The immediate value of Hellcop and the reason for my enduring interest in a late ‘90s character with five published appearances is his head: it’s done, excessively. Hellcop not only has red-tinted sunglasses, which he wears without arms (a sort of cyber pince-nez?); he not only has a clifftop flop of thick blond certified-dreamboat hair. He also has a long straight lock in front of each ear, that reaches past the sternum, down to mid-pectoral, the Kusanagi bob taken to mullet’s extremes. A swooshy finicky just-so kind of hairstyle: a hairstyle. The “it looks this way on purpose” arrangement of high femme and camp, that knows you’re looking and chooses to tell something in return.
From first glance of the Todd McFarlane cover, there is this unavoidable admittance that Hellcop thinks about how Hellcop looks—and acts upon those thoughts. If you can get this hair by accident you certainly can’t keep it that way. It’s unusual to see this bare an aesthetic cue on a man, in an Image comic, in 1996 or 1998.
It might not still be unusual now but I’d wager that the specifics of Hellcop’s aesthetic are still fair rare. If they weren’t, Kelly Turnbull would be a name of the size it deserves to be—there’d be a Lobo run for miles, for one thing. Hellcop has his anime cutie hair and his Lara Croft (but make it showoff) glasses all perched on a big rectangular Classic Dude Comics Body, over which he wears a uniform teal henley and a long brown overcoat, various straps, work chaps, ugly sub-Dredd gloves and boots that match each other. He doesn’t “look femme,” he just looks decidedly primped, a little of the cartoon-Egon hot nerd/vintage gawk over a pre-Raphaelite’s Mr. Universe base. He’s not really textually coded as “a visually appealing guy”—nobody hits on him, he doesn’t flirt or groom himself. He’s written as the miserable stoic that was aspirational for men at the time. That’s he’s eye-catching in any way that can be called “flowing” is just not incredibly Western-creative of him. It’s not conservative, or heteronormative, though every detail of Joe Casey’s visible script is. Virgil’s appeal reads like an accident, a strange accident or a wild experiment, and is all the more delightful for it.
Hellcop’s (real name Virgil, ho ho) work partner, Gladys, has differently/similarly (over) designed red lenses, Vegeta x Molly Millions x Briareos, and lets her curly black hair range pretty freely from its thick tie at the base of her neck. She’s incredibly tall and incredibly muscular and even with her textually gung-ho attitude to crimebusting, these manage to be secondary facts about her presence as a woman. Monsanto gives her eyelashes and lipstick and over-defined breasts but more particular than these is body language that’s subtly contained, and engaged with whoever she’s interacting within her panels.
Hellcop is like a Paul Jon Milne comic that doesn’t know it’s a Paul Jon Milne comic, bursting at the seams with weird gender energy and presentation choices but utterly reluctant to acknowledge them—in this first issue, at least. I’ve yet to catch the later three.
Hellcop is about a cop who has to police areas of literal Hell, by the way. Demons doing crimes. Things like that.
The anime influence rages off the pages to the seasoned eye and is, or was, lost, most likely to the unseasoned eye through the same methods that sank the J-market influence in American comics of the time: digital gradient colouring. Original co-creator (with Brian Holguin, and co-publisher with Whilce Portacio at the Avalon Studios sub-branch of Image) Brian Haberlin has as much to do with that as the book being published in America in 1998 does; a jack of various trades, he was involved in the rise of digital norms and is a working digital colourist to this day. But while he contributed to the new establishment (see below), Haberlin doesn’t seem to be the originator of Virgil’s more titillating aspects. Appearing on the cover of Ballistic Imagery, the 1996 anthology issue that debuted the Hellcop brand two years before his four-issue mini, our hero has plainly shorn hair, no glasses, no cybernetics implicit—no dazzle, no oomph. More conservative images of mysticism and masculinity.
Gilbert Monsanto’s later work with bigger publishers doesn’t show any of Hellcop’s techno-glam flair either, nice though it is. Was it just the magic of 1998—the thirtieth year of Rodriguez? Haberlin coming from Top Cow with all that Setpiece Gothic in their air, moulded together from Baywatch nighttime dream sequences and Guns’n’Roses videos? Was it Final Fantasy VII artbooks on import and Trigun scanlations? We’ll never know. History’s great pattern is beautiful in its blur. But even in my ignorance, I won’t ever let go…of Hellcop!!