Wow. I just finished reading Hellboy in Hell #2 for the third time, and I still don't think I have understood it all. I may share a good deal of the same brain library as Mike Mignola — I can pick up on the Charles Dickens and the Shakespeare without much problem (even the uncredited bits. "Each man's soul is his own" comes straight from Henry V) — but I certainly don't get everything. I am going to have to dig into some serious research before the full story unfolds.
And I love that. Mignola is challenging us. He is educating us. Hellboy in Hell is the kind of comic that makes you smarter after you read it. It's a culmination of Mignola's lifetime of work, with subtleties and context woven deeply into sparse dialogue and beautiful pictures. Some comics feel like disposable entertainment, something flipped through in about 10 minutes and enjoyed, but with little impact. Not this. Not Hellboy in Hell. This is a comic that demands patience and attention. It blows me away.
In this second issue, Hellboy continues his Tour of Hell as aided by Hell's versions of Dickens' ghostly trio. The Halls of Hell are empty, all of the Dukes, Marquis, Earls, and Knights having fled upon hearing the news that Hellboy had come home. All save one. Only the Morningstar remains, sleeping his thousand-years slumber that he has slept since Christ died on the Cross. (How's that for some heavy theology thrown in for good measure?)
Much of this issue seems to be about the tying up of loose ends. Hellboy is again presented with his badges of officer — his throne, his crown, his waiting army, his father's sword and signet ring. That he refuses them again is a surprise to know one. Like all of Hell they are empty artifacts. Meaningless. We are treated to some scenes of Hellboy's life — his birth, the wielding of the Hand of Doom.
But instead of momentous occasions, seen through the filter of the Dickensian ghosts they are just wispy memories. Mignola is showing them because they must be shown, but with a sense of detachment that is almost Buddhist. Hellboy sees these things as ghosts of a memory; saying this too, happened once. But now it does not matter.
Mignola and Dave Stewart's art is phenomenal. Mignola can do more with a single panel and a single word balloon than most can do with an entire comic. The texture of his work is tangible. You can feel the weight and age of the stone, hear the rush of water and the roar of fire, even when the panels themselves are silent. And man, the guy can make a little 6-inch box look like a mile long cavern. Of course, much of that is Stewart's doing. His coloring throws depth and feeling into every page. It's incredible how well these two work together.
If you are a comic reader, and you aren't reading Hellboy in Hell, you are missing out on something truly important. This is without a doubt the best comic on the stands right now.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack's reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.