There’s no shortage of winter holiday traditions that seem more suited to Halloween than the festive December period (Krampus, anyone?) and the return of the “Hellboy Winter Special” takes on one of these traditions from Iceland. Can Hellboy take down the Yule Cat and save Christmas?
Please do note this review will contain spoilers.
Written by Matt Smith
Illustrated by Matt Smith
Colored by Chris O’Halloran
Lettered by Clem Robins
Hellboy travels to Reykjavik, where children are disappearing and a giant beast has been spotted. . . could it be the infamous Yule Cat of Icelandic lore?
Fan-favorite Hellboy artist Matt Smith writes and draws this chilling wintery one-shot!
Pull on your big coat and travel back to Iceland in 1990 with Hellboy. We’re not sure why he’s here, but it’s good timing that he is; there are children mysteriously disappearing in Reykjavik. A large, shadowy beast brings out the possibility that this is the Icelandic Jólakötturinn, also known as the Yule Cat. Hiding in the countryside at Christmastime, the Yule Cat eats those who do not receive new clothing before Christmas Eve. (Why those that don’t get new clothes? The belief is they did not work hard enough to earn new clothes for Christmas.) Naturally, Hellboy is on the case, tracking down the Yule Cat before it causes any more damage and takes any more lives.
One of the largest questions looming over this issue is why Hellboy’s in Iceland. A few scenes at B.P.R.D. headquarters in Connecticut hint that Hellboy is avoiding something, perhaps a residual psychic impression from the events of “Hellboy: The Bones of Giants.” There’s a hint that this battle might be more personal than the very guarded Hellboy will let on to his closest confidants. This short conversation serves dual purposes rather effectively. With the story on the surface, it adds just a bit of context for what brings Hellboy to town. On a deeper level, it connects this special to the rest of the Hellboy Universe, and provides branches off of the timeline for further Nordic adventures.
We don’t get the exact answer to the question I posed above, but at this point, we have to ask: does it really matter? It’s natural for Hellboy fans to always look below the surface in the story for the deeper connections (myself included), but this may just be one of those times we turn off that instinct and just enjoy the story at play. But the mere existence of these seeds confirms that there may not be any such thing as a Hellboy story that exists in a vacuum. And our Greek chorus of crows that bookend this story, commenting on the coincidence of Hellboy’s arrival and the “return of the cat” and remarking on how their paths could very well cross again, prop that door open for the future just a crack.
A good one shot holiday special, whether it’s on the page or on the screen, provides a singular plot from start to finish that’s simple enough for the widest audience to follow. “The Yule Cat” does this, though at times it’s almost too simple, when you think about it in comparison with other Hellboy stories. But isn’t that the point of holiday legend (and legend/folklore overall), that there is no rational explanation for it, that its simplicity and belief remain passed down from generation to generation without thought as to why? In that case, then this story succeeds. We hear the story of the Yule Cat, we see the Yule Cat on the prowl, and we see Hellboy defeat the Yule Cat. That’s all we need and expect from this. That said, the Yule Cat does have connections to other Icelandic holiday stories, such as the ogress Grýla and the Yule Lads. It’s certainly implied that Grýla and the Yule Cat are one and the same, and the band of trolls that Hellboy fights are the Yule Lads. It took me a second reading to discover this, though, so I was hoping that the script was a little more obvious in this realm.
And it’s the simple script that allows Matt Smith, doing double duty as writer and artist, to devote his time to building the visual world. He doesn’t need to make the Yule Cat some grotesquely stunning figure, keeping shape simple and using views of the cat in profile or from the back to add tension before Hellboy’s meeting. Where that grotesque detail comes into play very well is in the personification of the cat and its minions. Short linework all over face and body provides the right textured, haggard, and overall grotesque look. Colors and letters also work together to add the mood. A palette steeped in blues and greys provides the Nordic bleak cold that makes you want to grab an extra blanket and put another log on the fire. And Clem Robins’s letters, particularly when Hellboy and the Yule Cat go mano-a-mano, have every punch and paw swipe land with intensity and force. It’s also a very structured fight, different than some of the free for all battles we’ve seen in Hellboy stories (I think of “Hellboy in Love” #5 as an example). The eye follows the action logically and cleanly.
Back in Connecticut, it’s Christmas and Hellboy and Kate dive into the (much safer) Icelandic holiday tradition of exchanging books to read on Christmas Eve, with the former ready to share more Nordic tales with his friend. All is calm, all is bright, but we know it will not be that way for long.
Final Verdict: 7.8 – A fine holiday tale to exchange with friends and start your own Icelandic holiday book swap.