Hellboy and the BPRD: Secret Nature,
Mike Mignola, Chris Roberson, Shawn Martinbrough, Dave Stewart,
Dark Horse Comics
It is never a bad day when there’s a new issue of Hellboy to be read! On racks with this week’s new releases, this is, sadly, just a one-shot, but I’ll take any chance to revisit the world of Mignola’s Hellboy, who has to be one of my favourite characters in the comicsverse. And I have been loving these “young Hellboy” stories over the last couple of years, starting with Hellboy and the BPRD 1952 (first volume reviewed here) and progressing on through the years to the current crop set in 1955. With the main two-decade long Hellboy story arc now complete it’s kind of nice we still get to revisit the character, and doing so in his earliest outings as a field agent for the BPRD is not only a fun way to let us see the character again, it also fills in some of the gaps in Hellboy’s history (one of the aspects I loved from the main story run was that it would periodically revisit briefly mentioned historic events and expand on them, while others remained to tantalise us, allowing more space for more stories).
Secret Nature sees Big Red, now becoming a fairly experienced field agent, teamed up with Woodrow Farrier, who has a PhD in biological sciences, and an interest in possible cryptid creatures – a handy bit of training and knowledge for BPRD work, of course. Opening in a cattle farm in Oregon in the spring of 1955, Farrier and Hellboy are talking to a rancher about a string of cattle kills. They expect wild predators to pick off the odd herd member, but he and his neighbours have been losing a large number of animsl in recent nights, and many of them have been devoured in such a way that makes it clear this isn’t simply a normal predator like a coyote.
One other thing is also clear – the rancher is a racist bigot and obviously doesn’t give a damn who knows it, asking Hellboy “you government folks always bring negroes along with you on this kinda job?” HB, as you can imagine, doesn’t take too kindly to this, but before he can escalate it Farrier shrugs and tells him to come along and just get on with their investigation; it’s horrible but he’s sadly all to used to this kind of treatment, even from someone he is actually there to help. The racist rancher has no problem talking to a tall, red-skinned being with horns, tail and hooves, but a black man? A black man with a better education than him and a responsible government position? I wish I could say this was the 50s and thank goodness those attitudes and that nonesense is long since consigned to the dustbin of history, but that type of vile person seems to be coming out of the woodwork once more, on both sides of the Atlantic. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Nevertheless, Farrier and Hellboy have a job to do, and bigtory from the locals aside, they’ll do their duty. Farrier is keen to find and actual cryptid creature this time – “a verified cryptozoological specimen in the wild. Not a supernatural being, either, but a naturally occuring animal species completely unknown to science!” This is an area that I must confess I have a soft spot for, straddling real science and crazy conspiracy chasing theory – Bigfoot, Nessie, El Chupacabra, the Mothman and a legion more around the globe. Almost certainly legend and folklore mixed with mistaken identification by witnesses, but given we do genuinely find new species previously unknown to science, there’s just enough of a small possibility in there that makes mysteries like these so compelling (if you like that kind of thing, by the way, I recommend the Astonishing Legends podcast series).
Of course Hellboy scoffs – “Aw, Woody, you always say that and it never is. I’m telling you, it’s going to be a goblin or spook, or maybe a regular old animal mutated by Ednkeladite or crazy god or something like that. It always is.” It’s a nice bit of banter between two colleague, some humour before a potentially dangerous search for a being they know kills, but it also makes you think of the sort of world Hellboy lives in, that he can’t believe in the existence of a cryptid creature naturally occuring, but old gods, demons, spooks, goblins? Oh sure, those happen all the time. It’s an amusing insight into that world. And no, of course, I’m not going to tell you how the search pans out, that’s something you need to find out by reading Secret Nature yourself.
Martinbrough does a good job on the art – it really cannot be easy for any artist to step into the Hellboy universe, it has traditionally been so defined visually by Mignola’s own art and distinctive use of colour palette and shadows. Those decades of Mignola’s art gave HB such an iconic look and feel, but it must make life hell for the new artists, who have to depict HB and his world in a way that doesn’t jar with the preceding two decades of comics, but which also has something of their own style and flair to it. Fortunately, as with some of the others Mignola has chosen to collaborate with on later HB projects, Shawn is more than up to the task, walking that fine line between making his art seem very “Hellboy-ish” (a mystery creature crashing through a wall seems satsifyingly Mignola-esque) without aping Mignola’s distinctive style. That is not an easy task to pull off, by any manner of means, so kudos to Shawn, ably helped here by the legendary Dave Stewart’s colouring.
Only a one-off, but a welcome and fun Hellboy adventure nonetheless.
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