Hellboy as a Representation of the Struggle between Id and Super-Ego

In the world of graphic novels, Hellboy is a unique and nuanced character who is simultaneously deeply human and very obviously inhuman. The complexity and depth of Hellboy’s character is likely due to the fact that he is completely the intellectual property of his creator, Mike Mignola. This means that Mignola has the creative license to do much more with the character than another writer working on a property owned by the publisher and who may be constrained by the expectations that his or her publisher has for how the character will behave and what kind of story will surround the character. Due to this relative creative freedom, Hellboy has a number of unique characteristics that allow him to represent more interesting and complex issues than most comic book characters. The most obvious of these characteristics is that, despite his attempts to appear and behave more like a human, he is a very large, incredibly strong demon. In fact, he turns out to be the son and heir to a duke of Hell, and also happens to have the key to the destruction of the world grafted onto his right arm in the form of an indestructible stone hand. His origins are fairly obvious, given his bright red skin, the aforementioned Right Hand of Doom, and (before he takes to sawing them off and filing them down) a rather prominent set of demonic horns.

Hellboy’s origin story, depicted in Seed of Destruction is also a bit unusual for a comic book superhero, considering that he was born in Hell which is not exactly where one expects to find a future do-gooder. As the result of a partially-failed occult ritual performed during World War II on the behalf of the Nazis by Grigori Rasputin, an infant Hellboy is abruptly yanked out of Hell and deposited into the hands of Professor Trevor Bruttenholm (pronounced “Broom”), a paranormal researcher working for the Allied organization known as the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). In spite of the protests of his colleagues, Bruttenholm decides to raise Hellboy as though he were a human child, never fully comprehending the role that Hellboy is meant to play in the apocalypse.

Hellboy’s first “family photo” with the Professor.

It is this divergence between Hellboy’s natural environment, the hellish world into which he was born and would have been raised by his own kind, and the more mundane human world, in which he is given the closest thing to a human childhood possible considering he was mostly raised in secret airbases and the headquarters of the BPRD, that makes Hellboy a very clear depiction of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic model of the psyche at work. Specifically, this model involves the struggle between id (one’s natural, unfiltered, unconscious desires, needs, and instincts) and the super-ego (the compulsion to follow societal and cultural rules that comes with being a member of society), with the ego acting as a mediator by balancing the pleasure-seeking tendencies of the id with the rule-following morality of the super-ego.

The most obvious demonstration of how Hellboy embodies these concepts is how he is visually portrayed. Due to his upbringing, Hellboy’s outer appearance and behavior become more human than demonic. This can be seen most clearly whenever Hellboy has a run-in with one of his more sinister kin. Whereas most demons, his half-brothers and father included, tend to wear very little in the way of clothing other than what appear to be simple cloth kilts or skirts with little ornamentation (sometimes including apparently metal bands around the wrists and waist), Hellboy’s attire consists of much more human clothing. He wears a large, baggy trench coat with the BPRD insignia stitched onto one shoulder, a pair of shorts, and a gun belt heavily laden with pouches for various odds and ends. He also wears a pair of foot wraps or sleeves rather than shoes, presumably due to his hoof-like feet. It is also important to note that Hellboy’s clothing, while a relatively unusual ensemble, is technically a uniform signifying his status as an agent of the BPRD. This means that he is an active, contributing member in a group with the sworn mission of protecting humanity from the supernatural forces of the world. His demonic brethren, on the other hand, are generally solitary and tend to avoid working together whenever possible, with their only clear goals being self-advancement. Hellboy also has a habit of smoking a large cigar, an act that is a purely human mannerism. Demons in the Hellboy universe, in fact, don’t seem to really indulge in any human vices, so Hellboy’s enjoyment of the occasional smoke is a strikingly human act. On a similar note, Hellboy develops a drinking problem after resigning from the BPRD, another behavior that none of his relatives in Hell ever seem to share.

Hellboy in full regalia as seen on the cover of "Seed of Destruction."
Hellboy in full regalia as seen on the cover of Seed of Destruction.

As a character that dresses a great deal like a human, Hellboy’s obvious inhumanity contrasts strongly with his choice of outfit. For one thing, as mentioned earlier, Hellboy is very clearly of demonic origin. This makes the casual manner in which he wears human clothing stand out very clearly. His huge stone hand and the lack of symmetry between his left and right hands is also heightened by the fact that the right sleeve of his trench coat seems to barely fit over the stone hand, meaning the sleeve is almost always pushed up and the hand is exposed and very obvious. His tail also disrupts the otherwise normal image of his shorts, as it pokes out through a hole in the back. The filed-down stubs of Hellboy’s horns are also difficult to miss, although perhaps less clearly inhuman than his natural set of horns.

The contrast between Hellboy’s wardrobe and his nature as a demon shows that he is trying to adhere to the rules of a human society that is directly opposed to his inherently demonic nature. Not only does he fight his own nature as a demon by trying his hardest to dress like a human, he even struggles against the most obvious symbol of his origins by continuously keeping his horns filed down and not allowing them to grow back, going to the extent of snapping them off forcefully on the few occasions that they are returned to their full length. Thus, the super-ego is represented by his clothes and the id is represented by his naturally demonic appearance, while the ego is shown by the concessions he has to make in changing his appearance; he doesn’t go so far as to cover up his red skin or force his feet into human shoes, and he leaves his horns in place rather than trying to have them completely removed.

Hellboy’s choice of weapon also shows this struggle. While the majority of other demons in the Hellboy universe wield melee weapons like swords and spears, Hellboy relies mostly on pistols and modern human weaponry unless he is backed into a corner and forced into hand-to-hand combat. In a conversation with Morgan Le Fay that takes place during The Wild Hunt, it is suggested that Hellboy’s destiny is to wield a sword rather than a gun, as he is the last descendant of Arthur Pendragon, the rightful king of England, and the heir to Excalibur. Shortly afterwards, Hellboy also has a vision in which his uncle Astaroth suggests that he will inevitably take up a sword, whether it be Excalibur or the sword left for him in Pandemonium, the capital of Hell, as his birthright as a member of the demonic nobility.

Hellboy takes on a group of giants in hand-to-hand combat.
Hellboy takes on a group of giants in hand-to-hand combat.

Hellboy initially refuses to accept Excalibur, and when asked why he did not take the sword he explains that his own enjoyment of wielding a sword frightens him. In an encounter that had taken place previously, Hellboy had momentarily lost his temper and waded into battle against a group of giants. He then used a shard of one of the giants’ broken swords and brutally killed all of the giants. Hellboy says that he loved it at the time, and is worried about how much more he would like swinging around a proper sword, especially one as powerful and legendary as Excalibur. Hellboy’s weapon of choice, the pistol, allows him to both distance himself from the hand-to-hand combat that he seems to naturally enjoy while also allowing him to sate some small amount of the bloodlust that his demon heritage has bestowed him with. In this sense, using a firearm instead of a sword is a representation of the ego mediating between the id (his innate, natural desire to dive headfirst into melee combat with sword in hand) and the super-ego (his conscious desire to avoid his more violent, brutal demonic side and be more like a human).

The most dramatic way that Hellboy showcases the dynamic between id, ego, and super-ego is in his occasional transformations into the fully-fledged Beast of the Apocalypse. During his tenure with the BPRD and in his subsequent solo adventures, there are a few instances in which Hellboy is either forced by mystical means or pushed by physical or emotional exertion to the breaking point. When this happens, Hellboy’s horns sprout out to their full length, his breath becomes a tongue of flame, and the crown of fire that marks his role appears above his head. The first time this happens is during his second battle with Hecate, in which she forces him into a vision of his supposed destiny and explains that he is meant to awaken the Ogdru Jahad, the beings that are destined to destroy the world. She evokes Hellboy’s true nature as the herald of the Ogdru Jahad and causes him to undergo the transformation.

Hellboy in his full demonic glory, complete with flaming crown and horns.
Hellboy in his full demonic glory, complete with flaming crown and horns.

Hellboy, however, has other plans. Sticking to his usual pattern of stubbornly resisting his demonic nature, Hellboy snaps his horns off and shakes himself out of the apocalyptic scene being projected around him, thereby returning to his slightly less demonic form. This same general scene plays out a few more times over the course of the Hellboy storyline, with Hellboy breaking his horns and casting aside his crown each time. The last time it happens, during his fight with the giants in The Wild Hunt, Hellboy’s crown is notably missing, having been stolen from him and then willingly given up during a run-in with a covetous, minor demon named Ualac in Box Full of Evil. The fact that Hellboy is brought so close to fully realizing his demonic potential and willingly steps back from the brink each time is a striking visual representation of the struggle between Hellboy’s demonic id and more human super-ego. His relinquishment of the crown, which is then taken back to Hell by Astaroth for safekeeping, is a way of satisfying his conscious desire to become more human and less demonic, but does not fully counteract his nature as a demon since all he is doing is giving up his role as the Beast of the Apocalypse, not his actual demonhood, making this act very much like the middle road taken by the ego.

Hellboy snaps off his horns in defiance of his true demonic nature.
Hellboy snaps off his horns in defiance of his true demonic nature.

In the end, Hellboy’s character is a very human one, albeit one that is trapped by his inhuman origins. This conflict between his demonic and human sides is an external mirror of the internal struggle between id and super-ego that occurs in any other human or human-like character in the medium of the graphic novel. Hellboy’s conflict is one that is far more dramatic, however, because it also involves the fate of the world and his own fate: whether he will become the bringer of the apocalypse, or the defender of humanity which he wishes to be.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Contributing writer for The Artifice.

Want to write about Comics or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. This is a really interesting article. Always been a huge fan of Hellboy interesting to see him analysed like this

  2. Devries

    I gotta say that even though the movies aren’t epic, Ron Perlman was the epic match for that character.

  3. Clifford Poole

    Hellboy is like van helsing or some other b list comic book hero.

  4. Anya Will

    I love my comics but I’m not usually big on collecting the most prestigious edition around. That said, the Library Editions of Hellboy are worth every penny. If you take into account that they contain two TPB it comes out to be about $3 more per TPB (on Amazon) to upgrade to the most beautiful books around. They are stunning. Also, BPRD Plague of Frogs is collected into four great omnibuses that contain three TPB’s for the price of one. You can do the entire Plague of Frogs arc (hundreds of comics; 1792 pages in total) for under $100 buck new or $60 used. Not only is Hellboy and BPRD the best around, they are also one of the easiest and most affordable to collect, find, and read for anyone just starting out.

  5. Dietrich

    About to start reading Hellboy from the beginning for the first time soon. Very excited to see what lies ahead for me.

  6. If there was ever–in all of movie history–a better casting job than hiring Ron Perlman to play Hellboy, I haven’t seen it.

    • RDJ as Tony Stark is up there but i do agree with where you’re going on this one

  7. Lorilee Gold

    I tried reading the comics, but I got bored out of my mind with the first one. Do they get better?

    • The pacing definitely gets faster but I’m not sure you’d much more enjoyment out of the subject matter. I actually really enjoyed the first one so it’s kind of hard for me to gauge how you’d react.

  8. I love Hellboy more for his character than his design. He’s a demon born to destroy the world, but is raised a Catholic and becomes a monster hunter. Guy faces down monsters from every mythology and folktale imaginable, and all the while keeps an incredibly down to earth, blue collar personality.

    • Something that I thought they didn’t really carry over to the movies very well was how generally amicable Hellboy seemed to be. He’s definitely more laid back in the comics.

  9. Spawn will kick his ass!!! Yeah I said it !!!

    • Too bad Spawn has never had a comic anywhere near half way decent were Hellboy has had some of the best comics of all time

    • Spawn needs a better movie. The original was ok, for it’s time, but the special effects were cheesy and John Leguizamo spent too much time chewing the scenery.

  10. Walter Jude

    Love Hellboy. Thank you Mike Mignola for creating a great character. Also thank you to Guillermo del Toro for making 2 Hellboy films (still hoping for a third) and Ron Perlman for bringing the character to life.

    You’re a hero in the pages of comics and the hearts of kids.

  11. Jacque Venus Tobias

    Thank you Steve for this engrossing article. I was not familiar with the journey of Hellboy thanks to your article I have a better understanding of the story. Rasputin is a fascinating character and I enjoyed seeing his name in your article. I am familiar with Dr. Freud’s psychoanalytic definition of the id, ego, and super-ego and I believe you did a fine job n your analytic correlation.

  12. This is great! I haven’t read much of Hellboy but this article really got me interested in him. I liked that you pointed out that Mignola has much more freedom than other comic book writers. Interesting to think about!

    • Thanks for reading! Hellboy is a pretty good read whether you’re looking for some cool occult action or something with a little more depth, so I bet you’d enjoy it.

  13. Cary Spencer

    Mike Mignola is so talented he could probably make Youngblood look cool.

  14. i find Mike Mignola and his Hellboy comics infinitelly more interesting than Del Toro’s adaptation. I think they were too cheesy and lacked a lot of the dark and mysterious tone from the stories.

  15. What I loved about Hellboy was the beginning in Scotland. It reminded me of the Intro to Castle Wolfenstein

    • The only major complaint I have about the series as a whole is that it starts to get away from the Nazi occultism stuff, so I’d have liked to see more scenes like that intro with Rasputin and the Thule Society. For some reason that’s all weirdly fascinating to me

  16. I’ve not read the comic, but I did watch the animated movie based off the comic.

  17. Gilberto Shaw

    he’s unique, the art and designs are awesome and let’s not forget nazis!

  18. This reminds me that I need to finally get around to buying a lot of the Hellboy graphic novels that I haven’t collected over the years. He’s about the only comic I care about anymore.

  19. Jorge Guzman

    I am really enjoying ” B.P.R.D. Reign of the Black Flame”
    But we need more Hellboy in Hell comic and Hellboy 3 movie.

    • I still need to get around to reading Hell on Earth, I’ve been picking my way through all of the early BPRD stuff like 1946.

  20. Kit Artis

    I knew of Hellboy for a while but my first introduction was probably Hellboy 2. That was a surprisingly entertaining movie. I never really delved into the lore behind it all but reading this make me think I should start. Hope we get that 3rd act.

  21. Jamie Tracy

    Excellent article. A great read and very well researched. Can’t wait to see what you come up with next. Keep it up.
    It could be interesting for you to read Mike Mignola’s philosophy of how Hellboy is used when he is not writing him. Fascinating.

  22. He is the man. Everyone knows it. EVERYONE.

  23. always wanted to start reading hellboy
    the movies were awful tho

  24. An Hell Boy game would be so great… And not one that’s based on the movies but on the comics, I have nothing against the movies, but you don’t see many comic book video games that much anymore

  25. Artwork in the Hellboy comics is terrible!! No eye candy.

    • Jacque Venus Tobias

      Thank you for that prompt on the artwork. I meant to mention it earlier. I find the cover image is stunning. The other selections for the article convey the depth and struggles that are Hellboy. The choice of colours are dark and demanding of your attention. Even the white space is demanding. The artwork with Hellboy rising through the use of negative space of the dramatic cloud parting in the background evokes emotional response from me. I enjoyed the selection of artwork. Eye Candy is fine in some vein, however objectification of the female image lacks my interest

      • Jamie Tracy

        Well said. Mike Mignola is an artist not a pop/comic/anime illustrator.

        Comics would be taken more seriously for their artistic manner if the eye candy/cheesecake factor was removed.

    • I see it as pure eye candy. It sets itself apart from the rest and makes for some truly wretched character design.

  26. you know what other comic book character is great what does not get much attention the Savage dragon great stories great art look it up you will not be disappointed

    • I liked the early issues of Savage Dragon, but personally I thought that the series began to decline over time.

  27. Helen Parshall

    Before reading your piece I had perhaps no interest in changing my ignorance of hellboy, but I think I’m going to have to give it a shot now. Thanks for posting!

  28. I just learned all about id, ego, and super-ego! I’m happy to read it being applied to a comic book character!

  29. Aaron Hatch

    Good article. Really makes me want to start reading more of the these comics.

  30. Jemarc Axinto

    My knowledge of Hellboy is entirely limited to the films. That being said your piece entices me to do my research and learn more.

Leave a Reply to Steve Barnold Cancel reply