One last look at a previous Peeing in Your Shower column, this time dealing with Hellboy and the Satan character from Milton's Paradise Lost.
This piece was written while I was ferociously reading Hellboy one summer. I had really enjoyed the way Mignola wrote Hellboy and it made me recall reading Paradise Lost in a class. Naturally, I decided to compare the two characters and I even decided to throw in some Sandman for good measure. Enjoy!
Since I didn't post anything Friday and Saturday, this is a combined two-parter. Next week I will be posting new material. Keep checking the Outhouse like sixty times a day for it.
Today, I open with a famous quotation:
“Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.” – As said by Satan on line 263 from Book 1 of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost
A bit of background for those who aren’t familiar: Paradise Lost is basically Milton’s most famous epic poem about the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. It’s all kinds of Christian philosophy and blank verse and all. It’s studied a lot, and I’ve studied it quite a few times. There are all sorts of readings in the range of anti-female literature to Puritan propaganda and even the rise of Liberal Capitalism in the late 17th century. The latter is where I’m focusing my topic, sort of. Last year in a class that focused on politics in the literature of the Restoration, I read Paradise Lost and looked specifically at the character of Satan.
In the poem, Satan is the embodiment of free will. I think this is the most intriguing fact about his character, he does what he wants. He is meant to be the very first rebel, and what I find so fascinating is the way Milton works this idea of free will into the way we have been living our lives since the Enlightenment. Normally, we don’t think of it that way, but it’s not hard to understand through the Enlightenment ethos why the Romantic poets regarded Satan as the epic’s hero.
Now, what does this have to do with comics? Off the top of my head…well, not much. The only real instance where we see a Miltonian Satan figure is in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (Season of Mists, but I’ll talk about that later). No, you wouldn’t think Paradise Lost when you see a commercial for this summer’s big blockbuster Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.
It’s not the movie itself, because I haven’t seen it, but the Hellboy legacy. The character, the mythos and everything about the way he acts that is very Satanic, at least in terms of Milton’s Satan.
When I’d first seen the movie, the connection didn’t kick in. When I’d read the first book, I didn’t see it. When I’d read the second book, Wake the Devil, I saw it instantly. Hellboy’s destiny is to trigger the apocalypse, with his Right Hand of Doom. I’m not sure if Mignola is aware of it, and I’m sure in some way he is, but when Hellboy breaks his horns and rejects his destiny, he is ultimately doing what Lucifer does in Paradise Lost.
In order to really understand the connection and brilliance on Mignola’s part, one must consider where Hellboy comes from: Hell (duh…). What is Hell? It is the Kingdom of those who fell from Heaven; the demons. Okay, I’m not entirely sure if Miltonian Hell is where Hellboy is from, but I’m going to assume that it is. I have to in order to make my point.
If Hellboy is indeed a child of Hell, Satan’s kingdom, then he is effectively doing what Satan did in Paradise Lost to the point where roles get reversed. Instead of Satan rebelling against Heaven, Hellboy rebels against Hell, therefore Hell becomes the kingdom where destiny is imposed and everyone is part of a grand plan. That would mean Earth becomes Hell and Hellboy eventually takes Satan’s original role. It’s an idea that I’d like to explore in higher detail and in concurrence with the Hell we see in Sandman.
But I’m out of space for this week, so next week I’ll be looking into this premise in more detail.
So, last week I started talking about how Mike Mignola’s Hellboy bears an incredibly large similarity to Satan in Paradise Lost, and left you with the idea that Hellboy and Earth are mirrors or reversals of Satan and Hell. You can read the article here [look up].
I want to continue with this idea and provide some examples from the text. I also want to take a look at this in comparison with Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer character from Sandman: Season of Mists.
Okay, so to start, in the second volume of the Hellboy series, Wake the Devil, when Hellboy’s horns begin to grow (when he is swallowed by Hecate the Iron Snake), he says: “I choose door number three. It’s my goddamn life and I’ll do what I want with it.” These simple words are in their own ways very similar to the “Better to reign in Hell…” quote from Satan. What Hellboy implies is that he wants to exercise his free will, as he has been taught to “do right” by Professor Bruttenholm. This is where I find most of the similarities.
If I had more time, I’d find more textual spots and point them out. The scene in Wake the Devil that sparked the idea for me was the previously mentioned scene with the horns (also in the movie). The scene that cemented the idea for me though, was in the Conqueror Worm volume (number 5), when the little alien dude that helps Hellboy tells him that when Hellboy had been summoned to earth, he looked and saw free will in Hellboy’s eyes. Mignola is a little too blunt with that part, but it’s okay.
If in Heaven, Lucifer has a purpose as the archangel, and defies God by rebelling against his purpose and wanting God’s power himself, then his sin is pride. Pride in Paradise Lost is original sin, it’s why we are “fallen beings”. In Hellboy, pride is not the operating sin, but in this case pride is flipped up-side down to be interpreted as free will. Hellboy’s free will triggers his pride that in turn makes him rebel against his purpose. Is his pride a sin in this case, and is it a bad thing? It’s open to debate.
Okay, so now let me bring in another example of Satan in comics: Lucifer (from the Vertigo series). In Sandman: Season of Mists, Lucifer, fed up with Hell, decides to walk. His justification is that he’s doing it to harm Morpheus, but I believe the idea runs a little deeper. If Lucifer in the series is the same Fallen Angel from the epic, then by running Hell he is fulfilling a purpose, and by closing it, and giving it away to whoever the hell wants it, he is again walking out on his duty. This is emphasized by the way he has Morpheus cut off his wings as he leaves Hell.
Lucifer’s wings, Hellboy’s horns, they both represent the bond they have to their duties. By breaking them (or cutting), both characters are free to explore, they have mastered their free will. I think what’s important is the implication that Hell becomes a place of bondage to destiny, whereas in Paradise Lost it’s represented by Heaven. The fact that both of these writers are attempting to take that idea on is brilliant and in its own way quite original. Granted, Gaiman is a lot more blatant about it, but I think it’s the subtlety of the statement in Hellboy that makes it a fantastic series.
Eight books and a companion book later, I’m just getting into the potential of this idea. While I think there is a lot of room to explore it, I don’t think that’s what Mignola’s aim is. If it is, he’s not saying it. I think he should keep his mouth shut though, just in case he decides it’s not and proves me wrong.