Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics have, in the past few years, become this paragon of consistency. To the point where every time one of these issues drops, the “what’s being released this week” columns routinely seem surprised that something with Mignola’s name on it is not just coming out, but is without fail a good-to-great comic as well. Is it that people didn’t expect these books to still be good? Or that there’s a franchise of comics that (while not Batman/X-Men overextended) that doesn’t just hang together coherently but is actually well made? Or maybe that Mignola isn’t drawing any of them at the moment? But I think that there’s a sense that the big standard bearer of quality genre comics is a guy they’ve never taken seriously as a writer, and are kind of dumbstruck that, this stuff stays good. Mignola’s current work on the main Hellboy book with Duncan Fegredo is ornate and expertly crafted, the one-shots with artisans like Richard Corben and Kevin Nowlan are loose showcases, each approach is rewarding as a reader in different ways. The main BPRD book, which is co-plotted by Mignola but mostly put together by John Acurdi and Guy Davis, is more down to earth than the mythology- and folklore-driven Hellboy, with it’s characters running around in the midwest of the U.S. torching monsters. But that down-to-earth quality (that Barton Fink feeling?) and the series-of-miniseries format mask that BPRD is one of the most engrossing long-form narratives in comics. It’s not just that Acurdi can take Mignola’s sensibility into a more visceral place, and sometimes a more character-driven place. Hellboy has become more elegiac as the story has progressed, and BPRD is more likely to have a cluster of giant robots vomit fire onto a city.
Right now, though, I’m going to discuss the spinoff to the spinoff, and a prequel at that. It’s when you look at this on paper you can kind of see why someone would go “how can this possibly be good?”. Of course, 1946 is the worst looking on paper, featuring almost none of the regular series characters, a writer and artist team new to the material, and is coming out a decade into the life of the idea. Of course, 1946 is a strong contender for one of the best books to come out of the Hellboy universe since Mignola was handling the whole thing solo. Oh and the real reason people don’t take this shit seriously – this is a comic about a Vampire Nazi Doomsday Bomb, and one that makes no apologies for being anything other than a comic about a Vampire Nazi Doomsday Bomb. And in this age of high concept bullshit comics that throw signifiers like “Vampire” and “Nazi” around like nothing, it’s easy to go “oh that book”, I guess. Joshua Dysart and Paul Azaceta have made a book with Mignola that maintains Mignola’s tone and affectation for historical accuracy and occult Nazi imagery, and managed to weld them together into a story that could not have appeared in any of these books before but fits perfectly.
In the afterword of the book, Dysart talks about the pitch he gave to Mignola for the series, which is that he saw Hellboy as a metaphor for the Cold War, with the 20th century spent dealing with the aftermath of the Nazis. 1946 is set in Berlin immediately after the war, with a cast built out of Americans, Russians, and Germans; occupying territory usually reserved for Graham Greene and Germany Year Zero. What little I have read of Dysart’s work (the two BPRD series and Unknown Soldier) betrays that he’s smart enough to understand where to deploy a lot of research and where to let that stuff slip so it doesn’t get in the way of the story. 1946 seems astoundingly well researched, but it doesn’t fall into that trap of feeling like the author is trotting out his research in place of essential elements like character and tone. The gist of the story is that Professor Bruttenholm, a character who appears briefly in Hellboy and kind of haunts the early half of the series, is sent to Berlin with his partner to document the Nazi’s occult dealings. He is secretly looking for information about Hellboy’s entrance to earth, and finds that upon arrival he’s too late and the Russians have been busy seizing and cataloging anything he’d have been able to find. They are given a small detatchment of soldiers and spend months going through paperwork, only to find nothing. When Bruttenholm meets his Russian counterpart, who is a small girl posessed by a demon, and discovers a nazi plot to create a vampire army.
This is all kind of boilerplate Hellboy/BPRD stuff, only this time with a clever location and time that adds a layer of complexity to the proceedings simply on its face. Berlin 1946 is one of the most immediately interesting settings you could have for a story. Even a hamfisted attempt at portraying two occupying forces inhabiting the same place after the most devastating conflicts in the history of mankind, let alone the start of another massive rivalry developing a boil between superpowers on the same city. Dysart does the material a service, though, with these characters actually being people – German farmers terrified of soldiers, American soldiers exhausted and waiting on their way out, Russians considering their treatment of the city as just revenge. Hell there’s even a Nazi general portrayed as having motivations beyond “nazis evil bad” which should get a gold star considering the post-Call of Duty approach to history that most fiction takes these days. Sure, there is a Nazi scienctist head in a jar with robotic spider legs screaming about destroying America, but he’s portrayed as one voice of many, something I don’t think many people writing Nazis even sit down to think about. These aren’t monolithic groups that immediately get stamped with traits, so much as characters that have affiliations and jobs that effect their actions. Maybe what makes this a great story is that the characters are illustrated and defined entirely by their actions, and in doing so create ambiguities in those actions – we as an audience are left to decide the moral state of these charcters, it is not once presented to us as a given.
While 1946 was conceived and released at the same time as Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon’s The Winter Men, it feels like a comic that shares the same sensibility of applying the historical and cultural specifics to genre (or in this case the Hellboy formula). 1946 feels like it might be the first post-Winter Men comic, even though that might just feel that way because Paul Azaceta comes from the same Leon/Edwards/Martinborough/Murphy school, and the Russians speaking English feels a lot more accurate than simply accented. Of course it probably isn’t at all, Winter Men reaches a lot higher than 1946 does in most areas, but there is a feeling of shared sensibility that almost nothing else has.
There are a lot of fine moments in the series, ranging from small character beats, brief silent panels that perform tonal shifts, to extended minor narratives. Steiner nervously telling his fellow soldiers about how he’d rather being playing in his band back home before he’s attacked by vampires, only for the rest of the men thinking he’s lost it instead of seeing the danger. Sgt. Maes really losing his composure when he finds out he’s on a rocket full of cyborg monkeys and frozen manmade vampires, firing randomly. The unsettling pause of the drawing of frowning angels on the wall in the mental institution, immediately after Azaceta draws a swarm of vampires consume a person like insects boning a corpse. The finest moment in the entire series, something which I didn’t even catch until my latest reread, is the story that Varvara tells Bruttenholm when he asks who she is. Varvara tells a story of Peter the Great searching for a way to conquer using “old knowledge”, meaning the occult. He searches through every kind of magic available before discovering a way that works, summoning 3 demons. The demons help him, but in return they take part of Peter – the first his sons, the second his heart, and the the third is meant to take his soul but leaves it. Varvara implies that she is the demon, and would rather be trapped on earth. What I didn’t catch at first is that Dysart is drawing a direct correlation with the Nazis, who used the same search through the occult (and, as in the real world, science) to attempt to conquer. And like in the story, even after the Nazis are destroyed, the fruits of their searching, something they could not hope to control or understand, is doing far greater damage without them. It’s the story in microcosm, but it’s also the story of Hellboy, and the story of the real world. The history of countries, he is pointing out, is riddled with unknown consequences to conquest, and cleanup is never entirely possible. That’s why the story is worth telling.
- Sean Witzke, June 2011