Much of “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.” over the past two years has focused on standalone tales. You would be forgiven for thinking that this would make each story feel slight, non-essential, or skippable, and yet time and time again, the opposite is true. “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: The Secret of Chesbro House” is simply unmissable.
Written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Illustrated by Shawn McManus
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins
Hellboy works with a psychic to clear a haunted mansion for auction. But the ghosts in residence aren’t quite ready to go gentle into that good night, and the answer may lie in a connection with the living world. . .
Hellboy creator Mike Mignola teams with longtime collaborator Christopher Golden and artist extraordinaire Shawn McManus to bring you a brand-new frightful delight from the world of Hellboy!
It’s surprising to me how long it has taken for Christopher Golden to write a “Hellboy” comic. He’s been working on “Hellboy” stories since 1997’s Hellboy: The Golden Army prose novel, and has since gone on to write several others, to edit short story anthologies, and even write a few issues of the “B.P.R.D.” comic. So, even though this is Golden’s first time writing a “Hellboy” comic, this is someone with a quarter of a century of experience writing Hellboy and it shows.
‘The Secret of Chesbro House’ is very much a classic haunted house story—rather surprisingly a rarity in the Hellboy Universe. Yes, we’ve seen many hauntings, but in those stories the creepy house is just the backdrop, not the centerpiece like it would be in a classic haunted house story. A for a haunted house that’s the focal point of the story, we’ve only really had a pair of short stories; ‘Dr. Carp’s Experiment,’ which started off as a haunted house story, only to veer sharply sideways into a time-traveling punch-up with a demon chimp; and ‘Sullivan’s Reward,’ a haunted house that eats people. But they were both short stories, whereas ‘The Secret of Chesbro House’ is a two-issue miniseries, and so Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden take the opportunity to dig into a haunted house story and really take their time with it. We’re presented with tales about Chesbro House, but with varying degrees of truth to them, and we’re given time to puzzle over them. I can’t stress how important that is to the mood of the comic, that we’ve given time to sit with things. This is a comic where I feel like the pacing makes it all work, and it’s pitch perfect.
However, if the story is going to slow down and linger for a bit, then it helps to have a cast of compelling characters. The characters here are common archetypes, but brought to life with such relish, it’s fun just to sit back and watch them bounce off of each other. The standout character for me is the medium Madame Zemperelli, so much so that I hope we’ll get to see her in another story in the future. Hellboy’s never been fond of mediums, so the way these two bounce off of each other makes for an interesting dynamic.
Shawn McManus’s art plays off the writing magnificently here, putting so much life into every little expression. Even when a character isn’t speaking, you can see what they’re interested in, who they’re listening to. McManus is always finding ways to bring the characters’ interior life to the page.
Since this is a haunted house tale, the location is obviously very important, and here again McManus’s art shines. He’s very precise in the way the house is laid out. This isn’t some nebulous background, instead it’s exceptionally specific, which allows McManus to be specific in the way he uses the background to tell the story. There are other things going on here, some nice little bits of visual storytelling, that I can’t really talk about without spoiling this issue, so I’ll save that discussion for the review of issue #2. Needless to say, the way he draws Chesbro House is a big part of why this story works. Without his care and fastidiousness in this aspect alone, I’d feel like an essential element would be missing.Continued below
There’s something in the staging of this issue that feels like a small stage play to me. When a new character arrives, it’s almost like the lights come up on a certain part of the stage revealing a new character. There’s a deliberate abruptness to each character’s appearance that feels theatrical. It’s in the writing, it’s in the panel composition, and it’s in Dave Stewart’s colors. Just look at the way Madame Zemperelli is introduced in the opening pages, how the temperature of the colors change when she enters the comic. It’s just like the lights coming up in that stage play. Suddenly the space seems a little larger, less claustrophobic. There’s a “safety in numbers” feeling at work here—while never entirely safe, there is a sense of distance between the coldness of the house and the warmth of the cast, and you can feel the house intruding in on that warmth as the colors shift.
I have to praise Clem Robins’s lettering here too. Whenever a speech balloon is added into a scene, it guides the eyes. If you have two speech balloons in a panel, your eyes must travel across the space between them as you read one and then the other, so in effect you are actually reading the first speech balloon, then the art in between the balloons, and then the second balloon. McManus and Robins play off each other very well in this regard, with the flow of information working so smoothly as to be rendered invisible. What I really appreciated here is how much story is going on in the environment and how the speech balloons frame that. No, a particular object in a scene may not be literally talking, but by placing a speech balloon in just the right place, Robins guides our eyes to that object.
On top of everyone involved using comics language so expertly, I thoroughly enjoyed the flourishes McManus brings to the page. His work is very animated, focusing on movement more often than stillness. He has a way of using eyelines that match across tiers, like in this section where Hellboy’s eyeline in panel two is still in communication with Carter’s in panel three. It means we get the close-up on Hellboy’s expression and the full body language of Carter without losing the feeling of them talking to each other. It’s a subtle technique that unifies McManus’s page layouts.
I’m looking forward to issue #2, but not just because I want more of what we get here—I want it to go deeper. This isn’t just a tale about a haunted house, but one that calls into question Hellboy’s ways of dealing with certain things, and given the prominence of those details in this issue, I feel like the next has to play off that in an interesting way if it really wants to be a satisfying conclusion. Like the best haunted house tales, it’s about more than just a haunted house.
Final Verdict: 9 – ‘The Secret of Chesbro House’ is a classic haunted house story combined with a classic “Hellboy” story, told by a creative team that relishes everything that makes these two things great.