Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Hellsingby Jason Thompson, Mar 22nd 2012
Episode C: Hellsing
"Though pudgy and frequently bullied, Kouta Hirano is anything but helpless."
Having a style means that people can identify your art at a glance. Plenty of manga artists don't have a style; working with too many assistants leeches your style out of you, and in some shonen and shojo magazines the editors actually want you to draw like everybody else. (Not naming any names.) But Kouta Hirano has style. The characters' insane eyes glowing in the darkness. The grinning teeth split all the way back to the ear. The hand-lettered English dialogue, the knives and blood and bullets flying everywhere like rose petals in a CLAMP manga, the black silhouettes, the distorted figures and faces. Violence that goes way beyond reality, pages so black the printer probably charged the publisher extra for all the ink. This is…Hellsing.
It's the 100th House of 1000 Manga (1/10th complete!!), and to celebrate, I'm writing about one of my favorite manga. (And it's ONLY 15 years old!) This is a manga whose reputation seems to just keep growing (probably because of the new-ish Hellsing Ultimate OAV series), although the real-life Hirano seems to be in danger of getting overtaken in popularity by his fictional alter ego/tribute character "Kouta Hirano" in Highschool of the Dead. Not only does he DRAW extreme horror manga…he's IN extreme horror manga.
Extreme horror vampire manga. Hellsing is the name of a secret organization, the Hellsing Agency, aka the Order of Protestant Knights. Their mission is to protect Britain from vampires and other supernatural creatures—Nosferatu, Midians ((probably a reference to Clive Barker's Nightbreed), whatever you call them. Hellsing is named after the founder of the society, Professor Abraham van Helsing, who defeated Dracula, the arch-vampires, back in the 1800s. Now, it is run by Integra Fairbrook Wingates Helsing, his descendant, a woman with a regal bearing who likes men's suits and fine cigars. When vampires—and ghouls, the zombie-like servants created by vampires—go on a rampage, the police call their superiors, and their superiors call the secret council who really runs Britain, and the secret council calls Hellsing.
But the Hellsing family has a secret: they didn't kill the vampire 100 years ago. They captured him. The Hellsing Agency's secret weapon is Alucard, a vampire bound to serve his mistress, faithfully obeying the commands of the Hellsing family for generations. He has the super strength and bloodsucking abilities of a vampire, but he prefers to fight with his guns: his .454 Casull and his 13mm "anti-freak combat pistol Jackal" which fires blessed, silver-plated rounds. (Hellsing vampires have incredible aim, along with their other supernatural abilities) Apparently when the manga started, Hirano was worried that Alucard looked too much like Master of Mosquiton, or another badass manga character with John Lennon glasses ("One thing I heard a lot was 'He's too similar to Vash so give up and get lost, ya pig.'…Do they really overlap that much…? Maybe I shouldn't have given him the sunglasses…") Alucard's powers are immense, and the only thing holding him back is his loyalty to Hellsing. He doesn't seem resentful of being a servant; in fact, it might be simpler to say that, now that he has been completely stripped of humanity, serving a human being is his only joy.
Hellsing's one other vampire is Seras Victoria, a policewoman who Alucard turned into a vampire. Seras' breasts are much bigger than her backstory, which is as short as her skirt, and she's not even named until the end of the first volume. But in addition to providing fanservice, she's a more "human" sort of vampire than Alucard; she resists drinking human blood, and a lot of the tension (and humor) in the plot comes from her attempts to resist her transformation. The Hellsings' other main servant is Walter, a 60something year old butler/assassin with an aptitude for monofilament lines. (Hmm…combine Alucard and Walter, and what would you get?) Lastly, the Hellsings are also served by a ragtag bunch of heavily armed mercenaries. Young King Ours, the magazine where Hellsing originally ran, is popular with gun and military otaku, so vampires + heavy weapons is like chocolate + peanut butter to that audience. In Highschool of the Dead, the Hirano character is a gun freak, although the real Hirano seems to care more about coolness than about realism. (Hirano: "The guns that appear in this manga are unreal, so don't go saying 'This gun doesn't exist' or 'His sense of weapons sucks.' They're all cosmoguns that can hold a million rounds.")
So: vampires, check. Heroes who fight the vampires, check. It's obviously a monster-of-the-week manga where evil vampires show up like whack-a-mole and the heroes stomp them down, right? Wrong. The original Hellsing TV series is kind of like this (like many TV series adaptations of manga, it doesn't follow the manga story arc), but the later parts of the manga, more faithfully adapted in Hellsing Ultimate, is very different. Before even the end of the first volume, the plot of Hellsing dives straight into historical-political territory that makes vampires look tame.
Turns out that the Protestant part of the "Order of Protestant Knights" isn't just a word; the Hellsing organization defends England not only from vampires, but from their Catholic counterparts, the Vatican Section XIII, Secret Agency Iscariot. In this world, the Catholic and Protestant churches secretly hate each other just as much as they did in the 16th century. The Catholics are really the bad guys, plotting to reclaim England. Their most powerful agent is Father Alexander Anderson, a hulking Irish Catholic priest whose theology is as fierce as his accent ("Dinna provoke me, Babylon! Ye really think we'll gie ground tae ye filthy Protestants?"). Anderson, "the monster-killing paladin, the kill-'em-all ideologist", is an expert vampire hunter, and biotechnology has given him superhuman abilities. Only an alliance against a common enemy could possibly make Hellsing and Iscariot work together.
And they get a common enemy. Behind the Scenes!!, also plotting to conquer Europe, is the ultimate enemy: the Nazis! The Vatican helped the Nazis during World War II, but now they're enemies, and the Nazis—who hid in South America after the War—have a grudge against Catholics and Protestants alike. A secret group of Nazis with incredible powers has been waiting more than 50 years for this day, the day when they will attack the US and Britain and pay back old grudges. And they're all vampires. Without warning, a fleet of zeppelins appears in the skies over Great Britain, and an army of artificially created Nazi vampire stormtroopers attacks London!!
And that's when Kouta Hirano really goes wild. In its best parts,around volumes 6-8, Hellsing isn't a vampire manga: it's a war manga. It's an end-of-the-world, massive-disaster, visions-of-apocalypse manga. It's page after page after page of super-detailed destruction and bombings and zombies, the worst thing to happen to Britain since Kid Miracleman massacred every Londoner singlehandedly in that OOP Alan Moore comic. As super-Nazis with superpowers attack by sea, land and air, supported by armies of ghouls, our heroes desperately try to defend the United Kingdom. The Catholic church attacks as well, turning it into a three-way battle. It's the most gory, politically incorrect six-volume battle sequence I've ever read. It's like eating your dessert before dinner—six volumes of dessert.
One fascinating thing about Hellsing is that it's so willing to use religion and history as the motive for this big fight-slash-slaughter. Most action movies and manga shy away from ideology—the bad guys just want money, or they just want to rule the world, or something generic like that—but in Hellsing, the characters love to talk about exactly WHY they hate their enemies and WHY they're going to kill them. Like Garth Ennis' Preacher, Hellsing is one of the most anti-religious comics ever, but, unlike Preacher, where the good guys are basically atheists standing apart from everything, in Hellsing everyone takes a side and revels in the history of European sectarian slaughter. Heinkel and Yumie, two Catholic assassins who fight Islamists, Communists, and poison-gas-using cultists, get a lot of the craziest lines. "Christian history is a history of conquest. We've built ourselves into the world's mightiest religion by way of mountains of corpses and rivers of blood left by Inquisitions and the suppression of heathens!" "I couldn't care if two or two billion of you damned Protestant swine have died. Do you think I would bother talking to the likes of you filth if it were not his holiness' direct order?" It's not just Christians who are lunatics in Hellsing either: Alucard's backstory, like that of the real historical Vlad Dracula, involves a war with the Ottoman Turks, who come off as pretty awful, although not specifically for religious reasons. Considering how much Hirano loves to write about Catholic-Protestant holy wars, I can't help but wonder if there would have been more scenes of Christian-Muslim tussling had the manga been published before 9/11; Japanese manga publishers don't like controversy. Still, Hellsing spares almost no one…although the Pope only shows up in silhouette behind a screen, preserving his dignity, kind of like how the Japanese Emperor used to appear in old manga like Lone Wolf and Cub. In Pope-mocking at least, Hideki Ohwada went further.
Of course, manga is just manga; in real life, I don't know what Hirano actually thinks about Catholics or Protestants or Muslims. But the point is, Hirano chooses to embrace all the negative portrayals and just wallow around in them. And you sympathize with all the madmen because they're so sincere. People who really believe something tend to command respect, even if you don't agree with them. Forcing yourself onward through despite blood and pain and crushed bodies…pursuing your goal with insane determination…forging the world into the shape you want just by sheer willpower…that's the spirit of shonen manga, right?
Except of course it's also the spirit of THE NAZIS!!!! (They did make a film called Triumph of the Will, after all.) Oh, the Nazis, the Nazis…this manga is full of 'em. Kouta Hirano likes them (from volume 1's author info: "Favorite Country=Germany, Because of the Nazis"). Somehow, they are one of the few 'accepted' villains that you can use anywhere, perhaps because they're so undeniably bad and you don't need to explain their motives: hey! They're Nazis! The Nazis in Hellsing aren't really race-obsessed, anyway, they're war-obsessed. Death-obsessed. The Ultimate Evil. Hirano's by no means the only Japanese filmmaker or comic artist to have a Nazi fetish; Americans have it bad too, even though we don't do as much Nazi cosplay.
But are Nazi bad guys a cliché? Or even worse? I once heard a rumor that a certain American manga publisher had passed on licensing Hellsing because they thought it was anti-Semitic (in the anti-Jewish sense, not the literal anti-Jews-and-Arabs sense); not that Hellsing even has any Jewish characters, but they thought Hirano made the Nazi villains look "too cool". Which leads to the eternal question: is it a bad idea to have sinister, sexy, well-dressed Nazis as villains? When are Nazis appropriate bad guys, and when are they arguably inappropriate bad guys? What if one of the Nazis ends up teaming up with the heroes against some even eviller bad guy, like in Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Battle Tendency? What if there's a good guy who wears a vaguely Teutonic military uniform and represents World War II Germany but somehow isn't supposed to be a Nazi? Oh, I know what would make it more tasteful—what if there's a bad guy with a swastika tattoo fighting a good guy with a Star of David tattoo? MY BRAIN HURTS. Do Americans and Japanese people need to start obsessing over new bad guys like the Khmer Rouge or something?
Nazi fetish or not, Hellsing is demented but completely sincere and original. So is Kouta Hirano. Like his art, he has a lot of personality. His author's notes and omake gag cartoons are insane, and they mock the seriousness and Gothiness of the rest of Hellsing. Who else would list his hobbies are "Being obnoxious, beating off"? Who else would write a song about jerking off to Dark Magician Girl? (Although Hirano used to work as an adult mangaka, there's no actual sex or nudity in Hellsing, but some of the violence is so extreme it's sexual; the fight scene between Rip Van Winkle and Alucard, for instance.) I like how all his chapter titles are references to '80s video games like Balance of Power, Ultima, Wizardry, Might and Magic, etc. I've also never seen a mangaka who actually advertises for assistants in the margin of his manga ("Seeking an Assistant! Someone well motivated, around 20 or so. I'm about to die at this rate.")
Hellsing ended in 2008 after 11 years of manga; the last few volumes came out verrrryyy…sloooowwwly…in Japan. The entire series is now available from Dark Horse, who did a good job of it, including some (IMHO) very good jobs on the accents, whether it's a heavy Irish accent ("There's nae way ah can kill him wi' the gear ah've got noo!"), a German accent ("Vat a superb var declaration. I'm so glad. This means var.") or my personal favorite, an angry German with half his face blown off trying to talk ("Hi ron't hare! Hi ron't hare hanyhore! Hill…! Hif hi hill no vone helse, hi vill hill rhat hother huhing butler!!") Now Hirano is working on a new series, Drifters, which also involves a lot of history, a lot of large-scale combat, and (wait for it) Nazis.
"Fighting is prayer itself.…Everyone pray through battle. At the end of tearing, breaking, cleaving, and scattering prayers and prayers and prayers. Before my wretched self, before our miserable selves, like a herd of horses, God will descend from the heavens!" Hellsing is an epic ode to destruction and nihilism which happens to take the form of a vampire story. Just like Alucard is a bottomless pit of darkness which happens to take the form of a vampire. (I'm not being metaphorical here.) It may be confusing at times, it may go off the rails at times and go on a little too long, but it's a great manga with a lot of personal style and passion. And it's got the best Protestant-hating Irish priest since Father Ted.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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