The Great Hellboy Re-Reading Project Part XV: The Reign of the Black Flame!
My epic project to re-read Mike Mignola’s complete Hellboy saga from the very beginning has entered the home stretch!
What began as a series of sporadic mini-series and short-stories featuring the big red occult investigator has deepened over the past twenty years into what is, for my money, the richest and most consistently entertaining comic book universe of stories out there. Click here for part one, in which I discussed the very first Hellboy tale: the four-part mini-series Seed of Destruction. Click here for part two, in which I discussed The Wolves of Saint August, The Corpse and the Iron Shoes, and Wake the Devil. Click here for part three, in which I discussed a variety of Hellboy short stories including The Right Hand of Doom and Box Full of Evil. Click here for part four, in which I discussed Hellboy’s last mission for the B.P.R.D.: Conquerer Worm. Click here for part five, in which I discussed the beginning of a series of B.P.R.D. spin-offs and a whole new expansion of the Hellboy universe: Plague of Frogs. Click here for part six, in which I discussed the major shift in the Hellboy story that took-place in The Third Wish and The Island. Click here for part seven, in which I discussed the incredible B.P.R.D. mini-series that became the new central focus of the continuing Hellboy saga. Click here for part eight, in which Hellboy finally returns to the spotlight with Darkness Calls. Click here for part nine, in which the Hellboy universe expands with spin-off series focusing on Lobster Johnson, Abe Sapien, and the founding of the B.P.R.D. And click here for part ten, in which I discussed the “Scorched Earth” trilogy of B.P.R.D. mini-series that wrapped up the series to that point and began the “Hell on Earth” story-line. Click here for part eleven, in which I discussed the death of Hellboy in The Storm and The Fury. Click here for part twelve, in which I discuss the new B.P.R.D. “Hell on Earth” story-line. Click here for part thirteen, in which I discuss the game-changing B.P.R.D. mini-series The Return of the Master along with the beginning of Hellboy in Hell. Click here for part fourteen, in which I discuss the beginning of the Abe Sapien ongoing series, as well as the great B.P.R.D. story The Lake of Fire.
We’re getting close to the end of this Hellboy Re-Reading Project blog post!! It’s exciting to be so close to the end of this massive re-read. Onward!
Abe Sapien #6-7: The Shape of Things to Come (2013) — Abe heads to Arizona and meets a spirited woman, Elena, of Mayan heritage who once dreamed of joining the B.P.R.D. In this story, we see how a group of Mexicans are doing in this chaotic new world. Elena and the old man, Rey, talk about legends of previous cycles of the world being destroyed and re-created, and of Mayan ancestors who fought monsters. They mention Quetzalcoatl, who Hellboy fought back in 2011’s “Hellboy Versus the Aztec Mummy.” In issue #7, Abe declares that he’s not going back to the B.P.R.D., which I still don’t quite understand. Why? What does Abe want? These two issues have a similar structure to Abe Sapien #4-5: Abe comes to a new place, makes friends with a group of refugees, something happens, and then he moves on. I’m not finding this Abe solo series to be all that compelling yet.
Abe Sapien #8: The Land of the Dead (2013) — In this flashback to 1983, we see Abe’s adventure in what might have been the Mayan underworld, Xibalba. (This Mayan connection links this story with Abe #6-7.) I love Michael Avon Oeming’s artwork on this issue. It’s great seeing the old, familiar Abe design again! In the story, the survivor of the doomed expedition thinks the bat-creature they found is Camazotz, God of Night, which reminds me of the wrestler with a similar name we met in Hellboy in Mexico. But what Abe meets is a vampire. It’s interesting how vampires have become increasingly prominent in the Hellboy universe (particularly in the B.P.R.D. flashback mini-series) over these past few years! I love the ending, in which we see Professor Bruttenholm looking at a photo of Anders (whose fate is still unresolved) as he and Abe discuss vampires and Bruttenholm wonders where they all went. I’m interested to see where these stories are leading… (As I write this in 2016, this is still a major unresolved story!)
Hellboy in Hell #5: The Three Gold Whips (2013) — In this enigmatic story-line, that doesn’t seem to be about Hellboy at all, we meet Captain Dulot, who in the 1800’s sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a whip that could make gold coins. The ending is enigmatic. It seems Dulot outwit the devil, but then in the last panel we see him apparently dead on the steps where he met the snake at the start of the story. So DID he die on that fateful night? Did the snake kill him (rather than the devil taking him to Hell)? Why? (As I write this in 2016, having just read the final issue of Hellboy in Hell, this issue’s connections to the short-story The Magician and the Snake from the collection The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects seems very significant. I will have more to say about this issue when I wrote about Hellboy in Hell #10!)
Sledgehammer 44: Lightning War (2013-2014) — This feels like the story that the first Sledgehammer mini-series, Sledgehammer 44, was setting up. In the opening, set in June, 1938, we see the Black Flame (Richard Diestal) imprisoned in Germany. I assume that this takes place after the events of Lobster Johnson: The Burning Hand. How did the Black Flame first get his powers, I wonder? Meanwhile, Professors Broom and Gallaragas are trying to communicate with the non-unresponsive Vril suit, now inhabited by the spirit of the dead American soldier Redding. We see an intriguing two-page spread in which Redding’s spirit communes with… what, exactly? The spirit of the infinite? We’ll see this spirit again, but we haven’t yet learned what exactly it is.
Meanwhile, in an amazing bit of Mignola universe connectivity, Professor Gallaragas reveals that she is the young girl we saw being tortured in Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus. Holy cow! I didn’t see that coming! I love these connections!
We get to see an awesome aerial fight between the Black Flame and Sledgehammer 44. Great stuff. And then we get what seems like the definitive death of this iteration of the Black Flame. (Though what happened to his missing leg bone, clearly seen when the Flame’s skeleton is laid out before Hitler?) The ending leaves it unclear if Patrick Redding and the Vril suit are gone. It seems like they’re not, so there could be more Sledgehammer adventures later on…
Abe Sapien #9-11: To the Last Man (2014) — As issue #9 opens, Gustav Strobl refers to the chaos in Hell (as seen in Hellboy in Hell) and wonders from where this change to the world, as seen in Hell on Earth, comes from. In issue #10, Strobl mentions a disciple who called him mad and trued to kill him. He must mean Martin Gilfryd (Memnan Saa), right?? Vaughn tries to escape and a tiny red creature hatches from the wound in his chest. Whaaa? Gross! In issue #11, Strobl encounters his mentor in Seattle. Strobl calls him Antonis Kouvelis, though he refers to himself as Lucifer. Kouvelis/Lucifer tells Strobl of the death of Satan (at Hellboy’s hands, as per Hellboy in Hell #3 — and, in a clever bit, we see the appearance of the panel of a bloody sword dripping blood, which we’ve seen often in Hellboy in Hell) and states that the dying Earth is offering up it’s greatest power: Vril. (The power most recently seen powering the Sledgehammer suit!) Vril “made Hyperborea a paradise,” Kouvelis/Lucifer states, though “our race never mastered it — we turned to infernal powers!” Is the secret of Vril what Strobl is after?
Meanwhile, Abe enters Payson, Arizona, where things seem to be under control. But the madness of the world is about to reach this town, too. In issue #13, the kids hanging out turn out to be zombies raising the dead, and they wipe out the town while Abe just wanders around. I am just not loving this useless, passive Abe. On the other hand, I am intrigued by Abe’s admission, in issue #10, that he is starting to remember his life as Langdon Caul.
Hellboy Gets Married (from Dark Horse Presents #31 & 32) (2013-2014) — In which Hellboy gets really drunk and marries a demon. Set during HB’s drunken lost months in Mexico, this is a pretty forgettable story, though I do love the opening in which we see Hellboy drinking with the wrestler who played Lobster Johnson in the pulp films. I also wonder about the last line of the dying demon, who states that Hellboy is bound to her “in this life and after.” I wonder if she’ll pop up in Hellboy in Hell? (Note from 2016: YES she will!!!)
Hellboy Twentieth Anniversary Sampler (2014) — “The Coffin Man” takes place right after “Hellboy Gets Married” and is a much more successful story. It opens with Hellboy in a bar telling the story of his wedding, and then he runs afoul of the “Coffin Man” who steals freshly buried bodies. It’s unusual that this story ends with HB getting his butt kicked, and the bad guy getting away! “Color Comics Fun” is a brilliant parody of famous comics strips, using the Hellboy characters, by R. Sikoryak. “Another Day at the Office” depicts Abe and Johann investigating zombies in Moldavia. A nice little story, though not very memorable.
B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth #115-119: The Reign of the Black Flame (2014) — This is an amazing epic, one of the best stories of the “Hell on Earth” saga so far. Many story threads come together at last, as all of our B.P.R.D. heroes head to New York City to investigate what has happened there. This story-line cements James Harren as my very favorite of the current crop of rotating B.P.R.D. artists. I love the astonishing level of detail contained in his artwork, and I love the way he brings all of the B.P.R.D. characters to life — and in this arc we get to see pretty much every single human B.P.R.D. agent we’ve been introduced to over the past several years — and gives them each a distinct look. (This is far more successful than the drab look of Wasteland.)
As the story begins, Iosif, Giarocco, Howards, Gervesh, Nichols, and Enos enter NYC through the tunnel from New Jersey, while Johann, Liz, Fenix, Devon, and Tian (who refers to being with Liz in Nebraska — when was that?) sneak onto the island via Brooklyn. The tension builds beautifully as we get a horrible slow peeling-back of what has happened during the year that NYC has been cut off from the rest of the world. Monsters are everywhere, hunting the few survivors. We see the vast bodies of suicide victims in the park. Issue #116 opens by showing us human slaves working as farmers for Zinco goons, while one is shot for trying to steal a single pea-pod. Marsten is running his empire from Zinco tower, guarded by huge creatures. Poor Leopold is being treated like dirt, while Kronen is burning all of the old Nazi regalia which doesn’t belong in the “new order.” (Funny to be feeling any sympathy for these Nazis!) In an awesome touch, we see Von Kempt’s head in Kronen’s garbage pile — guess that’s finally the end for him, huh? (Though maybe not, judging by the end of #119!) Meanwhile, speaking of horrifying, those “crickets” in #117 — ugh.
Ever since Iosif’s introduction I have been wondering about his true motivations; whether he can be trusted. In issue #117 it’s interesting to see just how mad he gets when he discovers how Zinco has betrayed his “brother” Johann and their plans for the clone body meant for Johann. This feels genuine to me, not manipulation. Iosif truly does feel a bond of friendship with Johann. Iosif kicks a whole heck of a lot of ass in this arc. His murder of Marsten is gruesome but man did Marsten have it coming. I love the image in #118 of Iosif holding his own intestines in his hand.
Liz’s show-stopping fight with the Black Flame is extraordinary. I love Liz’s first glimpse of the Flame, atop the Zinco building. It’s like the Flame exists in another universe. Is this reality? Is the Flame actually bending time and space? Or is this a vision he’s planting in Liz’s head? Either way, the super-powered throw-down between Liz and the Flame in issue #118 and 119 is incredible. We haven’t seen a crazy fight like this in a long time in the Mignola books, perhaps even ever, as this fight seems way beyond anything Hellboy has ever been involved in. Crazy stuff, gorgeously illustrated by James Harren.
My only complaint about this arc is the ambiguous ending. Just what the heck happened to the Flame at the end? I am OK with the Flame not being defeated just yet, but I’d like to have a better understanding of what happened at the end of his big fight with Liz.
Hellboy in Hell #6: The Death Card (2014) — Hellboy meets two gentlemen who give him (and us) a nice description of the basic geography of hell. Then he encounters a pissed-off Vampire of Prague (who he first encountered The Vampire of Prague from back in 2007.) The last page of this story gives us a scary glimpse of Hellboy as he truly is now — skeletal, decaying, drained of color, and with a big hole in his chest where his heart used to be. Things are looking grim for HB.
Lobster Johnson: Get the Lobster (2014) — This is a huge Lobster Johnson story, one of the best. Lots of story-threads come together in this one. Cyndi Tynan starts writing a series of newspaper articles, attempting to expose the Lobster’s secrets. Meanwhile, the police turn up the heat in their efforts to capture the Lobster. The gangster Wald and his henchman Isog are still at large, and Isog is working on his own to discover the truth about the Lobster.
Issue #2 raises the possibility that Lobster Johnson is connected to an 18th century pirate called the Lobster. The pirate’s prostitute girlfriend gave birth to twins, one of whom, Obahdas Dascher, started a family in Daktoa Indian territory in the United States, and fathered a large number of children who could apparently transform into panthers at will. This is a fascinating detail. It doesn’t go anywhere in this story, but I wonder if this will prove important in the future? I will be keeping my eyes peeled for any future references to Obahdas Dascher.
Issue #4 really connects the dots as we learn that the crime-lords plotting the bank robberies are the Cossaro Brothers, who were mentioned all the way back in The Iron Prometheus. Cossaro’s dad is revealed to be the model-making dude killed in Lobster Johnson: Satan Smells a Rat. We also learn that the doctor working with them is Dr. Waxman, also from The Iron Prometheus! Dr. Waxman gave Marty Cossaro a robotic arm, just like the goon in The Iron Prometheus. He uses a radio-controlled ape to attack the Lobster — seems like a predecessor to Von Klempt’s kriegaffe! (This story is set in 1934.) It looks like Waxman dies at the end of issue #5, but we know from The Iron Prometheus that he’ll live to fight another day.
Witchfinder: Beware the Ape (from Dark Horse Presents #36) (2014) — This weird little story reminds me of the old Hellboy 8-page short stories that Mignola used to do. This one is slight, but it’s great seeing Ben Stenbeck back illustrating Witchfinder! (He drew the first, and still best, Witchfinder mini-series, In the Service of Angels.)
Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland (2014) — This third Witchfinder miniseries doesn’t equal In The Service of Angels but it’s a far stronger outing than Lost and Gone Forever (the one with Edward Grey in the old West). It’s great seeing Tyler Crook (who was the second regular B.P.R.D. artist after Guy Davis) back in the Mignolaverse, and his style works marvelously for Witchfinder. This story is interesting in that it is, to the best of my knowledge, the first official Hellboy universe story that Mike Mignola does not even have a co-writing credit on. The series was written by Kim Newman and Maura McHugh and they do a marvelous job. It feels perfectly like a Mignolaverse tale — you’d never suspect Mr. Mignola wasn’t involved in the writing unless you looked at the credits. This great, weird story involves a wonderfully unique and memorable mystery. I loved it. (I particularly liked all of the times that Tyler Crook’s art made it look like we the reader are watching the scenes through water.) I also adored the epilogue in issue #5 with Abe. Just perfect.
When I first started this re-reading project, these stories that I have written about in this post were the most recent of the Hellboy universe stories. But in the months it took me to re-read all of these issues, and then in all the time it took me to write these blog posts, and then the many many months over which I have slowly posted these articles here on MotionPicturesComics.com, many additional Hellboy universe stories have been published! I have almost an entire year’s worth of additional stories to talk about! So I’ll be back here soon with my next Hellboy re-read post. See you then!
The issues discussed in this post are collected in: Abe Sapien volume 4: The Shape of Things to Come, Sledgehammer 44 volume 1, B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth volume 9: The Reign of the Black Flame, Lobster Johnson volume 4: Get the Lobster, and Witchfinder volume 3: The Mysteries of Unland.