Before and After Hellsing v1 & v8

I was at Borders the other day, and since they didn't have any of the new titles I was looking for, I decided to pick up the first volume of Kohta Hirano's Hellsing instead. Plot-wise, it was more or less what I expected - vampires hunting people, vampires hunting vampires, vampires fighting evil Catholics. But what caught my eye was the art.

Hellsing v1 p. 104-5Hellsing v1, p. 104-5

If you only had this volume to go on, you'd have to say that Hirano isn't a very good artist. A character's clothing and appearance might change wildly from panel to panel. Proportions are wrong - characters will have impossibly long arms, Modiglianiesqe necks, 48 teeth. Poses are tortured, with hands and fingers bending at unnatural angles. There's a tendency to use lots of fiddly non-descriptive details in place of clear drawing. The composition and storytelling are mediocre at best.

And yet, there's still something strangely compelling about it. A misproportioned, misplaced eye leaps out at you - but it can also make a picture creepy and chilling. The tortured poses may be overdone, but they're also extremely dynamic and energetic. The fiddly details may be unnecessary, but they also create an uneasy energy that permeates each page.

Truth be told, it reminded me of early Rob Liefeld, and I mean that as a compliment. He's quite clearly on to something that captivates your imagination, but he hasn't got all the pieces in place yet. At this point in his career, Hirano has an equal chance of developing into a compelling artist or degenerating into a fannish pile of bad habits.

So I went back to the bookstore to pick up a copy of the latest volume, just to see how his style had changed in the intervening years. As volume 8 starts, London has apparently be turned into a battleground between Protestant vampires, Catholic crusaders, and Nazi werewolves. It's mostly gibberish, and almost impossible to follow. But how about the art?

Hellsing v8 p. 162-3Hellsing v8, p. 162-3

Well, after seven years, Hirano hasn't developed into a "compelling artist" - but neither has he degenerated into a "fannish pile of bad habits." If anything, he's moved sideways.

In some ways, he's improved. His character designs are largely consistent. His characters actually seem to exist in three-dimensional environments. The tortured poses have been replaced with more realistic foreshortening. The random line weights of the earlier volumes have been replaced with a more expressionistic inking style that helps lend the drawings weight and solidity.

In other ways, though, he's degenerated. The storytelling is still impossible to follow. Characters may be solid, but they also seem stiff and less dynamic. Proportions are still off in noticeable ways. Fiddly litle details abound, and they still don't add anything to the overall drawings.

More than anything else, volume 8 of Hellsing reminds me of medieval German woodcuts - obviously done with great technical skill and lavished with great detail, but stiff and unconvincing nonetheless.

Sadly, the way Hirano develops between these volumes doesn't interest me as a fellow artist. I'd much rather deal with the loose, haphazard potentialities of the first volume than the stiff realities of the final volume.

On the subject of translation...

The translated Hellsing has some of the most obvious cultural mistakes I've ever seen in a manga, including...

"The Protestant Church." You will encounter this phrase over and over and over again through Hellsing. And yet, no one ever refers to themselves in real life as a Protestant - they're Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and so on. Clearly, Hirano has done enough homework to know that England is not a Catholic country - but not enough to know that "Protestant" is a category and not an actual religion.

"Sir" Integra Hellsing. Of course, a female peer would be "Dame" Integra Hellsing.

The most awful Scottish accent you'll ever see. Seriously, it makes Chris Claremont's worst attempts at dialect read like the Queen's English. Half the time I just try to guess what Father Anderson's said from the way the other characters respond to it.

Now, it wouldn't be too difficult to go through the script and replace "Protestant" with "Anglican", replace "Sir" with "Dame", and tone down the accent, but this raises the question - is it more important to be a literal translation of the original work, or to capture its spirit? Personally, I'm a big fan of cleaning up the rough edges, especially when they don't affect the plot all that much. But a case could be made for both, and I'm kind of curious as to where you would draw the line.

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