Hellboy and the true nature of redemption

Let’s keep with the comic book theme, hey? Ever heard of Hellboy? Of course you have, you have the internet. But if you haven’t, he’s a demon from hell (well, A hell) sent to Earth to destroy it, who is instead adopted by a kindly scholar and the US military, fed pancakes, and who grows up to be a good, taciturn guy who punches vampires to death. And Nazis, he punches them too.

My first thought, on finishing the above paragraph, is actually how oddly like Jack Kirby’s work Mignola’s Hellboy is. Not in specific art style, of course – Mignola’s famous for his dark darks and his black blacks. There are no light sources in the entire world, except for burning demon heads, that emit more than 25 watts of light at a time, while Kirby was, if not obsessed with color, certainly obsessed with getting everything he could out of four-tone comic printing. (If you like Hellboy and are considering the expensive library editions, do it – the extra size and paper quality lets you really get into the art. Even I can, and sometimes I still read comics like they’re the medium for word balloons – not often, but sometimes when I’m tired or bored by something I slip).

So why talk about Hellboy? You already know who he is. You probably saw at least one of the movies. Maybe you even read some of the comic already – or all of it, and you’re ahead of me. Well, there are a lot of things we could talk about. For instance, Hellboy is now one of my standard texts for the function of free will in life. Hellboy is patently made to be about free will, since he is an actual demon who’s a good guy. There’s a Christian group that demonized (heh heh, sorry) the first Hellboy movie because it depicts a demon being redeemed, which is impossible. Or something. Yeah.

There’s also the involvement of fairy tales, myth, legends, and literature. Hellboy fights Rasputin (as much a legend as a historical figure now), Baba Yaga, Hecate, and various local analogues of the devil, as well as – in a story Mignola has purportedly been trying to work out how to do properly for years now – the fungus creatures from William Hope Hodgson’s Sargasso Sea stories. All these things are present in the world simultaneously. It’s not clear, at least not yet, if Mignola’s doing something like American Gods, in which it’s belief that creates the creatures, but somehow trolls exist in Norway but not Mexico. Probably the explanation would be more like ecologies than storytelling. Stories and storytelling have clearly influenced Hellboy, but it rarely draws on the concept itself, preferring to let the comic become its own new story.

And it exists that way. That’s more of what I’m interested in talking about. Hellboy, despite his varied appearances in movies and animated features and comics (and spin-off comics – I spotted “Little Hellboy” comics the other day) stands as a locus of energy, like a superhero (which he really is not). His outline is so simple, but his history so varied, that he acts like a demigod (which he sort of is, if you don’t get too picky about which direction we’re talking here). He moves through the world, changing it and being changed, but he is not anonymous like some western hero. People have heard of Hellboy already. He has contacts, a support system; even though he left the BPRD, he can call them any time. They’ll come to pick up things he leaves behind, like a pantheon of gods  — or maybe more appropriately a cadre of a single god’s assistants – to clean up Zeus’s latest mess.

Hellboy’s trademark Right Hand of Doom is important because it’s a totem, a kind of symbol he “wears” at all times (for obvious reasons). Its practical use is also symbolic in nature, as it’s a key to open a gate. But it also stands in for Hellboy himself, in a weird doubling of a synecdoche (in which a part stands in for the whole thing). So his hand stands for himself as hands often do (“hands” is even the term for workers in some fields, such as boats and ships), but it also has traits that directly correlate to him – it is blunt, lacks finesse, and generally punches heavily through things. There’s apparently at some point a crack by Hellboy’s weapon instructor that he couldn’t train him, because he was right handed and the right hand couldn’t aim a gun properly while his left hand was, well, not his dominant hand. I haven’t actually run into that yet, so take it as second (third?) –hand information.

So what? Hellboy is big and blunt and can’t shoot a gun. Sure, we know, fine, but so what? Well, Hellboy’s hand stands in for a key, for himself, for his actions, and for his abilities – it’s a totem, something around which all the significant forces in his life gather. He, too, is a totem – he is the key to the gate, insomuch as his hand is a part of him, and he was put on Earth to open said gate – and he is blunt and crazy because he’s a demon trained by the US government. He has learned a lot about demons, vampires, trolls, and assorted creatures – at one point he resurrects a corpse in a graveyard just for directions – but there are many scholars in the series and he is not one of them. They were not trained by the military. He was. Hellboy is blunt because of his circumstances, and because he is a key being used as a different tool – because he chooses, over and over, not to be a key, not to be the subtle and careful thing he was meant to be. He breaks through the barriers in front of him because he has to.

A witch makes a snide comment in the fourth library edition – she wonders what Hellboy will think of not having to fight the trolls. He doesn’t say anything, which is typical, but we are left understanding that Hellboy interacts with the world by fighting it. And he fights it because his genetic code wants him to destroy it – his purpose was to bring about the end of the world, so his natural method of interaction with everything would be to destroy it. So he is, at all times, fighting his natural inclination using his background and home environment.

So that’s why the whole “demon’s redemption” story is important. Not because everyone can be redeemed, but because what redemption is is the opportunity to do something other than what one is inclined to do. In many traditions it’s because we’re Fallen, but in others it’s simply because we are on a poorly-chosen path, whether we chose it or not. But it’s simple – though not easy – to step off that path and onto another.

And that’s your lesson for today, I guess.

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