This latest entry into the Mignolaverse contains a framing device that’s an absolute ton of fun to see in action even as it undercuts the drama of the main story. Longtime readers will remember Koshchei’s role in “Hellboy: Darkness Calls” as Baba Yaga’s primary instrument of vengeance against the title character. Where did he wind up after that series? In Hell, of course. Where he eventually met Hellboy again and the two worked out their differences over some drinks in a bar and Koshchei related his life’s story to his onetime adversary.
It’s this casually friendly, nearly deadpan account of Koshchei’s life and Hellboy’s reaction to it that form the crux of the framing scenes and they serve as an excellent reminder of the best things about Mignola’s writing style. I mean, after the story begins with a recounting of their bitter final battle in “Darkness Calls” only to cut on the final panel of one page to Koshchei remarking about how he always felt bad about throwing that final dagger into Hellboy’s back, with the latter remarking about how he understands where the guy is coming from. We get plenty of equally enjoyable scenes like this as the bar scenes work to puncture any overbearing self-seriousness the main story may have and add some welcome levity to the proceedings.
That said, the main story consists of some real dark stuff as Koshchei’s life is one of betrayal, murder, wanton slaughter, and the blackest of magic. I’m not too familiar with the character’s roots in Russian mythology (beyond the bit about how his death was hid in an egg, inside a duck, inside a rabbit, inside a goat, inside a tree, on an island at the edge of the world), yet Mignola manages to make Koshchei into an interestingly flawed if not quite tragic protagonist. He’s ideally suited for a long, strange journey involving the Baba Yaga, dragons, a near-marriage to a corpse, and more weirdness along the way.
It’s the kind of stuff that Mignolaverse veterans have come to expect from these projects and “Koshchei” delivers in a conventionally satisfying way. There’s also an effort to tie it all to the larger series mythology, which isn’t quite as successful. That’s because most of it is saved for the final issue where it feels more than a little rushed. As if Mignola was having too much fun wrangling the title character’s life into an oddball narrative that he forgot to space out the connections over the course of the series, leading to a not entirely satisfying finale.
“Koshchei” also has the art of Ben Stenbeck who has shown time and again that he’s aces when it comes to illustrating this kind of stuff and at this point his involvement in a Mignolaverse joint should serve as an indication that it’s a cut above the rest. Still, while Koshchei’s life story is interesting enough, it’s those scenes with him in a bar in hell with Hellboy that will really stick in your mind after you’ve reached the final page.