Hellboy and the BPRD 1953,
Mike Mignola, Ben Stenbeck, Dave Stewart,
I really enjoyed the previous volume in this series, Hellboy and the BPRD 1952 (now out in a collected trade edition, reviewed here). With the current chronology of the Hellboy universe seeing Big Red both dead and languishing in Hell it is rather nice to have these most pleasant diversions, essentially “Young Hellboy Chronicles”, seeing a very young HB, barely into his adult for, on his first BPRD missions. The 1952 story arc covered his very first outing as a field agent, this rather pleasingly, I thought, sees him teamed up with his adopted father, Professor Bruttenholm, head of the BPRD, a man who knows full well the prophecies of what Hellboy’s arrival on Earth may mean, what he could become, and yet the man who most thinks that guidance and paternal love can turn him from a prophesised path of being the beast who ends the world to being a good man.
While the professor featured in the original Hellboy tales we mostly saw him as an older man, the “head of the household”, overseeing both his adopted son and the BPRD, but we while we saw him interact with Hellboy, we didn’t get to see them operating as a team very much. But this is 1952, the professor is still a young man and active in the field. He’s also still trying to raise the very young and inexperienced Hellboy, both to be a good, morally centred man (to avoid his supposed destiny) but also to give him the life skills and experience he needs both as he grows up in the world and also to be a capable BPRD field agent. HB’s always had a bit of a knack even when older of going into situations to quickly, acting without thinking, and scraping by (not entirely fair, he does prepare often, but he does also let himself be goaded into action too much for his own good too). And here as a young man still getting his first taste of the outside world and of adventure he is far, far to impetuous, rushing headlong in as the professor tries to train him to be more patient, to consider before action.
Here we get two tales with the professor and HB in 1950s Britain, a longer story and a shorter piece – a feature and a short film, so to speak. The main story, The Witch Tree, is classic Hellboy territory, an ancient legend come back to haunt the modern world, a secret buried in the supposedly peaceful rural splendour of the English countryside. This one reaches right back to the Roman Invasion and the mighty Boudicca, and the “Boudicca witch”, whose body has been safely kept beneath an old rural church for generations. Until now… Cue walking corpses, witches in the woods and undead Roman Legionaries to fight. Simply wonderful, classic HB fun.
Stenbeck does a fine job with the art – it’s not easy drawing Hellboy, Mignola did it for so long himself that it can look wrong when anyone else does it, but he walks the fine line between keeping his own style but incorporating enough of the “Hellboy style” of Mignola that it doesn’t jar, and he gives us some cracking scenes (notably undead Roman Legionaries rising from the earth to fight HB). As ever the art is helped in this job by one of the best colourists in the business, Dave Stewart, who makes sure that very distinctive Hellboy colour palette keeps the feel and flavour of the previous work.
The shorter tale comes with the wonderful title “Rawhead and Bloody Bones” – come on, how can anyone not love a supernatural tale with such a title?? The local village pub used to the The Whistling Pig, but the new landlord decided to change it to the Rawhead and the Bloody Bones, a name connected to a couple of local legends, murderers and Ressurrection Men (grave-robbers, in simple parlance, a pair of Burke and Hares), thinking that the younger crowd like that sort of thing, “they like spook stories. Like the Dracula”. And the renaming and the new pub sign mark the start of strange goings on at night, horrible sounds, enormous scratch marks on the side of the tavern, then the pub dog slaughtered. The professor is perplexed, as far as he know the terms Rawhead and Bloody Bones are not from real folklore, just fairy stories made up to frighten children, and yet could it be that somehow this has still summoned these creatures into the real world?
It’s short, but again it is tremendous fun, and again so nice to see young HB being trained in the field with his father, slowly learning his trade that will make his reputation in later life as the premier agent of the BPRD.