Koshchei the Deathless #1,
Mike Mignola, Ben Stenbeck, Dave Stewart,
The first New Comic Book Day of the New Year and, oh lucky me, there is some fresh Mike Mignola in among the new releases. Hellboy may be dead and in Hell, but the last couple of years have still been rather fruitful for Hellboy fans, as Mignola has used some of his time freed by ending the main story run to give us several mini-series, some around young adventures of Hellboy himself, his earliest outings with the BPRD, other series drawing on different characters from the Hellboy universe, such as Rasputin (before Hellboy is summoned to Earth – first issue reviewed here recently), and now Koshchei the Deathless.
Koshchei opens in a manner very satisfying to longtime Hellboy fans – a slow zoom in past the mountains of the “thrice-nine lands in the thrice-tenth kingdom”, with a distant “BOOM” appearing over the moonlit slopes. We get closer to find two figures battling, “BOOM BOOM” the closer still to see the figures of Hellboy and Koshchei fighting, and more BOOM! Well, it isn’t a proper fight in the Hellboy universe till we get some decent BOOMs, is it? It’s an enjoyable way for a HB fan to start a new issue. By the end of the third page though, we realise that this is an old story being told, Koshchei is nattering to Hellboy in a pub in Hell, about their encounters together, and this also creates the framing for the backstory of Koshchei himsef, as HB asks how he came to be this way and why he ever got mixed up with the Baba Yaga.
“It’s a long story. To tell it properly I would have to begin at the beginning,” Koshchei explains.
“Pal, I’ve got nothing but time,” Hellboy replied, pint in hand.
And this leads us into the full story of Koshchei, from a normal, mortal man, born to unremarkable parents in an unremarkable land, a commoner, whose only really chance of employment was to take up soldiering, where, to his surprise he finds he has quite a talent for it. Perhaps too great a talent – his comrades grow jealous and also more than a little worried. When one comments “He’s good”, another replied “A little too good, and he knows it. You ask me, the lad needs taking down a notch.” Except their idea of putting him in his place is to gang up on him, beat him almost to death then leave him in that most primeval of dark fairytale realms, the deep, dark forest, to await the wolves to finish him off.
However it is not wolves who find the battered young Koshchei, but a wandering dragon, in humanoid form. He offers to save him from death, to heal him with his magics, in return for his service for nine years, to which the dying Koshchei readily agrees. The castle of a dragon lord is, of course, a place to which all manner of strange beings are drawn (a great excuse for Stenbeck to indulge in some very Mignola-art influenced fantastic creatures, including a rather delightful skeleton playing a trumpet while riding a bear, like something from a medieval bestiary, filtered through the HB universe). But Koshchei keeps his head down, works dilligently as a servant, and asks no questions of the strange beings whose company his master keeps, nor what they do, and in return, when his time is up the dragon offers him more, or the end of his service, as they agreed.
His diligence and his intelligence in not being too curious into his affairs has left the dragon rather fond of Koshchei. But Koshchei wishes to re-enter the world of men, and with a kind and very useful parting gift from his former master, he makes his way back into the world, soon making quite a name for himself. But again, as before, his skills will elicit jealousy and trouble for him, and it seems no matter what he does, he is going to be pushed slowly onto an ever darker path…
I won’t go into too much more detail here for fear of spoilers, but it’s a nice set-up – the introductory fight with Hellboy, which turns out to be a pub yarn between former fores, is a good way to start, and the pub chat is a good device for letting us launch into the narrative of Koshchei’s early life. The scenes between him and HB in hell are nice and relaxed, almost warm, while the flashbacks to his encounter with one-time comrades, soon-to-be betrayers is illuminating (not hard to see why such encounters would soon sour the outlook of a promising young man), while the scenes with the dragon (and more that come later that I didn’t go into) show a genuine affection this ancient creature has for Koshchei, which is quite touching. Other beings we have seen before in HB will also make an appearance, and between them and Koshchei’s own tale, this looks like doing a nice job of filling out more of the history of Mignola’s Hellboy universe, which is quite satisfying.
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