Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hellboy the Crooked man

"Hellboy the Crooked man" is the name of Dark Horse's recently concluded three-issue mini-series. It was published as a spiritual follow-up to Hellboy's creator Mike Mignola and his artistic collaborator Richard Corben's "Hellboy Makoma "mini-series from some years back. Considering that Dark Horse is benefitting from the major attention the Hellboy movie sequel is getting them, the creators must have thought the franchise strong enough to support another spin-off.

Corben is a veteran horror/fantasy artist, and it makes sense that Mignola would've jumped at the chance to work with him again, especially if it meant dabbling with yet another culture's take on folklore and superstition, which has influenced so much of his writing for the last decade or so. Dealing with themes of witchcraft actually enables Hellboy's creator to show us another side of the subject, which has figured in such a major way in the main title.

It's clear that the creators like this kind of tale, and Dark Horse has never shied away from it's pulpy influences.What Mignola and Corben serve up is a grizzle short story, no doubt inspired by the horror magazines they liked in their youth, filtered through the world of Hellboy. Unlike "Makoma", with its focus on African tribal tradition, "the Crooked man" shows us the wild province of American countryside and all of the otherwordly dealings the common folk turn to in fear and desparation.

The tale starts off slow, throwing the young Hellboy into a strange, exposition-heavy setting, but later on more than makes up for it, delivering on every cruelty and injustice hinted at by the eclectic cast. Hellboy is brought on to investigate the case and we are treated to several glimpses of his futre fate, but, odd as it sounds, he remains mostly in the background, as someone who is new to the local history of evil, much like the reader is.

Corben's visceral pen does a lot to color the foreboding atmosphere, but he is second to none when it comes to applying caricature in order to depict the twisted faces of country folk, their sinful features exaggerated for effect. Story-wise, drifting through all the grim and despair can be a little confusing, and for all the detail Mignola puts in the proceedings, he does not make us care a whole lot for the characters. When you're heaped with the long list of atrocities all of these individuals have damned their lives with, it's hard to care whether any of them will find a way to Heaven. And that's the point of the story, one which the creators only aspire to, but do not reach, no matter how urgent the whole ordeal purports to be.

For better of worse, "the Crooked man" keeps trying to hit the same not of hysteria, and it succeeds on the level of a comic book horror story. It gets it's point across, even if we don't get too interested in the heroes' fate. The mini's got two of the most influential horror/fantasy comic book creators behind it and it shows, no matter the personal preference.

And yet, it fails as a Hellboy story. Sure, Mignola's signature creation's in it, but he gets treated more like an ornament than a character, his very existing clashing with the pseudo-realism the creators try so hard to convey. Hellboy ends up looking too superheroic and out of place in his own book, which is telling of the greatest problem with "the Crooked man".

In agreeing to publish this story as a Hellboy tale, much like "Abe Sapien: the Drowning", Dark Horse is asking the reader to expect something different than the usual fun romp through the highly stylized horror and mythology backdrop. This time around, there is no doubt that this story would've worked better devoid od the strenuous Hellboy connection, yet that would guarantee Dark Horse a lot of problems with how to market it, ensuring it would never sell on the level of the Hellboy spin-offs. That all goes to further establish how Hellboy is rapidly becoming a franchise capable of supporting a whole line of titles, being developed by different creative teams. Time will tell whether Hellboy as a brand can withstand the kind of stretching that allows titles like "the Crooked man" to exist, without shedding readers in the process.

Corben himsels seems in a hyperactive phase, producing work for Conan and Haunt of horror Lovecraft, back to back with his work on "the Crooked man". To his credit, the art does not suffer, no matter what motivated him to seek extra work from his old editors all of a sudden.

Taking all that into account, we are left with a short story that does most of what it sets out to do, being a pet project of the authors. And perhaps it's best that they rod the wave of attention Hellboy the Golden Army has brought Dark Horse, packaging it as an adjacent mini-series, if that meant allowing this tale to exist, and entertain us.

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