Over the past couple of years, I have become a devoted follower of Dark Horse Comics, especially their Hellboy and B.P.R.D. series. Though I have devoted significant attention to the intersections of spirituality/theology/religion and popular culture in film, television, and print, the latter has rarely included comics. I read numerous comics each week, but because I feel less knowledgeable about the histories, theories, and techniques of the art form, I am less comfortable writing about them. However, a recent short Hellboy series entitled “The Crooked Man” was just too good to ignore.
This three-part story sat on my shelf for quite some time. I sat down last weekend and re-read the first issue and then quickly finished the last two. Hellboy creator Mike Mignola has come up with yet another engaging story and guest artist Richard Corben‘s work makes it all the more haunting and heart-breaking. “The Crooked Man” tells the story of Tom Ferrell, a young man from the Appalachian Mountains in the 1950s who returns home after a 20-year absence. During that time, the devil and a group of witches have wreaked a fair amount of havoc on this rural community. In fact, as a teenager, smitten by a young girl, Tom even made a deal with the devil as well, which he ironically never exploited. In a sense, he has returned to make things right again.
I won’t say much more about the plot, but it centers on themes (obviously) of good and evil, redemption, and forgiveness. As most people know, even non-readers of the series, Hellboy looks like the devil, or at least our popular notions of him/it. Yet Tom corrects Hellboy himself (and the readers) when he believes that Tom thinks he’s the devil: “I’ve seen him and he don’t look nothin’ like you.” The interesting thing about the devil here is that he looks like a crazed Mad Hatter while also visually mirroring a priest that we meet later in the story. In the third issue, Corben and Mignola place panels side-by-side that highlight this similarity and complicate the good vs. evil tension.
Though Mignola locates most of his Hellboy and B.P.R.D. stories abroad in exotic locations and times with legendary evils, this time around, he places his story in America and revels in the legends and ghost stories that traditional Americana claims. Corben helps show readers that these stories can be just as disturbing as vampires and other terrible monsters. Nearly every page contains images that are simultaneously horrific and heart-breaking, a rare combination in this, or any genre or art form.
Look for back issues of “The Crooked Man” or its (doubtless) inclusion in a future trade paperback.