Prior to the 2004 movie, I never paid the “Hellboy” universe much attention. It was something I knew about and read bits and pieces of mainly as supplemental previews in old comic magazines like Wizard or the back pages of Madman Adventures. But that all changed once that movie came out.
As I’ll probably blog later, the Hellboy movies and the animated cartoons are some of my all time favorite things to watch. Maybe it’s because they nailed the perfect actor when they cast Ron Pearlman, maybe it was the entire vibe Guillermo del Toro created with his vision of the franchise. Whatever the case, it made me want to go back and read all the Mike Mignola’s Hellboy Trades. And so over the past couple of years I’ve slowly digested one or two here and there.
For the most part, I wasn’t extremely impressed. I mean its good, don’t get me wrong, but its never really hooked me in like those films did. So that got me to thinking that maybe it’s because I found my version of Hellboy, and it’s not in print. So maybe there’s some other character in the incredibly dense and rich “Hellboy universe” I can be introduced to and enjoy solely in the print form. Immediately, I thought of Lobster Johnson, the 1930s pulp style adventurer who first appeared as a ghost in the Hellboy story “Conquering Worm” .
For those that know me, I’m a sucker for pretty much anything set in the 1930s and 1940s, especially pulp style heroes like the Shadow and the Spider.There’s just something about that era, a simpler time when mad scientists used ray guns without having to explain the science behind a ray gun, and mobsters in fedoras combed the streets running rackets like “the numbers”, which was just a fancy word for the lottery. Yes, people went to night clubs and listened to big bands in nothing but the most daper duds and everyone drank scotch and water.
Lobster Johnson was in fact based in large part on the Spider, what with his arthropod based moniker, preference for vicious two gunned justice, network of disposable agents, and leaving his signature mark on the foreheads of his criminal victims. So I started reading the first real story “The Iron Prometheus”
On the surface, it definitely seemed to have everything I wanted in a book. Nazi evildoers, a chunky retro robot, secret passages, ancient unholy artifacts, dames in distress..you name it.
The story is pretty much that Lobster gets embroiled in an unfolding mystery about this clunky super suit of Iron man mark 1 style armor that runs on some cosmic power source called “Virl”. The suit is wanted by both the Nazis for the technology and by this group of Tibetan cultists that want power source. It seems they can open a portal to a dimension filled with crazed Hellboy looking demons if they can get their hands on it.
Over the course of 5 issues, Lobster talks to brains in jars, dishes out stoic frontier style justice with the help of a bunch of his sewer dwelling cronies, and cracks chairs over the heads of gorillas.
And yet, again, as with Hellboy, it’s as if they gave me all the substance I could want, but something was still missing. I enjoyed what I was reading but nothing sunk in or moved me to say “Damn that’s awesome”. It’s like they had a checklist of things they wanted to put in the story and then moved through methodically checking each one off. But it was almost in some sort of cold calculated way like they were just going through the motions.
And that’s when it hit me. I’m not a fan of Lobster or Hellboy comics because I’ve yet to read one that makes me give a damn about the main characters. They are barely humanized or given any real depth other than being the person standing between us and..well..a monster gorilla.
Indeed, really the biggest humanizing moments in Lobster Johnson don’t involve Lobster but the guy in control of the “Iron Prometheus” suit. This poor shmuck with a 5th grade education that’s in way over his head, and ultimately dies only to somehow tap into the “Vril” energies of the suit to screw up the Tibetan culties master plan…as a burnt out husk of a skeleton. He’s the character you end up caring about, not the main one, and that seems to follow a similar pattern in the Hellboy books, as you end up caring about Abe Sapien, or Liz, or hell even the bad guys more than you do Hellboy.
Overall, I’ll probably continue to read both the Lobster Johnson and Hellboy series because they are just good enough that it’s not like you feel like you wasted time reading them. I just wish in the end there was more to them than just a bunch of crazy mixed up set pieces tied to together by pretty bad ass Mike Mignola art.