Finding the Comics: Brian Levy part two
Editors note - Herein lies the second half of Brian’s Hellboy History. If you have your own story to share, send us an email at email@example.com. We’re interested in everyone’s reasons and beginnings, so don’t feel like yours isn’t good enough. You can find the first half of this story HERE.
The Hellboy movies helped define my teenage years, and the Hellboy books would go on to help define who I am today as an adult. By 2010 however, I hadn’t even laid eyes on a single page of a Hellboy comic. I didn’t even have an idea of who Mike Mignola was. In my 19 year old mind, Hellboy was all del Toro. This was about to change.
It was my first year out of high school, a perfect time to discover new things. I hadn’t gone off to college just yet and was in the midst of my two year stint at the local community college, mostly bumming around my hometown in California in my car listening to “WTF with Marc Maron”. It was the middle of the summer after my first year in community college and I had saved up some money to go visit my best friend Marshall in Boston. He was attending at Boston University. I always loved it in Boston. My mom is from New England and every summer, during our visits with her parents, we would always make a point to walk the Freedom Trail, hang out at the Boston Common, visit the old graveyards with the important historical figures buried in them and whenever we could, visit Newberry Street Comics, the coolest store I knew of at the time and still one of my favorite shops in the county. When I was a kid, my mom would always take me there and ask the clerk what the coolest new band was and proceed to buy me their album. It was a fun treat.
On my visit, I made Marshall do everything I usually did in Boston with my family. We treated it almost as a joke since it’s hard to get a 19 year old to go to nearly all of a city’s tourist attractions with complete earnestness, but in my heart I was doing it because I loved it. Boston’s such a cool city. Essential parts of the American Revolution happened there and unlike New York, another major colonial city where I currently reside, Boston still has the receipts. The old important buildings are still there. You can touch the history. We walked through the whole city that day, and our reward was a visit to Newbury Street Comics, conveniently close to Marshall’s apartment near Boston University.
We perused the CDs, looked at T-shirts and checked out all the DVDs. It was time to check out the actual comics section, which was smaller than I’d remembered. I had always wanted to like comics, being raised on movies I knew were based on them, but getting into actual comics storylines was always overwhelming for me. It seemed like work. I would grab a few comics a year, usually Star Wars comics, always coming in in the middle of an ongoing plot line and just sort of spend 10 minutes with the thing and then put it down, rarely thinking of it again, not able to appreciate the single issue as part of a whole, instead of seeing it more as something I didn’t fully understand, used as a tool to occupy me while I rode shotgun in my mom’s car on the way home from some errand. This visit to Newbury Street comics changed that for me.
I saw B.P.R.D. King of Fear #2 sitting right on the shelf, staring me dead in the eye. The Hellboy movies were like close friends to me, so I knew what the B.P.R.D. was, but I’d never seen a Hellboy related comic before in my life and I felt like this particular one was calling to me. The cover art was more interesting than anything else on the rack. It was a Mignola cover, my first look at his work. It was immediately pleasing to me. No one else draws like Mike Mignola. His style is more cartoonish than most mainstream comics illustrators, and that jumped right out to me, seeing it surrounded by the various superhero comics. I loved the way his figures looked, simple and exaggerated, without sacrificing seriousness. I think the biggest thing that got me immediately hooked was his near perfect sense for using iconography from the story and arranging it in a visually pleasing way that creates an image that shows you what the comic is going to be about while at the same time giving nothing away. It feels like a mystery for the reader to unlock. Looking at the cover, you know the images are important to the plot within the comic’s pages, but you don’t know how yet. You want to see how. I bought it as fast as I could, and couldn’t wait to read it.
It’s such a great feeling to be genuinely excited to read a new comic. There’s a tactile satisfaction to it. It’s there in your hand and you have to physically turn the page. You’re not listening to anything and you’re not watching anything. Each page turn is something you’re doing. I sat down with my comic and opened it and was greeted with a helpful breakdown of all the major characters, half of whom I’d never heard of, which was a fun surprise. I was also met with Guy Davis’s art which was something else I wasn’t expecting. Guy Davis and Mike Mignola are similar illustrators, both fascinated by darkness, creatures and esoteric things, and both have highly impressionistic styles, which is something I’m drawn to. When you’re seeing an image they create, you’re seeing the art respond to the emotion of the moment it’s capturing. Davis takes a different route than Mignola does: where Mignola distills his images to mostly what needs to be shown in order for the viewer to understand what they’re seeing using confident steady lines, Davis’s art is sketchy, fast, and almost impossibly cluttered with detail in the best possible way. Every single panel is stuffed with detail, and it’s not tedious detail. You get to see every possible thing you could want to see in the image. Nothing is alluded to; it’s all there.
That’s all to say that the art simply blew me away. I didn’t know art like this was an option in comics. The story too, although I was lacking in context, was perfect for my introduction to the world of the comics. I knew who Johann, Liz and Abe were and I had heard of Lobster Johnson, so even though I didn’t know what was going on exactly, the characters were already distinguishable. I didn’t need to know what they had all been through to understand basically who they were.
Watching Lobster Johnson’s ghost find its version of peace in the afterlife, coupled with Johann and Kate reuniting really differentiated B.P.R.D. from what I thought was the norm in comics. This book was clearly more concerned about the emotional state of its characters, rather than being concerned with big fights. The centerpiece of the book is Liz’s apocalyptic vision. There’s these gigantic, insanely well designed monsters stomping over a devastated landscape but the only thing that matters in that page is how Liz feels. That got me. I wouldn’t quite understand it for another year or so, but John Arcudi, the writer of the majority of B.P.R.D., is an outrageously good storyteller.
After the trip to Boston I knew I wanted to go back to the beginning and read the whole Hellboy series so I started looking into the trade paperbacks, finding out that there were two major series at the time and that they twisted around each other, creating a fairly daunting reading order to sort out. Luckily, there were some great resources online about what order to read everything, resources that have only gotten better and more rich as the years have gone on and the series has deepened. I can’t be totally sure but I’m almost certain that I was using an early version of Mark Tweedale’s absolutely fabulous reading order, which I still refer to. I ordered Seed of Destruction from Amazon and as far as comic books go, the next three years of my life were spoken for, as I spent them collecting all the trades and experiencing the entire Hellboy/B.P.R.D. story until I finally caught up during Return of the Master.
This series has had a profound effect on me. I could and probably will eventually write a whole recap and response to the individual story beat and how it made me feel but I’ll spare everyone that for this article. I mostly want to get across how deeply this series wound up sinking its roots into me.
I took this series with me all through my college experience, and beyond into my adult life. It was my first ongoing comic series and it’s remained the only one I’ve wanted to stick with. I’ve gone off to school in a different state and graduated college with these comics in the background. Shortly after I graduated I decided to get my first tattoo, and it was of one of Mike Mignola’s skulls. I moved out to New York to pursue a career in comedy writing, diligently going to the comic store and picking up new issues of B.P.R.D. every time they come out all along the way. Multiple long term relationships have sprung up and broken up with these books on my shelf. For the whole of my 20’s, these books have been my constant companions, telling my favorite story, bringing along my favorite characters and showing me my favorite art.
These books also solidified for me my fascination with the macabre. Up until really getting into the Mignolaverse, I’d always loved spooky stuff. For exmaple, I did a report on the most haunted places in California for my 4th grade geography project. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. Scaring myself by reading accounts of alien abductions was something I did all the time. The list goes on. I’ve always loved to look into the spooky and the scary, but I never really realized it was a core part of my identity until I read through Hellboy/B.P.R.D. Something just clicked for me. After I started reading the series, I began to truly recognize that I love creepy stuff, and I’ve basically made it my goal to make my living space as close to what a haunted house is supposed to look like as I possibly can. Now I own a collection of weird animal bones in jars, I have all sorts of books on ancient magick, and I generally try to live my best spooky life.
I’ve had a good life. I’ve been introduced to some really interesting stuff and experienced a lot and I think the whole thing has shaped me into a person my 12 year old self would be proud of. I truly don’t think it could have gone any other way if it weren’t for that day I picked up that B.P.R.D. issue in Boston, and I would never have picked up that issue if I hadn’t stared at the Hellboy movie poster for 10 minutes with my brother back in 2004.