Hellboy - The Swedish Connection
Editor’s note - This is the first in our cultural series about the Mignolaverse across the world. These will all be presented as close as possible to the author’s submission to preserve the cultural style and formatting they gave me. If you’re interested in talking about your international Hellboy fandom, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the longest time Sweden has fostered a love/hate relationship with the USA and American pop culture. I grew up getting a regular and generous helping of both. I got the love of Elvis Presley’s music through parents who were also heavily invested in the peace movement.
When I was born the Vietnam War was on its last leg, so the soundtrack of my early life was the unlikely combo of Elvis at home and chants of “Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh” as mom or dad pushed me around in a baby cart at demonstrations calling for Vietnamese independence and an end to the conflict. Some other early pop culture memories are the thrill of getting my first Pez dispenser (a brown Chip in a top hat) or that time visiting my great grandfather when I just had to show him my super cool Popeye bendy toy that came packaged in a plastic spinach can.
As I got a little older I used to pretend that the family Volvo was actually the Batmobile, with myself and dad in the roles of Batman and Robin on our way to a night of crime fighting rather than one of his gigs as a protest singer/troubadour. Me and my sisters never missed a broadcast of The Muppet Show or Scooby-Doo Where Are You? and were huge Disney fans. But we also went to Cinema Kontrast screenings with accompanying lectures. The movies and talks often had a leftist slant, deriding the American cultural imperialism inherent in watching Donald Duck cartoons and their propagation of what they saw as capitalist values and racism. Did this stop us from sitting through hours of boring grown up talk shows like Good Morning Sweden just so we could catch the episode of Woody Woodpecker they had hidden in there somewhere? Not a chance! To put things in perspective for international readers: at this time you had two TV channels in Sweden. Yes two, no cable services available. So those cartoons were few and far between let me tell you. We culturally malnourished kids went to great lengths to catch whatever scraps we got from the great animation buffet we knew was out there somewhere. And for those lectures, alternative film screenings and whatnot I attended. Rather than putting me off the negative opinions I heard about all the American stuff I loved just inspired my critical thinking and the idea that there are often more sides to every story.
To broaden the perspective from my personal history, comics like The Phantom, Batman and Donald Duck have been in more or less continuous circulation in Sweden since their introduction in 1944, 1945 and 1948 respectively. While certainly subjected to some pretty harsh criticism at various points during their publication history they are still part of the Swedish cultural make up today. One notable example of such criticism occurred in 1954 when a Swedish equivalent of Frederic Wertham's infamous Seduction of the Innocent was released. Nils Bejerot’s Barn - Serier - Samhälle (Children - Comics - Society) trotted out the usual arguments about comics being to a great extent violent, misogynistic and racist reading material that dulled young minds. To people that actually read comics his arguments seem more than a little curious. Take this quote for instance: “Superman is one of the vilest magazines mixing violence, crime, brutality, worship of the overman and pseudoscience,” (page 89 in his book). What issue of Superman did this guy read anyway? One can only wonder how Bejerot would have reacted to an issue of for instance Tales From the Crypt. With cardiac arrest probably. While his book did not instigate a Swedish counterpart to the Senate Subcommittee investigations to which EC publisher William Gaines was subjected and the madness that followed in their wake, it was kept in print and so continued to reach all the wrong people throughout my childhood and adolescence. Impressionable parents, teachers and librarians got a lot of weird ideas about American comics due to Bejerot. On the other hand Franco Belgian adventure fare like Asterix by Goscinny and Uderzo or Herge’s Tintin was more readily accepted. These books were available at public libraries throughout the country and remain the template for how most Swedes view comics. This was many years before the infamous Tintin-gate that I got to experience up close since I was working at Serieteket (The Comic Book Library) of Stockholm at the time. But that’s a story for another occasion. Another example of Swedish appreciation of American pop culture that sometimes throws international observers is the ritualistic watching of Disney show From All of Us to All of You that many perform every Christmas. Again I think this just hit the right chord at a time when cartoons were not that easy to come by. Speaking of movies, the American variety has always been a staple of the Swedish cinema repertoire to the extent that these days it is not unusual for various tent pole titles to have their world premiere in Sweden rather than the US.
Getting back to my story, let’s fast forward through the 80’s that consisted of a steady cultural diet of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal (that I watched twice back to back the first night we rented it on VHS) and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Most of my weekly allowance was invested into many hours spent at a smoky billiard and bowling place that also hosted a row of arcade cabinets. That was until Hem och skola (Home and school - a well intentioned but sometimes misguided “union” for children run by adults safeguarding their “best interests”) put an end to that party and made the owners ban children under fifteen from playing. A few years later they also convinced many stores to stop selling Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. Gee guys, thanks a lot for keeping us safe from really harmful things. My reading habits consisted of all the Marvel comics available on Swedish stands, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Tolkien, Kafka, H. P. Lovecraft (got hooked after playing Call of Cthulhu) plus issues of Heavy Metal and other more adult euro comics fare that a boyfriend of one of my sisters brought into the household. As the decade was coming to a close we finally got cable and my taste in movies was forever altered thanks to late night screenings of Hammer Film classics and other monstrous delights.
What all of this very lengthy preamble has to do with Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics is that when Seed of Destruction arrived on our shores back in 1994 it spoke to the Swedish comics reader in what was basically a second language. In my circles at least there was not much of a feeling of a cultural divide or that this was a particularly American comic. To us this just seemed like the perfect amalgam of different stuff that we had grown up loving. I was aware of Mignola's work before Hellboy. My introduction was through the cover to issue number six of The Punisher (another perennial favorite of mine) ongoing series released in 1987. After stumbling across that at sadly missed establishment Metropolis in Stockholm, I kept a lookout for his distinctive style whenever I had the opportunity to visit a shop carrying American imports. An all too rare pleasure in those days when the closest comics place was in another town about 40 minutes away by car. Not a long trip but by any standards I know. If you have car that is. So when 1994 rolled around I had already been collecting Mignola's work in a rather haphazard fashion for a couple of years. Found Superman Volume 2 #23 in a sales bin at one shop, was completely floored by Gotham by Gaslight and the cover to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser #3 after picking them up at some other place. Not to mention the cream of the crop in the form of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Volume 1 #54, containing proto Hellboy story “Sanctum”. I clearly remember the months of giddy anticipation roused by the beautiful promo poster for the first issue of Seed of Destruction. I'm still kicking myself that I did not buy it from Seriezonen (The Comics Zone) back in the day! By this time I had moved to university town Uppsala and been blessed with having a comic shop down the street from where I lived and another a couple blocks away. Looking back to me standing by the window scrutinizing that poster and later discussing it with friends, I just knew this comic would be one of the great loves of my life.
Nazis performing occult experiments to summon Elder Gods was a well worn trope even then, but one that got a new luster by Mignola's superior renderings. The Lovecraftian mythology underlying much of the first series is well known and appreciated in Sweden. The first translation of the Providence gentleman's stories appeared as early as 1954. And as the series progressed and expanded its scope my admiration has just grown exponentially. Mignola has continued to tap into things we both hold dear: monsters, folklore, occultism, art history, pulp heroes, Hammer and lucha libre movies - you know the score. Like most Swedes I have weak spot for when our little corner of the world gets recognition in pop culture from across the Atlantic. I remember how the whole theater freaked out when “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede started blasting from the speakers at the premiere of Reservoir Dogs and I’ve lost count of how many times friends have repeated that “Borg? Sounds Swedish,” line from Star Trek: First Contact. And let me tell you people over here really went bananas when “He Who Is Not To Be Named” made his infamous and uninformed “Last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this!” quip in a speech last year. So needless to say I’ve gotten a thrill when Mignola’s folklore studies have brought the stories closer to my home. To the best of my recollections there are references to Nordic but not specifically Swedish myths in the comics. You have for instance "King Vold" and "The Troll Witch" taking place in Norway where Mignola used regional tales (and even a reference shot of a Norwegian cottage a fan sent him) as a basis. The "King Vold" story as you know ends with the scheming Aickman begging on the streets of Copenhagen. He next shows up in illustrated novel The Bones of Giants where he has relocated to Swedish capital Stockholm. Despite having never set foot here writer Christopher Golden gives the story some local flavor throwing in references to the legendary jazz club Stampen and having some of the action take place in the Royal Gardens (Djurgården). During the course of the story Thor’s hammer fuses with Hellboy's Right Hand of Doom and various references to Norse mythology sprinkles the narrative. Then we have "Abe Sapien: The Haunted Boy" where some allusions are made to the water spirit Nacken/Neck who pops up under various names in the Nordic and Germanic mythology and folklore. I actually wrote in to ask much missed editor Scott Allie about the inspiration for the story. Only to hear that in this instance they just made stuff up, which was a hoot in itself!
Having read and reread the Hellboy comics many times over the years and working at Sweden's only library devoted to comics might have skewed my perspective somewhat. But even to an outside observer the appreciation and understanding of what Mignola is doing should be highly evident when you look at the Swedish comics community. Cartoonists like Peter Bergting (nowadays the main artist on Joe Golem and the Drowning City), Jonas Andersson, Daniel Thollin (1000 Eyes), Ola Skogäng (Theo's Occult Curiosities) and Joakim Hanner (Kelippot) are all doing work in a vein similar to Mignola's while giving their stories a distinctly Swedish touch. I certainly don't feel lonely as a Hellboy fan over here.
correction: fixed name of Nils Bejerot. Apologies to the author.