Sympathy for Wake the Devil
Editor’s note: This article was meant to be part of a series, in which all the writers of Mignolaverse.com talked about their most beloved Hellboy-series story. The original plan was for us to publish all four of them (now five) in one week. We’ve all gotten kinda busy, so that didn’t happen, but all of these stories will be published soon. If you have your own favorite Hellboy narrative, feel free to send your ideas or writings HERE and you may be featured on the site in the future. Enjoy!
Out of all of the stories set in the Mignolaverse, ‘Wake the Devil’ is the one that carved Hellboy onto my heart. This is the first example of Mignola writing on his own and the narrative style feels vastly different from ‘Seed of Destruction’ and the early short works. The most notable change being the loss of the detective style inner-monologue. Mignola has a very unique voice, which comes into its own during these issues.
My connection to ‘Wake the Devil’ is stronger than most of the other Mignolaverse entries, because this is the story that introduced the series’ unique combination of history, mythology and super-heroics.
I consider Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ to be one of the greatest works of fiction, ever. Part of what I love about it, is that everything is based on real-world examples. Every pantheon, every fable, every cautionary tale, every inconsequential mythological side-character, has a real-world counterpart. Of every comic book I have read, ‘Hellboy’ and the accompanying canon, is the only other example that I feel has executed this well. The major difference, and this is what solidified my fandom, is that in Hellboy, the whole world knows that everything is true. You rarely find a skeptic in this universe, and ‘Wake the Devil’ is where we see this unfold.
Opening like a classic, campy ‘Captain America’ story, complete with hidden castles, frozen Nazis, and killer robot suits, the first chapter then takes a surprisingly morbid turn, especially for so early on, with an American billionaire teaming up with Nazi occultists to destroy the world, purely out of boredom.
The slow reveal of the mythological elements of this story is done tastefully. The breadcrumbs leading you to each revelation are subtle, yet effective. Beginning with the atypical nature of the vampiric Count Giurescu. While being briefed, the B.P.R.D. team simply accept that the Count’s supernatural nature is likely true. After all, present in this briefing area pyrokinetic, a fish-man, and a half-demon, so why wouldn’t they?
As the larger story unfolds, I remember the anticipation of each new reveal, and the goosebumps forming as I read the phrase “ladies of Thessaly”. It took me back to Greek mythology, and back to ‘Sandman’, with the character bearing this name. I already knew of the stories about “drawing down the moon” from these explorations, and to see another writer/artist interpreting this was so exciting. The terrifying, monstrous form of Hecate was a gruesome change to her mythological roots, but having read about her prior to Mignola’s version, I enjoyed this twist on an old character. Feeling like I was already well versed on some of the mythological characters, I felt comfortable with Mignola’s story.
We are given a taste, a small taste of the secret history of Mignola’s world. Through Giurescu’s father, Rasputin’s flashbacks, and additional exposition during Hellboy’s fight, we learn of Hecate’s corruption of mankind in its early days. Hecate reveals Hellboy’s connection to the larger supernatural world, and its creatures. I also love how they folded her in to the larger history of the Mignolaverse and Hellboy’s life.
Often I find myself sympathising, even empathising with people, living, dead, and fictional. I find that it is easier to understand the world around you if you try to understand others. Within fiction, if I can't do this, then I can’t care about the story. Mignola does an excellent job of making me care with almost every character.
For me this is most evident with Rasputin and Ilsa’s b-plot. Here it is first confirmed that this apocalyptic monk is in fact Grigori Rasputin, with him, we have Ilsa Haupstein, a Nazi, whose ideals transcend the twisted philosophy that victimized my family and many other European Jews at that time, and found a way to be worse. She goes from racism and genocide, to complete and utter annihilation of our world and universe. The bottomless rage that must drive her everyday is inconceivable. In those few panels leading to Ilsa being enclosed in Elizabeth Bathory’s iron maiden (how cool is that reference btw), despite everything that she is and has done, Mike Mignola succeeds in making me...feel bad...for a Nazi. She laments over lost love, and over the life she is giving up. The tear in her human eye before Rasputin closes the door, and the bloody tear forming in the iron maiden afterwards, moved me deeply.
In addition to giving us a sympathetic view of a “No-Good Nazi Bitch,” we get an equally touching epilogue for Rasputin. Sitting there in his defeat, in mourning of his own life and plans, I couldn’t help but feel bad for him. Even the Baba Yaga, this evil, cannibalistic witch, plays the loving grandmother, offering regret, sympathy and comfort. The treatment of these characters is the strongest case for the level of storytelling skills it takes to create 'Hellboy' comics.
Here is a story is full of amazing references and character revelations, I could talk about it for days. We are see the first appearance of Sir Edward Grey, a soon to be recurring character appearing in multiple mini-series of his own, revealing plot connections that have consequences across reality. Also introduced is a fan favorite, and particularly important person (although he is not named until later), Roger the Homunculus. This little side plot also provides us with something very important; the depths of Liz Sherman’s depression, self-doubt, and desperation. Additionally we are introduced to something else that has grave and global reach, the Zinco Corporation. While their presence in the story was mostly comedic equipment failure, this will not be the last time we see them, and these will not be their most heinous actions.
Just being the first example of a trope doesn’t necessarily make it the best example, but the Mignolaverse is where we see a title character being the literal center of all of the occurrences in their universe. Spider-man doesn’t enjoy that status, neither does Superman. In their worlds, they are a part of a bigger, shared story. In Hellboy’s world, everyone else is a part of his, and it is first made evident in in Wake the Devil.
Though Vladimir Giurescu’s part in the grand scheme of things is fairly small, everything that occurs in his story reverberates throughout the Mignolaverse. The ripple effect will keep spreading out, likely until the very last issue. This is why it’s my favorite story in the Mignolaverse. It essentially sets the stage and lays the blueprints for the entirety of Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.’s future.