Monday, July 14, 2008

Chandler Bennett on Hellboy 2

[Chander Bennett guest blogs about Hellboy, in a piece which I thought went well with Scott's post today. I have yet to see Hellboy 2 but it is on my list.]

Mignola and del Toro Dance With the Devil

It would be wrong to criticize the Hellboy movies for not being the comics. Though (creator, writer, and original penciler) Mike Mignola is closely involved, the Hellboy movie franchise belongs chiefly to Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman, and that's fine. Perlman, for his part, brings loads of vitality to a character who, on the comic book page, is (wonderfully) laconic and imperturbable; like Mickey Rourke in Sin City, he manages to come across as natural and lively, overloaded with attitude and a very human vulnerability, from beneath a heaping ton of makeup and prosthetics. And Guillermo del Toro is a master of creature design, clearly committed to creating monsters that not only look really cool, but have a touchable texture and dimension to them, an earthy, oozy, tactile solidity. There's a lot of money on the screen in the Hellboy films, particularly in this latest installment, and it is wielded by an artist-enthusiast who has somehow preserved in himself the wonder and delight of a (late '70's-era) kid seeing Star Wars for the first time.

But, as we know from the second Star Wars trilogy (whose effects couldn't be further removed from those of the originals, or from the Hellboy franchise's for that matter), money ain't everything. As cool and imaginatively realized as the visuals of Hellboy 2: The Golden Army are, and as much heart as Perlman and company bring to the material, there is so little going on in terms of storytelling, atmosphere, and pacing, that the visuals, sadly, end up being not much more than wonderful decoration on the same old bland Hollywood product. It is probably needless, but still worthwhile, to reiterate here that it is the business of Hollywood to take a property which is distinctive, idiosyncratic, and (by comparison) small-scale, and sell it to a vastly larger audience by making it the same as everything else. And so, particularly with Hellboy 2, we have del Toro and Mignola going ahead and pumping up the action (the villain here is a sword-wielding ninja elf who is, to give proper credit, pretty scary), pumping up the romance (both Hellboy and Abe have tiresome love trouble), and, worst of all, filing off the rough edges of a very unusual cast of characters - just as the big-screen Hellboy files down his horn stumps - in order to make them more cuddly and palatable (and so we have the monster weirdoes of the BPRD repackaged as loveable but misunderstood outsider heroes, just like your friendly neighborhood Spiderman).

I am starting to criticize the Hellboy movies for not being the comics, and I said I wouldn't do that. The kind of purism that would take issue with discrepancies such as Liz Sherman being portrayed by a brunette instead of a blond, or Trevor Bruttenholm being killed by Rasputin's Nazi henchman Karl, instead of frog creatures, is the last thing I want to get into here. Adjustments of the source material to fit the particular demands of the new work are to be expected, particularly when the new medium is the expensive, highly-formalized entertainment product known as the Hollywood blockbuster. Dance with the devil and the devil changes you, right?

What I really grieve over is the fact that del Toro and Mignola have retained so little of the spirit of the source material, which has nothing to do with the bland Hollywood commonplaces which have infiltrated the screen version, and everything to do with evoking a powerful sense of wonder, mystery, grim foreboding, and horror using nothing more flashy or dramatic than the basic materials of the comic book medium: shrewdly understated writing and line work, as well as artful page design (all from Mignola), augmented by bold, rich, and utterly un-busy colors (usually by Dave Stewart). It's not necessarily the narrative specifics of the comic book continuity which we should demand to see in the films, but the spirit of craftsmanship which Mignola's work exemplifies, the careful arrangement of simple materials to provoke reactions in his audience.

Look at the sequence in "The Penanggalan" where Hellboy's little girl guide reveals herself to be the monster (you can find this in the recent collection The Troll Witch and Others; I'm starting on the fifth page of the story).

The sense of horror comes not from the narrative turn (which is probably obvious to most readers from the start, and is confirmed by a slim, silent panel of the girl gravely regarding Hellboy with her suddenly-red eye standing out from her shadowy body at the top of the page), but from the carefully-controlled unfolding of the moment. We are made certain of the girl's true identity right before a cluster of panels showing Hellboy piecing it together himself, the last of which is an ominous over-the-shoulder view of him from where the girl has been standing. Then the set piece begins. First we get a large cut-away to the girl's headless body dropping, along with a small inset of a native carving of the monster's face (the third occurrence of the motif, all of them completely unmotivated by character POV, and this one a bloody burgundy close-up on the fangs). Then we get a not-fully-intelligible (yet) close-up on interlinked tubular gray masses set against a soft-red background (a departure from the otherwise brownish-gold coloring of the setting), followed by the girl's trunk stirring up dust and bones as it strikes the floor in the last panel. Finally, across a page turn, we get a full image of the monster, a tall, narrow panel showing the Penanggalan's intestines snaking down from her floating head-and-organ-tree to entangle Hellboy. Then another quick image of the stonework, a close-up on the eye and teeth area (again in bloody burgundy suggesting an awakened life within), and, finally, the masterstroke: a close-up of the girl's head, no longer flesh-toned and human, but transformed into a shocking white death's head, complete with wild hair, gaping eye sockets, and greenish-yellow teeth lining a hideous little maw, all of this set against a background which is suddenly blazing red. "She lives in me," small text centered in a larger, off-set voice bubble, perfectly completes our sense of the feelingless, insatiable horror which the girl has become. Then, in quick succession, a panel of Hellboy struggling with the monster's coiled intestines, followed by a close-up on one of the eyeless, toothy snake-mouths at the tips; and, finally, a wide panel of a snake-tip amidst flecks of Hellboy's dark crimson blood punctuates the action before Mignola cuts away to a long-shot outside the monster's lair as Hellboy screams and his fate seems momentarily (despite our certainty of his ultimate victory) to be in question.

Mike Mignola's Hellboy stories, like super-hero comics in general (which Hellboy largely is, though with generous helpings of horror and hard-boiled pulp fiction thrown in), and also like Hollywood blockbusters, are action-packed, spectacular entertainments with a high degree of narrative formalization, a kind of ritual regularity religiously adhered to by Mignola in every story: an enigma is introduced (often with the utmost economy, as in "The Penanggalan"), Hellboy investigates with a wonderfully non-plussed stoic reserve, and has a big fight with a monster which he will ultimately defeat. It is not the narrative specifics which we should celebrate in the Hellboy comics, and hope to see in the films, but the care with which Mike Mignola and his collaborators approach their craft, achieving large effects through modest means. Great Hellboy tales like "The Penanggalan" create a rich atmosphere of mystery and horror, an atmosphere which the films, despite eye-popping visuals, largely overlook, watering down what is in its native form a uniquely powerful example of visual storytelling with hum-drum Hollywood clichés. And that's a damn shame.


Anonymous said...

Liz Sherman's a redhead in the comics.

Shlomo said...

interesting. I love Mignolas artwork more than his stories, so Hellboy the movie has never really appealed to me (though i did catch the first one on tv last week). But the economic subtle storytelling you speak of, makes me wonder what a hellboy movie directed by M night shamalan (sp?)would like like. Or going the other direction (froms tory telling to aesthetics and composition) a frank-miller-directed hellboy. (though, an ang-lee-hellboy holds no appeal...)