You like The X-Files and Stranger Things and the not-racist parts of H.P. Lovecraft’s writings. You’ve heard good things about Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and you’re willing to give it a shot, but looking it up online you discover there are a shitload of collections and series out there. Where do you begin? This article will introduce you to the various branches of the Mignolaverse, what makes them distinct, and where the best place to start is.
Hellboy is Mike Mignola’s most famous creation, but at this point he’s not actually the biggest part of the Mignolaverse. His stories tend to be much more self-contained, and indeed his entire character arc barely touches on the wider goings on of the Mignolaverse. The most complicated part is figuring out where to jump in.
The core Hellboy series is comprised of 14 collections of stories, beginning with Seed of Destruction and ending in Hellboy in Hell: The Death Card (Hellboy in Hell is sometimes treated as a separate series, but at only two volumes that feels like a reach). These volumes are further divided into the main arc of Hellboy’s narrative and collections of largely standalone short stories.
Because of the largely self-contained nature of Hellboy and the fact that most of the other series are essentially spin-offs of it, this is a great series to use as a jumping on point. You can’t go wrong with starting with Seed of Destruction (Hellboy: Volume 1), the first story in the series, although it’s a bit clunkier in a number of ways than the works to come. If you are more interested in getting a taste of the character at his best rather than even a token commitment to his larger narrative, one of the short story collections is probably a better option. For that, I would recommend either The Troll Witch & Others (Hellboy: Volume 7) or The Chained Coffin & Others (Hellboy: Volume 3). Volume 3 has considerably more hooks into the larger narrative and still has some of the early clunkiness, but many consider The Chained Coffin to be perhaps the best Hellboy short story.
Note that 2018 will see the release of new omnibus collections of the series. These four collections are divided into the main Hellboy narrative and the short stories, making them a great way to get into the series.
Standalone Graphic Novels
There are several Hellboy stories that aren’t (currently) collected in any collection and are sold as nicely made hardcover editions. They aren’t bad at all, but in terms of price-to-content they are rather expensive and don’t justify the special treatment (they are more reasonably priced on digital comics shops, but they still feel pretty skimpy compared to the collected volumes). Even if you don’t mind the cost, all of these novels–The Midnight Circus, Into the Silent Sea, and Hellboy in Mexico–fit into gaps in the larger series and won’t have the same impact if you aren’t familiar with where in the timeline they fit. If you simply must read these without having already read the Hellboy series, start with Hellboy in Mexico.
Hellboy and the BPRD
This is an odd one. The most recent Hellboy series, it is actually a direct continuation of a subset of another spin-off series, BPRD. This series begins properly with BPRD: 1946 and goes from there. This isn’t a bad entry to the Mignolaverse, honestly, charting the early days of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense and introducing a number of characters who will continue into other series while still being fairly self-contained by virtue of where it occurs in the timeline.
You can easily jump into this series with the collected BPRD: 1946-1948. You’ll also want to read BPRD: Vampire, which is kind of an odd one that introduces elements that have yet to be resolved, but it’s part of this timeline. From there, you can proceed directly to Hellboy and the BPRD.
The long-running BPRD series comprises the bulk of the Mignolaverse. It was spun off from Hellboy following the events of Conqueror Worm (Hellboy: Volume 5), and charts the efforts of the X-COM-like group as it attempts to beat back the apocalypse.
Whereas Hellboy has several points of entry, BPRD is much more serialized; you’ll want to start at the beginning, with Hollow Earth (BPRD: Volume 1). It takes awhile to get going, but it’s necessary work.
Note that BPRD has been divided into larger story arcs. The first 14 collections have been labeled Plague of Frogs. The best reading experience is the four Plague of Frogs omnibuses, which not only collect the series but re-order them for optimal reading order. The next run is Hell on Earth, which recently ended its run and is being put out in collected Hell on Earth omnibuses. Do not read Hell on Earth until you have finished Plague of Frogs!
Oh, Abe. *sigh* Abe Sapien is Hellboy’s fishman friend. He doesn’t know where he came from or what he is, and answering those questions is his driving motivation. The first two volumes of his standalone series have nothing to do with anything else and are fun, mostly standalone stories. The rest of the collected volumes are from his ongoing spin-off from BPRD: Hell on Earth. Unfortunately, separated from the BPRD series, Abe is extremely boring and his story moves at a glacial pace. You’ll want to read it along with BPRD: Hell on Earth to get the full details, but you’ll wonder the entire time why it justified a spin-off. Luckily, you can read everything in just two omnibuses, and you’ll have plenty of much better material to read before you get here.
This is a weird one. Lobster Johnson–aka The Lobster–is a pulp vigilante operating in the 1930’s New York of the Mignolaverse. Introduced in Conqueror Worm (Hellboy: Volume 5), he has plenty of ties to other elements of the Mignolaverse but never really concerns himself with the lore because he’s just interested in murdering criminals. The first volume–The Iron Prometheus–is an OK starting point, but it makes the most sense if you’ve already read deep into BPRD: Plague of Frogs. If you just want pulpy goodness, the second volume–The Burning Hand–is a better starting point.
Witchfinder follows Sir Edward Grey, paranormal investigator in the service of Queen Victoria. Similar to Lobster Johnson, but taking place earlier in the timeline, this series is largely standalone and merely brushes up against the wider Mignolaverse. It’s not as good as Lobster Johnson, unfortunately, with lesser art and less goofy fun. But it’s still entertaining, and worth a read if you like the time period and/or are a completionist. Start with In the Service of Angels (Witchfinder: Volume 1).
There are a number of odds and ends in the Mignolaverse that you may or may not want to check out. They fit in odd places in the timeline and often don’t bring anything terribly important to the table, but they’re still canon and worth a look for committed fans.
This one-off collection spirals out of the events of Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus and charts an American soldier in WWII and his clash with the nefarious Black Flame. It’s OK, but it feels very inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
Following a wrestling match with Hellboy in Hellboy in Mexico, Frankenstein’s monster finds himself in the vast underground realm that lies beneath the surface of the Earth. None of this makes sense unless you have read a shitload of Mignolaverse stuff, and it’s not at all clear if this will be important later on or not.
The Visitor: How & Why He Stayed
Another deep cut, this one-off collection is a pretty nice, remarkably low-key story about the enigmatic race of aliens who observe Earth. Won’t make much sense if you haven’t read a fair amount of Hellboy material, though.
Rise of the Black Flame
If you know who the Black Flame is, this story provides his origin. Remarkably inessential given how prominent he is throughout multiple Mignaloverse series, including BPRD: Hell on Earth, Lobster Johnson, and Sledgehammer ’44.
Koschei the Deathless
This six-issue series actually premieres this month! It’s about a character first introduced in Darkness Calls (Hellboy: Volume 8) and seems to take place during Hellboy in Hell.
Rasputin: Voice of the Dragon
Another series that premieres this year, this will explain the full backstory of the Mignolaverse version of Rasputin, who has in the past been an important part of the story but has, seemingly, been well-and-truly dead for years now.
Weird Tales is a two-volume collection of Mignalaverse stories from authors outside the official team and with no canon whatsoever. Available in an omnibus as well.
This is some kind of comedic series that is decidedly non-canon. No idea what it’s about.
There are a variety of Hellboy novels outside the main universe, and even a Lobster Johnson one! I don’t have much experience with this side of things. As far as I know, they aren’t really overseen by Mignola, but at least some of them are canon. The ones by Christopher Golden, I believe, are all canon.
Crossovers and Adaptations
Hellboy has made some appearances with other properties before, notably with Batman and Starman in a DC crossover collected in Masks and Monsters. He also has a canon crossover–for both properties–with The Goon, in what I would say is a remarkably astute story that cuts to the core of Hellboy’s stories. Outside of comics, you can also find him in some video games that aren’t any good and as a guest fighter in the pretty good Injustice 2.
In the realm of films, there were Guillermo del Toro’s flawed-but-fun film adaptations, Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. This also led into a brief foray into animation that never quite panned out into an animated Mignolaverse.