Here’s a rule I have regarding “Hellboy” comics: Nobody should draw Hellboy except for Mike Mignola. Except maybe Duncan Fegredo. And, oh yeah, Richard Corben. One mustn’t forget about Richard Corben.
At 67 years old, Richard Corben shows these youngsters how it’s done in his three issues of “Hellboy: The Crooked Man.” I certainly haven’t read everything Corben’s ever done — not even close — but I’ve read enough of his work over the past twenty-five years to know that his work on these Hellboy issues is some of his best ever. His figures still look like Corben figures, of course, with their long, flat faces and wide mouths, but there’s a simplicity to his compositions that contrasts wonderfully with his detailed feathering and illustrative line. His panels are not overflowing with information, but the characters are rendered with lush attention, and, like that whippersnapper Mignola, Corben knows how to spot blacks like a madman.
The art here is so good, especially on the close-ups of the Crooked Man — a demonic creature with apish features and puritan attire — that the story almost doesn’t even matter. It’s Hellboy, so you kind of know what you’re going to get.
Except that’s not completely true, not here. While this may not be a story filled with shocking twists and turns, it’s an engaging tale about temptation and sin. It doesn’t fetishize ancient legends or mysterious artifacts the way some Hellboy stories do. It doesn’t fall into the rut of cold exposition at the expense of characterization and narrative momentum. Instead, “Hellboy: The Crooked Man” takes time to explore the twisted choices in a corrupt world — and Hellboy himself is merely a supporting figure for the battle of wills between man, god, and the devil.
And what makes this battle work so well is that the struggle takes place on the grungy Earth, in the Appalachian mountains, circa 1958. This isn’t Southern Gothic, it’s Backwoods Hillbilly Gothic, and that’s a whole lot more disturbing.
“Hellboy: The Crooked Man” ends with issue #3, and the trio of issues tell a satisfyingly self-contained tale. I don’t know that this will be anyone’s first exposure to Hellboy, but it could absolutely work as such. And it’s so good, in its grotesquely beautiful way, that it might make other Hellboy stories a little dry and distant in comparison.