If you follow Duncan Fegredo on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen the various Hellboy drawings he does for fans—his continued love for the character is so wonderful to see—and yet we haven’t had a story from him since 2013’s ‘The Midnight Circus.’ So as soon as “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: The Beast of Vargu” was announced, I was already eager to read it. Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo together is always going to make for a truly special comic.
Written by Mike Mignola
Illustrated by Duncan Fegredo
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins
Variant cover by Mike Mignola
Mike Mignola and fan-favorite artist Duncan Fegredo reunite in this all-new one-shot!
This first issue in a new era of Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. sees Mignola and Fegredo send Hellboy to Romania for a pair of tales set in a small village with a centuries-old curse and a man-eating monster which culminate in a sinister puppet show and a demigod’s ill-fated dinner.
‘The Beast of Vargu’ is still new to me, so it’s hard to put it up against twenty-five years of “Hellboy” and judge it objectively. It’s not an event comic, so everything’s very small scale, especially in the wake of “B.P.R.D.: The Devil You Know,” but some of the best “Hellboy” comics are often very small scale. What ‘The Beast of Vargu’ sets out to do, it does with such expert precision, I cannot help but marvel. It feels like an instant classic, another high bar for the Hellboy Universe. When I finished this issue, I couldn’t help but think, “That was fantastic,” and well over a week later, I still feel the same way.
The issue features two stories, ‘The Beast of Vargu’ and a four-page short, ‘The Secret God of the Roma.’ If you look inside the interior cover, it’s missing the usual “Number X in a series” text—unlike previous issues of “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.,” this issue is outside the ongoing Occult Cold War story that’s been moving forward through events chronologically from 1952. This frees up Mike Mignola and company to explore any year they wish to do stand-alone tales akin to the “Hellboy” flashback tales that populate the “Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories” omnibuses.
‘The Beast of Vargu’ is set in Romania, 1962. HB’s been sent to investigate the Beast of Castle Vargu in the wake of six people going missing (aside from a few limbs). Given this is a one-shot, I went in expecting a slow build to the monster, but Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo had other plans. This story really played with my expectations, getting into the action early and then delving into something stranger in the second half, and turning the battle beforehand on its head.
Oh, and of course, there are puppets. Whenever puppets appear in one of Mignola’s stories, we always end up getting something special, and ‘The Beast of Vargu’ is no exception, while also being something wholly unique. To keep this spoiler free, I’ll avoid saying anything further about the plot, but the inventive use of the puppets in this story was certainly my favourite part of it.
Duncan Fegredo’s art and Dave Stewart’s colors are magnificent—no surprise to any “Hellboy” reader. In particular, I like the way they played with space and time. There’s a sequence that goes between the world of the puppet show, flashbacks, and Hellboy watching the show. Throughout, Fegredo’s incredibly careful that each moment reads without confusing eyelines or the direction of action (and considering how much overlapping action there is, this is no small feat). Stewart has a similar difficulty, since he has to marry these sequences together, giving each its own color identity, while still giving it the range it needs to tell its story and develop a color arc, and also giving these sequences the flexibility to bleed into each other when needed. It’s a tall order, and yet Stewart pulls it off so well, the effort is utterly invisible in the final comic. The result is an extremely fluid and immersive read.
Since io9 already ran the full version of ‘The Secret God of the Roma,’ I’m not going to worry about spoilers for this part of the review. If you haven’t read it yet, consider this your spoiler warning. (We also had a look at Fegredo’s process yesterday, if you missed it.)Continued below
Even though it’s only four pages long, I got a lot out of ‘The Secret God of the Roma.’ Mignola absolutely packs it with thoughtful moments.
Mignola has often described the character of Hellboy as being inspired by wandering heroes, something that has only become more true over time as he was untethered from the Bureau and set to wandering the world, and then later Hell. It’s a beautiful notion that this quality endears him to the Roma. And it’s not hard to see why, as there are several similarities between the Roma’s secret god and Hellboy. Indeed, the duality of the Man-God’s nature echoes Hellboy’s own duality.
This is where I find Mignola’s writing so intriguing. ‘The Secret God of the Roma’ could be read as just a folktale, with strange logic and simple evils, but Mignola always puts in elements that suggest more, that invite us to read into the story. He’s careful what he chooses to show and tell, giving us elements that may suggest connections and meanings beyond the literal, but are those meanings really there? It’s always left vague enough that there’s something familiar about it all and yet not concrete enough for a reader to declare a definitive meaning.
For example, the Man-God is given a weapon by an angel, placed in his right hand, and the panel flashes red in this moment. You could draw a parallel to Hellboy’s red stone right hand, which holds the power of the watcher Anum… or it could just be a knife, and the flash of red is simply pre-empting a moment of violence. Maybe the whole Anum/Hellboy parallel is a bit of a stretch, but we’ve already been invited to draw parallels between Hellboy and the Man-God before this moment.
Then when the Man-God cuts open the belly of the evil man, he releases two serpents, which tempt the Man-God with the promise of greater power. This is something we’ve seen happen repeatedly to Hellboy over the years, especially from Astaroth who carries a snake staff. The twin snakes could even be inviting a connection to the twin serpents, Nimung-Gulla, a symbol for the power of the Black Goddess and the followers of the Left Hand Path… or they could just be two evil serpents. Again, there is no definitive reading.
The point is not that the story could have vague connections to the greater mythology of the Hellboy Universe, but rather it’s the way Mignola invites the reader to bring their own meanings to the piece and he does so almost invisibly. ‘The Secret God of the Roma’ is not a passive reading experience.
Finally, I must once more praise Fegredo. He brought a lot of energy to the page here, and I think these puppet stories must be a challenge, since virtually all of them have been previously drawn by Mike Mignola himself and they have a very specific tone and atmosphere. Compare this alongside ‘The Exorcist of Vorsk’ and you’ll see what I mean.
Given Fegredo’s incredible success when he took the baton from Mignola for ‘The Wild Hunt’ trilogy, it’s no surprise to see him pull off something like this, and yet it remains surprising nonetheless.
Final verdict: 9 – ‘The Beast of Vargu’ and ‘The Secret God of the Roma’ are instant classics, a sheer joy to read.