Author: Kouta Hirano
Manga genre: Seinen/horror
Number of volumes: 10
Still in print? No, but: It’s available from Dark Horse on Kindle, and Amazon has countless second-hand volumes.
So let’s get one thing out of the way first: Hellsing is insane. Gleefully insane. It will also leave no doubts whatsoever in your mind about the author being a straight male. If you are offended by boobs, potty-humour and gore, maybe you’ll want to give Hellsing a miss. But, there is so much more to this vampire action manga than first meets the eye, and that includes a couple of seriously strong female leads.
Hellsing opens with the tiny but tough policewoman Seras Victoria, who is on the trail of a killer priest in a remote village with the delightful name of Cheddar. (The village, not the priest.) On a side note: Since this is a Japanese series, I always assumed Seras was her family name and Victoria was her first name. Regardless, she is referred to as Seras throughout the books. Unfortunately for Seras, the priest is a vampire, and an even stronger vampire has just been dispatched to, well, devour him. His name is Alucard – try spelling it backwards – and in addition to his vampire powers he carries a gun with silver-alloy bullets, made from a melted-down crucifix. Not that he needs a gun at all…
There are clear rules for how vampirism works in Hirano’s world, which is: if you get bitten and are a virgin, you become a vampire. If you aren’t a virgin, you become a mindless ghoul, which the vampire who bit you has inherent control over. If you do become a vampire, you will naturally be compelled to serve the vampire who made you – unless he or she lets you drink from their own blood, which will set you free. And Seras, crucially, makes the decision to become a vampire herself. She is bleeding to death (which, admittedly, is Alucard’s fault), and she wants to live. Even if she has to become one of the undead, and is forced to work for Hellsing.
Now, Seras is no shrinking violet – she’s already proven herself as a policewoman, after all. So when the rug is pulled out from under her and she learns that a) vampires are real and b) ends up becoming one herself, it’s natural that she needs some time to adjust. Much has been made of the fact that she calls Alucard her “Master” and is forced to obey him, but really, Seras is one subversive little vamp. Wanting to retain as much of her humanity as possible, she repeatedly refuses to drink blood – even when Alucard offers her his own blood and explains that this would free her from having to serve him.
Hellsing is the name of a secret Protestant organisation that fights to protect England – and have a very special agent on a very short leash. They are headed by the stern, ultra-competent Integra Wingate Hellsing, who inherited leadership from her father when she was just a little girl. Integra is never described as pretty, and with her tall, lanky body she dresses and acts much more like a man, wearing two-piece suits and smoking cigars. She also stubbornly remains a virgin, just in case she gets bitten one day. There is also Integra’s elderly butler/bodyguard Walter, whose weapon of choice is piano wire. Warm, funny and deadly, Walter becomes a sort of mentor for Seras, explaining the ins and outs of this new world she has entered.
In this world, the war between the Catholics and Protestants never ended – it just continued in the shadows. And, since this is Christianity as seen through a Japanese filter, you get some rather wonderful sideways takes on it. There is the warrior-priest Alexander Anderson, for instance, who carries paper talismans with bible-verses written on them. These then act as Buddhist talismans would, creating barriers the vampires cannot cross. It’s kind of refreshing, to see Christianity treated like the magic system from a fantasy novel. The practical applications are endless, and audacious – in one memorable scene, the head of Section XIII coordinates several priests in helicopters spread out over the ocean. Which they are attempting to bless, in order to turn it into holy water – to prevent the Nazi vampire armies from crossing.
Somewhat ironically, Hirano started the story in 1997 and decided to set it in 1999, on the cusp of the new millennium, thinking he’d finish it by then. However, the story would take ten years to finish. So this is probably why the evil organisation at the heart of the story is called Millennium, too. They are, in brief, the heirs and descendants of the Nazis, on a mission to take over the world. Which they will start (of course) by taking over England, using an army of vampires. So Alucard & co are caught up in a three-sided war, with the Vatican on one hand and Millennium on the other.
As perhaps Alucard’s most iconic foe, we have the deranged Catholic Priest Alexander Anderson. He belongs to the super-secret Section XIII of the Vatican army, an organisation also known as Iscariot. Eyes wide with insane religious zeal behind his round John Lennon glasses, a huge, saliva-dripping grin on his face. On his white gloves he has written, in the shape of a cross, “I speak with dead” and “Jesus Christ is in Heaven”. Sane, he is not. But, Father Anderson is a relentless fighter, hacking away at Alucard with psychotic glee while quoting the Bible in his thick Scottish brogue. And he isn’t a vampire, or any kind of supernatural creature – he’s just a human who “levelled up”, as it were. A human who worked very hard, and became the sort of fighter that even an over-powered master vampire like Alucard can’t beat him. The two are evenly matched, which doesn’t sit well with either of them. Every time they see each other, time stops, other people cease to exist, and they both dedicate every fibre of their being to destroying one-another. Though there is one wonderful scene where they are fighting in a museum and are forced to stop fighting to let Seras herd a group of Japanese tourists past them and out to safety.
It’s not often you get to read a series that has such a thorough thumbprint from its creator on it, but Hirano’s voice is literally everywhere. Sometimes, there will be a note scribbled on an actual comic page begging someone – anyone – to come work for him as an assistant. And there are delightfully weird little notes all over the behind-the-scenes section. Here is a quote:
“If I don’t do anything to differentiate my characters, it leads to realization. Letdown. Disappointment. Incontinence. Bloody stool. Fainting. Death. Heaven. Reincarnation. Hi, I’m back.”
There are scratchy, off-the-wall drawings, like one where the head of Millennium killing it at karaoke. And after volume 2, this section is regularly “hosted” by two characters that Alucard has killed. There is no explanation why – perhaps they were fan favourites, perhaps Hirano just liked them. But they fit right into Hirano’s weird universe, commenting on the action and bitching about being dead.
Hirano’s art style is super-detailed and instantly recognisable, and the gore factor is pretty high. There is a scene, for instance, where Alucard rips the top half of someone’s head off. Just the top. Also, the use of fonts is so good, the fonts almost become their own character sometimes, as they crawl down the page. They also add to the general mood of demented fun. Hellsing may not be to everyone’s taste – but I dare you to pick up the first volume and not get hooked.