Friday, 30 August 2013

Hellboy, Volume 1: Seed of Destruction by John Byrne and Mike Mignola Review

It's been a number of years since I first read Seed of Destruction, the first Hellboy book, and, having read all of them at this point, I decided to go back and re-read the first book because my memories of it were hazy. Well, as I suspected, it's not a great first volume - but Hellboy is an incredible series, so don't be put off by this shaky start. The later books get better and better and better. But this first one...

I had completely forgotten that Mike Mignola didn't write the first Hellboy book - John "Man of Steel" Byrne did. That one surprised me. I'm sure Mignola had a hand in the story but the script is entirely credited to Byrne, which explains a lot. Hellboy doesn't quite sound like Hellboy in this - he's less charismatic, less witty, and more sober than in later books. Here he talks more like a generic tough guy than the Hellboy we've come to know over the years. Professor Bruttenholm (pronounced "broom") is killed early on in the book and Hellboy barely bats an eyelid. Not a single tear, just a cursory "he's dead" over the phone. To be fair, the relationship between Hellboy and his adoptive father, the Professor, would be elaborated on in later books so it's interesting to see that in this first volume Mignola had all but dismissed Bruttenholm as a character in the Hellboy universe.

Seed of Destruction is only barely related to the first Hellboy film. The beginning of the book and the film are the same in that it's set during WW2 on a remote island where the Nazis and Rasputin are trying to summon forces to turn the tide in the Nazis' favour and a baby Hellboy shows up. But that's only the first few pages and the film and book separate from there on out. The haunting Cavendish house, the generations-old curse, and the frogs that take up the rest of the book, aren't in the film at all, so don't expect Seed of Destruction to be the first Hellboy film in comics form.

Mignola's art is the best thing about the book. I love Mignola's style, all solid colours and figures verging on the abstract plus Hellboy's character design is just genius (some sketches at the back show how the character evolved from his inception in 1991 to his final design in 1994), and is one of the things I miss about the later Hellboy books. It's interesting that Mignola wasn't confident enough to both write and draw the book which is ironic as Mignola would become a much better writer than Byrne in later books. Byrne's writing is far too descriptive so the panels are filled with text while Hellboy's inner monologue is too clunky and expositional - these aspects would later disappear once Mignola took over writing duties.

All of which is to say that Seed of Destruction isn't a great Hellboy book but is a solid horror/mystery story with plenty of cool moments. There are lots of horror elements, many of which are Lovecraftian, like the tentacle monster at the end and the frog monsters throughout, not to mention the doomed expedition in arctic climes, and the overall gothic feel of the book. Plus it's great to see Mignola slowly putting together what will become a massive universe, gingerly introducing Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman while only hinting at what the BPRD is.

It's a shame this is the first volume as many new readers will read this and some will be turned off from reading more by Byrne's clunky writing and characterisation, and therefore miss out on one of the greatest comic book characters ever created, as Hellboy will become in later volumes. Seed of Destruction may not be an ideal first book but readers who persevere with the series will be rewarded with some of the richest comics you could ever hope to read.

Hellboy Volume 1: Seed of Destruction

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