Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

01 September 2009

Hellboy, v. 5: Conqueror Worm

Collects: Hellboy: Conqueror Worm #1-4 (2001)

Released: February 2004 (Dark Horse)

Format: 168 pages / color / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781593070922

What is this?: Hellboy vs. Nazis and space worms in Austria, with a little help from a homunculus and pulp hero Lobster Johnson.

The culprit: Mike Mignola

I’m starting Hellboy week with Hellboy, v. 5: Conqueror Worm. Why v. 5? Because I’ve already read the first four and found them excellent. I’ve read v. 5 before too, although I didn’t care for it much.

So I decided to look at it again, especially now that Hellboy is a multimedia hit. (The copy of Conqueror Worm I read told me so: it had a bright yellow sticker with “Now a major motion picture Hellboy II: The Golden Army” on it. The sticker goes very well with the muted reds, browns, and blacks on the cover.) I liked more this time, but the feeling that something wasn’t quite right with the execution lingered.

Hellboy, v. 5: Conqueror Worm coverFirst, let me say what is unquestionably right: Hellboy drawn by creator / writer / artist Mike Mignola. Nothing looks quite like it, even if everyone’s feet are weird. It’s brooding, dark, and exists so a huge, bright red guy can smash through it. The castle in which the story is set is looming, always about to fall apart but always standing as well; the setting is oppressive and evil without being over the top. Mignola is an outstanding visual storyteller with an excellent sense of design.

There is a strong idea for the main plot: Hellboy has to stop a worm from space, which has been drawn to earth by Nazi superscience, from devouring humanity. There’s a supporting idea, which involves Roger the Homunculus, his burgeoning humanity, and Hellboy’s beliefs. But there’s stuff around the edges that aren’t weird enough to be gripping or strong enough to be interesting. Ghost Nazis and American soldiers? Lobster Johnson? I understand Mignola loves the pulp heroes, but I don’t care about Lobster, nor do I feel his inherent (although latent, for me) awesomeness. The ghosts make thematic sense, given that Hellboy is metaphorically refighting a battle that was fought between the Americans and Nazis, instigated by the long-dead Nazi ideology. But plain ghosts are a jejune, and they don’t get enough play to be more than a momentary flash on the screen.

Which is a shame, because those loose ends divert the focus from the real weirdness. Torture, transformation into inhuman beasts, Nazi science, the nihilistic conclusion of Nazi beliefs, a scientist’s head in jars (I’m a sucker from brains / heads in jars), War Apes. … That’s the interesting stuff. The Nazis are seen as a cartoonish evil these days, but the chanting of the dead and changed Nazis after the Conqueror Worm returns to Earth is creepy in a way I rarely see in books. Mignola also gives the story an emotional element to the story in the form of Roger’s fight for his life and his humanity. Mignola even manages to make the readers feel (briefly) sorry for a Neo-Nazi.

This is a story that is very wrapped up in continuity. Rasputin and Hecate battle at the end after Rasputin wanders through an edge of the story; an alien who had met Hellboy a couple of times before pops into another chapter. It seems random, despite Mignola’s attempt to make these cameos seem less so by tying them into continuity. There are plenty of footnotes also, and although it gave me the feeling I was missing something (having never read the original comics), it did give me the feeling that the story was part of something larger, of a large tale worth reading. As a long-time Marvel fan, I can respect that. It would have been useful to have changed the footnotes to reflect where the stories referenced fall in the collected editions or give a timeline (or summary) on these tie-ins.

There is a sketchbook in the back as well. I would have preferred to have had the covers from the original miniseries instead, but we take what we can get from our publisher overlords. Original design sketches are not going to do much for me unless there are radically different designs or interesting commentary; there aren’t here.

I think my original impression was correct. This is a good story improved by Mignola’s art. But the unimportant details, the odd bits of continuity make Conqueror Worm seem less enjoyable than it should be, nibbling away at the fringes of the story until it looks moth eaten and shabbier than it really is. These niggling bits have a greater effect on the story than they should. Still, their effect is very real.

Rating: BPRD symbol BPRD symbol Half a BPRD symbol (2.5 of 5)

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