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.
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.
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 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, 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.
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.
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