A dilapidated church on an European island. A dark ritual conducted by the Third Reich. A demon child named “Hellboy.” Thus the seeds are sown for a dark, beautiful and haunting tale. The tale of a demon out of hell is both a rich exploration of humanity and a dark look at the horrors of the supernatural. After all, the protagonist is part hell and part boy.
After establishing Hellboy’s entrance to earth in 1944, the story jumps ahead to present day (1994). Hellboy visits the closest man he has to a father: Professor Bruttenholm. He speaks of a family obsessed with a strange tentacled creature. Before Bruttenholm can finish the story, frogs attack and kill him and Hellboy traces the plague of frogs back to the Cavendish household.
Hellboy wears its influences on its sleeve, proud of the heritage that birthed it. It begins with an interest in the occult and the practice of paranormal Nazi officers and Rasputin. Also taken from this era are pulp influences from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Hellboy’s fatalistic narration reads like a Hammett detective novel.
Next come the Lovecraft elements. The strange monster in the arctic circle that become the cursed obsession of the Cavendish family is the tentacled terror oft found in the stories of Lovecraft. And the amphibious frog creatures are an offshoot of this eldritch horror.
The frogs themselves hearken back to old African folklore. A snipped at the end of the first issue recounts an fairy tale of man, dog and frog. The upshot is that the frog petitions god to allow him to have the power of resurrection, an idea he steals from man. As Hellboy discovers later on, the frog monsters were formerly men, reborn as frogs.
But Seed of Destruction is more than just a tale of folklore and lovecraftian horror. This is a tale of cosmic horror, bringing heaven and hell into the mix. From hell comes our protagonist and floating in the heavens are seven beasts known as the Ogdru Jahad. Both sides bring doom and horror, not salvation or damnation.
Hellboy is caught between these worlds, a foot–or rather hand–planted in each. His right hand is stone and massive, a reminder of his monstrosity while his left hand is basically human. His life on earth is tenuous. He does not have roots there. He is simply a wanderer. The closest he comes to connections to earth is a father figure who dies. And instead of finding life in heaven or hell, he clings to the symbols and talismans of world religions. It’s the cross and a rosary that are featured most prominently, fitting as Hellboy was raised Catholic. After all, he first appeared on earth in a church.
And while these rich story influences and intriguing character are key to making Seed of Destruction of a magical book, the art is what brings the book to life. Mike Mignola is the master of the medium, drawing monsters and men with an unrivaled passion. From the anthropomorphic frog monsters to the tentacled eldritch horror, Mignola delights in the haunting beauty of the macabre and monstrous. It’s also worth noting Seed of Destruction is printed on gorgeous black paper, something that will not be true for most of the rest of the series.
Mignola collaborated with John Byrne for this story. While Mignola conceived of the story, Byrne gives it the pacing and the prose that make it flow organically. It would be the only time the two worked together.
As an introduction to the world and character, Seed of Destruction is an astoundingly rich and expansive story. The first issue alone is brimming with images and ideas that the rest of the story expands into an epic story. At only four issues, this is about as tight a story as one could weave, every element and every frame building upon the last and flowing effortlessly into the next. Mignola and Byren make it look easy, it’s Hellboy who reminds us things can go sideways fast.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing