his artistic approach lends itself ideally to the strange and otherworldly. 

John Workman, who lettered Gotham by Gaslight offered an excellent observation of Mike Mignola's storytelling chops:  "I've always loved Mignola's stuff.  He has an understanding of shapes that is very rare.  He doesn't do a lot of rendering on it, just the outline.  The only other person I can think of offhand that had that ability was Alex Toth, who would just do some sort of shape and yet give you everything you needed to know visually about what was going on."

A nice bonus included in this book is a sketchbook with annotations by Mike Mignola, offering the readers a firsthand peek into his creative process. 

Hellboy is a true original and has earned a lasting place in the pantheon.  Do yourself a favor and pick up this collection.  

Community Discussion