Arriving April 19, “Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea” ($14.99, Dark Horse Comics) is another entertaining graphic novel from the fertile mind of Mike Mignola about his most famous creation. But the true star might be the co-writer and artist, Gary Gianni.
Gianni is probably known best for “MonsterMen and Other Scary Stories,” a collection he both wrote and drew, featuring zombie cowboys, pirate squids and other exotic creatures. Obviously, Gianni’s writing tastes suit him for the Hellboy universe, as does his art, rendered in painstaking line work that brings to mind the metal-plate etching, wood engraving and lithography techniques of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“It's a matter of dipping a steel pen tip into an ink bottle and carefully creating fine lines on paper,” Gianni said in an interview. “The finished effect is closer to an etching than a woodcut. The drawback being there’s not much room for color to be added.”
The effect takes time; Gianni said it took him almost a year to create the art for “Silent Sea.”
“People are surprised to hear my other tool is an electric ink line eraser,” he said. “I seem to erase more lines than I create. Don't know how that happens!”
The effect is immersive, dragging the reader’s mind into a time before photos and film re-created reality for us. But the story is well worth it as well, for both regular Hellboy readers and newbies.
The story takes place after “Hellboy: The Island,” a turning point in the Hellboy saga, but new readers needn’t worry about that. All one needs to know is revealed on the first page: Hellboy is on an island of wrecked ships, and tries to get off it in a rowboat.
Mignola and Gianni immediately set the mood with quotes from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Thomas Haynes Bayly’s “The Pilot.” Clearly, this is not going to be a happy story.
Our red-skinned hero is captured by the “Rebecca,” a 19th century sailing vessel that is not of this world; it skims along without a single sail on its three masts. But the crew seems blithely unaware of this fact. They go about the usual duties of their station, while the captain schemes to sell Hellboy to a freak show or circus at a port we can be pretty sure the ship will never see.
We are also introduced to a young cabin boy, William, and his dog, Master Kip. In this degraded world, their innocence is a refreshing tonic — for as long as it lasts. All of which plays into Gianni’s strength as a writer.
“Not sure why, but I have a knack for writing crazy sea captain dialog,” he said. “Also, the cabin boy gives some pathos to the story, which is always an important aspect of Hellboy’s world. I even wrote a few of Hellboy’s responses which Mike kept intact.”
Finally, we meet the true master of the ship, a gaunt, severe woman in search of forbidden knowledge. Referred to only as “The Lady,” she arrives all in black, carrying a buzzing lantern that resembles, of all things, a bug-zapper. The distractingly odd design adds to the sense of alienation and disorientation aboard the “Rebecca.”
Meanwhile The Lady, an extreme rationalist, is on a quest. She hopes to find “the serpent, Heca Emen Raa, come to open eyes and set men free.”
This is part of the elaborate mythology that Mignola has built up, bit by bit, in stories that are nominally about a plain-spoken, blue collar demon who punches monsters in the face. This mythology involves “the first men,” Hyperboreans, who were led by a wise King Thoth, who knew all the secrets of the universe but only shared some of them. The “Black Goddess” of the Mignolaverse, Hecate, seduced Thoth and revealed those secrets, which brought doom to the first men. She also manifests as a giant snake, although the statues of her in Hellboy stories usually resemble the Hindu goddess Kali.
Obviously, the name “Heca Emen Raa” is derived from Hecate, an important goddess in actual Greek mythology, and Amun-Ra, of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. The idea of knowledge being dangerous is a literary theme which also has a long track record, found in stories both ancient and modern, from the Garden of Eden to “Frankenstein.”
In the Mignolaverse, all of this is utilized to serve a new story. Heca Emen Raa is the avatar of the Left-Hand Path, which spreads dangerous knowledge. She is opposed by the Right-Hand Path, named after the spirit Anum, who stole the secret fire known as Vril with his right hand to … .
Oh, it doesn’t matter. None of that is important in “Silent Sea.” All you need to know is what Hellboy says early on: “Well, yeah, if you listen to a talking snake there’s gonna be trouble.”
And there is. Eventually Gianni’s skill at monsters is put to use, not only when we finally meet Heca Emen Raa, but also a scene where hybrid sea monsters of every conceivable combination swarm the decks of the “Rebecca.”
Gianni’s art, while definitely one of a kind, may remind one of pioneering artists of the early 20th century like Lynd Ward or Frans Masereel. More recent touchstones might include the late Bernie Wrightson or Michael Kaluta.
“We're all saddened by the death of Bernie,” Gianni responded to the suggestion, “and the idea of being associated with him and Michael means a great deal to me. We all have some of the same influences. Of course, there’s (Frank) Frazetta. But digging a little deeper into the past there are other masters as well. Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Dore, Franklin Booth and J.C. Coll, to name a few.”
Buttressing Gianni’s efforts is veteran Dark Horse colorist Dave Stewart. His efforts become apparent early on, as a tiny, bright red Hellboy moves within a gray, bleak landscape with lowering clouds, glowering ship hulks and a treacherously bland sea. The effect is startling, and immediately establishes both tone and context.
“After staring at it for months, I can only imagine my artwork in black and white,” Gianni said of Stewart’s contribution. “I didn't have a clue how it should be colored. Having worked with Dave before, I trusted he'd be sympathetic to the material. Poor Dave was on his own. He's intuitive and understands how color needs to work in concert with every individual artist’s style. In my case, he used a restrained palette and integrated color very delicately into the line work.”
In the end, through, “Silent Sea” is a true collaboration between Mignola and Gianni.
“We discussed the general idea over the phone, he wrote an outline, I added stuff, he added more stuff,” Gianni said of the process.
“It was organic and seamless. Readers will be hard pressed to find where one of us stops and the other begins. Mike liked my ‘MonsterMen’ stories, which appeared as a back-up series in his early Hellboy comics, and we have a lot of similar tastes in books and movies. The project fell into place naturally from there.”
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