By Mike Mignola, Chris Roberson, Stephen Green & Dave Stewart.
Hellboy & the B.P.R.D 1954 The Black Sun #1 is the first issue of a two-part story, and the second story to fall under the umbrella of 1954 after the FCBD short The Mirror. No longer the B.P.R.D newbie, Hellboy and fellow agent Woodbrow venture to the arctic to aid an expedition team who are caught up in monstrous circumstances.
What’s nice about the & the B.P.R.D series is the bottle nature of the stories. Freeing Hellboy from the grand mythology that hung over his chronological journey from Seed of Destruction to Hellboy in Hell #10 is liberating- enabling the character to be at his most fun and best reflects the core idea of the character: a paranormal detective as these stories offer normally come from an angle of mystery & intrigue. After the beautifully & poetically solo journey of Hellboy in Hell, as Hellboy went on a sauntering solo adventure, it’s nice to see old red with friends again, a detective once more and not the Jack Kerouac type he became. His trademark wit is back and the camaraderie with fellow B.P.R.D agents is a joy to read. There’s fantastic character play. Some of the faces Hellboy pulls in reaction to Woodbrow’s enthusiasm are delightful and showcase how character work in comics always works best in visual, instead of swamping the page in balloons. It would have been much easier to have Hellboy say something like “Oh boy!” or “Naive kid!” when as a newer agent, making an early field mission, Woodbrow gets excited- but instead Mignola & Roberson let Green do his job, and a quiet look does wonders. Interestingly, Hellboy himself is mostly quiet this issue. He is less a talker more a listener. He throws himself head first into the action later on, but for the most part he listens in on the characters around him, actually doing proper detective work and listening- mostly passive as the story is built around him instead of by him. Normally a passive lead is a significant problem, reflecting a story without an anchor, yet this potential pitfall is adverted by the trademark Mignolaverse synchronicity between script team and art team.
Because Green’s clever building of panels keeps Hellboy the central figure, in much the same way that use of shots in a film could keep a quiet character centre of the action by constantly framing up on them, even if they are not talking. Frequently we are on Hellboy’s face as he listens to what the others say, or we see his reactions to that which he is told instead of focusing on the teller. This keeps him central, despite his lack of participation, making sure we never lose him in the middle of the story. Though old red’s contributions are less so than any other character when it comes to talking, he remains at the forefront of the story through his placement on the page. This is a hard thing to achieve when a character is being mostly passive. A lesser team would have had Hellboy chipping in with one liners just to remind the reader he’s there. Yet here the trust is on Green to build panels in such a way that Hellboy can never slip our mind. It is similar to the Netflix show managing to keep Eleven the central character, despite her quiet nature, by constantly bringing the focus of the camera back to her. It is subtly clever page composition, and quietly solves a problem that could have arisen.
On the story front, a common criticism levelled at a lot of modern single issue comics is that narratively, they can be an awful lot of fluff and filler building up to a last page cliffhanger to lock you into picking up the next issue. This is an empty approach that sees the humble reader forking out three dollars for what constitutes a single scene as everything building up to said final page is part of the escalation toward that one scene, as opposed to a scene in its own right. This can leave a comic unrewarding. Even in these times of multi-issue arcs, a single issues must feel a rewarding enough purchase in its own right to justify slowly increasing prices. This is not a critique that can be levelled at the Mignola team. In this mere one issue, we have the following:
- Scenes of mystery and detection, reflecting the best of Sherlock Holmes & Batman.
- A pulpy Hellboy Vs. monster fight.
- One hell of a twist, not even on the final page.
- A touch of exploring societal issues of the ’50’s, through the prism of character’s outdated reactions to Woodbrow’s ethnicity.
- A blinding cliffhanger.
If nothing else, Hellboy & the B.P.R.D: The Black Sun #1 is the epitome of value for money. More is achieved in this one issues than some series manage in an entire arc and yet at no point does it feel over-packed. This is a sign of both Mignola & Roberson mastering incredibly balanced writing and Green’s incredible page layouts, in which he crams in a million moments per page, yet keeps them fluid and easy to track.
In regards to the “hell of a” twist: A writer reserving their twists for a splash page is a common habit in modern comics and it is something that happens here. As a technique it’s running the risk of becoming old hat and repetitive losing its impact by how frequently it’s deployed. Yet here the pages are do dense with panels and each panel so dense with information & detail that when we’re hit with a twist hosting splash page, it’s actually effecting. In other comics where there’s a splash page at almost every turn, the effect is dulled, but here the compact nature of the information presented throughout makes the pull back and reveal brilliantly effective. It is so easy to forget the subtle, yet important, impact of a well laid out comic and that’s the biggest selling point of this issue: Layout. The team understand the basic, yet often forgotten, ebb and flow of storytelling. They know a book of just big moments is visually arresting, but lacks an emotional connection with its reader because there’s no peace between the highs; no character moments to resonate with. But team Mignola let their story simmer with tension, mystery and character work between their bombastic splashes, so the shocks lands with greater aplomb.
What Green does fantastically beyond page layout is pencil his work in such a way that whilst it is 110% his own, he never breaks too far from the established mould of what a Hellboy comic should be. As an example: there’s a cohesion to Hellboy’s fighting. He fights the same way, pulling the same moves, he did back in his first ever appearance, and that respect for character continuity is admirable. He is the same Hellboy he has always been and even though his demeanour and personality in this tale is different to the man he becomes chronologically by Hellboy in Hell #10, due to all he has experienced between 1954 and that point, we still recognise him as the Hellboy we know and love due to Green pencilling him with a complete respect for Mignola’s own work. Though the Hellboy presented here is different to the one presented by the end of Hellboy in Hell, the aches and pains of a long life yet to set in, he is still undeniably the same man allowing Mignola’s trademarks to sing through his contributors effort: a beautiful mixing pot of Mignola’s classic ideas and Green’s fresher takes.
To top it off, the whole issue is awash with heavy ink work, losing the characters into shadows. It suggests an atmosphere: one of monsters lingering in the distance. It’s a clever way to bind art & story: the inking suggests this is a Lovecraftian tale of slinking tentacles in the shadows, so when the aforementioned twists lands- it lands all the harder. Mignola & Roberson’s script is all about making us think this is a stock monster tale when in fact it is much more, and the art becomes PART of the misdirection. Relying on mere dialogue to guide the reader down the garden-path is an amateur’s game, this steps it up to the level of comic book auteur. It’s nice, overall, how the story is tailored to its artist. Hellboy ventures into a certain ‘machine’ and its rendition by Green is full of complex lines and finite details, something that would have looked wholly different if from Mignola’s own pen, with his trademark use of negative space. Green breathes fantastic life into the steam punk bent of this issue with his approach to intricate detail.
Colour wise it’s hard to judge, as the advanced copy we were sent was still black & white, yet it’s a testament to Green’s fantastic work that even without the aid of colour each character was clear & distinct: An attribute lost on many comics where the finished product is B/W out of choice. Seeing this issue in black & white made clear that when Dave Stewart comes to finishing the job, all he has to do is add icing to the cake and improve instead of fixing anything. He has no concerns here about saving the comic. Stewart’s job now is to add the garnish. But in a few sample pages we did get to see where the colouring was finished, it was business as usual for Stewart who, alongside Jordie Bellaire and Dave McCaig, is currently firing on all cylinders creating great colour palettes on the regular as if it’s no big deal. It’s so sharp it’s almost noisy (that’s a good thing, Hellboy should never be visually quiet)- and it is a joy to see Stewart colouring Hellboy’s rich reds again following more muted work on other Mignolaverse titles.
It can’t take that 5th star without us seeing finished colours, so for now Hellboy & the B.P.R.D: The Black Sun #1 is a 4 star product. But there is every confidence that, when complete, this will be yet another 5 star comic from the Mignolaverse right after Witchfinder: City of the Dead #1 making clear that even in the quasi-retirement of ending Hellboy in Hell and retreating to watercolours, Mignola can lead his team in churning out a comic better than most when working full-time.
Overall this is a fun first half of what looks to be a promising two-parter, in which story and art bind together and enforce each other to achieve a stronger whole.