The King of Cheers
All article art from King Vold, in The Right Hand of Doom
Everyone who’s read Hellboy has their favorite story. It’s a series that lends itself to a diversity of opinions. There’s long 6 issue series, one shots, even very short stories that take up only a few pages. Additionally, there’s a myriad tones author Mike Mignola plays with in these stories. Some are creepy horror stories, some are dramatic tragedies, others are light and humorous and some are lively action stories. Most are some combination of all. That’s where my favorite story in the whole Hellboy series comes in: King Vold.
King Vold is my absolute favorite Hellboy story. I love it more than anything else in the series which is saying a lot because every Hellboy story feels like a close friend. King Vold is very special. In it, we get an invented fable straight out of Grimm’s Fairytales set in semi-modern times. It’s wonderfully self contained yet fits in beautifully with the rest of the series, and it’s packed with the good stuff. Every page has something interesting and new on it. It’s also a perfect example of Mike’s unique writing style.
The story is fairly simple, but has a ton going on in it. We first meet Hellboy as he’s being sent out to help a colleague of Professor Bruttenholm‘s out in Norway. As we’re treated to Mignola’s beautiful landscapes, we get little tidbits about local folklore that paints this very ancient, dreamlike picture of the kind of world we’re setting foot in. This tone, grounded in truth, but bigger than what we traditionally see in our regular human lives, brings to mind how it felt when members of the local Native American tribe came to my school when I was a kid and told us about the land as it was before it got colonized. I also recall going to New England’s Stonehenge when I was a kid, and feeling a very deep, very important connection to something happening outside of perception. Imagine being 9 years old, standing in a rock circle made by who-knows-who that has been there for untold years, used by ancient people to predict the paths of the stars. When you’re in a place like that, you feel special. Some people need ASMR videos to get themselves there, but dreamlike mystery is what brings me to that feeling. The Hellboy books that Mignola pens are rooted firmly in this feeling.
Hellboy and Bruttenholm’s friend climb a mountain to see if they can meet King Vold. King Vold appears and makes them watch over one of his wolves for the night. If they do so they will he rewarded. So begins a humorous, scary and rich action sequence where Hellboy has to fight a wolf. During the fight, the wolf transforms into wolfman and then reveals itself as the ghost of a Berserker, wearing a wolf’s pelt. I love this detail. It feels like a big reveal in the story yet if you were to just quickly tell this story to someone it would seem like a supercilious detail. “King Vold’s wolves are the ghosts of ancient berserkers.” Okay. This doesn’t seem to amount to much. But it lends an important richness to what’s happening here that elevates the scene from just some fight. Yes the characters are fighting but the story here isn’t just “they punch each other until one wins.” It’s bigger than that. There’s things being revealed here THROUGH the fight that make everything feel significant. This way of telling a story through action is a big part of why the Hellboy series works in general. Almost every action sequence is like this in some way.
Hellboy bests the berserker and King Vold returns to congratulate him for lasting the night. He gives Bruttenholm’s associate a reward. The man chooses gold. As he picks up the coins Vold gives to him, they burn clean through his hands, as he chose poorly out of greed. It’s something out of some old fable. It becomes a moral play. It’s incredible. No one can write this stuff and make it seem as naturalistic yet significant as it does as Mignola can. Mignola’s knack for writing stories that feel like folklore is often attributed to him creating a pastiche of existing fables. While there are many stories in his world where elements from existing folklore are present, a good amount of the tales are wholly original. King Vold is made from scratch. There are inspirations there, but if you were to tell the reader that all Mignola was doing here was inserting his character into a story that’s not his, that reader would likely believe you. In his copious study and immersion in working within folktales and legends, Mignola has become a master at creating them. When you’re reading Hellboy, you’re not reading a story that’s like an old folktale. You’re literally reading a new one.
Another part of why I love this story is that despite being its own little story that you could read on its own, without any exposure to the rest of the stories, and never read another Hellboy story again and feel like you got the whole picture, it still takes up a somewhat significant place in the greater Hellboy mythos. On a more meta-sense, this speaks toward the story writing process itself. While the early days of Hellboy had plenty of continuity to string everything together, it was mostly a series on one-off adventures. A significant portion of the readership will tell you that the short stories end up being better than the longer arcs. But something happened around the time between when The Island and Darkness Calls came out. Something changed in the narrative. Instead of a series of mostly short horror adventures to go on forever, the end started coming into view, and with it, pieces from all the little short stories that came before started falling into place as the small details of the greater narrative of the unlikely messiah and the end of the world. King Vold isn’t the only short story with details that come into play later as the series becomes more singularly focused on progressing a narrative, but it’s my favorite one. At the end of the story, Vold acknowledges Hellboy by his true name, the name which at this point in the timeline Hellboy has yet to learn. He knows exactly who he is. And many years later, as the armies of light and darkness are riding toward each other in the Hellboy world’s version of the battle of Armageddon, King Vold and his Wild Hunt are riding with them, spelling doom for all. It’s just excellent. I could write on and on and on about this but it’s just damn excellent.
I should also note that King Vold wasn’t even published as a regular comic. It was created especially for a trade paperback. That a story that is LITERALLY an afterthought can be this good is incredible to me. There’s nothing better to me than a good story, and luckily the Hellboy series is full of good stories. This story happens to be my favorite out of all of them. What’s your favorite? Why? Let me know!