Halloween Review: Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game

This was Steve Jackson Games’ effort to produce a role-playing game (RPG) based on the Hellboy setting and characters. The book is handsomely bound the same size as all the Hellboy trade paperback collected editions and produced in full color using lots of great Mignola art. Keep in mind that this book was published in 2002 and only includes information on the characters and setting of Hellboy through the fifth Hellboy trade paperback collection. At the time of its publication, it was probably the single best source of setting information on the Hellboy universe. None of that information has since become invalidated, of course, but it’s woefully incomplete now.

It includes a fun introductory short story by Christopher Golden; a five-page comic of a very minor Hellboy adventure in India; the aforementioned setting information; a slightly retooled and stripped-down version of GURPS role-playing game mechanics for gaming in the Hellboy universe; game write-ups for Hellboy, his BPRD pals, all the major villains from the first five Hellboy collections, and some generic write-ups of various other supernatural critters; and an adventure that I didn’t find to be all that interesting (spoiler: old Nazi occultist hiding out in Timbuktu with an enslaved djinn servant).

Value for gamers: Well, if you want to do some gaming in the Hellboy universe using a “lite” version of GURPS Third Edition, then you’re all set. This book really does include all you need to get started, though you’ll want to pick up several additional GURPS books if you plan to continue gaming in the setting, since these books will significantly increase the amount of magic and weirdness you can introduce. If you’re a Hellboy fan and want to do some Hellboy universe gaming using another set of game mechanics (something a little lighter or more free-form than GURPS, for example), you should be able to do so using the write-ups provided here. There is a fair amount of GURPS jargon (necessarily and understandably) in the character, creature, and magic write-ups, but it’s all pretty self-explanatory. But for that, obviously, you’re going to have to do all the heavy lifting yourself. Mechanically, I think that GURPS works adequately for Hellboy, but it’s a bit clunky and showing its age. Character creation requires a good bit of familiarity with the game system because GURPS is one of those older games that attempts to provide minutely-detailed rules for simulating every skill and action that a character might try. Personally, I used to really like that, but now I’m much more favorably inclined to “rules-lite” games.

Value for non-gamers: Sadly, if you’re a Hellboy fan but either have an allergy to role-playing games or aren’t interested in them at all, there are few good reasons to pick up this book unless you’re a true completist. You would be better off picking up The Hellboy Companion, which is much more up-to-date than this “sourcebook” and doesn’t waste any space on game mechanics.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5 for an entertaining presentation and valiant effort at producing a Hellboy role-playing game. No one else has picked up the license after Steve Jackson Games’ license expired, so this is all we’ve got for now.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: Hellboy, Volume 8: Darkness Calls

This trade paperback collects the six-issue Hellboy: Darkness Calls series, along with two new epilogues and a sketchbook, making it perhaps the meatiest (in terms of page count) of all the Hellboy collections to date. Mike Mignola writes this one, per usual, and artwork is mostly done by Duncan Fegredo, with whom I wasn’t previously familiar, but his style is good and meshes well with Mignola’s, so it’s a pretty seamless hand-off.

Note: This review features plot spoilers — read at your own risk.

The story opens with the cursed Satanist Igor Bromhead (remember him from “Box Full of Evil”?) having summoned Hecate in an Italian crypt and Hellboy washed up on the shores of England. Hellboy has a nasty run-in with a conclave of witches and their familiars as well as the ghost of an infamous witch-hunter. Once again, Hellboy is confronted with his demonic origins and renounces his apparent destiny to rule the armies of Hell. He’s a god egg, that one. Then he’s promptly sent into a mystic dimension where the Russian witch Baba Yaga – one of Hellboy’s old foes – rules. And she’s still pretty annoyed with him over the fact that he shot out one of her eyes in their last encounter so she sends her minion, Koshchei the Deathless, as well as a veritable army of animated skeletons. Helboy encounters a number of classic figures from Slavic folklore before he can overcome Baba Yaga and escape from this land of eternal Russian winter.

I give this one 4.5 stars out of 5. A rollicking good Hellboy adventure, and the return of Baba Yaga and the exploration of Russian/Slavic folklore was lots of fun. Highly recommended – you won’t even mind (much) that Mignola has turned over the reins on the art to Duncan Fegredo (except for one epilogue that Mignola draws), as there are plenty of wondrous creatures and gorgeous winter vistas throughout the story.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: Hellboy, Volume 7: The Troll Witch and Others

This trade paperback collects various mini-series, one-shots, and back-up features from the following comics: Hellboy: Makoma; The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings; The Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft; The Dark Horse Book of the Dead; The Dark Horse Book of Monsters; Hellboy: Premiere Edition; and an all-new story, “The Vampire of Prague.”

Note: This review features mild plot spoilers — read at your own risk.

Generally speaking, I found this collection to contain a mix of good stories and mediocre stories, with one very good story (The Troll Witch).

The Penanggalan: Short but sweet. Hellboy encounters a Malaysian vampire that separates its head from its body, flying around and strangling its victims with dangling entrails. I had heard of this creature a long time ago and always thought it was bizarre but cool. Now I finally got to see it in action.

The Hydra and the Lion: Hellboy fights a Hydra at the grave of Hercules. Sounds simple enough, but honestly, it contains some bizarre elements (courtesy of Mignola’s young daughter) and the hydra is poorly drawn in my opinion. Had a lot of unrealized potential.

The Troll Witch: For me, the stand-out story of the collection. Fairly short story in which Hellboy encounters the eponymous Troll Witch and hears the tale of how she came to be the way she is and what happened to her sister. Well-crafted and poignant.

The Vampire of Prague: Hellboy chases an elusive but fairly wimpy vampire in Prague. I was not wild about Craig Russell’s art and the story, such as it is, is pretty thin.

Dr. Carp’s Experiment: Another quick one in which Hellboy explores a “haunted house” and blunders into a trap that sends him back in time – where he fights a mad scientist and a demon-monkey – then is just as rapidly sent back to his own time. Fun.

The Ghoul: In the introduction to this story, Mignola mentions that this is one of the least-liked Hellboy stories by the fans, probably because the eponymous Ghoul n the story speaks only in poetry. Sounds pretty wacky, I know, but it worked. We have the graveyard encounter between Hellboy and the ghoul interspersed with shots of a puppet show where the puppets are performing Hamlet. Kind of a strange one, but I enjoyed it.

Makoma: The longest story in the collection. Semi-mythic journey of Hellboy traveling around Africa and encountering various giants. I’m not crazy about most African folklore and mythology, so this one didn’t do much for me. Richard Corben did much of the art for this story and it just didn’t work for me. He’s a good artist, but his style is just too different from Mignola and Davis to work as Hellboy art for me.

I give this collection 3.5 stars out of 5. It’s very much hit-or-miss for me. Had the two (longest) stories with guest artists been done by Mignola or Guy Davis, I probably would have rated this collection a half-star higher.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: BPRD, Volume 7: Garden of Souls

This trade paperback collects the five-issue BPRD: Garden of Souls series, along with an extensive and extremely cool sketchbook.

Note: This review features plot spoilers — read at your own risk.

Abe Sapien and Ben Daimio travel to Indonesia in search of clues to Abe’s past, and are promptly separated. While there, Abe discovers a mysterious island where some of his old Victorian colleagues (scientist-occultists) have set up shop. Their decaying bodies are preserved in really cool exoskeletons modeled on Victorian Era deep-sea diving suits, though they are growing new human bodies for themselves, planning to transfer their consciousnesses once the bodies are ready. And, by the way, they’ve also planted powerful bombs throughout the Pacific Rim designed to trigger massive tsunamis that will kill a couple hundred million people. The plan is that when these people die, their souls will be harvested by the occultists and used for, well, whatever it is that ancient amoral scientist-occultists would do with a couple hundred million souls. Whatever it is, Abe decides it’s a bad idea to let them finish. Oh, and the scientists have been spending their off-hours creating weird animal-hybrids (a la Dr. Moreau) and I must say that these are some of the most creative-looking critters I’ve seen. Very cool imagery here.

Ben is still looking for Abe when he is contacted by a female ancient Egyptian mummy who communicates via a possessed child. This mummy woman has been the prisoner of Abe’s old pals for the last century and a half and is interested in thwarting their plans, so she starts telling Ben what’s going on and he mobilizes the dismantling of the tsunami bombs.

As far as the other members of the BPRD, we see Liz and Johan only briefly. Liz receives an apocalyptic vision of what the Earth would look like if the Lovecraftian entities the Frogs are attempting to summon actually arrived. This is a wonderful, horrific, two-page spread and one of the highlights of the collection. Very, very striking stuff. Johan makes some additional discoveries in the abandoned records of the BPRD’s new mountain headquarters, including a possible insight into Ben Daimio’s background.

I highly recommend this one – like Volume 6, it’s an extremely strong entry in the series, providing a fun adventure, lots of beautiful images, and interesting insights into Abe Sapien’s mysterious origins (it’s not 100% resolved by the end of this story, but it’s close). I give it 4.5 stars out of 5, and would have given it the extra half-star if they’d found a way to integrate more of the other members of the BPRD with the main storyline.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: Hellboy, Volume 6: Strange Places

This trade paperback collects the two-issue Hellboy: The Third Wish series along with the two-issue Hellboy: The Island series.

Note: This review features mild plot spoilers — read at your own risk.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with this Hellboy collection, a first for me. It’s a short collection, only comprising a total of four comics, two two-issue stories. The first story collected here, The Third Wish, is the stronger of the two. I found the second story, The Island, to be unaccountably weak.

The Third Wish: Hellboy travels to Africa and ends up with a magic nail driven into his skull and is made a prisoner of a powerful sea-witch, held captive underwater for several years. Yes, that’s an odd premise, and no, the Africa bit is never really tied to either of the stories in this collection. It would have made a lot more sense to have Hellboy have some African-themed adventures (maybe tangling with spider-trickster gods, were-leopards, lost civilizations a la Tarzan, etc., but none of those happened). In any case, it’s a dark tale where three mermaids have their wishes granted (Monkey’s Paw-style) by the sea-witch and Hellboy eventually frees himself, but not before learning that he very well may be fated to bring about the end of the world.

The Island: After Hellboy frees himself, he washes up on a mysterious island, having a cool encounter with the ghosts of three sailors and meets a revenant sorcerer who reveals the secret history of the world, the fall of the angels, etc. We do gain some insight into the nature of Hellboy’s right hand, but none of it makes a great deal of sense and there’s not a great deal of dialogue in this story, Mignola seeming to fill many of the pages with cool, eerie, but ultimately pointless imagery. I was pretty disappointed with this story because Mignola relies too heavily on mood rather than plot. A better balance is needed. There are a number of “bonus” pages at the end that show how Mignola was originally planning to sketch out the start of this story, and while interesting to artists, I didn’t get much out of that section.

This was a thin, oddly self-indulgent collection and the weakest of the Hellboy collections to date. Sure, it has plenty of sweeping visuals and Hellboy is always entertaining, but I can’t say that this was a strong effort on Mike Mignola’s part. To be honest, unless you’re a hardcore Hellboy fan, I don’t think this is an essential volume in the series. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: BPRD, Volume 6: The Universal Machine

Note: this review contains spoilers.

This is the sixth BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) trade paperback set in the Hellboy universe. It collects stories from BPRD: The Universal Machine #1-5.

Please note that this review contains spoilers.

Kate Corrigan really comes into her own here. As we know from the conclusion of the frog saga (see BPRD: THE BLACK FLAME), Roger the homunculus was apparently destroyed, and Kate (and some of Roger’s teammates) refuse to accept this. Since Roger was never quite alive (in the sense that you and I are), how can he be dead? Kate follows a lead to a small town in France where a rare book dealer may possess a book containing information that can be used to bring Roger back to life. The book dealer is far more than he appears, being a nigh-immortal collector of oddities and esoterica (and quite possibly insane — aren’t they all?). He and his vampiric minions hold Kate hostage, seeking Roger’s remains for his collection. Instead, Kate manages to best the collector at his own game and defeats him before she can be rescued by the BPRD. For the first time I really enjoyed Kate’s character as a fully-realized member of BPRD, and her interactions with her kidnapper are delightful. Sadly, in the end, Roger cannot be restored to life, but through his spirit’s interactions with Johann, Roger is content to accept that.

During Kate’s adventure, the rest of the BPRD team recount poignant tales from their own pasts. We learn how Daimio “died” on his last official mission; Johann tells of the time he fell in love with the ghost of a dead woman when he was still alive; Liz tells us more about the accidental death of her family; and we see a quick cameo by Hellboy when Abe describes one of their past missions together. This mission concerns an ill-fated wendigo who will become important in BPRD: KILLING GROUND (Volume 8 of the series). The common denominator of these stories (aside from the perpetual weirdness that surrounds them) is loss (and perhaps, eventual acceptance of that loss), which seems to be the theme of this collection.

Very good book, highly recommended. I like it better than BPRD Volumes 4 and 5. The main story with Kate reveals her to be an interesting character in her own right (and that paranormal abilities aren’t required to have a cool adventure) and the secondary stories all provide poignant details about the rest of the team.  I give it 5 stars out of 5.

Review copyright 2009 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: Hellboy, Volume 5: Conqueror Worm

This trade paperback collects the four-issue Hellboy: The Conqueror Worm series, rather than a collection of shorter adventures as some of the past trade paperbacks have done.

Note: This review features mild plot spoilers — read at your own risk.

There are really three protagonists here, all of whom play pivotal roles: Hellboy, Roger the Homunculus, and ‘30s pulp action hero Lobster Johnson, who’s seen here – even in his spectral form – as a ruthless badass. Hellboy and Roger are sent out to a ruined castle to deal with a returning Nazi space capsule that is returning to Earth after a sixty-year hiatus. The two eventually encounter Lobster Johnson, who, as it turns out, was killed at the castle in 1939 when he tried to stop the Nazi rocket from being launched.

The rocket was sent into space with the dead body of a Nazi scientist on board so that it could be inhabited by one of the evil spirits of the void with whom the Nazis had made contact.

One of the last of the old-school Nazi occultists, Herman von Klempt, now just a head in a jar, is on hand with his granddaughter, some neo-Nazi minions, and his next-generation cyborg gorilla to usher in the apocalypse that this void spirit is sure to bring. Sure enough, it takes the form of a gigantic worm/caterpillar/thing that grows as it consumes life. Our heroes only just manage to stop this beast from destroying all life on Earth.

This is another excellent installment in the Hellboy series and I highly recommend it. 5 stars out of 5.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers