Review: Hellboy   Odd Jobs

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When you buy a book of short stories, especially stories based on a character created by someone else, you really don’t expect much. It would be nice if they were faithful to the original characterization, but really, it’s any old excuse to get some sort of further fix of someone who might just resemble the character. Kevin J. Anderson’s Dana Scully isn’t exactly the one created by Chris Carter and Gillian Anderson. Worse, with tie-ins, the closest most authors get to the original is the characters. The situations and the ‘feel’ that the primary media are often more the product of the author than the original.

This was definitely the case with Hellboy: The Lost Army. Christopher Golden is nowhere near as steeped in legend and myth as Mike Mignola is, and is showed. The situations Hellboy were in lacked the richness and depth of Seeds of Destruction, they didn’t flow in that organical yet passing strange fashion you find in Grimm’s fairy tales, or a Tim Powers book. It had a random feel, and what magic was encountered didn’t follow those unknown yet familiar laws that were set into the collective unconscious thousands of years ago. Christ turned water into wine, not hamburger patties.

Fortunately, the stories in Hellboy: Odd Jobs seem to follow not only those unwritten rules of magic, but also hold true to the character of Hellboy. Above and beyond that, the stories are good. Not just ‘that was a good Hellboy story’ good, I mean stuff of real merit. I’m going to reread several of these stories and try to take them apart so I can learn from them, they were so good.

OK, so not all of them are terrific, but there are many more that are good than aren’t. The very first story in the collection, Yvonne Navarro’s "Medusa’s Revenge" is readable, but it lacks the rich, obscure background and clever reinterpretation that marks many of these stories, and tops it off with a very Star Trek "all better" ending. But other stories make up for this. They are all horror stories, of course. Hellboy belongs firmly in that genre, but Odd Jobs holds the spectrum of horror, from the supernatural to X-Files-style bait-and-switch, personal and situational horrors, human atrocity to Lovecraft’s uncaring universe, settings spanning stretching from the backwoods of Maine to the jungles of Viet Nam. These stories aren’t held back by the what assumptions about what sorts of stories that "should" be told about a comic book character.

I like Hellboy. Even if he in essence a superhero, he has a believable personality, and character flaws. Brought up in an environment of academics, and he’s pretty good at details and carries more history in his head than most American libraries, but he’s a little short in the foresight department. Unlike many fictional characters, he’s keenly aware of this shortcoming, and even has a wry sense of humor about it. In Mathew J. Costello’s "A Night at the Beach," Hellboy has a typical moment of thought before going into battle. "I formulated a defense plan. Basically, shoot and bash." Self-knowledge on the part of a character goes a long way towards making them three dimensional. While Mignola has admitted (somewhere) that this is so he can draw cool fights, it remains a well-handled aspect of Hellboy’s personality. That Costello has picked this up from Mignola and included it in his own story shows the quality of the writing that makes up this anthology.

One of my favorite stories, "Sacred Crows" by Rick Hatula and Jim Connolly, deals with survivor’s guilt. Because while Hellboy is inhumanly tough, and has a left hook like an express train, the majority of the people he works with are merely human. If he doesn’t think ahead, his associates are much more likely to get hurt or broken than he himself is. In "Sacred Crows," Hellboy and his buddy The Finn go to a bar to drink a toast to a fallen companion.

Poppy Z. Brite’s "Burn, Baby Burn," doesn’t even deal with Hellboy, instead focusing on the history of an associate, Liz Sherman. Mignola has dropped hints about the unpleasantness of being Liz, who grew up with the "gift" of pyrokenesis, the ability to kindle fires with the mind. Brite, whose books I’ve tried and can’t read, gives us a portrait of a fairly standard teenager--confused, angry, and mercurial--pursued by feelings she doesn’t understand and an ability she can almost control.

The real standout of the anthology is Steven Bissette’s "Jigsaw." I like Bissette’s art, but I had no idea he was such an accomplished writer. "Jigsaw" has everything you’re supposed to have in a story; carefully, achingly human characters, implications that are never said, yet easily understood. I’ve read so many short stories that few of them really have an impact on me anymore, but every now and then, one comes along and smacks me with how damn good it is. I felt this way about Dan Simmons’ "The Great Lover," which has to be one of the best novellas every produced, and I feel this way about "Jigsaw." It is stunningly vivid, expertly constructed, and perfectly paced. And it’s the second story in the collection.

It won’t be in your local library, because it’s published by a comic book company. Too bad, because these really are good stories by very talented people. At $15, it’s too quickly finished, and I’m still hungry for more.