Geek culture, perhaps more than any other American subculture except fundamentalist Christianity, is fascinated with Hell.
From Hellboy, Hellblazer, and Spawn to Devil May Cry, Doom, and the Diablo series, geeks are going to hell on a startlingly regular basis. Maybe it’s not too hard to understand. Even as far back as Dante, Inferno shows us that the hell is ripe with vivid imagery that captures our imaginations.
Hell is also useful to comic creators and game designers because it acts as an effective stand-in for all things evil. In earlier eras of comic books and video games, Nazis filled this role. This worked in the golden age of comics because WWII was still fresh (or still going on, in some cases) and many of the industry’s progenitors were Jewish immigrants. It worked in a more recent era of video games because the first-person shooter genre experienced explosive (no pun intended) growth and killing Nazis effectively dodged any questions of morality from outsiders that the industry wasn’t ready for (but now faces anyway).
WWII games don’t sell well anymore. The games industry dried up that well. And, with the exception of the “Captain America” film, telling a story with a Nazi as the villain is falling out of vogue. That leaves us with demons to fill the void.
With a convenient, practically faceless enemy, we’re allowed to tell horror stories on an otherworldly scale. There’s nothing to lose when Jamie Delano tells a story about John Constantine foiling the machinations of (literally) baby-eating demons.
But a convenient, faceless enemy also lets us tell stories about real-world evil. Horror stories change when the thing we’re afraid of becomes real and present. Hell becomes an easily painted landscape for our own vices — greed and violence in particular.
That’s all fine and easy, but what does it say when the protagonist — the most likable character, the character most easily identified with — is a demon himself? That’s what we get with Hellboy.
Looking at either the Hellboy movie or comic, we have a demon, summoned from hell by a power-hungry wizard, Rasputin. When he’s brought to earth, Hellboy is rescued from Rasputin by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm. Of course, Bruttenholm “raises” Hellboy and gives him a strong moral compass and by the time we see anything of an adult Hellboy he’s a hero; part of the “Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense” with his enigmatic ally Abe Sapien and the volatile Liz Sherman.
But if you’ve seen the movie or read the first couple of volumes of the comic book, you know that Hellboy’s origins are always right behind him. The hero is plagued by his hell-born nature and Rasputin (and others like him) are often hunting him down trying to coax him into embracing his birthright: bringer of destruction and downfall.
So the hero, the sympathetic character, the character with whom we identify the most, spends some time each day with a belt sander, keeping his horns from growing too large.
Theologically speaking, this type of writing gets into some funny territory. If Hellboy is meant to be our presence in the story, then we’re also meant to feel like that demonic pull is ever-present in our actions. Not only that, but we have to actively fight our so-called “true” nature to keep a fast hold on our moral compass.
There’s a big difference between saying that everyone is a demon just under the surface and telling a story about a demon who is a lot more like us than we might care to notice. I don’t actually think Mignola does the former. He certainly does the latter. It’s when we are watching our sympathetic hero being tempted and fighting back against his evil heritage that these stories pick at our own insecurities. While none of us are demons, history has shown all too well the “demonic” potential of humanity.
But then what’s just as important is what Hellboy does at the end of the film (also in the comics). Even when given all the power associated with his birthright, he breaks off his horns and tosses them away. He rejects the easy power and ensures that greed and violence don’t win the day.
Hell, in almost every story, is something to be beaten. Whether it’s something to be obliterated with guns (as in the case of Devil May Cry and Doom), or something to be overcome (like in Hellboy, and also Devil May Cry to some extent), it’s almost always a stand-in for some other hurdle. Very few of us could relate to these hellscapes if they were only about large-scale cosmic battle for good. But when they get to us for what they represent — our own evil — they draw us in.
By my estimation, all of our trips to hell mean something other than the occasional vivid or frightening image. They are a reflection of ourselves. And, in turn, that makes characters like Hellboy, who overcome the hellishness that tries to corrupt them, all the more important.