Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, it’s Hellboy In Hell #6. Written and drawn by Mike Mignola (The Amazing Screw-On Head, B.P.R.D.) with colors by Dave Stewart (B.P.R.D., Shaolin Cowboy), this issue spotlights Mignola’s immense talent for creating a dense story through atmospheric visuals.
At the start of Hellboy In Hell #6, two men sit with the titular character and tell him that they are making a map of the underworld. “I doubt it,” says one of Hellboy’s skeletal companions, and surely enough, when Hellboy asks to see the map, one of the men clarifies that they haven’t yet committed their ideas to paper. “Still a little blurry on some of the details—where the rivers go, et cetera.” The details are blurry because the landscape is constantly changing, and Mike Mignola has had a lot of fun playing with this nebulous environment for his ongoing return to drawing Hellboy after a six-year break.
The setting morphs at Mignola’s will, giving him the opportunity to create a dreamlike narrative as he indulges whatever creative urges he’s feeling at the moment. In his enlightening Walkthrough of the first five issues of Hellboy In Hell, Mignola described his approach to the series in a blunt warning for fans: “Kids, I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want.” In the first issue of the series, that meant including a puppet show performance of a scene from A Christmas Carol, and the title has only gotten more eccentric as its continues. Last issue saw Mignola adapt a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and this week’s #6 has the creator revisiting a past story and reinterpreting it for Hellboy’s new circumstances.
“The Vampire Of Prague” is a 2007 short story by Mignola and artist P. Craig Russell, whose intricate linework brings the gothic city to life in vivid detail. Set in 1983, it tells of Hellboy’s encounter with a former verger turned gambler turned vampire who stalks the streets of Prague looking for people to play a game of cards with him. The price for the loser is death, and Hellboy beats the Vampire’s straight with a full house to send him to hell, where they meet again years later.
Hellboy and the Vampire’s rematch is primarily an excuse for Mignola to interpret the weathered beauty of Prague through his signature style, embellishing the fight with graphic details that immerse the reader in the environment in a way that only comics can achieve. It’s another gorgeous issue in one of the most visually captivating titles on the stands, but there’s more here than just moody artwork. Mignola is examining the nature of damnation through Hellboy’s battle with a beast that has no chains in hell and no desire for heaven, addressing the series’ larger theme of liberating one’s self from the sins of the past by pitting Hellboy against an old foe.
With Jack Kirby as one of his guiding influences, it’s no surprise that Mignola can choreograph intense, impactful action, but it’s the visual flourishes he adds to his fight sequences that have set his work apart. As Hellboy and the Vampire pummel each other through a hellish version of Prague, Mignola breaks up the rhythm of the action with shots of raining cards and religious statues that contrast classic imagery with a more modern graphic element. These panels are a constant reminder of the sin that damned the Vampire in his former life, and eventually the religious statues disappear as the downpour of cards takes precedence.
The recurring card imagery plays into the story, but it also just looks cool on the page, and a major draw of this series is seeing what kind of imaginative design elements Mignola is going to incorporate into the next chapter. Hellboy In Hell #6 also features the triumphant return of one of the most distinct visuals Mignola has envisioned on this series when he brings back the puppets, using creepy lifeless marionettes for a more abstract moment in the ongoing fight. The puppet motif ties into that aforementioned theme of liberation by showing figures that are hollow players without wills of their own, and Hellboy getting caught in marionette strings is a nice visual summation of the character’s ongoing attempts to distance himself from the past events tying him down.
Color is an essential part of the rhythm and mood of Mignola’s artwork, and his 15-year creative relationship with Dave Stewart has proven immensely rewarding for readers. The issue’s opening conversation between Hellboy and the mapmakers (dressed in late 19th-century garb) is colored with a brownish orange to give it the appearance of a dated sepia photograph, and the dull shade creates a quiet, unimposing environment that will be interrupted by the Vampire and a rush of green when he attacks Hellboy. It’s the same green used to color the chaotic outer rim of hell, The Abyss, and using it after that creamy brown dramatically changes the energy of the scene.
During a brief respite in the fight, the colors shift to various shades of blue as Mignola recounts a passage from the original “The Vampire Of Prague” short story, and the icy blue heightens the gloom of the ghostly sequence. Looking at the original scene (left) and its remix in this issue (right), it becomes clear just how much of a difference Mignola’s artwork makes, offering a far more intimate take on the horrors that roam the streets of Prague:
Russell’s approach is very pretty, but all those zoomed-out shots create distance between the reader and the setting that makes it more presentational than Mignola’s version. Russell’s page is something to witness, while Mignola’s is something to experience. Stewart’s overwhelming blue in this sequence creates a chilly setting, and when Mignola introduces a burst of heat with a panel showing bright red blood on the end of a blade, the background color draws added attention to the weapon. The bleeding knife is another visual motif of this series, serving as a reminder of the murder that is the dramatic backbone of Hellboy’s infernal adventure.
Each issue of Hellboy In Hell is sparse when it comes to text, but Mignola is building a dense narrative by allowing his artwork to tell more of the story. There are two major plot threads unfolding in the background while Mignola tells these short, self-contained stories: The first is about the chaos that has overtaken the underworld since Hellboy murdered Satan, and the second involves the wave of hope and forgiveness that has spread throughout Hell because of the hero’s actions.
Mignola checks in with both of these narratives in this issue, briefly mentioning the trouble in the fallen city of Pandemonium during the mapmakers’ conversation at the start of the issue and delving into the streak of salvation when a priest appears to banish the Vampire in the story’s final moments. (In one of the great pieces highlighting the mercurial hellscape, Hellboy and the priest find themselves underwater for a single panel after the priest reveals that he was killed by his congregation by being tied to the church bell and thrown in the sea.)
The priest tells Hellboy about how the Vampire is so corrupted that heaven has no appeal and he has chosen to dwell in hell because of his own free will, but he also informs him that recently he’s seen souls ask for forgiveness and have their wishes granted. The priest’s news is accompanied by three panels showing a woman whose soul is saved, beginning with a somber shot of a female human sitting in a chair before her flesh deteriorates and her soul leaves her body, taking the form of a dove that flies away from hell.
We’ve seen this dove imagery before at the end of Hellboy In Hell #4, when the hero finally situated himself in his new environment and white birds began to fly away from the decaying city. We now know that was the sight of souls being offered the forgiveness they were denied under Satan’s rule, and if there’s hope for them, maybe there’s hope for Hellboy too. But there’s no rush to end the damnation if delaying Hellboy’s salvation means more excellent stories from Mignola in this world, because Hellboy In Hell has become one of the most intriguing, unpredictable comics available thanks to the total freedom it offers its creator.