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May 13

Time To Give Ourselves Into Strange Gods’ Hands

FT///1 comment • 473 views

And add another one to the “why on Earth didn’t I read this stuff before?” pile – Mike Mignola’s excellent and well-praised Hellboy. I skimmed the first ever miniseries half-heartedly on release, thought “Nazis, monsters, pfft” and that seemed to be that. But the steady drip of praise, and the sheer tenacity of the enterprise, kept nagging at me, and in the end I succumbed.

Glad I did, of course. I’ve not yet got to the parts where Mignola hands over the illustrative jobs, so the stories I’ve been reading are purely him, and while I knew he was a marvellous artist I didn’t appreciate the ways in which he’s marvellous. Among them this: he gives good Cthulhu.

Good Cthulhoid work has always been rare – Lovecraft’s own tone is a tightrope between the pedestrian or silly on one hand and the merely mystical on the other: most of his followers fall straight off. And the ever-increasing presence of Cthulhu and pals in geek culture hasn’t helped. Lovecraft was once a cult act, relatively speaking – like a lot of 80s boys I only knew him via Chaosium’s Call Of Cthulhu RPG – but in the last decade or two his tentacular profile has oddly changed. Without ever having any real moments of pop culture epiphany – no blockbusters, no videogame renaissance – the Lovecraftian cosmic bestiary has crept up the monstrous league table. It’s no challenge to zombies or vampires but I’d say Cthulhu is at least nipping at the mummy’s heels – and even if his dread name isn’t quite mainstream, the basic idea – nameless terrors lurking outside the walls of reality – has never been more easily grasped. Perhaps Hellboy can take partial credit.

Recognising Lovecraft is one thing – integrating him is another matter. Products of the pulp imagination have often had a shabby time of it the further from their roots they go. In one way Lovecraft has done well – his work has more vigour and popularity than most of his contemporaries, with none of the faint sense of duty that accompanies an attempt to do right by Doc Savage or Barsoom. But still Cthulhu doesn’t play well with others. For a start the fear that animates street-level Cthulhoid horror – fatal encounters in strange ports; sunken families in forgotten towns – is not a respectable one: miscegenation was Lovecraft’s animating, ugly terror. Strip that out and you’re left with the cosmic horror – plenty to play with there, for sure; who doesn’t now feel toyed with by monstrous and invisible forces? – but some of its connective tissue is missing. A way must be made of making it less remote.

Generally this has been through forced crossover – straightening the strange angles of the Cthulhu Mythos and making its creatures bedfellows with vampires, monsters, even superheroes. Doctor Strange tackled a Great Old One or three in all but name. Doctor Who swung a screwdriver in their direction. In Grant Morrison’s Zenith, these bestial forces from before the dawn of the superhero age were poured into three-dimensional super-vessels, the unknown source of their abilities. None of it quite fitted – the clear-lined, rugged world of post-war entertainment was too well-lit for the sickly dreams of R’lyeh. A tentacle was just a tentacle.

But Hellboy is different, thanks to Mignola, even though it’s also the same. It too integrates a Cthulhoid vibe and Cthulhoid creatures with folklore, cinema and penny dreadful monstrosities, and it too has a hero who’ll take a good swing at any of it. But the illustration sells it – huge blocks of shadow, heavy lines and sharp tilts, textures of stone and old metal. The sheer pressure of Mignola’s style acts as a kind of unified field of horror, a gravity of the monstrous under which all threats are part of a greater uncanny same: witchery and cosmic obscenity, the taciturn Balkan peasant and the flapping Innsmouth native. And because of that Hellboy wears its Lovecraftian clothes – when it chooses to don them – better than several decades of work before it.

Comments

  1. 1
    Andrew Farrell on 13 May 2013 #

    Does it help that the hero himself is portrayed as sturdier, that you can imagine him bearing up under pressures (physical and mystical) that could pulp our tender human frames?

    (also crikey it’s hard for me to write about anything Lovecraftian without the squamous adjectives rushing forth from the cyclopean keyboard – back, back arrgghghghghhgh)

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