Hellboy: Darkness Calls
Writer: Mike Mignola
Artist: Duncan Fegredo
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Hellboy is based on a stellar concept – a demon, the possible heir to Hell is transported to earth by a ritual-gone-awry; he refuses to accept his destiny because of his sympathies with mankind and must face the consequences of his actions. Writer-artist Mike Mignola draws inspiration from horror stories, folklore and local myths and legends from around to world to create a rich supporting cast and a saga made up of a series of quests. Darkness Calls is the latest six-issue arc in the Hellboy saga, and it comes after a gap of nearly two years since the previous installment.
Not for lack of trying. For the past couple of years, Mignola has been involved with other aspects of his character – closely associated with the production of the Hellboy movies, the animated series, and the various merchandising aspects of his brainchild. This, therefore, is the first Hellboy story arc where he sticks to writing and delegates the responsibility of artwork to British artist Duncan Fegredo. Like the majority of fans, I was skeptical – Mignola’s work in Hellboy is the offering of a man who has experimented with his craft for the better part of two decades, developing a style that combines the dynamic action of Jack Kirby with the dark undertones of German Expressionism, and it would be hard to replace him.
When I flipped open the first page of Darkness Calls, I gasped. The art was not Mignola, but had captured his aesthetics, the spirit of Hellboy, so to speak, and made it his own. Duncan Fegredo, an artist renowned for his painted covers (Lucifer, Shade the Changing Man) has a keen eye for detail. For instance, observe a forest scene that occurs in the first issue. While Mignola would probably have filled in blacks for the most part, and trust me, he can convey a LOT with minimal brushstrokes, Fegredo goes berserk with his detailing. You can almost see the individual leaves crackling under Hellboy’s feet as he tromps through them, while in the background the bony branches of trees alternate as spider-webs of dark and light. His designs are fantastic – I don’t know how many of them were the creator’s, but considering the kind of talent he has on display, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was given complete freedom to come up with his own panel layouts and character sketches. And the artwork just gets better, more confident and intricate as the series progresses. It is as if Fegredo, unsure of how people will react to his interpretation of this iconic character, had held himself back in the first issue and then feeding off the positive reactions, just cuts loose.
The story of Hellboy so far has always managed to disappoint me, primarily because the character appears underdeveloped. In spite of a career rife with supernatural elements, Hellboy’s modus operandi in dealing with anything at all is to punch and shoot, no questions asked. The storytelling in Darkness Calls however gains a lot from Mignola concentrating on the writing. There are a lot of in-continuity references throughout – thankfully, editorial notes explain a lot of what’s going on. Hellboy refuses an offer by a group of rather disgruntled women, not making an attempt to understand what they are asking of him. Then things begin to get interesting, when an old, old foe makes a bargain with the women to have their common enemy transported to her world. It’s Baba Yaga, the old witch from Russian folk tales, who Hellboy had blinded once upon a time and who wants his life in return. With the character transported to the witch’s domain, it is obligatory that we see other characters from Russian folklore popping up as well. Remember Koschei the Deathless, whose soul was hidden by Baba Yaga in a very, very secure location? Or Vasilisa the Beautiful, who was helped by her fairy godmother throughout her life and was one of the few girls who could actually escape Baba Yaga’s clutches? Don’t worry; I haven’t given out any spoilers, just that these two characters make their appearances. There are others, but you can find them out for yourself.
The story goes on towards a predictable climax, but other things are afoot. While he’s exiled in folklore-Russia, things have been set into motion in his…our world, and something really evil is loose. Darkness Calls, like all other Hellboy miniseries so far, ends on an incomplete note, with threads of stories to come. This becomes frustrating for a casual reader who wants to read a story with a beginning and an end. But for someone who’s soaked in the mythology of the series, Darkness Calls is a brilliant installment, and makes you wish Mignola would chuck everything else and hurry with the next arc.