Mike Mignola and Gabriel Hernández Walta’s “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: Old Man Whittier” is a visually striking issue, immediately recognizable as a Hellboy story, yet unlike any other we’ve seen before. Read on for our spoiler free review.
Written by Mike Mignola
Illustrated by Gabriel Hernández Walta
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins
Trouble runs in the Whittier family! When Catherine Whittier learns she’s inherited the family home, she knows better than to go back alone, and Hellboy’s experience with the family (in Hellboy: The Whittier Legacy) makes him the perfect one to make sure any unkind spirits are at rest. Because in a house with a history like this, “plot” can mean more than just a family graveyard.
Hellboy creator Mike Mignola is joined by artist Gabriel Hernández Walta to bring readers a terrifying new one-shot in the home of the infamous Whittier family!
• Self-contained story in the successful Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. line.
While the blurb above mentions “Hellboy: The Whittier Legacy,” it is by no means a prerequisite to read “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: Old Man Whittier.” This issue may reference the other, but it stands alone so well, it could easily serve as a reader’s first introduction to Hellboy. The “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.” series has two kinds of stories: the ones with a date in the title (which indicate they are part of a larger narrative and have important continuity to connect with) and everything else (which usually end up being almost completely standalone stories). ‘Old Man Whittier’ is firmly the latter, practically a textbook example. While the Whittiers have popped up a few times in the Hellboy Universe, it’s usually as more of an Easter egg than an actual plot point. Everything you need to know, you’ll get in this issue.
These standalone “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.” stories have also introduced a number of new artists to the Hellboy Universe (like Matt Smith, Tiernen Trevallion, Shawn McManus, Olivier Vatine), so while these stories often feel like the most traditional in the line, they also feel like a frontier—and given the quality of work each new artist has brought the the table, this has become a major part of the appeal of the series. When the initial announcement of Gabriel Hernández Walta coming aboard the book hit, I was thrilled—I’d recently enjoyed his work with Jeff Lemire on “Sentient,” and “Barbalien: Red Planet” with Tate Brombal ended up being a favorite of mine from last year. That and Walta has a style that I felt very naturally works with Mignola’s storytelling. Walta draws weary characters with such care, so it’s a no-brainer that he’d draw a great round-shouldered Hellboy. I felt pretty sure I knew what I was getting, and it was going to be great.
But the art ended up being genuinely surprising. ‘Old Man Whittier’ simply doesn’t look like other “Hellboy” books—I mean, in many ways it certainly does, but in a few key ways it doesn’t. Right from page one, it makes you sit up and pay attention. The first thing that jumps out is the paper texture being a part of the issue. It draws attention to the artifice of the comic, and it made me notice the linework much more, like I could feel the artist’s hand at work. Ironically, I think the paper texture itself is digitally added, but I cannot argue with its effectiveness.
Dave Stewart’s colors, which are foundational in the Hellboy Universe, are different from his usual approach. If you look at the early pages and imagine the paper texture wasn’t there, you’d see so much white in the panels. Where in a Mignola-drawn comic, Stewart’s colors read as mostly flat, in ‘Old Man Whittier’ the emphasis is on texture. Stewart colors digitally, yet where colors meet, there’s a halo of color, mimicking the look of watercolor paints—you can see this most clearly on Hellboy thanks to his strong reds, but it’s everywhere. And this approach sits beautifully with Walta’s art too—though Walta uses solid inks for his linework, he rarely does solid black shadows, but rather relies on hatching, and even in the heavier blacks of the page, there’s still texture there.Continued below
This emphasis on texture and the handmade generates an atmosphere in the comic that feeds the horror genre aspects. Those opening pages aren’t literally foggy, but with the negative space in the color and the paper texture, it has the feeling of fog. The scratched blacks feel like they’ve been scratched at by clawed hands. By sticking with pastel colors, the world feels austere right from the beginning, and the shadows are so strikingly different, they take on an oppressive, almost hungry quality. Walta’s shadows define the three locations too—outside there are virtually none, the ground floor of the Whittier house has shadows in doorways and the corners of rooms, and the basement is almost entirely shadows. These shadows create a claustrophobic quality, which operates in tandem with Walta’s panel layouts. Outside, his layouts are open and wide, whereas inside the panels become more square with the figures more tightly packed into the frames. In the basement, when the action picks up, Walta uses wide panels again to showcase the action clearly, but they remain tightly packed, often with a strong foreground element barely fitting in the frame. Everything feels too close in a space that’s difficult to move around in.
Clem Robins’s lettering is the familiar style we’re used to on these books, but by being the one element on the page without the paper texture, it reads differently, popping off the page. This is especially noticeable in sound effects, where a simple turn of a key in a lock takes on a stark quality; a punctuation breaking a silence.
I feel a little silly calling anything perfect, but all aspects of the art work together so harmoniously, I can’t think of a better word to describe it.
I won’t go into the story—it’s Mike Mignola writing a very traditional Hellboy story, so the biggest joys of it are in its spontaneous moments, and recapping any of that robs it of its impact. Hellboy has some great lines (including one that’s already a new favorite of mine) and as always Mignola shows he knows how to write for atmosphere. He has total trust in Walta, Stewart, and Robins to deliver moments that are simply about feeling the atmosphere of the location, building a sense of what lurks in the darkness.
And yet I cannot help but feel a little disappointed—not in this story, but rather that it is only a one-shot. This is such a unique-looking “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.” comic, I desperately hope we get more from this team in the future. I know Walta will be busy for a while yet on a new project with Jeff Lemire, but as soon as he’s available again, I sure hope Mignola gives him something big, like a six-issue miniseries, to work on. In a series that routinely has beautiful art, Walta and Stewart’s work still stands out as exceptional. I cannot stress enough how gorgeous this issue is to look at.
Final Verdict: 9 – “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: Old Man Whittier” is a traditional Hellboy story paired with art that breaks out of the traditional Hellboy look, resulting in a comic that stands unique in the series.