By Tom Shapira
There is a concept in religious Judaism called “tinok shenishba,” which means “a captured baby.” A Captured Baby is a child of Jews who, for reasons beyond his control (such as being adopted or stolen at a young age), grew up without learning the proper rules of the Torah and the Talmud. There’s a whole series of discussions, raging to this very day, about what exactly is this child’s responsibility for keeping up his faith and are secular Jews to be considered as such, which I won’t bother you with.
There are no Jews in The Corpse but there are two captured babies. The first is little Alice Monaghan, taken from her parents by fairies. The second is Big Red, Hellboy himself. Alice is mostly there as a plot motivator – in order to get her back Hellboy must bury the titular corpse in a good Christian burial ground before the sun rises; but while the task of saving Alice is the ticking clock keeping up the suspension the main emotional interest of the story is Hellboy himself.
The idea that Hellboy is fighting against his own people has been with the character from the very beginning. In Seed of Destruction Rasputin tries to force Hellboy to fulfill his apocalyptic designs: “you were called to stand beside me at Ragna Rok – to command the power I shall unleash upon the world. Here is your purpose. Here is your destiny.” It is easy to resist Rasputin. He is so obviously the bad guy, with his grand speeches and dark cloak and the way he tries to murder people Hellboy knows personally. Rasputin doesn’t try to convince Hellboy but force him to become the beast of the apocalypse: “Still you do not understand. That is no choice that I offer you.”
There is no one like this in The Corpse. There is Gruagach the fairy, who releases the massive boar-monster the serves the role of heavy when the story needs an action scene. But Gruagach acts out of immediate anger, not from some apocalyptic scheming (the character will return later, because Mignola seeds things well in advance, and once more his temper will prove his undoing). The person responsible for the kidnapping is instead Dagda, king of the fairies. Dagda is far from nefarious, he is old and sad: “the years, they beat upon us like the ocean upon a stone… we are worn away.” He wants the baby because it represents the last hope for his race to continue; one child vs. the survival of a whole nation of people.
This appears to be a set up for a classic moral conundrum, like Trolley problem, But Hellboy is curt: “The little girl’s parents don’t care.” As far as he is concerned there is no room for debate. Hellboy’s answer is based on the fact that he considers himself, like the baby, fully human. He believes in that notion so much that when, later, a demon tries to bound him by using his ‘real’ demonic it fails because it is no longer his name. This, of course, is probably what would’ve happened to young Alice if she was allowed to grow amongst the fairies – disconnected from everything she was and everything she could’ve been, she would grow in a loving home; but Hellboy knows this love is based on a lie. And possibly, deep in his heart of hearts, he knows that this is wrong because it has been done to him.
I recall an old interview with Mignola which, alas, I failed to conjure, in which is asked why wasn’t his grown-up hero called something like “Hellman” instead – and he can only reply that is a brand of mayo. Which is fair enough as far as branding go. But I think there’s more to it – throughout his life Hellboy is very much still a boy; he clings to a childish perception of the world as much as he can because growing up emotionally would mean to confront what has been done to him. That maybe the father he loves so much was wrong in educating him as a man.
Hellboy is often thought of as horror comics, and throughout The Corpse we get many signifiers of the horror genre, fairies and monsters and stolen children and a talking corpse; but what is often ignored about the series is its ongoing state as psychological horror drama. Hellboy is never afraid to confront any sort of monster, no matter how the odds are stacked against him, but he is terrified of looking in a mirror.
There’s a suggestion throughout The Corpse that this fear manifests itself in self-loathing; when diving into a pool Hellboy is confronted by Jenny Greenteeth who does…. Nothing really. She’s munching on a detached arm. Granted, it’s an arm that Hellboy needs at the moment but it’s not like she was eating a live person, or was even much-aware that Hellboy needed it. Despite the relative harmlessness of her actions (the folklore figure is very much of a child killer, but that is not seen here) Hellboy punches her and warns that he’ll be back for more violence later.
As a Jew, culturally if not religiously, there is nothing that causes me more anger than to hear of something bad done by another Jew, partly because I fear his actions are reflected on me. And this is Hellboy here, focusing all his anger because he doesn’t want to be embarrassed by his connections with ‘them.’ it’s not just a dead man that ends up buried by the end of The Corpse, it is Hellboy’s own sense of history – he tries so hard to put his connection the supernatural behind him, but he can’t. Some things we would like to keep buried, but no matter how deep they are under the ground we would never be able to forget them.
Hellboy: The Corpse
Written and drawn by Mike Mignola
Coloured by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Pat Brosseau
Tom Shapira’s writing has been featured on many different websites, ranging from Multiversity and The MNT right through to recent pieces published at The Comics Journal. The best place to find him online is on Twitter, right here!
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!