At face value, nothing about writer and artist Mike Mignola’s Hellboy makes sense. The titular character is a half-demon demon hunter, whose destiny seems tied to the destruction of the world as we know it. But Hellboy is all about not taking things at face value. It’s the story of a boy who shook off his destiny – fought against all of the prophecies shouted at him by monsters and powerful men – and in so doing, discovered a fate no one could expect. Hellboy, borrowing from things like the Bible, shows how some prophecies may not be what they seem.
In fact, Hellboy is full of characters that attempt to use prophecy, wizardry, and deals with the Devil to control fate. In every instance, they get far more than they bargained for.
“Seed of Destruction” and telling us how it ends
Hellboy begins on the 23rd of December, 1944. World War II is in full swing and 1st Sgt. George Whitman has been sent out with a team of paranormal experts to stop a Nazi plot of occult design – “Project Ragna Rok.” But it isn’t Nazis that they find. With a flash of light and flame, a small thing with red skin, two horns, and a big stone hand appears out of nowhere. When one of the professors yells for his colleagues to shoot and kill it, it’s occult specialist Lady Cynthia who says “It looks… like a little boy…!”
“Hellboy,” Professor Trevor Bruttenholm quickly dubs him. And it’s Bruttenholm who takes him in at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, teaching him to hunt down demons. Bruttenholm treats this mysterious creature like his own son for fifty years. The fear – the “shoot and kill it” response – is what you’d expect from people seeing a half-demon appear in their midst. But it’s Bruttenholm’s kindness, which looks beyond the surface, that teaches Hellboy that he’s also half-human.
The first arc of Hellboy comics is titled “Seed of Destruction”. With Project Ragna Rok, – named after the mythological death of the Norse Gods – thrown into the mix, it’s hard to feel like these events bode well for life as we know it. And when a seemingly immortal Rasputin comes forward as the mastermind behind Project Ragna Rok, he gives off the impression that he knows how all this madness is going to end. Rasputin knows who Hellboy is, he knows the significance of Hellboy’s stone right hand, and knows that Ragna Rok is still coming.
The grand finale of the Mignolaverse (the nickname given to the universe shared by Hellboy, B.P.R.D. and other comics) is a B.P.R.D. story arc called “Ragnarok.” Raputin’s prophecies actually turn out to be true. His twisted visions of the future are all correct, except that none of them seem to happen how he expected them to. Mignola telegraphs the ending to Hellboy on page one, and from then on the series is steeped in foreshadowing. Somehow, though, it’s still a series that manages to be totally unpredictable.
Controlling God and fate: the curse of getting what you want
The reason Hellboy can be both foreshadowed and unpredictable is because Mignola constantly comes back to the theme of poetic justice. In the context of Hellboy, almost every utterance of a prophecy or casting of a spell is done to try and control fate. The series is full of characters that want life to go exactly as they dictate. Some characters trade their souls for immortality. Often, they’re quickly wishing they could die, due to events that follow.
One character, Count Guarino, lets loose a demon and wishes for “enough gold to lie down in and a gold crown upon [his] head,” but in the midst of the deal gets turned into a monkey. When Guarino – as a monkey – tries to fight Abe Sapien and Hellboy, he gets knocked through a wall and falls down into a forgotten cellar, full of gold. He dies on impact and a gold crown clatters onto his head. Guarino receives the just desserts of his greed, but also gets exactly what he asked for. He didn’t stipulate he’d have to be alive to enjoy it all. Other characters seek knowledge and in return become overwhelmed to the point of death. Some simply want revenge, but find that after they’ve paid the price for the power they needed that they’ve lost their taste for vengeance.
These characters often seek demonic help to get what they want as an active sin against God. They see God as an insufficient master of fate, believing they would be better off in his place. Rasputin describes praying to God for guidance and hearing nothing in return, so he then turned to the Serpent of the Ogdru Jahad – whose voice is always whispering in his ear – for a route to power and glory. One character who seeks to create a new race of homunculi says “I’ll not have him watching me,” as he points to a statue of Jesus on the cross. “Take it down.” There’s a perverse desire to make God pay for not listening and making life happen on their terms. Every demonic deal is an act of spitting in God’s face.
Biblical references and the Aryan Jesus
It’s interesting that God is very clearly seen as the enemy to these people who are making their own fate, because they themselves make lots of Biblical references in the pages of Hellboy. For one thing, the witch Baba Yaga is after one of Hellboy’s eyes, and everyone and their dog is after his right hand. They want to gouge his eye out and cut his hand off, which alludes to Matthew 5 in the gospels:
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.Matthew 5:29-30, NIV
Rasputin’s masters, the Ogdru Jahad, are sometimes referred to as the Dragon of Revelation – the apocalyptic final book of the Bible. There are also 7 dragons that make up the Ogdru Jahad. In the numerology of the Bible, the number 7 is used in connection with God and His divinity. Over and over again we see these references to scripture being twisted or taken out of context to serve the agendas of those who make them. And it’s no coincidence that the events of Hellboy begin during the events of World War II. The villains’ use of the Bible echoes how the Nazis totally rewrote scripture to make Jesus in their image. They drained Jesus of all Jewishness and made him an Aryan hero who fought the Jews. They bastardized the New Testament to meet their own ends, just like Hellboy’s antagonists.
In using these references but changing them a little, Mignola makes us feel that something is off. Just like the Nazis, these shady characters are willfully misinterpreting things. They’re focusing on the parts of the picture that benefit them and ignoring the pieces that spell out their ultimate doom.
Hellboy is More Than Half Human
Hellboy isn’t like this though. He wrestles with his fate, sometimes drowning his sorrows with liquor or running from his responsibilities. But he never tries to find a way out of it or a way to control it. And no matter how much conviction people have as they assure him they know where his life is headed, his answer is always that they can go to hell. Often he’s met by his infernal uncle or aunt who speak to him of his grand future as royalty in Hell. Sometimes, Hellboy seems totally at the mercy of his fate. His horns grow out and curl and a flaming crown appears above his head at the mere mention of who he is to become. But even when his whole body seems to respond to a prophecy, he actively rejects this path. Most notably, he breaks his horns and files them down. He keeps his horns filed down to nubs as a physical rejection of his demon side.
That’s his defining characteristic. Just as his father and friends taught him, he’s half human too. Hellboy always chooses his humanity over his demonic fate, which turns him into a wild card that his demon relatives can’t control. If he is to fulfill the prophecies they need him to, it will be on his terms and it will not be as they hoped it would be. In fact, everyone who tries to control his fate or use him as a pawn finds that their only reward is poetic justice and punishment. Hellboy doesn’t use backhanded deals to get his way, he simply tries his best to make the right choice no matter who it is he’s supposed to be. That’s what Hellboy is all about. It’s about making your own way and choosing your destiny. Even when your path is already set out before you, how you choose to walk down it is up to you. Whatever you do, Hellboy teaches us to give ‘em hell.