Its plot — a pseudo-sequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula that chronicles the clandestine workings of a secret British society (managed by the last surviving descendant of Abraham Van Helsing) as they usher a domesticated and bemused Dracula into a three-way tussle with an assemblage of Vatican-backed Crusaders looking to burn Britain to the ground and a battalion of Nazis who have turned themselves into vampires through an unholy fusion of science and magic after half a century hiding in South America — is the stuff of grindhouse matinees.
Its style belongs to a similarly unapologetic old-school. Compared to the razor-sleek art direction and the grinding, epic scale that have come to characterize American war or superhero comics and the professional, poppy landscape of contemporary action manga, the quarter-century-old Hellsing’s splatterhouse approach can read as positively primitive. Where most of his contemporaries (and their successors) shun all things messy in favor of a clean cinematic style insistent on linearity and literalism at the expense of ambiguity, spontaneity, and experimentation, Hirano revels in a love of the gauche and the gaudy. Nothing here is done by halves; nothing is done even by fulls.
Instead, every element is pushed to the most cartoonish limits of representation. Pitch-black inks outline and clash against stark whites for a popping effect underscored by slashing grays. An exacting attention to detail in all things — from the creases in uniforms to the contours of a gun’s barrel — renders every object both exceedingly real and impossibly strange. Characters do not simply smile or frown but leer and grimace, their expressions stretching like wax masks to comical proportions. Characters do not simply stand but vogue, strutting and striking wildly elaborate stances that defy anatomy and flashing flamboyant gestures as if they were posing for a magazine cover with such verve they break through panels and gutters for want of space and attention.
If Hirano sees mete to violate the norms of visual storytelling, he will waste no time eschewing every convention of continuity and clarity to better capture that one perfect angle, striking juxtaposition, or beautiful parallel. Should the chaos of a combat scene be better served by a dissolution into montage, Hirano is happy to melt the neat choreography of a battle down into a barrage of panels almost indecipherable in their temporal and spatial relations. Should the opposite be called for — moments of emphasis so pointed they demand a complete grinding to a halt — Hirano spares no effort detailing single-page images or double-page spreads so histrionically composed that they freeze the formally madcap action into baroque tableaus demanding meditative contemplation.
Considering the catastrophes on display, such a freeze is often necessary. Where many other commercial comics often confine violence to blood sprays or the occasional glimpse of nondescript organs, the atrocities on exhibit in Hellsing are so inventive and grandiose they shade into a surreality that invites extended study. Vampires scoop the eyes from their victims’ skulls with ghoulishly distended maws lined by rows of impossibly pointy fangs; an arm thought lopped off a moment ago juts from its owner’s leering mouth, gun firmly in hand; Nazi soldiers dangle the corpses of disemboweled infants from their ghoulish maws. Hirano has a predilection for depicting bodies in the midst of destruction, pausing the action on characters as their skulls are atomized by cannon fire — teeth shattering into shavings, outer cheeks distending sickly as a shell pushes through their face — or the tightly coiled ropes of a mercenary’s bowels are loosened over the full course of a page by shrapnel. So heightened and lovingly rendered are the sights on display that they assume something of the fetishistic appeal of the vampire myth, particularly where the action narrows to one-on-one combat. When Dracula is not biting into the necks of swooning, moaning victims, he is commanding his rival, the mad priest Anderson, to “pierce the bowels of my heart” with exaggeratedly large bayonets while discharging explosive rounds from his own ludicrously phallic guns.
Hirano may delight with pornographic fervor in displaying violence, but there is no mistaking his appreciation of hyper-stylized bloodletting for the kind of systemic cruelty and sadism that underlines more ostensibly serious action comics. Authors like Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, and Alex Ross might preen about the humanistic impulses that characterize their work, but the satire of comics like Planetary and The Boys is so smug, broad, and muddled that it often ends up not a critique but a celebration of neoliberal interventionism and technocratic fascism wherein violence, if regrettably uncouth, will at least always at last be yielded by the just. It is not difficult to draw the line linking these authors and their influence at publishers like Marvel and DC to these company’s later decision to adopt a house style championed by writers like Jonathan Hickman and artists like Adam Kubert that has turned both into de facto recruiting campaigns for the American military or Silicon Valley’s most odious “innovators” when they are not literally advertising for arms manufacturers like Northrop Grumman.
What drives Hirano’s work, by contrast, is a kind of audacious glee so loud and insistent that to call it “bombastic” even seems like a hedging; better instead to call it “operatic.” Hellsing itself certainly seems to encourage the comparison, rife as it is with quotations and references to the art form Herbert Lindenberger described as “the last refuge of the high style.” One character is given to singing passages from Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz and identifying herself as Kaspar, while another stands atop a zeppelin pretending to conduct the war before him as if it were an orchestra; there is even an extended musical interlude showcasing the bleakest sights of the Nazi’s blitz of London set to lyrics. So pronounced is the parallel that the characters cannot miss it, with nearly every speaking part finding time to describe their conflict in terms theatrical. “This burlesque is over,” sighs the butler Walter as the story nears its end. “It’s a one-night, one-act farce, both this war and this world … I just wanted … to play the best part I could.” Watching from aboard the command center on his blimp, the villainous Major, leader of the Nazi remnants, opines, “This show ist one night only. I might as vell vatch from the highest seat.” Perhaps this is why the characters are so ready to indulge in soliloquy: confronted with the obvious stagedness of their situation, they see no reason to hew to naturalism, and so are given to launching into flowery declamations about “the wiles of the zealot,” “the duty of humans,” or how they will “settle on no ends in achieving (their) means.” Hirano strives at all times for a kind of grandiloquent maximalism that constantly threatens to collapse and yet only grows ever more delightful.
Attribute this success, maybe, to the obvious glee Hirano takes in stretching speech to its most absurd ends. Or, maybe, attribute it to Hirano’s affinity for even his most heinous characters as well as to translator Duane Johnson, who, with an ear for dialect and attention to rhythm and wordplay, surely bears more than a little responsibility for endowing each of them with fetching personality and voice. Or, finally, maybe it’s best to lay the blame squarely on the author’s keenly attuned humanistic instincts. For as ludicrous as the comic’s every aspect is, the most ludicrous of all may very well be that all the ribald violence, all the elaborate posturing and posing and speechifying, are in service to an earnest investigation of our endless appetite for the violent escapism of power fantasies.
There is no topic Hellsing’s characters love to meditate on more than what leads one to transgress the razor-thin demarcation between man and monster. Dracula in particular is given to asking his opponents what they are — “A man? A dog? A freak? A monster?” — and ranting that “[i]t is always humans who defeat monsters!” But being a monster in Hellsing is not merely a matter of abandoning one’s human physiology, a point Dracula’s master Integra makes in the face of the nefarious Major’s defense that if he is a “monster-like human,” he remains human on the basis that he alone among the Nazis has resisted becoming a vampire. “Only humans make ‘defeating’ something … a duty they must perform,” she chides him. “It’s not for the enjoyment of combat.” More than anything, the trespass into monstrosity is marked by the abdication of one’s inherent human decency and the moral weight that it entails in exchange for power, and more than anything what motivates this abdication is terror: of death, of weakness, of ambiguity, of old age, of, ultimately, vulnerability. “Do you fear becoming useless?” Dracula taunts his former companion Walter when he learns he sold himself out to the Nazis for a taste of vampirism; “did nae ye become ae devil ye did nae want tae cry?” Anderson teases Dracula after his own wish to be “born ae storm … nae heart, nae tears, just as ae terrible gale” was fulfilled and ultimately left him ruined. Having experienced the transition firsthand, he finally learns what Integra’s father, Arthur Hellsing, has known all along: that the monster’s obsessive “crav[ing] for conflict [and] gory struggles” is a kind of “longing” that hides “terribly pitiful, pathetic children who might simply break down and cry feebly.” All that posturing and flaunting, all that obsession with dominance only hides the fact that monsters cannot contend with a world as brutal and uncompromising as our own.
To wish “to be born a storm,” then, is to wish to be both so elemental you are free of any duty greater than rampant destruction and so powerful that you cannot be resisted, to wish that the world could be flattened to childish fantasy. It is to believe, as Anderson taught his students, “[that] should you cry ‘Amen!’ and kill, the world shall slip into its rightful place.” It is, as Dracula cajoled his followers, to mistakenly hope that “fighting is prayer itself. At the end of so much prayer it astounds, God will descend.” It is no accident that these so-called monsters cannot help describing their condition in terms of illusion: Dracula himself begs to be woken up from “this interstice of my dream,” one of the Nazi high command grins wildly, “like a child ’oo’d just ‘ad a smashing dream” upon his death. This, likewise, is why characters cannot help relating their situation to theater and opera: it allows them to hide in a delusion of invincible heroism while forgetting how many of these stories end in tragedy. In the monster’s worldview, there is no need to consider, to reason, to imagine because there no longer exists any of the ambiguity or complexity vulnerable humans are heir to: so long as one keeps killing, the distinction between dream and reality, theater and life, heaven and earth, will remain unintelligible. Never again will one have to confront their fragility.
This is, of course, the illusion offered by all power fantasies everywhere. We are all weak beyond measure, our lives contingent on innumerable forces beyond our influence. Who among us has not felt the sting of a rejection, the weight of some unavoidable failure, the revelation of a loss that can never be redeemed or an insult that can never be avenged, and not turned immediately to the solace of some dream of revenge? Who, upon being made aware that they were disposable in the eyes of the world or replaceable in the heart of a loved one, has not yearned for a mind that would never know discomfort, a heart that would never know pain, and a body that would never betray you? But the world is both inhospitable and limiting, and there is no power we can find here that will place us beyond it. So we take refuge in escapist fantasies that offer a sense of transcendence, none of which are so easily accessible or digestible or as thrilling as those tales of violent conflict where the rules are simple and brutal, the aesthetics clean, the complexities ironed flat, and our proxies beyond any lasting moral and mortal reproach.
The problem is not that we would ever seek these escapes; there is no shame in seeking the comfort of alternative possibilities or the sublimation of our most brutal urges. The mistake comes when, like Hellsing’s most wretched cast members, we conflate the imagined with the lived, and mistake the righteousness and invincibility we feel in our fantasy for an entitlement to violence in our own lives. This, in part, explains why Hellsing possesses a style so heightened that it dizzies. Nobody but a lunatic could mistake it for some longed-for ideal; no one who has not already given themselves up to bloodlust would find it worthy of emulation.
More importantly still, it explains why Hirano’s masterpiece is capable of producing an emotional resonance that so many of its predecessors and its imitators fail to deliver: he never allows the audience a chance to feel removed from or morally superior to his actors. Readers are instead forced to sympathize with and confront the same impulses that led them here, and in doing so feel not only the shared glory this tradition has always peddled but also the shame and weakness that makes all of us easy marks for it in the first place. War is absurd, as is our veneration of it, in large part because that veneration and that obsession come from our most acute and vulnerable and absurd feelings. To glibly dismiss these emotions and our delight in them as foolish or negligible is to refuse acknowledgment of our own susceptibility to them, while to sanitize them is to make that identification too simple, too antiseptic. What Hirano gives us with his singular style and acerbic vision, then, is the perfect intersection of the two, a work at once too absurd to be believed and too believable to be absurd.
Austin Price’s criticism and journalism have appeared in The Comics Journal, PopMatters.com, The Fjords Review, and Unwinnable, among many other outlets; he is also, alongside artist Matthew Rainwater, the co-creator of the webcomic Batmonster, and the writer of the musical Rush to Die and the opera Feast (with composer Costantinos Dafnis).