Saturday, June 02, 2012

Reviewing "The Storm and the Fury":The Platypus Reads Part CLII

So, when I was in college I spent a semester studying abroad at Oxford.  When I wasn't studying like mad or taking in the English culture, I turned to writing light fiction to pass the time.  On rainy evenings, I would sit down at the keyboard and tap out a few pages to send back to the folks at home.  Now in the midst of the writing, and the studying, and the rain, an idea came to me: what ever did happen to Vivian after she stole Merlin's spell and bound him in tree for all eternity.  Neither Mallory nor Tennyson have anything to say.  What if she was biding her time all those years until Arthur's kingdom fell and she could emerge as a power.  With her magic, the Saxons would worship her as a goddess and she would bring ruin on the isle of Britain.  Of course, she'd have to get her comeuppance in the end and be undone by the very powers she'd summoned.  That was my idea and it went exactly nowhere.  I couldn't write something like that and make it interesting enough to gain an audience; certainly not in today's market.  And that is why Mike Mignola is genius.  He looked at the same material, saw the same possibilities, and turned it into a mind-blowing story that average Americans will actually buy.  So without further ado, let's get on to talking about Mignola's latest triumph: Hellboy: The Storm and the Fury.


*Loads of Spoilers*

The Storm and the Fury brings to a close the second chapter of Hellboy's story.  We've followed Hellboy from his miraculous advent through his early years of working for the B.P.R.D.  We've seen him receive his odd call to be either the savior or destroyer of his world and spend a year being baptized in the sea.  After that, we've had Hellboy "reborn" upon the coast of England where the creatures of magic try to make him their king.  Hellboy refuses in typically bluff American style and faces a series of trials and torments.  During this time, the magical creatures of England turn to Nimue (Vivian) to lead them.  She assembles an army to crush the world of men.  Hellboy, meantime, is revealed as Arthur's heir and given the mystic sword Excalibur to destroy Nimue's armies.  That's the story thus far.

With that as the background, The Storm and the Fury opens.  Here, we see Hellboy and Alice investigating what seems to be a robbery.  The bodies of the noble dead of Britain are missing from their graves.  During the course of the investigation, Hellboy and Alice are attacked by a monster which reveals, before being sliced open with Excalibur, that Nimue is getting more than she bargained for.  The Ogdru Jahad, which she has served, are using her body as a channel through which they can be born into the world.  As it begins to rain, our two heroes stumble into a pub, the Grail, and find themselves suddenly surrounded by the noble dead of Britain who are ready to claim Hellboy for their king.  Hellboy refuses and, leaving Excalibur with Alice, sets out to defeat Nimue in his own way.  This leads to a run-in with Moloch, who tries to tempt Hellboy by offering the use of the army in Hell to defeat Nimue's hordes.  Hellboy punches the demon and again refuses the power offered to him (noticing a theme here).  After rejecting Moloch, however, the Baba Yaga appears and offers to transport Hellboy into Nimue's keep if he will give her his eye in payment for the eye he shot out years ago.  The bargain made, our hero briefly exits the stage and we turn back to Alice.  Confused and miserable, Alice is informed by the innkeeper that Arthur gave her the sword to do with as she chose.  She then relates the strange tale of the owner of the pub who was saved in the trenches of World War I by an appearance of the Holy Grail.  That man, though aged, is still here and when Alice presents him with the sword, he is revealed as Arthur reborn and, with the power of Excalibur and the Grail, leads the noble dead of Britain in one last charge to save the world and buy Hellboy the time he needs to defeat Nimue.  Nimue has, of course begun her transformation into the dragon (Ogdru Jahad) at this point.  After defeating her guards, our now one-eyed champion gets to fight the dragon itself.   This is a battle we're told he cannot win.  However, just when all seems lost, Vasilisa appears with the third raven from Nimue's crown, the part that represents her humanity.  When Hellboy's blood touches the bird it becomes a golden knife and with this tool Hellboy fells the dragon.  There's general rejoicing, but right as the battle seems won, Nimue's ghost snatches Hellboy's heart and carries him down to Hell.  The issue ends with a epilogue featuring the Brotherhood of Osiris speculating on the meaning of what has just transpired. 

As the twelfth issue of Hellboy, The Storm and the Fury had to be significant.  Mignola likes his symbols, and twelve is a very important number.  Beyond the twelfth issue concluding part two of Hellboy's life, symbolism abounds in this volume and a careful eye is needed to unpack all the little clues author and illustrator have left for us.  The apocalyptic imagery should be clear: Ragnarok, the return of Arthur at England's greatest need, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Nimue as the Whore of Babylon (Rasputin has already served as the false prophet: he even talks like the Lamb), and the Dragon (who now has suffered a deadly wound to one of its heads).  There's also an unmistakably Christological layer, Hellboy is mistaken for Odin who hung on the tree with a spear in his side, mistaken again for Thor who strives against the dragon, Hellboy's heart is surmounted by a flame like the Sacred Heart of Christ, and most importantly, Hellboy dies crushing the Dragon to save mankind and then descends into Hell (on the third day... anyone?).  We might also add the final image of the lily, a symbol of resurrection and holiness.  A little less obvious is the theme of grace that haunts the second half of the work.  We see in Arthur and Nimue's third raven that humanity still retains some desire for the good (what Christians call the imago deo or common grace), but this desire for good is powerless on its own, overwhelmed by evil.  It takes an act of divine grace to become fruitful; the appearance of the Grail in Arthur's case and Hellboy's sacrificed blood in the raven's case (btw. did you catch the foreshadowing when the apple from Nimue's tapestry becomes a halo over the third raven?).  Through the application of unmerited grace, then, both Arthur and the raven are transformed into the very means by which evil is defeated (think: the offspring of the woman crushes the serpent's head).  There's probably more in there, but that's what I picked up on a first read.

All of this leads to the interesting issue of how to interpret The Storm and the Fury.  I'll be frank, I think the fellow they got to write the intro has it all wrong; still a merely humanist reading is possible.  I suppose it all comes down to what sort of story Mr. Mignola is intending to tell and what sort of story his material requires him to tell.  Since Mignola himself is returning to draw the third chapter of Hellboy's life, I can hope that it will become even clearer.  It's taken years to get the story this far and I would never have guessed where it was headed when I first read Seed of Destruction.  Since then, Mike Mignola has shown himself to be a rare and superior story-teller.  Wherever he takes us in the next few years, I'm sure it will be amazing.   

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