Warning: Spoilers for Hellboy.
Increasingly, I find that the only understandable reaction to the world and the things that happen in it is sheer bewilderment. That may be why Hellboy works. Mike Mignola’s occult comics follow a man who manages to be both completely unimpressed and dumbfounded at the absurdity of the world around him. Hellboy, the eponymous hero, remains distinct from other comic book heroes in a number of ways—his working-class demeanor, the deliberate mundanity of his hunched physique, his complete refusal to give the supernatural megalomaniacs he encounters the awe they need. However, the chief detail that makes the character resonant is his role as an unwilling participant in his own story. The world is populated by every kind of horror and wonder imaginable, and all of these horrible and wonderful things have decided that they want to involve themselves with Hellboy. The comedy and tragedy often arises from the fact that Hellboy wants nothing to do with them, nor with the rest of the world that resembles a discarded Universal Studios set. It’s all here—spooky cemeteries, abandoned manors, diabolical laboratories, forbidden coves. This is a setting rife with every kind of kitschy horror cliché imaginable and Hellboy refuses to entertain it for even a second.
There is talk of an ultimate destiny to which he must succumb, one that sees Hellboy become a biblical Beast that brings the end of the world. This is simply dropped into readers’ laps as if it were the most sensible thing in the world and no one is in the least bit surprised. Hellboy is clearly displeased, but it comes across as annoyance at an impertinence rather than quaking fear of an existential threat, so assured is he of who he is and what the world means to him. The world has no power over Hellboy and he scorns it and the capricious, arbitrary logic that chose to bind him to the fate of all creation. The only reasonable response to all this expectation is ridicule and scorn. However, Hellboy’s scorn of the world does not prevent him from living in it. He is not a nihilist, convinced that the world’s absurdity diminishes its value, or a fatalist awaiting his dreary destiny. Instead, these stories are marked by tremendous, near-constant mirth and joy. Hellboy enjoys his work and takes to it with a McClane-like bravado, spouting one-liners and maintaining a carefully sculpted look of “why even bother?”. Hellboy is playing to a type, just like everyone else in this world. But whereas he finds himself surrounded by Draculas, Frankensteins, ghouls, goblins, and ghosts, Hellboy is not playing his assigned role of Satan, Lucifer, the Anti-Christ, or Baphomet. Instead, this child of America grows up playing baseball, eating pancakes, and reading pulpy adventure comics. He models his persona around the Lobster, a Dick Tracy-esque brooding, eternally non-plussed hero crusading against the Third Reich. He chooses who he is and the red skin, horns, and world-ending gauntlet permanently affixed to him will not change that.
Hellboy is self-affirmation taken to heroic extremes. This is a man choosing himself over fate, destiny, or duty. He is not driven by high-minded ideals or anything more complicated than a need to live his life on his own terms. In a world that can sometimes feel like it is at once coming apart at the seams and conspiring to rob you of any agency, maintaining and abiding by your will is nothing short of Herculean. Or maybe it’s Sisyphean. Hellboy fails to live the life he wants. Inevitably, he is drawn into an apocalyptic bid for the fate of the world and loses his life to it. Hellboy does not die on his own terms, but it is unreasonable to expect of anyone who wants to live a happy death. The final doom is something that Hellboy, despite his bravery and willfulness, cannot escape. But he lives on his own terms, never losing his lucidity or his ability to mock an absurd world. It is not reasonable to assume any kind of power over the world besides managing to live in it despite its inherent injustices. Even better if one manages to do so without either accepting these unjust conditions or falling to hollow despair—managing to find joy, even if it is to spite a world that seems bent on denying you it.