By Matthew Jent
Hellboy and the BPRD #1
Writers: Mike Mignola & John Arcudi
Artist: Alex Maleev
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Cover Artist: Alex Maleev
Genre: Horror, Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
“You’re taking Hellboy with you.”
In the mid-1990s I was in high school and looking for rebellion. Something to get pretentious about. It was a search for some kind of pre-hipster deep knowledge. Oh, you like superhero comics? Meh. I’m more of a Vertigo fan.
Then I found the comic book rebellion I was looking for. A group of comics creators, writers and artists of some renown, banded together and abandoned the Big Two publishers in order to make creator-owned work, following their passion and making the comics they wanted to make, unrestricted by corporate mandates, editorial oversight, and comics code authorities.
No, not the one you might be thinking of. I’m talking about Dark Horse’s Legend imprint. Founded by John Byrne and Frank Miller, it encompassed their extant Next Men and Sin City books, Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, and new series from creators like Art Adams, Geoff Darrow, and others. I was fifteen and looking for a bandwagon to jump on. So I decided Legend was going to be that bandwagon. Every creator, every book, the complete imprint: I was going to read them all.
Which leads us to Hellboy: Seed of Destruction. Growing up with superheroes, I wasn’t a big Mike Mignola fan. I knew him from covers and annuals and the occasional mini-series, and his art had always been too blocky, too weird, to squiggly for my tastes. But Hellboy, whatever that meant, was a Legend book, and more than that, it was tied in, however lightly, to the “Torch of Liberty” backup that was going to run with Byrne’s Danger Unlimited miniseries, so I was willing to buy it, skim it, and board it.
That was 20 years ago. If you’re reading this Hellboy review and wondering what a Torch of Liberty or a Danger Unlimited is, or even — yikes! — whatever happened to Concrete, that’s partly a testament to Mike Mignola and Hellboy, one of the few enduring comic book creations of the modern era. Inspired by mythology, pulp fiction, weird horror, and action-adventure stories, Hellboy was the book Mignola was made for, and it’s been published pretty continuously ever since that first issue of Seed of Destruction. There have been toys, cartoons, and a couple major motion pictures, but there’s never been a reboot or a relaunch. The universe has expanded to include solo series or one-shots for Abe Sapien, Lobster Johnson, and the whole Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. They’re not always written and drawn by Mignola anymore, but hey — the guy created a world around the idea that the (possible) Anti-Christ is a superhero/paranormal investigator. That’s fertile ground for a shared universe.
This December sees the release of Hellboy and the BPRD. In the year that Hellboy turns 20 for real, this series flashes back to 1952 to tell the tale of Hellboy’s first mission with the Bureau. This issue — like most Hellboy comics — is dripping with dread and foreboding. Professor Bruttenholm, the Director of the BPRD and Hellboy’s Earthly father figure, sends a team of soldiers and investigators to Brazil to look into a series of murders supposedly committed by a “superhuman creature,” the descriptions of which vary. They have a small plane, a contact in a Brazilian village, and orders to bring along the untested Hellboy, who is otherwise sitting on his bed, tossing playing cards, chilling with a pet dog. There are some visions of the future and worries (spoken and unspoken) as to whether Hellboy will be a force for good or evil, but any longtime fan of the character knows that the red guy has a heart o’ gold.
The art from Alex Maleev and Dave Stewart is a great fit for Mignola & Arcudi’s story, and for the world of Hellboy. The shadows are dark (though not as oppressive as in Mignola’s own art), and the architecture is appropriately doom-laden. There are very few examples of characters free-floating in space — when that does happen, there’s always evidence elsewhere on the page of where these characters are. Objects, walls, backgrounds — ceilings! — painting a full picture of the space these characters inhabit. It might seem like a small thing, but with very little action in the first issue, Maleev and Stewart do a great job of establishing tone and tension through their use of setting and space.
As for the story? There’s always a push and pull to serialized storytelling. Do you write for the trade? For the periodical? Do you just tell the story you want to tell, and let page counts fall where they will? Hellboy and the BPRD #1 falls into the same category as a lot of modern first issues, meaning there’s a lot of setup without any denouement. That setup is thorough, and the tension and weirdness grows with an appropriate balance of pacing and characterization — two of the four BPRD agents are interchangeable, but Archie and Xiang are interesting enough to allow for a few potential redshirts on the team — but there’s no release of that tension. It’s an issue-long intake of breath, with no exhale. If you consider this as a single issue in a 20-years-and-growing tale, that’s not a bad thing. But as the first issue of a new series, I was looking for one more 4-6 page scene or cutaway that gave a clearer sense of what this story would be about. The first issue of a Hellboy series doesn’t need to provide a clear shot of the villain or an assessment of the threat at hand, but when I get to page 22 of any comic and I find myself genuinely wondering if the ending has been cut off (and this was a review copy, so it’s possible), I consider that a storytelling misstep.
Single issues like this are hard to review out of context. The short version is, If everything comes together, this is a very good beginning. The longer version is, well, everything else you’ve read to this point.
That said, I don’t need a more complicated pitch to continue reading than “Mike Mignola tells the story of Hellboy’s first field assignment.” Hellboy and the BPRD is building on a 20-year bank of weird horror, existential dread, and tales well told. This isn’t a great jumping-on point for new readers, but it’s a promising start to an untold tale in a decades-long serialized story.
Hellboy and the BPRD #1 will be released on December 3rd, 2014.