Posted - September 12, 2015
Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others
The Chained Coffin and the book that follows it The Right Hand of Doom are a collection of a lot of small tales rather than book-length story arcs like Seed of Destruction and Wake The Devil. These collected tales come from the very earliest days of Hellboy. The years when Mignola first conceived of Hellboy. These stories were originally published as parts of anthologies and other releases mainly from Dark Horse - some stories have been released in lengths as little as two pages.
I am impressed by the attention to detail and resultant depth of a lot of the individual panels in Chained Coffin. Go with me and we'll visit them all and further steep ourselves in the primeval magic that is Hellboy.
Did I say 'primeval' magic? I meant fairy magic. Mignola used a lot of ancient Scandinavian Fairy Tales in these stories and what happens when you use such ingredients? What happened is the old allure of stories handed down for generations is mixed with the novel concepts surrounding the B.P.R.D - and the Hellboy tales are the richer for it.
The story called "The Corpse" begins with a tantalizing quote:
William Allingham was a 19th century Irish poet and writer. He's best known for the diary he kept (yup) but this quote has been much used in popular media (I won't name names because the titles of some of the movies and stories that have used the quote will threaten to take us out of the proper "somberly fascinated" mood we should have while reading Hellboy. You can't be reading something called "The Corpse" and have "Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory" come to mind for heaven's sake). Anyway, back to the quote: Amazing isn't it? It puts us in the proper mood - a neat balance of fear and fascination. Now that our mind has been set, let's move on . . .
Our tale begins here
"Ireland", "1959". Alright. But the thing that gets me is the remote location of the cottage. I know it's in Ireland but it's also in the middle of nowhere. No neighbors, no immediate help during times of trouble. And trouble is exactly what happened as the woman who is living in this cottage is complaining that her baby is no longer the child she gave birth to, something else has replaced it, something that reveals itself only when she is alone with her child. The baby panel is subtly brilliant:
The way the baby is rendered, there's some cuteness, but the expression on the face - something's not right. And the dialogue balloon right on top saying "Awful Things". It's one panel, but taken with the location panel of the cottage, the pair begins pulling us into the tale. The "cottage" panel says to us "something could go wrong", then this "baby" panel informs us "something has gone wrong".
Enter Hellboy from the B.P.R.D. with what seems like a standard operating procedure for such cases.
Iron. Why iron? It's so common. And there we have it. Iron being anathema to fairies and other "otherwordly creatures" came from a time when iron was not exactly rare but it was uncommon enough to be special - and to be imbued by the storytellers of that time to have special powers, warding powers. Today not only is iron ubiquitous but we live in a world of so many different kinds of metals and metal alloys, metal itself isn't something to write home about.
The "baby" is revealed to be a creature, goblin-like, who, under duress, gives Hellboy instructions to how and where the real baby can be recovered. The conversation is interesting but it is the "ending" that gets my attention:
After "the interview" Hellboy simply throws the little imp to the flames. Morbid fascination aside I love how Hellboy's red hand shows up against the pitch black backdrop and how the etchings on the stove shows up as neat linear mauve designs on the black stove. And dead on center the brightest part of the panel showing a particularly ghastly scene.
So Hellboy is instructed to wait at the crossroads at midnight. Why the crossroads at midnight? According to popular legend, the favored place and time for meeting the Devil is the crossroads at midnight. One of the earliest recorded Blues artists, the legendary Robert Johnson, was rumored to have gotten his guitar-playing talent from one such meeting. It's a popular tidbit from the world of Jazz but it was also touched upon in the movie Crossroads. Nice title don't you think? By the way, if this actually inspired you to go to a lonely crossroads at midnight, don't forget to bring a guitar.
Seriously, If you and I, for some reason, chose to stay up and go to a remote crossroads, nothing will happen. Probably. But this being Hellboy. This happens:
Two things in two panels. First: The gibbet with the hanged man. One moment he's not there. Then he appears. Then in the panel showing the arrival of the corpse, he's gone again. If this happened to you and I at the crossroads at midnight it would be enough to have us both running with all the speed at our command. We would be so scared that if we brought a car to the crossroads we would totally forget about it and just be running out of there leaving the car behind. Anyway, looking at history, chances are that apparition wasn't hung at the crossroads. In old Europe they would use gibbets for display purposes - as a warning to other would-be criminals. Thus hanged folk would be brought to the gibbets in the crossroads for maximum traffic exposure. Advertising practices during the Middle Ages, ladies and gentlemen.
The Devil doesn't appear (that's for the other tale in this collection) but three small "men" do - dragging a corpse.
The three give Hellboy further instructions and the corpse.
The most entertaining thing about this panel is the tongue-twisting Church names. I've forgetten each name the moment I read it but Hellboy, in an entertaining twist, seems to be able to remember each name effortlessly as the further story will reveal.
"Check the stone over the door". Hahahaha. A talking corpse. From a remote crossroads at midnight. You and I would be dead of fear at about this time. Okay, just me then.
One thing about Hellboy is that it can get both funny and macabre all in one panel like this one.
This must be the reason why cremation was invented.
So Hellboy and the corpse keep getting rejected by the graveyards they visit but along the way two interesting things happen. Let's call them "The Curious Case of the Thumping Rock" and "Jenny Greenteeth". Let's do the Rock first.
Here it is, thumping:
Now a bunch of panels.
The reference to Hellboy being fast had me confused at first. It turns out that if you wanted to get the gold you have to be quick or the rock will smash down on you. Notice also that Hellboy reminded the corpse of his "Granny"? As the story ends and Hellboy does indeed find a place to bury the corpse the undead thing will refer to him as "Granny". I think it's subtle and I think it's brilliant, this "granny" tidbit. It projects that the corpse is not right in the head - and of course it's not - it's a corpse. Rotten brain and all that.
Now for Jenny Greenteeth. Here she is.
I am fascinated with this creature. She apparently lives under water - an old mire with lots of sunken history. The "Greenteeth" would presumably refer to her mossy teeth. She is shown being given a key and now is about to unlock a mysterious something from underneath her watery home.
This is the something she unlocks.
Typical monster comic would be happy at this point. Draw something big and dangerous and get into the fight. Not Hellboy, we get history to go with the visual.
"Champion of Connacht", "Champion of Queen Medb", "fought Cu Chulainn". I love it. It's all one story. Cu Chulainn was an Irish demigod and hero who fought Queen Medb, the Queen of Connacht. Obviously Grom is a big part of this ancient myth. The monster's enthusiastic introduction is by the imp who freed him. The monster's appearance, this short history, all serve to build up the excitement. The roller coaster doesn't slow down as:
Yup. Grom's snacks down on his biggest fan. And now the fight. Big Grom gets some licks in but our boy is Hellboy.
Hellboy finally buries the corpse and gets the baby back and we get an interesting conversation with one of the abductors.
"Sidh" or Sidhe means fairy folk. And, Star Wars fans, the word is pronounced "Sith". "Daonie Sidh" means "Fairy folk who dwell in the mounds". Incidentally, little people who live under the earth is a legend occurring in every part of the world. Not just Ireland. Curious isn't it? Anyway, remember this particular Sidh. We're going to see him again in Hellboy: The Right Hand of Doom and you're going to love him there.
The next story is an extremely old tale called "Iron Shoes". The most interesting panel is the first two.
It's not a big loss, but the rest of the story doesn't do justice to this first two panels.
The next tale features the famous fairy tale character "Baba Yaga". One of the reasons why I like this Baba Yaga story is because it ties in with Hellboy: Wake The Devil. In that tale, Baba Yaga furiously confronts Hellboy about a previous altercation that cost her an eye. This is the story of that altercation.
The appearance of Baba Yaga is foreshadowed by these three panels:
Translation: Prepare for some weird shit.
Baba Yaga, riding a giant pestle, uses the skull of a former follower as a flashlight.
Well, we were told to prepare for strange stuff.
Because Baba Yaga is a cannibal who eats children, Hellboy immediately launches into the attack.
During the melee, Baba Yaga gets shot on the head. It doesn't kill her but there goes the eye.
The story ends in a - how should I put it - chilling note.
Wow. Don't mess with Baba Yaga.
The next story is unsuccessfully packaged as a Christmas tale. It has Hellboy fighting a horde of zombies.
The "christmas" part comes in when the Zombie Lord is unable to stand the sound of Christmas bells. At the heart of this story is a heartbreaking tragedy - the loss of a little girl and the unabated grief of her mother at her loss. The young girl, now an undead woman, has been victimized by the said Zombie Lord. Hellboy satisfyingly comes across as an Avenger of an old wrong. In that sense, this is a very satisfying tale.
Now we come to the "Chained Coffin" and this woman:
It's almost a stereotype right? The witches gathering for their Black Sabbath. These days it's starting to appear that the whole "witches are evil" thing is a huge sustained black progaganda campaign in a war of religions. Practitioner's of Wiccan are no more evil than practitioners of more mainstream belief systems. But let's forget about this enlightened times shall we? Let's go and buy into that "dark powers" stereotype surrounding witches. What we have in the panel above is one such witch at the and of her life. As you can read, she has made promises she doesn't want to keep. Now here is an interesting twist.
The witch's children have taken holy orders. Damn, that's interesting. She didn't raise them on her belief system. That speaks volumes doesn't it about how "uncommitted" she really is? And we also know from the dialog balloon above where the title "Chained Coffin" comes from.
So the old woman dies and her children are standing guard over her body and Hellboy is standing watch.
No burial. No provisions for a long wait. These three know something is going down and it's happening soon.
A demon comes to claim his due.
The old woman is now able to eerily talk from within her coffin and she claims that she is now for God. At this, she - and we - get a colorful answer.
The "Babylon" part must refer to the gods we read so much of in the Old Testament. The other place names are famous locations where the Witches Sabbath was supposedly held.
The demon completes the seduction.
Mysteriously, this giant demon looks straight at Hellboy before leaving with his "prize".
The last panel of this story is stranger still.
What's the deal with this "chained" horse? Hmmm.
Now for the story called "The Wolves of Saint August".
The story is set during the mid-nineties in this ancient Eastern European town.
The real story happened a long time ago when feudalism was still the form of government and a family ruled over the town. This family was afflicted by lycanthropy - they were a family of werevolves. The townsmen turned against them, drove them to the depths of their own castle, and murdered them. And so the centuries passed.
Once again the lure of stereotypes is obvious. Werewolves = fierce killers. That will be shown in the tale soon enough. But before that we get this surprising, and welcome, scene.
The other side of being a werewolf. The affliction side. The curse side. It adds some depth to the tale.
A good friend of Hellboy, Father Kelly, becomes the parish priest of the town and decides to hold Mass in an area long forbidden because of local fears - the old castle. The ancient spirits of the angry dead still await in the old manse and soon enough Father Kelly falls victim.
There's nothing more but some good old fashioned revenge by an old friend.
In "Almost Colossus" we get an even stronger tie-in to Hellboy: Wake The Devil. Remember this guy?
I love this guy - the Homunculus. A homunculus is a concept stemming from the related concept "animalculus". The whole thing hinges on the theory that human and animal sperm contains small yet complete representations of the fully grown creature. Therefore a human sperm can literally be grown into another human being - a homunculus. And there we have it. If you remember, the Homunculus in Wake the Devil was "activated" by the touch of the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman. It jumped up, ran out, and we don't know what happened to it. Happily "Almost Colossus" is the story that sates our curiosity.
The Homunculus, in the tradition of Frankenstein's Monster, suffers a crisis of identity. Frankenstein's Monster had recourse to the Bible, the Homunculus steals a huge crucifix from a local church and voices out his anguish.
Then we have a surprising meeting.
It is a meeting between two creations. The Homunculus that we know is the second version. This other one is the first creation - the first Homunculus. But it is more than that, while the creature we new from Wake the Devil is merely confused and stricken, this first Homunculus is angry. And in the throes of that anger he has done two things. First, he has created a horde of inferior homunculi seen here attacking Hellboy.
Next he has made himself the body of a giant Homunculus to avenge himself on the world.
Hellboy is totally outmatched.
It is the second Homunculus who stops his "brother".
This second, heroic Homunculus is using the flame power he has absorbed from Liz Sherman. The fire that consumes the giant Homunculus is described as having the smell of burning fat. Gross.
Continuing with his heroic nature the Homunculus returns the "stolen" power to Liz at the cost of his own life.
It's a a hodgepodge collection, but each tale is true to the "feel" we expect from every story with the Hellboy "brand". All in all, the world of Hellboy is as wonderful place to take the occassional stroll. Thanks for accompanying me.