HELLBOY: ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HELL
by Brian Hodge
Pocket Star, 2005
ISBN: 1-4165-0782-5 (paperback)
This inter-review was first published in All Hallows #41, February 2006
© Brian J. Showers 2006
Most people by now are familiar with über-creator Mike Mignola's modern day pulp hero, Hellboy. If not, you're missing out on this larger than life character. He's one part superhero, one part occult detective, and one part working stiff--and did I mention he's a seven foot tall, bright red demon, the product of a WWII Nazi experiment gone awry? If you aren't acquainted with Hellboy, you should take a peek at one of Mignola's comic book collections or Guillermo del Toro's highly competent film adaptation. If you're already a Hellboy junkie, you'll want to pick up the new prose novel, Hellboy: On Earth As It Is In Hell, by fellow addict Brian Hodge.
Already an established member of the Mignola circle with a prose short story appearing in the Hellboy collection Odd Jobs (2000), Hodge now contributes the third full-length novel to the Hellboy mythos. He follows in the footsteps of scribe Christopher Golden who penned the first two novels, The Lost Army (1997) and Bones of Giants (2001).
Hodge: "A few years back, Chris [Golden], Mike Mignola's long time associate, invited me to do something for the original Odd Jobs anthology. I wrote a story, "Far Flew The Boast Of Him," inspired by Beowulf, and it turned out to be one of Mike's all-time favourites. When he licensed these new novels to Pocket Star, I was on the shortlist of people he was interested in asking to write one."
But Mignola's licensing of Hellboy to Pocket Star brought an unfortunate consequence: Unlike the sturdy trade paperbacks published by Dark Horse, Pocket Star has published in the pocket paperback format, a format that I personally dislike. Also absent from the new novel are Mignola's spot illustrations and occasional full-page illustrations that graced the pages of the Dark Horse editions. Fortunately, Pocket Star retained an original Mignola cover, an indication of the atmosphere that lay inside.
Like all good Hellboy stories, On Earth As It Is In Hell begins with a sinister mystery in an exotic locale. In this case, Weimar Berlin, where we witness the delivery of an infant, a sacrifice-to-be, to Matthias Herzog, Germany's answer to Aleister Crowley. Before the purpose of this unholy act can be explained, the narrative shifts, mercifully, to Vatican City's secret archives, 1996. Hellboy and the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence (BPRD) have arrived to investigate a most peculiar incident: Why a host of heavenly angels turned the archives into an inferno worthy of Dante. The BPRD soon realise that the target of the attack was the Masada Scroll, an ancient text supposedly written by Jesus after the crucifixion. When the attack turns out to be connected to the Opus Angelorum, a renegade Catholic sect hell-bent on continuing the work of Torquemada, it's up to the BPRD to protect the Scroll and keep it out of the wrong hands.
"Mike's main stipulation upfront was that these new novels be set between the first and second graphic novels … a span of about three years in the mid-'90s. That automatically imposed a few limitations: Couldn't use Roger, for instance, since he hadn't shown up yet. The only other matter cropped up in the synopsis stage, when I outlined something that turned out to be too similar to what Mike was working on for the next major series. In context, the workaround that he and Chris and I came up with probably turned out better than the original idea.
"Mike extended as much leeway as possible, and I tried my best to honour that with something that would do us both proud."
At heart of On Earth As It Is In Hell is a religious thriller in the same vein popularised by Dan Brown's Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code. But where Brown is something of a pop-usurper to the religio-conspiracy throne, this has long been the domain of the pulp heroes. Instead of feeling like a thematic re-tread, Hodge's use of clandestine societies, ancient secrets, arcane Christian documents, duplicitous character and mytho-biblical beasts feels natural, the true successor to the throne.
"Eight or nine years ago I started a novel that involved the Masada Scroll and a Vatican antiquities specialist, then shelved it after sixty pages or so, but ever since, I always wanted to do something with the scroll. It finally seemed to have a natural fit here.
"I suppose Chris felt that the moods and atmosphere and sensibilities and, in some cases, historical aspects that I bring to my own work would be a good fit for Hellboy. Mike was specifically hoping for novels that wouldn't seem cartoon-ish in any way. Instead, he was interested in dark, moody, subtler work, not just a bunch of punch-ups.
"I think existing love for the characters has to be a prerequisite for something like this. I had that, certainly, so for me it was mostly a matter of shifting the prism a bit from the comics, and, even as they get the job done, looking at Hellboy and Liz mainly in terms of their vulnerabilities … the personal issues they deal with on an ongoing basis, and what happens when their work has some devastating consequences."
It is certainly a difficult task to write a fresh entry for an established series. The characters are usually pre-established, and in Mike Mignola's case, they're established expertly so. But the real test is what a new writer can bring to the characters, and this is partially where Hodge stumbles. Hodge's Hellboy feels cardboard and unwilling to take on the larger-than-life mantle that he's so accustomed to wearing. This becomes especially glaring when scenes give way to high concepts--most lamentably Hellboy's encounter with the aforementioned mytho-biblical beast. Hellboy simply refuses to get comfortable.
Thankfully Hellboy's flatness seems to be a fluke; enter the BPRD's pyrokinetic agent Liz Sherman, the real showcase of Hodge's characterisation skill. I was not previously a big fan of the character, but the way she came off the page has brought me around. Hodge shows real affinity for Liz Sherman in the way he divulges her personal thoughts, emotions and feelings throughout the novel. Any scene featuring Liz was a real pleasure to read. And Hodge works similar wonders with his own addition to the BPRD roster, psychometric Campbell Holt.
"From the outset, I focused on Liz as the novel's emotional centre. Among the established major BPRD characters, she's the only one that's strictly human, which makes her easier to identify with. Also, the restriction on the novel's timeframe meant that the aspects of Hellboy's character that I would've found really compelling to dig into--his conflicts over what he is now as opposed to what he was intended to be, and what his right hand is really for--weren't on the table, because at the time the novel is set, he's not aware of them. Those weren't revealed until later. So I gravitated toward Liz, and really adored her, and getting to know her better.
"You don't realise this until the final chapter, but it's the story of what happened to cause Liz to leave the BPRD for the thirteenth time. In Mike's second graphic novel, Wake the Devil (1997), she speaks of having quit thirteen times. I homed in on that--what happened each occasion to bring her to that point? So when it happens this time, it whips things around emotionally and I think you really get to feel the impact that has on Hellboy, too, because they have this strong sibling bond that nevertheless keeps getting interrupted."
I enjoyed the story, and indeed had a hard time putting the book down when my bedtime loomed, but I feel Hodge's novel is far from the defining word on Mignola's characters. Heavy on the dialogue, as opposed to cartoon-ish punch-ups, is a great angle, especially since there's more to Hellboy than crashing through floors with big monsters. And while this angle worked for Liz, it didn't quite come off as well for the book's title character. If you are new to the Hellboy universe, I advise starting elsewhere. But if you're already hip to the red fella, Hodge has got a few tricks up his sleeve, and he's not afraid to use'em.
More information on Brian Hodge and his writing can be found at: www.brianhodge.net
Brian J. Showers is from Madison, Wisconsin, but these days he reads, writes and lives in Dublin, Ireland. His primary interests include ghosts, comic books, horror films, good beer and anything else a proper boy his age would enjoy.
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