Hellboy has a wider reach than most Dark Horse comics because of the Guillermo Del Toro movies. I’ll start by saying that while I have a lot of affection for them, they’re not the best, especially from an adaptational standpoint. The comics have a much more complex mythology with richer, more endearing characters and relationships.
I’m not sure if it’s because of the movies or just a general love for antiheroes, but there seems to be pervasive misunderstanding of who Hellboy is and what he’s about. He’s a demon who was brought to Earth to start an apocalypse, but he was adopted by occult expert Trevor Bruttenholm and raised more or less as a normal boy. The point of confusion is Hellboy’s level of angst regarding his “true” parentage. Sure, he’s uncomfortable when directly confronted with his demonic destiny, but he generally doesn’t give it much thought. In his daily life, he isn’t an antihero, he’s a gigantic softie who acts as a surrogate big brother to the other agents at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. (Sidenote: Movie fans will have to leave any Hellboy/Liz shipping at the door; one of my favourite aspects of this series is a refreshing lack of workplace romance). Hellboy enjoys battling monsters, but he’ll never resort to violence if he can subdue a threat more peacefully. He’s increasingly faced with identity crises as the series goes on, but he’s generally more focused on saving other peoples’ lives and being an all-around supportive teddy bear.
As its name suggests, the B.P.R.D. investigates and battles supernatural threats all over the world. Hellboy is the star agent, but he’s joined by a cast of colourful characters: Abe Sapien, an acerbic fish man who longs to know more about his mysterious origins; Liz Sherman, a pyrokinetic who fears her own strength; Kate Corrigan, an expert folklorist who acts as liaison between management and the “enhanced talent” agents; Roger, a gentle and good-natured homunculus discovered in Romania; Johann Kraus, who was a medium whose body was destroyed while his spirit was traveling, leaving him disembodied ectoplasm; and Ben Daimio is transferred to the Bureau after he mysteriously returned to life following an attack on his Marines Corps. While far from the only significant characters in the series, these odd folks form the ensemble core of B.P.R.D. for much of its run, their interpersonal issues driving the story as much as supernatural threats. Recently there’s been a shift in focus toward the regular human grunts, but these weirdos will always rule my heart.
Hellboy began life as a sketch by Mike Mignola, appearing in his first full-length adventure in Seed of Destruction, a story that introduced Liz Sherman, Abe Sapien, and Trevor Bruttenholm. The tone of of this first story is anomalous in the greater series, due largely to script assistance from John Byrne. After that point, Mignola has written most Hellboy stories himself, his distinct clipped dialogue a large part of its charm. More writers were brought in as the world of the series (frequently called “The Mignolaverse”) expanded, and many new artists were brought in, allowing Mignola to focus, mostly, on writing. Too many other artists have worked on the series to list here, from legendary vets to talented newcomers, and despite the varied visual styles, a consistent narrative voice holds the world together.
That consistency is especially important as the Mignolaverse grows. In addition to the flagship Hellboy and B.P.R.D. series, Abe Sapien has solo comics; there are also flashback series to the early days of the organization, and pulpy comics about Hellboy’s childhood hero, Lobster Johnson. While myriad comics enrich the world, they also make it intimidating. If you’re curious about the comics, here are a few places you might like to start:
The Hellboy Animated films. It’s likely that most people curious about the comics have some familiarity with the live action films, but the cartoons are set in their own world, one that feels a lot more like the comics. While they animation is stylistically divorced from the source material, these films come much closer to the original characters’ personalities and relationships. Hellboy demonstrates a bit more maturity, Abe and Liz have a sense of humour, and Kate Corrigan is actually present! They’re a bit more lighthearted than the live action films and make better use of its excellent cast.
Hellboy: Wake the Devil. As I mentioned, Seed of Destruction is the first story, and that’s where to start if you’re a completionist, but Mignola finds his own voice in this second story, and it continues to develop the world’s mythology.
Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others or Hellboy: The Right Hand of Doom. Both collections feature the kind of stories that Mignola most loves to tell about Hellboy: he wanders the globe, finds weird stuff, punches the weird stuff. While some of the stories tie into the larger narrative, it’s easy enough to figure out what’s going on, and most of them are little standalones. Both collections give you an idea of who Hellboy is, what his friends are like, and the general tone of the series. For a longer standalone story, you could try the spectacular graphic novel that Mignola created with Duncan Fegredo, Hellboy: The Midnight Circus. It’s better enjoyed if you are familiar with the characters, but it stands well on its own.
B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth. This is the first storyline after Hellboy quits the Bureau (sorry, spoilers) and allows the other characters step out of Hellboy’s shadow. B.P.R.D. is an ensemble book, so while Hellboy is missed, his absence isn’t exactly detrimental. With this series, it’s honestly best just to start at the beginning and go from there. I’d recommend picking up the omnibus collections if possible; they simplify reading order and have tons of additional content.
If you start with the early series (really the best stuff), by the time you get to the more complicated release schedules you’ll hopefully have gotten more used to how the world works. I admittedly find the current comics generally less engaging, although the stuff Mignola puts out by himself is still regularly fantastic. While it can be a bit of work navigating a world like this, one that rewards completionism more than even Marvel or DC, it’s worth the effort for the sometimes funny, sometimes spooky, but always heartfelt stories.