There is no more iconic figure in horror comics than Hellboy, so it seems only appropriate that a new story featuring everyone’s favorite demon prince to hell is coming out right before Halloween. Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1953 is the newest installment in the series taking a look back at the origins of both parts of the title. This issue isn’t part of a mini-series though, but combines two tales into a one-shot that captures all of the fun, action, and creeping moodiness of the very first Hellboy stories.
Technically the issue is divided into two segments, “The Phantom Hand” and “The Kelpie”, but functions like a single narrative divided into three acts. Mignola’s script separates “The Phantom Hand” into both a Hellboy and Trevor Bruttenholm story, one after the other. The Hellboy section recaptures what makes early stories like “The Corpse” and “The Iron Shoes” so much fun. Artist Ben Stenbeck and colorist Dave Stewart fill up the page with atmosphere, creating tension around the concepts of ancient child murders and ghostly apparitions. Then they release it all with a big brawl. Young Hellboy is a hammer and all problems look like nails to him. There’s a great sense of humor at the start of this comic found in the wry observations of two older men observing such fantastical and violent events.
After the punchup, Hellboy goes to bed and the mood of “The Phantom Hand” shifts dramatically. It becomes something much quieter and the problems it presents cannot hope to be hammered away. This is the sort of story found in Mignola’s later Hellboy and B.P.R.D. stories, pondering concepts of destiny and free will. Stenbeck delivers fun just fine, but here he is at his best. Just like in his work with Mignola on Baltimore, he excels at distilling notes of angst and misery into only a few lines. Two men speaking late at night becomes far more terrifying than the appearance of any demon because their world weariness and fear shine through. Stewart’s creeping darkness also makes it clear that the hypothetical and philosophical concerns being raised are far greater than anything as obvious as a floating hand.
In this way “The Phantom Hand” serves as an excellent introduction to the Mignola-verse and its diverse charms. Hellboy and its various spin-offs have always been comfortable in shifting tone between moody horror and pulpy adventure. This story distills both of those strengths into a single, accessible narrative.
On the other hand, “The Kelpie” does not truly feel like a Hellboy story of any sort, because it is a ghost story being told to Hellboy. The three men from “The Phantom Hand” serve as a framing device for a short tale that would be excellently told over a campfire and peppermint schnapps. Short, sweet, and exceedingly creepy, it blends folklore into the sort of story that is just understated enough to crawl under your skin and make you question whether it might, just maybe, be possible.
Stenbeck delivers the twist of this ghost story perfectly, opting to show as little as possible and leave the real horror of what happens to reader’s imaginations. One illustration of the kelpie is all he needs in order to make this creature terrifying, focusing on its face and altering a few key details of an otherwise mundane animal to make it shiver-inducing. The action occurs outside of the panels though, and a few ripples in a body of water are far more effective than anything shown could hope to have been.
Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1953 is a perfect comic to pick up as part of Halloweek, whether you’re a longtime fan of Hellboy or just looking for an introduction. Not only is it accessible, but it manages to deliver three succinct tales in very little space. It reveals the breadth of Mignola, Stenbeck, and Stewart’s talent as storytellers and flexibility within the realm of horror. Whether you’re looking for monstrous action, existential dread, or just an old fashioned campfire tale, this issue delivers on all fronts.