Welcome to the first book review on First Panel. I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing, so bear with me while I figure this out. And please, give me feedback in the comments section!
In Hellboy: Darkness Calls, our old friend Anung Un Rama (a.k.a. Hellboy) is up to his usual business, once again battling that familiar nemesis the witch Baba Yaga (who of course still wants revenge for her missing eye) and a host of other baddies, new and old.
For the uninitiated, Hellboy is a demon, conjured to this plane in 1944 by the Nazis (aided by Rasputin), but adopted and raised by American G.I.s. He joins the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, fighting threats from various supernatural and occult forces, who are typically bent on forcing Hellboy to fulfill his destiny as the bringer of the apocalypse. I know, I know – that old story again…
As outlandish as the premise may sound, these Hellboy books are generally brilliant. Mike Mignola does an absolutely masterful job of constructing completely believable characters who (despite their extraordinary circumstances) are just like you and me. They’re cool, they’re funny, they have issues, you’d love to have a beer with them. To top it all off, Mignola’s artwork is dark, gorgeous, and beautifully stylized. His less-is-more approach to detail and generous use of chiaroscuro (dramatic lighting) pack the panels with kinetic energy and tension. In recent years however, Mignola seems increasingly content to stick to the authoring while handing the artistic reigns to an assortment of guest artists. For Darkness Calls, he has left that duty in the able hands of Duncan Fegredo. More on that later…
FYI: Hellboy stories are typically serialized or one-shots in other publications, later compiled into trade paperbacks. Darkness Calls is the 8th trade paperback available in the Hellboy series.
Story-wise, Darkness Calls is pretty typical Hellboy fare. The book begins with our hero holed up in a cottage in England, quietly recuperating from (what I took to be) the events of Strange Places. Of course, it’s not long before he’s swept up into that universal struggle of good and evil, when an apparently unprecedented communion of witches petitions him to become the very king of all witches. Quite an honor. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you’re familiar with Hellboy, you can pretty much guess what follows. Powerful ghostly foes, punishingly brutal slug-fests, and a healthy dose of clever banter and wise-cracking.
I have to admit I wasn’t quite as riveted by Darkness Calls as some of Mignola’s other work. It wasn’t bad – it just wasn’t terribly inventive, and by the 8th trade paperback Hellboy’s adventures (and their outcomes) tend to get a bit predictable. I think I prefer Mignola’s short Hellboy stories, which are often his interpretations/remixes of local folklore from around the world. Good stuff there.
The plot and dialogue also seemed a bit more bloated than in other Hellboy stories. I have a sneaking suspicion that when Mignola is doing the drawing himself, he is constantly reworking the script, paring away any unnecessary scenes and dialogue and placing a greater burden of the storytelling on the panels themselves. Perhaps handing the script to another artist doesn’t allow for that refinement. I don’t know. It just feels different on this one.
As mentioned earlier, Mignola has tapped Duncan Fegredo for the artistic duties on Darkness Calls, and I was surprised to find a style strikingly similar to Mignola’s own. I’m not familiar with Fegredo’s other work, but I’m pretty certain the similarity is intentional, both in Mignola’s selection of the artist and in Fegredo’s approach to the material. That being said, it doesn’t necessarily feel like Fegredo is impersonating Mignola’s hand, but perhaps paying homage, as well as delivering to the reader a familiar look and ambiance that in my opinion is really inseparable from the Hellboy universe.
I’m not going to lie – I love Mignola’s art and am usually disappointed to see Hellboy rendered by anyone other than the man himself. That said, if someone other than Mignola has to do it, my vote is for Fegredo. He does the series proud, and makes return readers feel right at home. As for new readers, I can’t imagine they would be anything less than impressed.
Full disclosure – I am a huge Hellboy fan. And while Darkness Calls is not my favorite story arc, it’s still a solid book. If you’re a return Hellboy customer, it’s worth your time to check out this addition to the Hellboy canon. If you’re new to Hellboy, I would say hold off on Darkness Calls for now, and start at the beginning with the Hellboy: Seed of Destruction paperback.
I’m giving Hellboy: Darkness Calls a 7 out of 10 on the basis of a decent story and great artwork.