What’s kept the American comic-book superhero stories going since the creation of Superman, anyway? Why doesn’t it die? Why didn’t it already die but good, like the unlikely faddish twist on pulp it surely was in inception, like so many other lifestyle and entertainment fashions of its day did, a long time ago? There are bound to be some good answers to this, proposed by learned & unlearned persons in books and magazine articles. Someday I might find time to look into it.
Here’s another question, though: why do I bother talking about it here? I swear, I’m not all that interested in superheroes. There are comics among the books I’ve accumulated in book-accumulating years past, of course, but the superhero is poorly represented. (There would be a few more of these, but I tossed, in a fit of youthful piety sometime after high school, the ones picked up in teen years.) I mean, my favorite thing was always Tintin, a whole different kind of comic, a whole different kind of hero. (Not because I was a would-be euro-snob, particularly. Rather more because we lived in Germany for three significant years of my life, and Tintin was easy to get hold of, and easy to get even if you weren’t from over there.)
It’s true that I’ve seen a number of the blockbuster superhero movies of the last twenty and especially the last ten years. But I wouldn’t have, I’m pretty sure, if not for old friendship with a good guy who’s a good deal more nostalgic about the decades of childhood & adolescence — which include, in his case, the better part of the ’60s — than I. For me, if anything, these movies only put greater distance between my likes — my conscious tastes, anyhow — and the whole old superhero phenomenon. At any rate, I don’t intend to say anything about the movie angle here, except to note that their success obviously adds some current-events force to this question, what is it about the American-style superhero that persists?
Well, I don’t have any great theory about this persistence as to its power and meaning now in 2013, certainly, and that part of the question isn’t what I’m interested in. What do interest me are two fairly unprovocative observations: that it’s impossible to think of the comic-book superhero in American culture apart from the world at war through most of the twentieth century, and that Mignola so emphatically pins his stories to the big one, World War Two, in launching them with the lurid, delicious Nazi-traum of Hellboy’s advent.
What interests me about it, partly, is that after he’s established and run with the WWII material for a while in the early Hellboy books, building up a nice stock of Axis-&-Allies characters and plot-whatsits peculiar to the Hellboy ‘universe,’ he lets that steam fizzle out, more or less. As Hellboy’s developed, in fact, you can forget most of the WWII bits; they don’t affect much. Why, though? Was it all kind of like that in Mignola’s head from the beginning, a kind of feint in advance of the real thrust? Was he just figuring things out — or maybe giving up on figuring some things out — as he went along, and decided after a while that war thrills were poor thrills? Does his abandoning of that Nazi stuff he does so well connect in any definite way with his putting the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. stories onto diverging tracks?
I may never get anywhere with these questions. They aren’t very serious questions, after all. But the twentieth century can be a pretty serious subject, and Hellboy the late American hero, himself, as an artifact of the twentieth century & its aftermath, might even appear at times to be charged with something like seriousness, looked at from some angles. — In case anyone’s about to accuse me of using time frivolously.