Hellboy meets Anastasia Bransfield, an adventurous archaeologist who will lead the hero into a traintop punch-up, a chase across the countryside, and maybe even into romance. The issue swings to the fences in terms of genre appeal, playing into the best of adventure stories from the late ’70s setting. Mild spoilers to follow.
Written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Illustrated by Matt Smith
Colored by Chris O’Halloran
Lettered by Clem Robins
Hellboy has been assigned to patrol a train route where goblins have been stealing from passengers. Their latest victim, Anastacia, is a researcher and archaeologist transporting valuable artifacts to a museum, and she’s not going to let them go without a fight! Rather than stay behind, she teams up with Hellboy to chase the light-fingered fey through the British countryside and into. . . a local punk show?
Hellboy creator Mike Mignola is joined by cowriter Christopher Golden and artist Matt Smith, featuring the colors of Chris O’Halloran, for a story of occult adventure and unlikely romance.
Mark Tweedale: I’ve been waiting for Anastasia Bransfield to appear in the comics since February 2008 when “Abe Sapien: The Drowning” #1 casually referenced her relationship with Hellboy, effectively making Christopher Golden’s prose novels, Hellboy: The Lost Army and Hellboy: The Dragon Pool, canon. But this is not like the recent Hellboy: The Bones Giants adaptation (even though the same creative team is behind it.) Rather than adapting either of the books in which Anastasia has appeared, “Hellboy in Love” is instead embellishment on that foundation. This first two-issue miniseries, ‘Goblin Train,’ takes a short flashback sequence from Chapter 2 of The Dragon Pool and significantly expands it. This isn’t just a retelling, but an elaborate rewriting. Even for those that’ve read the original prose novels, this is almost completely new material.
James, have you read either of those prose novels?
James Dowling: Yeah, I’m coming in about as green as it gets, which should give us a good split in perspectives. You brought up ‘Bones of Giants’ and it is fascinating looking at these two books both as a progression of this creative team, but also part of a tonally consistent period for Hellboy. The pair feel like a sort of high-adventure golden age for the character, where his closest friendships are solidified, but he isn’t as weighed down by revelations of his origin. It will be really interesting to see if, or how, Anastasia plays into this nostalgic period of pulp and romance.
I think my first impression of this book is just how little preamble we get. Especially in some of the more standalone Hellboy Universe stories, first issues open with a fairly straightforward rundown of context, location, assignment, and antagonist that the creative team can then subvert and embellish on. “Hellboy in Love,” however, is all character from the very first pages, and I would be surprised if that whirlwind lets up in the following issues.
Mark: There’s a tradition in the prose novels, where many of them start off in the middle of the climax of another investigation, sort of James Bond-ish, I guess, so it means the reader usually meets Hellboy in action. This isn’t exactly that, but it does feel like it’s drawing from that feeling a bit. The story opens big right away.
And I think “Hellboy in Love” shows how versatile the Hellboy Universe can be. Often, it’s described as a horror universe, but that descriptor rarely works for me. In terms of the narrative shape and the way the story evolves, I think it has much more in common with high fantasy, it’s just dressed in the visuals and language of horror a lot of the time. But it can also be so much more than that too. “Hellboy in Love” seems to really be pushing the high adventure aspect of the series. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help getting a Romancing the Stone kind of feeling from this issue.
James: Yeah. For me, there’s a lot of early Disney in this, which makes sense for what’s a fairly fairy tale start to an opposites-attract romance, with the reader getting swept up into the adventure as much as Hellboy has.Continued below
It’s why the issue-long chase sequence really works in this case; there’s more dynamism which means Hellboy and Anastasia have a pretty good reason to run off their larger than life first impressions, rather than introducing the pair through extended conversation or prior reputation.
The secret ingredient to it all in my mind though, are the titular goblins. Every adjective I’ve just used, dynamic, larger than life, Disney-esque, fits them to a T. We’ve seen the more whimsical fantasy of Hellboy’s UK before, and the antagonists here give us a great look at how it bleeds over from the outskirts, into the daily life of the British public. Plus, I really love the one in the flat cap, proper brave bloke.
Mark: I mentioned before in our ‘Bones of Giants’ reviews that I think Christopher Golden brings an element of urban fantasy to “Hellboy” that we rarely get from Mignola himself. He’s interested in how the paranormal world interacts with the human world, and that element is front and center here. Plus, it must be said, I love the character that he and Matt Smith give the goblins. Each is so distinct.
James: Absolutely. He takes the time to inject the culture of each environment into his narrative, even when it feels like there just shouldn’t be the time for it. I remember us both praising the use of semi-disguised costumes for Hellboy and Abe in ‘Bones of Giants,’ which spoke to how the pair integrated themselves as a part of that urban fantasy, and while I would love to see as many new costumes as possible in this book, it seems like they’re on a great path already. There’s a short sequence in this issue with a local shepherd that just oozes character, and is so charmingly accurate to that small-town English countryside.
Mark: This is something where as someone that’s read the original prose novels, I appreciate that the comic digs deeper. In the novels, when Hellboy and Anastasia meet, we only really get a sense of their initial impressions of each other. The plot just needed to tell us that Hellboy had once been in love, but not how that love evolved. In “Hellboy in Love,” we get that initial spark, but then we go on a journey from there as their expectations shift and they reappraise each other. We’re actually going on the journey of the two falling in love this time around.
It also shows how different adaptations of prose material can be. “Hellboy: The Bones of Giants” was 197 pages adapted to an eighty-page comic, so it had to cut things out, and compress, and condense. In “Hellboy in Love,” we have six pages of prose adapted to forty pages of comics, which means ‘Goblin Train’ can slow down and explore a bit, and because of that we get six pages of Hellboy and Anastasia sitting in a car talking—just talking—with all the nuances of their relationship taking shape.
James: You’d have to imagine it’s a relief going from such rigid contraction to a bit of embellishing. The only frustration I had with this however, was how decompressed the story got at times. There are really only three or four major scenes in this issue, and while each is memorable in its own way, the reader can understand where the book is going about twelve pages before it gets there.
Romance trades in clichés, but if you don’t have something to twist expectations, it becomes far too easy for the issue to just fade into a shoulder shrug. It’s a beautiful looking and charming book, but I’m not necessarily stuck in suspense about where it will lead from here.
Mark: Well, it’s a different genre. It doesn’t speak in the language of suspense. My favorite book of all time is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, so the extended talking with emphasis on body language and what isn’t said as much as what is said is very much something I adore. That and the style of adventure feels like classic Tintin to me and I love the hell out of Tintin. I mean, I got major Tintin vibes from this moment.Continued below
It’s not like it’s referencing Tintin or anything, but the light tone in which Anastasia jumps from the train, combined with that Tintin-esque coat brought me right back to those adventures. And even catching her cap like that, it brings to mind Indiana Jones a bit.
James: Matt Smith is such a charming artist, and it’s what makes Anastasia such an immediately endearing character. There’s this dance that her and Hellboy are having, and he gets across just enough motion in the movement and expression in the faces to see how the pair go about it.
Mark: Yes, there’s a moment when the two of them are in the car and Anastasia is smiling about this adventure they’re on and the way Matt Smith draws that smile, you can immediately get a sense of her attraction to Hellboy.
James: That’s a great scene too, because it highlights one of the key narrative components of Hellboy and finds a new way to play it freshly. Hellboy has always been a passive and fairly begrudging protagonist, he’s a nine-to-fiver with a lot of experience, but is essentially immune to the melodrama that surrounds each aspect of him. So when you play that as part of a romance, you see how he can also be a pretty passive and nervous romantic, similarly unwilling to get swept into the actual adrenaline of the adventures he goes on. Which makes Anastasia such a great foil.
Mark: Those panels you selected there again show how great Smith is at composing panels around acting choices. In this moment, Hellboy isn’t meeting Anastasia’s eyes, but she’s looking right at him. Her panel in centered between two Hellboy panels—if she is framed from the front, then her eyes would be turned to the Hellboy panel on the left, where by framing her from behind, her eyelines match with the Hellboy panel on the right. By doing it this way, it makes the moment when Hellboy drops his guard and says “Deal” read with matching eyelines, communicating the connection between characters across panels. Even though he isn’t really looking at her, in this moment they still see eye to eye. That right there is the stuff I’m reading this book for.
I feel like romance is something that Hellboy quickly ruled out as something he couldn’t have in his life. His previous romance was when he was eleven years old (adult for a half demon though), and he was married to a demon pretending to be someone else for her own ends. This story picks up twenty-three years later and as far as I know, he hasn’t had any romance in life in that time. I think it’s safe to say Hellboy feels pretty pessimistic about the possibility of romance at this point. And I think you can kind of see that in how Anastasia is responding to her attraction towards him before he’s responding to his attraction to her. There are walls up.
James: I do really love having books like this, outside of the broader “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.” title, that can focus on the strengths of a single creative team, a smaller cast with a specific thematic message, and tackle a new genre at the same time. This really does evoke the “Hellboy in Mexico” title it’s playing on, where we get to see Hellboy as a fish out of water, when usually he’s so consistently the guy who’s seen it all. Hopefully Golden, Mignola, Smith, and O’Halloran can keep telling these kinds of stories, and open the doors to other creators, especially artists, who want to have their definitive Hellboy story.
Mark: The Hellboy Universe is twenty-eight years old at this point, and I think the reason it has such staying power is because of the flexibility of genre it has. “Lobster Johnson” and “The Sarah Jewell Mysteries” can be radically different from “Hellboy,” and when you look at it that way, “Hellboy in Love” can be different from “Hellboy” and “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.” too. I think if readers are open to the idea that this story is going to be different, then they’re going to get swept up in this comic.Continued below
James: Yeah, this book is unabashedly playing to genre, and it’s what makes the whole thing so exciting. Even looking back recently, it makes me wonder if I would have enjoyed something like “The Sword of Hyperborea” more if each issue had played harder into the genre of its period, rather than using the setting as a window dressing for the overarching story.
“Hellboy in Love” oozes charisma, with Christopher Golden telling an energetic and unique love story that is beautifully expressive and nimble thanks to the art of Matt Smith and Chris O’Halloran. While the book is a little too lumbering in its central plot, I’m more than happy to go along for the ride. I’m giving it a 7.5.
Mark: This book is playing so hard to my tastes, it’s impossible for me to go below a 9. It almost feels custom-made for me. I’m really looking forward not just to reading issue #2, but to chatting about it afterwards and exploring what’s going on in full, spoiler-packed detail. It took fourteen years to get Anastasia from a mention in the comics to finally appearing on the comics page, and it was absolutely worth the wait.
Final Verdict: 8.25 – A tale lovingly made for all those readers that have wondered about When Hellboy Met Anastasia.