COMIC BOOK REVIEW: Koshchei The Deathless 6# (At the Root of the World)

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Over drinks with Hellboy (in a bar on the shores of Pandemonium) Koshchei recounts the tale of his final battle with the Baba Yaga. Corpse fingers are counted, a hair comb blooms into a forest, and a witch spits a stolen soul into the mouth of a goat. But the most important question, of course, is how is the beer?

Koshchei The Deathless #6
Writer: Mike Mignola
Artist: Ben Stenbeck
Cover Artists: Mike Mignola with Dave Stewart
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

What You Need to Know: After the fall of Pandemonium, Hellboy has met up with an old, seemingly-reformed enemy. They are having drinks in a bar on the outskirts of Hell (as you do) and Koshchei is telling the story of how he came to be ‘deathless’. So how does a man who cannot die make his way to the shores of the underworld? Read on for the answer — but keep hold of your aspirin. This issue guarantees a devil of a hangover.

What You’ll Find Out:

The scene opens on a bar on the outskirts of Hell. Koshchei has caught Hellboy up on most of his life story and reached the point in the narrative where the Baba Yaga has ordered him to bring her Hellboy’s left eye. Koshchei says, ‘I could not help but notice her own left eye was missing.’ Hellboy responds by recounting his first meeting with the witch, back in 1964. The following pages are basically panel-by-panel recreations from the 1998 Hellboy one-shot, ‘The Baba Yaga’, redrawn to fit the style of this book and interspersed with dialogue between Koshchei and Hellboy.

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Hellboy says, ‘If I’d blown her whole head off…like I was trying to do…I guess you’d still be sleeping in that chair.’ Koshchei concedes that he would have remained in his self-inflicted stasis if the Baba Yaga hadn’t needed him for revenge and over the next few pages he reveals the events which cost Hellboy his eye, as they appeared from Koshchei’s perspective.

We watch Koshchei ride up to the inn where Hellboy is waiting, watch him burst through the door, splintering furniture with the keen edge of his axe. We see the ghost of Vasilisa the Beautiful appear, ready to aid Hellboy, materializing in a flash of light which knocks Koshchei onto his back. The background is golden, in these panels.

The center panel on the page depicts the two former enemies, in the bar, in the present, holding their steins. Koshchei asks who saved Hellboy from his second assault and Hellboy indicates that he was once again saved by Vasilisa, saying, ‘That was her, too.’

The next panels, forest themed, are shaded in green and blue. A small, wooden comb, strikes Koshchei’s head. The warlord plucks it from his scalp and tosses it behind him. The comb strikes the ground and sprouts into a tangle of birch trees, which ensnare and impale him.

Nobody scripts fairy tale tropes quite like Mike Mignola.

Back in the brown bar, Koshchei tells Hellboy that Vasilisa was his guardian angel and that her interference in saving Hellboy’s life would have enraged the Baba Yaga all the more.

And he was right. It did.

On the next page, back in the past, the Baba Yaga (perched at the roots of a skull-laden tree — its strange fruit; her dark harvest) calls for Koshchei’s captive soul. She spits it into the mouth of a goat and in the panel on the bottom of the page, mid-battle, Koshchei explodes into fierce flames and pummels Hellboy into the earth.

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Back in the now, back in the bar, Hellboy says, ‘That was a hell of a fight.’ Koshchei replies that it was her fight and he begged her to let him go, even in the midst of battle, but she forced him on, exhausting her powers and, in desperation, she spat her rage into his soul.

In the next panel, Koshchei transformed into a demon, with green eyes and horns, but eventually, the hate ran out and he fell to the ground once more.

With his enemy exhausted, Hellboy turned to leave and Koshchei drew a knife from his belt, saying, ‘I’ll strike, but this last blow I strike for myself.’ He threw the knife and struck Hellboy in the shoulder.

Hellboy had one final gift from Vasilisa: a blue square of the handkerchief which, like its fairytale predecessor, bloomed into a river when he dropped it in his shock. The river washed Koshchei out into the sea (there are panels of him floating, drifting with the jetsam) until he landed on a haunted, tree-clogged spit of land. Drawing himself from the muck, Koshchei saw Vasilisa, glowing like a soul (an anima figure, if ever there’s been one) and he chased her into a place where golden birds (another soul-symbol) flit tauntingly before him, goading him on, finally, to a clearing.

In the clearing, there was a tree, the largest in the forest.

It was covered with soul-birds: strange fruit of its own.

At the roots of the tree, stood Baba Yaga.

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This version of the witch had both her eyes. She told him, ‘The world is nearly finished, my love. Now I live in the dream of a Russia long gone. I have nothing more to do with the works of man. All grudges are forgiven. All debts are paid.’ This Baba Yaga, it seems, is also an anima figure — the other side of Vasilisa.

Koshchei asked her if he could have his soul back, finally, but she told him that it’s run away. In the form of a goat, it’s tripped its way down to the roots of the World Tree, down into hell (where Koshchei’s deeds have driven it) and so he had to follow after.

The Baba Yaga bade him goodbye and wished him well.

In three dusty, exquisitely minimalist panels, Koshchei met ‘a demon, looking for a river of blood’. He then passed through another, tangled forest (Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark,/For the straightforward pathway had been lost.) and finally out into this small, warped village on the edge of Pandemonium.

Now, sitting outside the bar, overlooking the sea (the sun is rising; a first, in Hell) Hellboy tells him about the final fall of Satan. He says that the demon Koshchei passed was his sister, who brought the place down, burning, on top of her own head. Hellboy tells Koshchei that he’ll have to watch out for her, and for Pluto, who ruled Hell before the arrival of Satan. Koshchei says that he will keep his eye out for both of them, and asks Hellboy what he’s planning on doing now that Hell has been changed to a place where trees bloom green and the sun also rises, but when he looks around, Hellboy is gone. The final page shows Hellboy looking out from the window of a cheerful English country house that some readers might have reason to recognize. Hellboy tells Koshchei to ‘keep looking for that goat.’ and adds that ’till you find it, this place, whatever it is… it’s all yours’

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Koshchei, for his part, is looking out at us from the last panel, his back turned towards the still, dark sea.

What Just Happened:

There’s always a quiet, brutal poetry to Mike Mignola’s scripts: everything is intentional, every word and image meant. That minimalistic intentionality is reflected in the art. Ben Stenbeck’s work is close enough in style to the signature look that Mignola established for Hellboy that this story fits comfortably into the same universe. This limited series, each issue bookended by scenes from Koshchei’s conversation with Hellboy, slides as easily into the Hellboy/BPRD mythos — and believe it or not, that connection is actually the weakest part of the series.

Koshchei The Deathless is, at bottom, a fable along the lines of Peer Gynt. It’s a far darker story, of course. There are deeper perils than a handful of trolls, and Koshchei’s motives are (on the surface) a little nobler than the pursuit of base pleasure, but it’s still a story about a man who thinks he’s found a way to get the ignoble thing he wants without selling his soul. In Peer Gynt, the titular hero wants to live like a troll without becoming one. He wants to indulge in the pleasures of the world, gain the wealth, have the sex, without losing his individuality and he finds that, over the course of years, despite his protestations, he has become a troll in everything but appearance.

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Koshchei imagines that he can take a dragon’s knowledge, a dragon’s outlook, and somehow avoid becoming the dragon’s son. He denies his adopted father, and in fact he kills him, but even so, he becomes what a person inevitably does when they’re walking around without their soul.

This brings us to Vasilisa and the Baba Yaga. According to the psychologist Carl Jung, working in the milieu of fairy tales, both women are Anima figures. They are, in fact, different sides of the same creature. They represent the feminine aspects of a (heterosexual) man’s soul — an archetype which is both sought after (in the guise of the ideal woman) and denied (in the guise of the witch or the crone). The animus is the (heterosexual) female equivalent. According to Jung, a (heterosexual) man’s psyche (the Greek word for soul, used here to indicate the unconscious) can only be fully integrated, can only be made whole, when the anima is embraced and incorporated within the self. Since the anima appears in many guises (maiden, mother, crone) the temptation to fight it off is often as strong as the need to embrace it. In Koshchei the Deathless, the Baba Yaga appears both as a beautiful young woman (who wants Koshchei for a lover) and as the vengeful, elderly witch that Koshchei battles at various points within the narrative. The balance of power shifts between them many times throughout the story, but the two characters are only ever at peace when they have a measure of equality — he loves the Baba Yaga when his power matches hers; they part peacefully when they’ve both expended all their force. It’s clear, in the story, that romance is not Koshchei’s primary goal. The love he feels is always faded and a little melancholy, especially compared to his larger quest, but the recurrence of anima imagery is telling. The story would have been more powerful without the Hellboy framework (and that’s hard for me to say; I love Hellboy) but a tale of this level of complexity could have been a very hard sell without that familiar red-handed hook. From a marketing perspective, setting it in this corner of the Mignolaverse makes a great deal of sense. And Hellboy gets to drink beer and play the role of moral sounding board. He’s good at that. It works.

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As for the rest, the dialogue is absolutely wonderful. It has the dry humor and distinctive voice that Mignola is so well known for. The art, as I’ve said, lives up to it. There are scenes of startling beauty and deep dread. The books in this limited series are a perfect mixture of melancholy, magic, and horror, leavened with just the right amount of humor. This final issue was a little weaker than the others, serving as it did to draw the series to a close by reworking a lot that we already knew, but overall it was a very fine adventure — one which will leave you with much to consider, as you wander out the door.

Rating: 9.5/10

Final Thought: The final issue of Koshchei the Deathless is a dark, sad, beautiful, and ultimately hopeful conclusion to a fable about a man searching for his soul. It’s a good one. Pick it up.

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