Title: Hellboy in Mexico
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writer: Mike Mignola
Artists: Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Mick McMahon, Fábio Moon, and Gabriel Bá
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Clem Robins
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. Read at your own risk!
As a story, Hellboy is an interesting beast. Because a central conceit is that Hellboy has lived on Earth having paranormal adventures since the 1940s, there’s a wide timeframe to tell a broad spread of stories. While there’s also an extensive mythology that rests on continuity, the nature of Hellboy’s decades-long history lends itself to anthology storytelling that allows for dipping in and out of the extensive library of Hellboy tales. Hellboy in Mexico is a good example of this. In commentaries printed before each story in this volume, named after the original Hellboy in Mexico issue, Mike Mignola writes the idea came from a picture he drew of Hellboy standing on a pile of monsters with a luchador. From there, the idea evolved into a “lost weekend” where Hellboy went on a five-month bender after a mission went south. And it was some weekend.
The collection is bookended by stories drawn by Richard Corben. In “Hellboy in Mexico,” Hellboy and Abe Sapien are waiting for extraction from the Mexican desert, and Abe finds a building containing a photo of Hellboy with three luchadores. In 1956, the B.P.R.D. sent Hellboy to look into mass killings by vampires. He teams up with three wrestler brothers and hits it off with the youngest, who he’s forced to kill when the vampires turn him into a monster. This drives him to drink, and he tells Abe he doesn’t know what happened between then and when the B.P.R.D. tracks him down in a bar months later. The basic rundown gives an impression of the range of tones a Hellboy story is capable of, one of its great strengths. Because the protagonist is an actual demon from Hell who fights monsters, there’s an inherent element of horror. Corben draws the vampires as grotesque and deformed, with pockmarks and boils on their rotting flesh. Dave Stewart gives them red eyes and sickly dark gray skin. His heavy shadows and contrast between dull and saturated tones are Hellboy staples that create atmosphere, and he subtly shifts to fit each other artist. Clem Robins’ letters are just as important for Hellboy’s aesthetic, from monster dialogue to weighted sound effects.
But the horror is balanced with humor, sometimes juxtaposed very close together. When Hellboy introduces the wrestlers, he says they had a vision: “The Virgin Mary told them that trouble was coming, and that they should quit wrestling and get ready to fight monsters.” It isn’t fanciful. He doesn’t say the Holy Virgin told them to “Leave wrestling behind and vanquish evil;” she tells them to “quit wrestling and get ready to fight monsters.” Traveling with Hellboy, they fight monsters by day and party by night, epitomized by a panel where Esteban, the youngest brother, guzzles beer and tells Hellboy he’s his best friend, and Hellboy responds in kind. Even later that night, Esteban walks outside and finds a turkey, not normally a fearsome creature, but Corben and Stewart manage making the bird look menacingly at Esteban. This happens just before Esteban becomes surrounded by vampires who injure and kidnap him, but it still works, because ultimately, it’s a vampire disguised as an evil turkey.
Hellboy’s ability to take so much that happens to him in stride only makes it funnier. He can evoke pathos by the pain caused him by killing a dear friend who’s been turned into a monster, but he can also rip off a mummy’s arm while yelling “Gimme that!” before whacking a bat-demon with it. That particular issue, “Hellboy vs. the Aztec Mummy,” is drawn by Mignola himself, who uses stylized, uneven shapes, somewhat simple in detail but absolutely effective. Perhaps my favorite part of Mignola’s Hellboy is that his bulky right hand is such a sharp contrast to his thin, noodle-like left arm. Mick McMahon uses similar exaggeration, but it’s more cartooned, with off-kilter poses and anatomy. In the story drawn by him, “Hellboy Gets Married,” he’s enchanted into marrying a monster woman. When he finds out he married a monster, he gives a faint grimace and a simple, “Ah crap.” When his wedding ring turns into a snake, he looks at it blankly and says, “Well that’s not good.” The way Hellboy reacts to all of this, with at best mild irritation, is enough to tell you, even if you’re not familiar with Hellboy comics, that this is just a normal day for him. Clem Robins’ letters for sound effects are exaggerated just as exaggerated as Mignola and McMahon’s linework, and they’re just as important for Hellboy’s aesthetic.
Fábio Moon draws the story “The Coffin Man,” and his twin Gabriel Bá draws “The Coffin Man 2: The Rematch.” The Coffin Man is an evil sorcerer who steals corpses from graves, and in the first story, a girl asks Hellboy to rescue her uncle’s body. Hellboy ends up tangled in a cactus come morning, unsuccessful. At the end of their second encounter, Hellboy’s grudge match, he’s turned into a monkey. The most interesting part of these stories is the rare chance to see Moon and Bá’s art in isolation from each other and so close together. I’m most familiar with their work together. Though they both use angles, Moon’s are less sharp, less extreme. Bá draws in a more stylized fashion, with a more twisted, crooked version of the Coffin Man. In the Bá story, the night is blacker, as opposed to the deep navy of the Moon story. The differences are so subtle but very noticeable.
The final story, “House of the Living Dead,” sees Corben’s return. Everything looks still without looking stiff, almost statuesque, given uncanny depth by Stewart’s color work. Hellboy fights Frankenstein’s monster in a boxing ring, a werewolf draws a gun from his coat, and two buildings fall on Hellboy. He gets another chance to mourn Esteban as well, a final dose of pathos to send off the graphic novel it was originally published as and the Hellboy in Mexico collection. While I’d recommend some familiarity with Hellboy before picking up this collection, having only read a very little bit myself, I recommend it unreservedly to anyone who enjoys the character. Or Mexican wrestling.