Adaptations of Mike Mignola’s signature creation, Hellboy, have been a challenging proposition for longtime fans of the comic. The Guillermo del Toro films have their loyal adherents and arguably hold potential as an entry point for the comics, but they fail to capture a lot of what makes Hellboy and his compatriots at the BPRD special. From turning its titular character into a joking yukster, creating a romance that sacrifices one of Mignola’s richest relationships, to even going so far as to turn Hellboy into a cat guy (he loves dogs, for the record), del Toro is mostly comporting Hellboy into his own idiosyncratic take on the character. It's hard to escape the lost opportunity to better translate Mignola’s vision into something that better reflects his singular storytelling, visual ardour, and the doomed melancholy of arguably the strongest shared universe in the comics medium. And of course, the less said about the complete misfire of a reboot by Neil Marshall, the better.
It goes without saying that Hellboy truly lives on the comics page, and nowhere else. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t efforts playing within the same space more successfully in live action. It’s here that Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher is able to fill the void that big screen versions of Hellboy have been unable to match.
A Look at the Authors
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think either franchise is directly lifting from the other –but when stacked side by side, there are striking similarities. The first being the influences that drive the inception of both characters and their respective journeys. Both Andrzej Sapkowski and Mike Mignola carry strong fantasy backgrounds into their works, and while they come from very different career paths (Mignola an artist for Marvel and DC, drawing titles like X-Force and The Phantom Stranger and Sapkowski a translator of science fiction into his native polish), their shared interest in the work of Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock is clear even from their earliest adventures with their protagonists.
The initial Witcher and Hellboy stories (debuting in 1990 and 1994 respectively) are approachably written, relatively short in scope, and take place in the middle of their heroes’ lifetimes. They also are shorter tales, with Mignola’s longer runs of issues (Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil) being peppered with a number of one-offs, like the masterful tale, The Corpse, that help flesh out the background of Hellboy and his mythos. While Sapkowski’s Witcher, on the other hand, relied directly on the short story format that’s all too common for burgeoning fantasy writers, which you can find on display in collections like The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. These early works are reflective of the realities of the publishing industries in which Mignola and Sapkowski operated, but they both serve as powerful, easy to read, and similarly toned intros into broader worlds that they will quickly begin to expand upon at about the same points in their career.
Additionally, both Mignola and Sapkowski creations are reflections of the Howard/Moorcock heroic dichotomy. To wit, Hellboy is a brawnier character whose brusque personality feels like he’s crafted in the Conan mold. The Witcher’s Geralt, on the other hand, is physically molded more on the appearance of Moorcock’s Elric, with his long white hair and wolf-centered iconography. As both creators have an equally invested interest in the fantasy meets weird fiction aspects of both of these foundational authors, it wouldn’t even be a stretch to argue that Hellboy and Geralt are two sides of a modernized Hellboy/Elric coin.
The Folklore Connection
It isn’t just core authorial influences or story structure that drives the comparison points between these two works. Both authors share a predilection for incorporating global mythological beliefs into a cohesive whole. While there’s little doubt that many a fantasy author can be credited for attempting something similar, likely the most popular adherent of this approach is Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s Sandman comics, debuting in 1989, were a contemporary of the earliest Witcher shorts. As that series continued to grow, Gaiman would pull in aspects of a number of different belief system mythologies; Christian, Norse, Japanese, Egyptian, other aspects of European folklore, and it goes on and on in a world in which these seemingly incongruent cultural artifacts live side by side as a matter of fact.
Both Mignola and Sapkowski treat their own fictional worlds similarly. Geralt, for example, exists in a space largely utilizing Polish folklore as a base from which everything else is a springboard. Sapkowski also makes significant use of other fantastical creations from his European neighbors. Slavic monsters like a Stryzga and a Kikimora co-exist with better-known Germanic creatures like Elves and Dwarves. While in the world of Hellboy, every adventure he goes on is likely to find him dipping into a different culture’s respective boogeymen, including werewolves, fairies, Jenny Greenteeth, the Redcap, vampires, Hecate, and the Baba Yaga.
That last entity is of particular interest where the Witcher’s television adaptation is concerned. The Baby Yaga is a major player in Hellboy’s life and eventual downfall, forever seeking revenge for her lost eye, struck out at Hellboy’s hands. But for The Witcher, Sapkowski, despite his utilization of Slavic myth, never actually wrote one his region’s most famous monsters into his stories. That was left to Witcher showrunner Lauren Schmidt-Hissrich and her team, who in the most recent season that debuted on Netflix last month, introduced an antagonist called Voleth Meir or “The Deathless Mother,” who with her chicken-legged hut and general appearance is the Baba Yaga in all but name. Ironically, this just served to pull Geralt even further into the direction of Hellboy’s adventures, and gives way to the idea that the Witcher’s television series is acting as a sort of pathway for the Hellboy adventures we’ve never been treated to in live action.
And of course, I’d be lax in my duty if I didn’t point out the shared aspects of Arthurian that play into both character’s broader destinies. The final book of the actual Witcher saga, The Lady of the Lake, pulls in Sir Galahad and Camelot, while Hellboy’s destiny is intrinsically tied to King Arthur’s bloodline and the throne of England itself. That both of these stories involve the character of Nimue in very different personifications is notable, but again, it’s an eerie similarity that’s impossible to shake.
The Titular Protagonists
Geralt and Hellboy, beyond the wider aspects of their world and the roads their destinies lead them down, also have more intimate similarities. As characters, they’re both quite dry and glib, quick to share a cutting remark, but also not generally all that eloquent. Although they’re also often quite surly at times, they’re drawn with a clear sense of morality, existing somewhere between the grunting masculinity of Conan and the tortured existence of Elric. That both characters are exceedingly long-lived while only incrementally physically changing is another key similarity, with Hellboy around 70 during his “modern day” adventures and Geralt in his 80’s.
Though being an ongoing fixture in their professions and heroes to many doesn’t change the fact that they both are treated with some level of scorn. Witchers are constantly treated as if they’re sub-human and called “mutants'' by many in the communities they serve. While Hellboy lives in a more civilized era where those he helps often just gawk at him, he has an even more isolated existence. While he works with other non-humans, there’s only one Hellboy. Interestingly, they also have similar paternal relationships. Both Geralt and Hellboy were basically raised by an adoptive father figure in Vesemir and Professor Bruttenholm, with both acting as ersatz parents but also instructors in their respective investigative orders/organizations, literally raising Geralt and Hellboy from abandoned childhood into their future vocations.
Lastly, both heroes utilize two weapons for different threats. Geralt makes use of his steel sword for mortal enemies and a silver sword for monsters and other magical threats, while Hellboy has a gun, but also his famous “right hand of doom” that he punches the worst of the worst with. Both characters straddle the line between the real world and the supernatural, and their armory is a reflection of walking in two worlds.
The similarities between Hellboy and The Witcher are even anchored in their supporting casts with the most obvious being the purpose and missions of The Witcher’s order and Hellboy's Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). They both serve to investigate and eliminate threats to the living world, and it’s an easy argument to make that Witchers are really just a medieval version of the BPRD (or that the BPRD are a modern day bureaucratic version of the Witchers). That they both act as fraternal orders that give way to their own found families lends well to how these series are basically composed of core trios. For Hellboy, it’s he, the fishman Abe Sapien, and the pyromancer Liz Sherman. For Geralt, he’s joined by the sorceress Yennefer, and Princess Cirilla (Ciri). Unlike del Toro’s films, in the Mignola comics, Hellboy and Liz have never been romantically linked, instead Liz is treated much more like an adoptive daughter to Hellboy, and Geralt and Ciri’s relationship in Sapkowski’s novels (and the television series) is exactly this, maybe even moreso.
It’s worth noting that all characters from both trios play major roles in the further shaping of the worlds, but a twist between them is that while Hellboy’s fate is driven by his own bloodline, within The Witcher, it is Ciri’s ancestry that gives way to the events that unfurl in the broader saga of Geralt. The core similarity is that regardless of who is prophesied to be a “world breaker” within these casts, the call is consistently coming from inside the house rather than an external threat.
It’s not the next Game of Thrones. It’s the Hellboy we always wanted.
When The Witcher debuted on Netflix back in 2019, it was widely seen as the streamer’s answer to Game of Thrones. Its immense popularity has proved that indeed it's the next big fantasy hit to follow the close of that goliath of the genre. But, in truth, it’s a series that has very little in common narratively with George R.R. Martin’s work. Instead it hews far closer in tone and content to something that is wholly unexpected but so very welcome. The Witcher, by virtue of its source material, and perhaps even by glorious accidents of design, has become the Hellboy adaptation we always wanted.