If you've only ever seen Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy films and never given Mike Mignola's comic books and graphic novels a chance, then you don't really know Hellboy. You get most of the basics in the films, but the comics delve into many varieties of stories with vampires, werewolves, monsters, and some of the best folk-based horror in any medium. Mignola's world is rich, full of essential Hellboy comics, and it's given the world amazing spin-offs like B.P.R.D., Lobster Johnson, and Sir Edward Grey: Witchfinder.
But where do you start? There's 20 years of stories in the Hellboy main title alone! To prepare yourself for Neil Marshall's upcoming film reboot (starring David Harbour, of course), here are seven stories--both full arcs and one-offs--that you need to read. And don't worry, you'll want to read the rest too.
They're presented here in release order:
Wake the Devil
It would be tempting to suggest you read the first story arc of the whole series, but for me, the second major arc is where it's at. It references enough of the first volume, "Seed of Destruction," to make you aware of what's going on (plus the first Hellboy movie is pretty much this arc) but adds to it the vampire Vladimir Giurescu, Baba Yaga, and the goddess Hecate, all of whom become major players later on in the continuity. Rasputin and the Nazis continue to be major thorns in Hellboy's side, and we also get to spend a lot of time with B.P.R.D. members Liz Sherman, Abe Sapien, and we get to meet future member Roger the Homunculus. All of this is wrapped up in a beautiful package with Mignola's signature art style and James Sinclaire's brilliant coloring.
The Wolves of Saint August
This was maybe the first story I read in the Hellboy universe and it still stands out. Mignola's take on his own mythology was steeped in everything from Nazi Occultism to Lovecraftian elder gods, to Arthurian legend, but "The Wolves of Saint August" is a perfect example of his love of European folklore and ancient family curses. This one has Hellboy and Kate Corrigan (another B.P.R.D. mainstay) encountering a family of werewolves who've brought death and despair to the little town of Griar since 1214 AD. Haunting images, like the above of the werewolf woman in a dress pervade the story, and it has some bombastic action culminating in our red-hued hero engaging in fisticuffs with a massive lycanthrope.
If you wondered what a "homunculus" was when I mentioned it in "Wake the Devil," then "Almost Colossus" will provide all the answers. Not only is Roger back but there's even a big ol' giant one as well. The story follows on from "Wake the Devil," and it feels more personal and directly about our main characters. With Liz Sherman in a coma following her fire powers bringing Roger to life (it's a homunculus thing), it's up to Hellboy and Kate to find answers, and a cure. True to form, we get a history lesson in magic and alchemy and it ends with the giant marauding the countryside. It's pretty darn great.
This classic brought the pulp superhero known as Lobster Johnson into Hellboy's life. "The Lobster" was a vigilante crime-fighter in the 1930s who took on gangsters and supernatural threats in New York City. During World War II, he was brought in by the U.S. government to help stop the Nazi's occult enterprises. Later, a detective wrote a fictional version of him and that's where the name Lobster Johnson came from (which is also the name of the character's comic book series). Hellboy and Roger are sent to Austria to follow up on the Lobster's final mission and Hellboy encounters the ghost of his pulp idol, along with Nazi-scientist-head-in-a-jar Herman von Klempt whose mind gets put in the body of a massive gorilla. How's THAT for awesome? This story represents the splintering of the Hellboy universe into separate story threads, and it's a corker to boot.
After Hellboy parts ways with the B.P.R.D., he goes on a fair amount of one-off adventures and gets drunk and married in Mexico. But his major arc comes in the form of learning his destiny, not as the devil's son, but as possibly the last descendant of royal lineage on Earth. Before he gets there, he's got to battle with recurring foe Baba Yaga and her champion, Koschei the Deathless. This arc represents part one of a trilogy of arcs that we're pretty sure will be the basis of Neil Marshall's movie (read all about it here). However, the first part--full of witches and Russian mythology--is the epic we'll revisit for a long, long time. Oh, and Duncan Fegredo's art is superbly gorgeous.
The Crooked Man
The legendary horror artist Richard Corben has lent his pen to the Hellboy universe a few times, but no stories are as endlessly creepy as this three-issue story set in 1950s Appalachia. The story gets way into southern witchcraft and devil worship and the titular baddie (pictured above) is legitimate nightmare fuel. It even brings in the oft-referenced Melungion Witches, decendents of the original settlers from Roanoke (people who watch American Horror Story will know this for sure). Sometimes it's fun to remember that Hellboy doesn't have to have huge, world-ending continuity; it can also just be an occult detective story with a monster as the hero.
The Bride of Hell
While Hellboy is certainly a hero and usually defeats evil, he's not perfect. Sometimes he just straight-up loses, and that can still be a great story. This story was also illustrated by Richard Corben and takes Hellboy to France to save an American tourist from the demon-worshiping Knights of Saint Hagen, an ancient cult that follows the demon Asmodeus. But all is not as it seems, and Hellboy learns the truth about what the cult actually is, and how Asmodeus operates. Gorgeous artwork, awesome history of occult things, and a downbeat but totally satisfying ending make for a story well worth reading.
And there you have seven of our favorite Hellboy stories. Share yours in the comments below!
Images: Dark Horse Comics; Mike Mignola; Duncan Fegredo; Richard Corben