Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 270 (10/31) -- Hellboy: Masks and Monsters by Mignola, Robinson, Benefiel, & Rodriguez

Hellboy is at the center of his own comics universe, these days -- he's the sun that B.P.R.D. and Lobster Johnson and Abe Sapien and Witchfinder all dance around. But it wasn't always that way; at one point he was just another colorful violent character in a distinctive costume. And, since that time was the late '90s, it was inevitable that Hellboy would find himself in a cross-universe team-up.

Masks and Monsters collects two of those team-ups: one with DC's Batman and Starman, the other with Ghost, a character from Dark Horse's now practically forgotten (and bombastically titled -- but I've already said it was the '90s once, so I repeat myself) "Comics' Greatest World." Neither one is a great story, and neither one really adds anything to the canon of Hellboy by being reprinted here, but they're both serviceable superhero stuff, with dialogue that only induces winces a few times.

Most of those winces are early in Batman / Hellboy / Starman, which ran for two large issues in 1999 (a year which seemed terribly futuristic at the time). B/H/S was written by James Robinson, at the time riding a wave of acclaim for his work on the regular Starman comic, but the first few pages read like a particularly dull Little Golden Book about Batman:
Move in! Move in!
More light!
If we're going to find him, we need more light!
There! I see him!
The Joker's down there!
Good. Now just keep him lit...
(A few pages later, we also get Commissioner Gordon declaiming "You'll find him, Batman. You always do," either indicating to the reader that the Joker subplot is entirely pointless -- and it is -- or that Robinson knows the drill too well to even bother to hide that knowledge.)

Anyway, Robinson's story rumbles on, aided massively by having been drawn by Mignola, who I gather also consulted on the story. (Why else would there be Nazis who shoot green magical fire out of their hands, intent on resurrecting a dead Elder God?) Batman runs into Hellboy after Ted Knight, the original Starman who went back to being a comic-book scientist once his sons took up the superhero business, is kidnapped by those darn Nazis. Batman and Starman play tag-team in the two issues -- Batman gets volume 1, and Starman number two -- while Hellboy stays, only the slightest bit out of character with Robinson writing him, throughout the entire story. And, yes, the Nazis are trying to raise an Elder God, with the compelled aid of Starman, Senior, but Hellboy and Starman, Jr. punch them repeatedly until everything's better. (This is not one of the more subtle Hellboy stories.)

It's odd to see a Hellboy story drawn by Mignola but not written by him; the whole affair looks right, but sounds slightly off, as if it was translated into Albanian and then back with a little too much haste. It's not one of the best Hellboy stories, but it does what a Hellboy story needs to: gives the big red galloot some Nazis and some monsters to punch, and then sets him free.

The Ghost team-up story suffers from the opposite problem: Mignola wrote it (so the dialogue sounds true), but it was drawn by Scott Benefiel and Jasen Rodriguez, so Hellboy looks faintly off-model -- a little too defined and not as shrouded in shadow as usual -- much of the time. It also suffers from a common crossover issue; Hellboy just arrives in the city of Arcadia (as he showed up in Gotham City in the other story) as if that town is on the same map he usually travels, but he's never gone to (or mentioned) either of those cities before or since.

It also seems unlikely that Hellboy would be chasing a single ghost -- even one habitually given the uppercase G, and fond of running around shooting living people with handguns -- but that's the setup for this story; he's coming to recruit Ghost for the B.P.R.D., or at least capture her for study thereby. So they meet, and briefly fight, but then get dragged off to the inevitable otherworld where they have to team up to fight the real bad guys. Once they win -- and of course they win -- they will never speak of this story again. And we probably won't, either, unless one of us is a huge Ghost fan.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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