Hellboy: Conqueror Worm

After years of writing stories that range from two pages to two issues, Mike Mignola returns to a proper comic book arc. Along the way, he revisits a lot of influences and ideas that haven’t been seen since Wake the Devil. This means pulp influences, Nazis and more. Along the way, he gathers a few new influences, further expanding the folklore of Hellboy.

Hellboy teams up with the homunculus Roger who we last saw in The Chained Coffin and Others. Roger was reanimated through a blast of lightning and is now a member of the B.P.R.D. The two are tasked to investigate the launching sight of a Nazi space program that just so happens to also be the place where the mythical Lobster Johnson conducted his last mission.

The book opens with narration from a poem of Edgar Allan Poe. While there are quite a few Hellboy stories that are influenced by Poe, this is the first direct influence. And the final line of the passage quoted is the titular “conqueror worm.” Also, Mignola uses a lot of Gothic influences and while there are plenty of writers in that tradition, Poe is probably only second to Mary Shelley.

Mignola also uses the book as an opportunity to return to his pulp influences. The character Lobster Johnson could be straight out of ‘30s and ‘40s pulp novels. He’s akin to the Doc Savage pulp character. His signature is a lobster claw symbol that he burns into the foreheads of his victims.

This pulp influence is one of several threads that explores a central thematic thread: what does it mean to be inhuman? Hellboy is the prime example. While he was raised as a human and behaves like one, he is also demon. More than that, he is perhaps the most important demon to walk the earth. He is more than his humanity. But can he be more human without being less human? How long will it take before he is dehumanized.

He witnesses the dehumanization of Roger. Before going on the mission, he is given a detonator by B.P.R.D. Director Thomas Manning. The detonator is for a bomb inside Roger. The logic is that Roger is a monster who might have to be put down if he deviates from the mission. Hellboy’s quick to remind them that he’s a monster. How long will it take before he’s treated like one? Why isn’t Liz treated like a monster when she’s killed more people than Roger? What’s the line that separates human from monster?

That space between human and monster is where the Nazis come into play. Herman von Kelmpt is the most obvious example. All that’s left of him is his head, encased in a jar. Is to be human to have a body? If given an artificial body, is one still human? Are we only our mind and intellect? Is it only what we dream up that makes us monstrous? His daughter, Laura, ends up in a similar situation. Turned into a monster, she retains the mind of a human.

This leads to another question: what does it mean to be more than human? The obvious example is Lobster Johnson, more of a mythical force than a man, his life defies reason. In some ways, he represents the ideas of an Ubermensch, above morality, an unrestrained force of justice. He has become more than human, superhuman, achieving mythical status.

And, in the closing epilogue, Hellboy’s foes gather and begin ridiculing Rasputin. Now nothing more than a roving spirit, they remind Rasputin that he will never be as they are. His humanity binds him, holds him back from being a true supernatural force. Rasputin, of course, thinks of himself as more than human and furthermore claims he is Hellboy’s master.

And Hellboy himself is more than human. He perfectly straddles that line between man and monster. His behaviors and actions are those of a human, but he’s a demon and that comes through in some moments, when he loses control. Perhaps he’s the loose cannon the B.P.R.D. should be worried about. This leads Hellboy to make a big decision at the end of the book.

It’s worth noting that this is the point where Mignola starts looking for someone else to draw Hellboy. It will be a while before that happens; we have a lot more Mignola art in front of us. It’s a delight to see him drawing a vast array of creatures. Lobster Johnson has that great pulp look while the Nazis are fun to see once again.

Of course, the main attraction here is the titular conqueror worm. A blend of Lovecraftian horror and Frank Herbert’s sandworms from Dune, it’s his most massive and impressive monster design yet. It makes me pine for a Mignola drawn graphic novel of Dune. Now that he’s done with Hellboy, maybe he can start working on such a project.

Dave Stewart began coloring Hellboy with A Christmas Underground and Box Full of Evil from The Right Hand of Doom collection, but now he gets his chance to take on his first arc and he brings a lot to the table. One of the fascinating techniques he uses is coloring backgrounds to emphasize different colors or objects. For instance, there’s a frame of Lobster Johnson with his glowing goggles. Stewart highlights his eyes by making the background the same color as his eyes. Stewart will also use contrasting colors to make certain things pop on the page. For instance, he’ll use a green background to compliment Hellboy’s red right hand of doom.

After two collections of short stories, it’s a delight to get another long-form story in the Hellboy universe. Continuing the trend of pulp storytelling and horror folklore, Conqueror Worm is another delightful entry in the series. As the most thematically rich story, it’s perhaps the series most important work thus far. Plus, it’s about a giant worm. How cool is that?

© 2016 James Blake Ewing