Every Comic Book Movie (Ever): Hellboy II: The Golden Army

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Welcome to October here at Deja.Revue. If you have not noticed already, I tend to be a fan of the creepy, the weird, and the left-field in comics. So I though October would be a perfect time to indulge those predilections even more than I already have. Horror, as a genre in comics, has always been just off to the side. Less flashy than superheroes, and something of a mutant child of crime comics, the genre has a breadth and depth which is, in my opinion, almost unmatched. I do not hope to cover the whole diverse range of the genre in the coming month, but I do hope to give you a survey of some of my favorite works on page and screen. If you would like to read further, Paste has an excellent list of horror comics you should read. For further reading on the history of horror comics, check out Mike Howlett’s essay in the back of this excellent horror anthology that I will not have the time or space to write about this month. If all goes according to plan, I will have a column each Monday for you, culminating, fittingly, with Halloween at the end of the month. Don’t forget to turn off the lights.

The designation of Hellboy II: The Golden Army as “horror” is dubious, to be sure. I will not spend the bulk of this article defending its inclusion in my run of horror-related pieces (and anyways, I will more than make up for this genre fraud next week), but I will say that the guiding hand of director Guillermo del Toro, along with the soul of the source material, are enough to merit an exploration of this film in the present context.

I have yet to write about the first Hellboy film directed by del Toro, and while I think one could jump into Hellboy II without seeing the first (a virtue of most comic book films 1978-2011), I would recommend seeing Hellboy because it’s a gem. The setup is fairly simple: the titular character is a world-ending demon from hell who ends up being raised by a kindly British professor and expert in the occult. As an adult, he works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.) along with other agents with “enhanced talents.” Hellboy likes cats, beer, cigars, and the music of Tom Waits. Ron Perlman plays Hellboy in one of the great character/actor matches in all of film history.

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The plot of the film is not particularly important. There are ancient artifacts, a troll market, an abandoned underground city, a forest god. What makes this film distinctive is the meticulous, handcrafted nature of everything put on camera. Del Toro is famous for this. I might say that Hellboy is a better film than its sequel, but Hellboy II is a better film to look at. Every frame is stuffed to the edges with real things, intricate things. Every item in the film is something you could pick up and flip through, or open, or play with. The tactile, physical nature of the film extends to the enormous cast of creatures that populate the various set pieces. If you look far into the background, what you will see are extras in heavy costume and makeup, filling up a world so that we can be engulfed in it.

This is an old idea of horror – going back to the silent era – that mise en scène sets the mood, and plays a larger part than plot in building atmosphere and suspense. The sets of Hellboy II are lavish, but they range from the playful to the sinister. These are not merely dark places, but whole worlds unto themselves.

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The playfulness of del Toro’s design spills over into the rest of the film. This movie is fun. And not in the way that a movie trying to be fun is fun, but in a genuinely, organically pleasurable way. The emotional beats are simple and build gently on the groundwork from the first film. They are effective because the actors never oversell them, and in fact, the film is more subdued than one might imagine. One of the film’s best moments involves Hellboy and Abe Sapien (a sort of mer-man who also works for the B.P.R.D.) lamenting their troubles in love over beers and singing along, gently, to Barry Manilow. It’s an unexpectedly warm and touching scene.

Couched in del Toro’s elaborate world, the characters’ dramas both big and small never feel silly playing out in such lovingly constructed environs. Hellboy and his girlfriend, Liz Sherman, a pyrokinetic, hash out their domestic problems in blazes of flame. Only later when they reach a shadowy chamber where one of del Toro’s more terrifying creatures (a dark angel with eyes dotting its wings) hands them their fate, do they put their arguments behind them and commit to each other for good. The small scale of the human drama could feel absurd in this fantasy world, but it doesn’t because del Toro and his actors treat the world with respect – they know how fragile it is, and things do threaten constantly to fall apart.

Hellboy II is a monster movie where the monsters are the bad guys and the good guys. Really, its not even that, because the good guys are fighting to subvert their own dark destinies, and the bad guys fight for what they believe to be a noble cause. But it still manages to be an excellent evocation of classic creature features, showing reverence to its references and giving care and attention to its own creations. We need more comic book films like this. We need more horror films like this. Hellboy II is not a perfect film, but it is a film undoubtedly assembled with love and passion by all involved. With all that care put on the screen, how could we not enjoy it?

Recommended Reading: Harrow County

Recommended Reading: Harrow County Vol. 1: Countless Haints

Recommended Reading is an ongoing feature where we will take a brief look at currently running series worth checking out and catching up with.

 

I spent much of my weekend riding through the hills and mountains of West Virginia and southwest Virginia. I watched one evening as a storm crashed over a mountain, clutching at the valley like a great black hand. On a morning, driving back north, the fog and clouds became indistinguishable – twisting around the highway and switchbacks, rising from the trees like smoke from invisible fires, obscuring the deer lingering on the edge of the pavement only well enough to see, flitting, a bright flash disappearing into the deep, unknown woods.

In retrospect, it was fitting that I had read, and had been thinking about, Harrow County for this column right before descending into the south myself. Harrow County is scripted by Cullen Bunn. The art and lettering are by Tyler Crook. It is published by Dark Horse. You should be reading it. It is still a pretty young series, only the first two volumes are out in trade, with the third arriving next month. You’ve plenty of time to catch up.

The first arc centers on a young girl named Emmy who lives in southern, rural Harrow County with her father. A prologue offers us an immediate look at the darker side of life there. At some point, the residents had turned on a local witch – hanging and burning her. But not before she could offer one last warning: she’ll be back. After an absolutely beautiful two page spread of a gnarled tree in the night, a quiet farmhouse in the background, the book’s title vaporous in the night sky (more on the art in a moment), we are introduced to Emmy. She’s having trouble sleeping. Nightmares in which the tree far outside her window comes alive in flames, opens wide its toothed mouth, and screams “lies.”

Emmy’s 18th birthday is coming, but strange things have been happening. The dreams, for one. A dying calf brought back to life. A complete human skin stretched across the bramble in the woods, moaning and groaning for Emmy to reach out to it. It’s clear from the outset that Emmy and the witch have some kind of connection and as the townspeople become worried, Emmy takes for the woods.

The book examines the burden of inheritance. That is, that where we come from can sometimes determine who we are. Or can it? As Emmy puts the pieces together, she openly wonders what it all means, and whether or not she can be the one who determines her own fate. And this is just the starting place for the series, which also takes a look at the ghouls and haints and townspeople of Harrow County and asks what it means to be a family, a community.

Countless Haints collects the first four single issues of the comic and can feel maddeningly episodic at times. However, the arc mostly holds, even if it is rushed slightly by the end. One of the great things about this comic is how its world offers the capacity for infinite expansion. While there are merits to bringing us into this world with a compact identity drama, what excites me about this comic, and what causes me to recommend it, is the possibility and promise it offers.

The world and characters of Harrow County are rich. And in this first volume, much of what makes them so rich, what makes me want more, are Tyler Crook’s illustrations. The book is stunningly beautiful. Don’t believe me? Take a look:

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Crook’s art is that rare, perfect thing in comics: a choice that is truly bold and daring. There is a great deal of talk these days about doing new and daring things, but Crook doesn’t need to talk, because he’s doing them. As he points out in a brief interview collected in the back of the volume, illustrating with watercolors means no do-overs. What is put on the page stays on the page. As a result, the world feels organic – texture is huge here, the roughness of tree bark, the softness of hay, the slickness of blood-drenched skin. The colors pop when they need to (autumn has rarely been rendered so beautifully in a comic) and the blacks are inky and deep and mix with murky greys and blues to give nighttime its particular mix of darkness and light.

This series is absolutely worth catching up on, particularly if you like the unusual, the peculiar, the beautiful, and the profane.

 

-Ian

free comic book day: part 1

This year for free comic book day I found myself in Chicago. Far away from DCBS, my local comic shop, I searched for a shop close to my hotel. What I found was Graham Cracker Comics on Madison ave. Graham Cracker Comics is a quaint shop nestled between a coffee shop and a pizza joint. With a lot of character and substance Graham Cracker Comics was a fun shoo to visit. The only downside was that I could only get three of the books that were available (I havent participated in Free Comic Book day before so I dont know if this is customary or not). I have ordered more from DCBS so on Wednesday I will review the rest of my pick-ups. For now here are the reviews of what I picked up:

 Secret Wars #0

This issue sets up secret wars launch next week by recapping what Jonathan Hickman has been setting up for over a year. It opened with Valeria Richards filling the rest of the Foundation Family on what it is that they are to do during this crisis, all the while bringing the reader up to speed on what they can expect from Secret Wars #1. This issue closed with an incursion bringing two earth worlds together to lock into battle. We learn that the “other” earth is actually the “Ultimates” universe, setting up what should be an epic battle to come in the future. The issue also featured a translated short version of the Avengers Vs. The Titans which I tried to read, but failed

Rating: 5/10

 All-new, All-Different Avengers

This issue written by the fantastic Mark Waid features a short preview of what is to be the new line up for Marvels flagship team. The new lineup is Captain America (sam wilson), Thor (lady thor), Nova, Iron Man, Spider-Man (miles morales), Vision, and Ms. Marvel. This new team feels fresh and works well together. There is a balance between the “veterans” (cap, thor, iron man, and vision), and the “youngsters” (ms. marvel, spider-man, and nova). The story isnt meant to be deep, but rather an introduction to the characters and the new tone of the team. While Hickmans Avengers were dark, brooding and adult feeling (if thats a thing), Waids Avengers feel young and exciting. They seem fresh and less worn out than the older Avengers team. I can’t wait to read more. There was also a short preview of The Uncanny Inhumans, but I didn’t read it.

Rating: 7/10

Fight Club

This issue was also a set up for a series launching later this month. Out of the three that I picked up this was my least favorite. The art by Cameron Stewart was fine, but not up to his usual standards. The writing by Chuck Palahniuk seemed off-balanced and shaky in the best parts. I have pre-ordered Fight Club 2 #1 and after this issue I am hoping I don’t regret it.

Rating: 4/10