How I learned to stop worrying and love the Homunculus
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SPOILERS TO FOLLOW
First off, I want to thank everyone for reading and responding to my first piece for Mignolaverse.com, Resurrection in the Mignolaverse! I know I came out pretty strong with a spicy take off the bat, but it’s where I was at the moment I was writing it and I’m glad it’s out there. We’re creating a non-toxic community here. It warms my heart to know that something I wrote which many found somewhat wack was responded to as gently and richly as it was. These are good signs, people. We’re doing it right.
This week however, my mind’s been on something that’s going to rattle significantly less feathers: Roger the Homunculus and how great of a character he is.
He’s one of my favorite characters. Period. Come at me with any character from a book or a TV show or movie and try and tell me they’re more interesting than Roger and I’m not necessarily going to argue with you because I have extremely thin skin and will go to cartoonish lengths to avoid a debate in real life but I will be very hurt and probably stew about it for a half hour.
Roger works in ways that I haven’t really seen a character in a story like this work before. I think this has something to do with the way he’s introduced and then expanded on. It's like unwrapping a gift. We first see him in Wake the Devil. He’s almost a jump scare. In the middle of the jet pack and snake goddess fueled chaos of Wake the Devil, Liz and some B.P.R.D. agents find a bizarre secret lab where a lifeless Homunculus lies. Liz, drawn to it for mysterious reasons, is drawn to it. You kind of know something bad is about to happen, but it’s still an effective surprise when Liz’s spark of flame brings the Homunculus to life, and we watch as this creature goes berserk, kills an agent and jumps out the window. It’s shocking, intense and almost funny in how quickly it gets wrapped up.
I first read this issue almost a decade after it was first published and already knew that this thing was going to become a central character in the story, but I can assume that at the time, a follow-up on Roger wasn’t necessarily on people’s minds. It was just one of those fun side-stories we love those older Hellboy comics for. A cabinet of horrors gets opened up and something bizarre and truly imaginative jumps out that grabs us right in the brain, and then something else we’ve never seen before happens, and another and another. You get a feeling that there’s this world under the pages that you want to live in, but the story demands that we have to move onto the next thing, and that’s fine.
That Roger is introduced nearly as a gag and is then given a degree of pathos to a degree that I think Guillermo del Toro described as “Miltonian” in Almost Colossus is a wonderful development. It’s like playing Metroid, coming back to old rooms and through exploration, revealing a whole new path. Mignola does this specifically again in The Chained Coffin, when the spirits lurking in East Bromwich, mentioned ever so briefly in the very first issue of Seed of Destruction, are revealed to be Hellboy’s half-siblings, haunting the memory of their mother being dragged into Hell to birth Hellboy.
Almost Colossus introduces us to Roger the character, being pulled to the dark by his bitter failed experiment of a brother. His brother wants to be a God, but Roger is a pure soul. There’s no hate in him. We see him at first as a tragic, mournful creature but through the story he meets Hellboy and does the right thing, defeating his brother, getting picked up by the B.P.R.D., transferring his energy to Liz and getting named by Hellboy. We don’t quite get this in this story, but that his name is Roger is so perfect. It’s one of the most sublimely inoffensive English names in the world. It works so beautifully on a thematic level. Roger is just a guy. That’s the message of Roger’s whole story. He has this bizarre background and struggles with the idea that he’s a monster and not a man, may not have a soul, but at the end of the day, he’s a person. He’s Roger.
Over the next appearances we’re introduced to Roger’s innocence, which is another massive part of why Roger works. Once Mignola starts really writing Roger the character in Conqueror Worm, his voice starts to come out. It’s so distinctive you can almost hear it resonate in your head as you read it. He reads like an adult child. Not in a creepy way, just in that he’s this profoundly new and innocent being in the world, experiencing most everything he sees for the very first time. It’s this childlike innocence that also makes us, the readers, immediately defensive of him. I personally do not like seeing Roger in danger. It’s heart-breaking. You don’t want him to have to deal with badness. You want to protect him.
As the B.P.R.D. series emerges, we also see that with this innocence, there is also Roger’s nature as a blank slate. This again, makes such narrative sense. He is a constructed being, very much a person, but his brain, or whatever’s in there, doesn’t work like a human’s. While there is a true Roger inside him, the Roger that presents himself on the outside is sort of a chimera or the different personalities he’s exposed to. He goes from a wild animal to a character out of Paradise Lost to a friendly comic relief character, until finally, through too much exposure to fighting and Ben Daimio’s hard edged personality, he’s a killing machine.
That Roger is a blank slate that can be melded by those around him lends itself to the ease at which different artists can bring different moods and emotions out of illustrating him. Mike Mignola’s Roger is a brooding, haunted figure, Guy Davis’s Roger is a giant kid, while Richard Corben’s Roger is pretty scary looking. All of this is true on paper. No artist is bringing out an attribute of him that doesn’t fit, but the depictions are allowed to be wide ranging.
Roger also dies. He’s not present for all that long. We meet him and love him and then we lose him. It hurts. With Roger’s death, I think many of us lost our favorite character in B.P.R.D. at that point in time. The books really let us grieve too. The entire arc following his death is about Kate’s desperate attempt to bring Roger back. And after the whole multi-issue arc, Kate’s mission ends badly. The book she was looking for was lost. She couldn’t bring him back. Roger was gone. He couldn’t come back. To me, this speaks more about Roger’s humanity than a lot of the other stuff. Humans die and don’t come back. We’re not gods. We’re not messiahs. We’re just people. We’re here and we make lives for ourselves, try to make what differences we can, and then we’re gone. We don’t last forever. Our memories might though, and that’s the best we can ask for. That’s Roger’s plot in a nutshell.
Johann goes to Roger’s spirit in the afterlife in one of the most powerful moments in the whole series. Roger is now completely at peace in his little heaven. They say their goodbyes, and Johann leaves. The following reveal destroyed me. We see Roger’s true spiritual form; a baby boy with a ball. Innocence, happiness, childhood, peace.
Roger’s central thematic conflict is his wrestling with place between man and thing. He really isn’t a man. He was an inanimate object grown in a lab, built in a perverse experiment. But his background ends up irrelevant by the end of his story. His actions and relationships were what he was defined for. I think Roger ultimately represents us, or at least how Mike Mignola and John Arcudi think about the spirit of people. He’s a pure soul. He has his ups and downs. His personality runs the full spectrum of the human condition. Anger, sadness, loneliness, happiness, innocence, childhood, adulthood, life and death. He’s everything. He’s human.
I’ll leave you with this one last thing. When Roger dies, the B.P.R.D. crew check out his room, a place we’d never seen before in the comic until then. They find that it’s filled with little trinkets that Roger liked. Small objects that he picked up throughout his life, in his drawers and hanging from his wall. Pilot wings, buttons, nails. It reminded me of the time I found where my cat “lived” in my garage when I was growing up. I was moving some boxes around when I came across sort of a nest, just filled with bottle caps. My cat loved batting around bottle caps, picking them up in her mouth and taking them with her. We never really thought about where she put them, but that day I found out. There must have been 50 bottle caps in this space. It was just her little room. Later I realized it was the place she liked to go at night, when no one was around. During the day she slept around the house but this was her night spot. It’s just so simple and sweet and pure. The comic made me think of that.
See ya next week!