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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, January 18, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: HELLSING (1997-2008)

Ye shall only have enemies to be hated, but not enemies to be despised. Ye must be proud of your enemies; then, the successes of your enemies are also your successes.-- Nietzsche,  "War and Warriors," THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA.

Since the rise of the distinct genre of horror-fiction in the 19th century, the vampire subgenre has often centered its horrific thrills upon the victim's loss of identity. The vampire breaks down the normal borders of his victim's whole being. The attack may be physical, as in drinking someone's blood, or it may be on a psychological/metaphysical level, forcing the victim to drink vampiric blood, so that he or she loses even the identity of a victim, becoming instead another being poised on the borders of the living and the dead. Bram Stoker's DRACULA provides the "ur-text" of vampire mythology for later authors, and the majority of authors have followed Stoker's example, focusing upon vampirism as a series of metaphysical and/or psychological assaults upon the victim's individual will. Vampire-tropes are less often used for large-scale sociological myths, except when they're merged with other metaphenomenal tropes, like the apocalyptic war between good and evil.

War threatens the human sense of identity in a much less personal manner. When wars are staged on the apocalyptic scale, it doesn't matter whether they take place in naturalistic or metaphenomenal domains, for all such "world wars" draw countless persons from numerous realms, forcing them to subsume their individual desires in order to defeat a common enemy. DRACULA presents the reader with a covert, small-scale conflict between the Transylvanian Count and a band of English citizens (and one American) led by the Dutch doctor Abraham Van Helsing. But what if a "world war" took place between the living and the undead, with two of the undead pledged to defend the living against a mad warmonger?



Kohta Hirano's ten-volume manga epic HELLSING takes its name from Stoker's vampire-hunter Van Helsing, though it's hard to imagine that the author wasn't aware of the accidental pun in the name, implying that "hell" could "sing." The story takes place in what seems to be an alternate world, in which Protestants and Catholics still mount armed campaigns against one another. The Protestants of England are represented by the organization Hellsing, masterminded by Lady Integra Hellsing, descendant of the original Dutch doctor. However, the group Hellsing's purpose is not to skirmish with Catholics but to guard against eruptions of the supernatural. Only two historical events are repeatedly stressed in HELLSING: the Van Helsing group's original defeat of Dracula in the late 1800s, and the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. How much time has passed, and how many other differences there may be in the world's post-WWII makeup, are not things Hirano bothers with, as one of his primary purposes is to render to his readers a big, noisy shonen fantasy full of blazing guns and bloody fangs. It's also a loving tribute to other pop-cultural myths other than than Bram Stoker's, for it includes references to APOCALYPSE NOW, DUNE and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. Even Hirano's generic name for the monsters in his world-- including not only vampires but zombies and a few werewolves-- betrays its pop-culture roots, since the name of the monsters, "Midians," is most likely borrowed from the monster-filled city of Midian in Clive Barker's 1988 novella CABAL.

And yet, Hirano weaves a tapestry that is as deep as it is wide: one that evokes not only the vampire-myth's concerns with personal identity, but also the philosophical concepts of Friedrich Nietzsche as they apply to the chaos of war and the nature of the human will.


Even before the threat to England proper begins, Integra is forced to fight for control of Hellsing following the death of her father. Her corrupt uncle plots to slay Integra and almost succeeds, except that Integra stumbles upon a hidden secret of her distant Dutch ancestor: the dessicated corpse of Count Dracula, held in a room in Hellsing headquarters. In time-honored cinematic tradition, Integra sheds blood upon the corpse and it comes back to life, slaying her attackers. But unlike most versions of the master vampire, this one becomes the servant of the female descendant of his own slayer, and becomes her primary weapon in the ensuing conflict. He even signifies his subjugation by taking the reverse-name "Alucard," even though Integra is fully aware of his true identity. However, as if to prove that old habits die hard, especially among the undead, Alucard uses his power to enlist his own servant: another Englishwoman, the naive but feisty police officer Victoria Seras. Throughout the hellacious battle that comes, Victoria serves as something akin to the callow new recruit in war-films, and it's through her eyes that the reader sees the horrors of bloody battle.



Stoker's fictional Dracula was the bane of England in the 1800s, but Nazi Germany became a real-life threat over thirty years later. In the midst of sectarian quarrels between the Protestants and the Catholics, a recrudescent quasi-Nazi movement arises. I say "quasi-Nazi" because the movement has no preoccupation either with the tenets of Nazi belief or with Hitler's desire to bring all of Europe under his aegis. Rather, a mysterious leader, known only as The Major, marshals massive forces against England, forces including both mortal men and "Midians," since only the latter have the power to battle Alucard. The Major's only purpose is to unleash "the dogs of war" at every opportunity, apparently agreeing with Nietzsche ( though the philosopher is never directly quoted)-- regarding the salutary effects of war:

Ye say it is the good cause which halloweth even war? I say unto you: it is the good war which halloweth every cause.


I won't go into great detail about the military maneuvers of this "Second Blitz" or about the many side-stories respecting supporting-characters. However, I should mention Iscariot, the Catholic assassination wing, in which Hirano seems to have conflated the stories of the arch-traitor Judas and those of the Hebrew Zealots, the anti-Roman terrorists from the era of Jesus of Nazareth. Iscariot's foremost killer is Irish-Catholic Anthony Anderson, an inhumanly strong human being who would rather fight the master vampire than the Major. To religious fanatic Anderson, the vampire is the epitome of blasphemy. (Anderson's scenes, though brutal, always convey a bit of humor, since the assassin speaks in a thick brogue that makes Barry Fitzgerald sound like Noel Coward.)


Alucard shares sentiments of both the Major and Anderson. In life, Alucard fought in the wars between his people and the Ottoman Turks, and saw so much slaughter that he came to conceive of human fighting as a form of "prayer" to an uncaring God. At some point he even thinks that hecatombs of wasted lives will attract God's attention, thinking that "Jerusalem will descend" as a result. Yet Alucard, unlike Stoker's Dracula, is disgusted with his prolonged existence, and fantasizes about being destroyed by someone like Anderson. Further, whereas Stoker's Count never remembered any of his victims, Alucard is a composite being, who has no true shape (or identity) of his own, and who is made up of all the previous souls he's devoured. In fact, in the climax the Major even finds a way to use Alucard's formless nature against him.

The climax illustrates Hirano's skillful opposition between the human will and the will-lessness of monsters like Alucard. The Major reflects to Integra that he knows it would feel "wonderful" to become a vampire, to exist through "combination with the existence of others, the fusion of lives, the unification of minds." Yet he believes that fragile humanity is more glorious, due to the individual's sense of identity. "What's mine ist mine. Each hair, each drop of blood. I am me," says the Major, putting forth a Nietzschean take on Aristotle's law of identity. Even after it's revealed that the villain is a cyborg-- accounting for his youthful looks many years after WWII-- he insists, prior to his destruction, that "so long as I haf my own vill... I'll still be human!"


Admittedly, because HELLSING is a big noisy shonen manga, it's not concerned with philosophical subtleties. But among the ranks of hyperviolent fantasy-adventures that also have philosophical undercurrents, HELLSING is one of the best of its kind.







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