The idea that Hellboy—an oversized, centuries-old human/demon hybrid equipped with the Right Hand of Doom, a drinking problem, and a starring role in the coming apocalypse—could be overshadowed by his supporting cast of characters would have seemed unlikely back in the 1990s. But that's exactly what has happened over the last 10 years, as Hellboy creator Mike Mignola has expanded the Hellboy universe to include the non-Hellboy adventures of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, World War II monster fighter Lobster Johnson, and most recently the period supernatural adventurers Sir Edward Grey, Witchfinder, and Lord Baltimore.
Hellboy may be a movie star now, but the recently completed spiritual quest he has been on since splitting from B.P.R.D. has been a dud, bogged down by prophetic monologues and obscure allusions to folklore. The series' greatest charm—Hellboy's insistence on his humanity, no matter what he looks like and where he comes from—has been a central theme of his pilgrimage, but it has been ripped away from the real-world context that gave it meaning and feeling.
Some of the best Hellboy adventures of recent years have been Mignola's collaborations with underground fantasy legend and Heavy Metal veteran Richard Corben, particularly the 2010 one-shot Hellboy in Mexico, in which Hellboy joins a team of luchadores to drink and fight vampires in the 1950s. Hellboy in Mexico succeeds (even if it does owe significant debt to the Angel episode "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco") because of Corben's artwork—his lumpy, darkly cartoonish images are supported by a sense of storytelling that usually eludes Mignola as an illustrator—but also because it's removed from the recent ponderous, prophecy-heavy storyline. And, of course, because it's plain awesome fun to see Hellboy in a luchador get-up.
Mignola and Corben revisit the same story in the first-ever original Hellboy graphic novel, Hellboy: House of the Living Dead (Dark Horse). As original graphic novels go, it is slight at just 56 pages; it could easily have been a lengthy one-shot or a two-part miniseries. But it is still a first-class Hellboy story, full of action, moody atmosphere, supernatural intrigue, and, yes, luchadores. Mignola introduces the story as his "affectionate nod" to the 1940s horror movies House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, but House of the Living Dead is much more than a polite tribute. It is an inventive mashup of pulp art—Mexican wrestling movies, Universal Pictures horror movies, Mignola's own H.P. Lovecraft-inspired vision for the Hellboy mythology—that adds up to something all its own. The grab-bag of compelling source material is neatly tied up in Mignola's unmistakable and tight-lipped creative voice, and Corben provides a balanced, darkly comic (and sometimes just flat-out dark) tone.
House of the Living Dead starts in 1982, with Hellboy relating to fellow B.P.R.D. agent Abe Sapien a guarded version of his 1956 adventures in Mexico. (Hellboy says he doesn't remember those months—"I'm pretty sure I don't want to know," he says—but it is not clear whether we are supposed to believe him or not.) Then we're pulled by Mignola and Corben into what really happened: Hellboy, wrestling during the day and at night drowning his guilt in tequila over the grisly fate of his wrestling pal Esteban, is blackmailed by a mad scientist into a no-holds-barred match against an electric Frankenstein thing, the titular living dead. Figurative tables get turned, the mad scientist's laboratory goes up in flames, the action moves to a nearby crypt, and Hellboy faces, in quick succession, a werewolf, a vampire, and some sexy she-demons that may or may not be manifestations of his own self-doubt. Then he drinks with some ghosts.
Compared to the long arcs that have accumulated during Hellboy's 17-year run, House of the Living Dead is a minor part of the overall story. But it is hard, even with all the monsters, not to appreciate its human scale. m