Yeah, yeah, so Mike Mignola and Richard Corben‘s graphic novel (though it’s only 56 pages, so novella?) Hellboy: House of the Living Dead is two years old, having been published back in 2011. But I swear there’s a good reason you’re seeing, and hopefully reading and commenting on, this review. First of all, I just got it in the mail from Amazon and read it as fast as I could, in probably about 30 minutes or less, because I just had to keep going. And secondly, with Hellboy: The Midnight Circus, Mignola’s next Hellboy graphic novel, just around the corner (November), it seems an apt time to reflect on the most recent novel-length graphic narrative of the ‘man’ with the Right Hand of Doom.
House of the Living Dead is a tribute to the classic Hollywood monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Mignola dedicates the book to Boris Karloff (the mad scientist in Frankenstein and sequels, 1931-1939), Glenn Strange (the monster in Karloff’s movies and others), John Carradine (the Count in sequels to Dracula starring Bela Lugosi), and Lon Chaney Jr. (“the always sad Wolf Man”). With this in mind, and Mignola’s apparent affection for “Mexican-wrestler-vs.-monster movies” (which he says he’s never seen, but likes the idea of), House of the Living Dead is both a wonderful nod to the roots of America’s popular non-literary addiction to the classic monsters that had their origin in European Gothic fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as a glimpse into a dark period of Hellboy’s early years.
The narrative is as unique as any Hellboy tale, but probably a bit weirder than your average experience with comics and graphic novels. Mexico, 1956 (so Hellboy is 12 in our world, 312 in reality). Hellboy has become a champion luchador (say, what?!), but even that wasn’t able to save his pal Esteban from being sired by vampires and turned into Camazotz, a hulking vampire-luchador whose visage reminds me of the Batman: Knightfall version of Bane, but which is actually a bat god of the K’iche’ Mayans (the word means “death bat”). After another successful fight, Hellboy is asked by a man to come fight a mad scientist’s champion or else a girl will be murdered. Well, Hellboy obliges…and the monster turns out to be a Mexican Frankenstein’s monster knock off. We learn that the scientist was desperate for his monster to fight Hellboy because a groups of hellion imps ordered him to–yeah, this definitely fits into recent continuity.
One thing after another confronts Hellboy: the monster turns out to be a good guy, and goes to kill the scientist; the house (you know, “of the Living Dead“) burns down; zombies attack; Raul saves the girl he threatened, then turns into a wolf-man and shoots the girl; Hellboy knocks out the wolf-man, but the girl’s blood awoke a Mexican Dracula, which Hellboy kills in one fell swoop; vampire-witch-ghosts torment Hellboy and remind him of Esteban’s death (so they sired him…); and with his last breath wolf-man Raul uncovers a glowing crucifix and prays, killing al the vampires and lighting Hellboy on fire. Whew! If you think that was a roller coaster ride to read, then you’ve got a little taste of how fast paced and jam-packed with zany and sometimes purposely campy Hellboy: House of the Living Dead is. In short: it’s a must have graphic novel for anyone, even someone who’s never read Hellboy, though a few nuances might be lost.
Both Mignola and Corben strive to make the point that the most human characters in this work are the monsters, and that the humans are the ones who act like monsters. This is what draws me to Corben’s art, his ability to make humanity ugly because sometimes it deserves to be, and perhaps is one of the reasons he is acclaimed as the greatest graphic adapter of Edgar Allan Poe’s works–he truly understands how to interpret the Gothic message for a modern, comic-reading audience. This is why Corben and Mignola are such a perfect pairing. The reversal of the reader’s opinion of (hu)man and monster is mot an unusual take on what it means to be human in postmodern art and media, but certainly a unique one that achieves its end by drawing on the extremes of humanness and imbuing them in the monsters: alcoholism and depression (‘the bad’) vs. redemption and heroism (‘the good’). It’s these attributes that make Hellboy more of a man than the mad scientist or Raul, and the scientist’s Monster’s refusal to be, well, a monster, that makes him a paragon of virtue. They can be humans even when they struggle with their existence, while humans can’t even figure out health care reform or marriage equality.
Hellboy fans, horror fans, classic movie fans, wrestling fans…hell, anyone who has ever wondered what it means to be human: Hellboy: House of the Living Dead is for you.