In our manga-themed series Off the Shelf, we look at the manga classics that have stood the test of time, as well as the titles we feel will stand that test eventually. This month, just in time for Halloween, we visit Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing.
Kouta Hirano is a madman. If you know anything about his first major work, Hellsing, then you already know this to be true. What begins as a simple, vampire-themed horror manga transforms into a gruesome war story involving the remnants of the Third Reich, the Protestant and Catholic churches, and an army of undead soldiers. While all of this may sound heavy-handed, it’s so gleefully sadistic and over-the-top in its execution that you can’t help but be swept up in the madness of it all.
Hirano started Hellsing in 1997. It ran for 11 years and 10 collected volumes before its grand ending. The entire series has been translated into English by Dark Horse Comics, and it has inspired two anime adaptations — a 2001 television series, which took some liberties with the latter half of the storyline, and a direct-to-video 10-episode series that was created between 2006 and 2012 and is more faithful to the manga, covering roughly one volume per episode.
Hellsing‘s appeal lies in its ability to take a familiar story and twist it into something else. In this case, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which it borrows from liberally. However, Hirano uses the classic vampire novel as a mere jumping off point. Hellsing‘s plot is completely demented and unhinged, death-obsessed and nihilistic, violent and absurd, and also a ton of fun if you can get over some of the what would probably be considered more offensive elements. If anything, it’s less a horror story and more of a destruction story, not scary in the traditional sense of supernatural terrors and bumps in the night but scary in seeing how far into the realms of carnage and anarchy it goes.
But let’s start from the beginning. The Hellsing Organization, or the Holy Order of Protestant Knights as they’re also known, have been fighting the undead and vampiric kind in England for ages. Beginning with Abraham van Hellsing, the Stoker character who put Drac to rest in the novel, the organization has continued since that time. They are a shadowy group operating just slightly outside the bounds of the English government, and they also have a secret weapon: the vampire Alucard (Psst! Try spelling that backwards).
Probably one of the most idiosyncratic vampires in all of fiction, Alucard is tall, imposing, and monstrous. One of Hirano’s artistic signatures is the insane look in his character’s eyes, along with the completely cracked out grins that spread from ear to ear across their face. He’s a master of making his characters look homicidal. Alucard is the embodiment of that style. Spoilers: He’s also much more than a typical vampire.
The Hellsing Organization’s mission is to protect England from the undead and the supernatural, but they have some competition with the Catholic Church and a certain Father Alexander Anderson, an Irish priest who hates Protestants and gives Alucard a run for his money in terms of mental instability. Any time Father Anderson arrives on the scene, with his blessed knives and his thick accent, you know things are about to go down.
Eventually, the two groups have to put their differences aside to face an even greater threat, a mysterious group known as Millenium. The Millenium group are made up human and undead followers of the Nazis. Their only goals are death and slaughter. With that looming threat, the safety of England and the entire world is at stake.
There are so many interesting characters in Hellsing that it’s hard to mention them all without this article running into novel-length territory. Some of the key players are the cigar-smoking Integra Hellsing, leader of the Holy Order of Protestant Knights and descendant of van Hellsing; Seras Victoria, a London cop-turned-vampire by Alucard whom he’s taken under his wing to train in the ways of exterminating the undead; The Major, a member of the Third Reich and the war-obsessed leader of the Millenium group; and Walter, the Hellsing family butler who still packs a few surprises in his old age.
It’s less a horror story and more of a destruction story, not scary in the traditional sense of supernatural terrors and bumps in the night but scary in seeing how far into the realms of carnage and anarchy it goes.
Hellsing revels in chaos. Each story element builds exponentially off of the one that came before. It begins simply enough with vampires appearing in the English countryside. Then, the Catholic Church shows up to rain on Hellsing’s vampire-fighting parade. Then, a duo of powerful vampires infiltrates Hellsing HQ and gives us our first taste of the fact that Alucard is more than just an ordinary vampire. Then, freaking Nazis show up and eventually invade England by zeppelin with an army of undead. English citizens are mutilated, babies are devoured in the streets. By this point, a giant swastika is burned into the London skyline. It’s absolute insanity, and you’re only about halfway through the story.
Towards the end, things tend to go off the rails a bit. There’s only so many ways you can up the ante after having Nazi vampires invade London. But the journey there is still riveting. It’s one jaw-dropping set piece after the next, and the volumes fly by while you’re reading. The artwork constantly improves throughout the series as well. Early chapters have some stiff character models, but by the time you reach volume 3, Hirano becomes more comfortable and really lets loose with the havoc.
Reading a volume of Hellsing is almost exhausting thanks to all the action and the sheer audaciousness of the storytelling, but its a trip definitely worth taking. This Halloween, why not cozy up with some vampires and madmen? And Nazis. Can’t forget those awful Nazis.