By Andrew Stevens. Hellboy and the BPRD – 1952 may have arrived a year short of Hellboy’s twentieth anniversary, but it maintains a certain reverence by taking us near the character’s beginnings. And while a chunk of the later 1940s have already been covered by other BPRD comics, Hellboy’s first mission – the occasion for this latest spinoff – has largely been left unexplored. Collaborating with a robust creative team, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola launches the demon-hero down to Brazil to investigate a series of murders near an abandoned Portuguese fortress.
Catching up for those unfamiliar: Hellboy began by emerging from a Scottish church in front of a group of Allied soldiers after Rasputin, in coordination with the supernatural arm of the Nazi regime, opened an entrance-way to Hell. The Allies scooped the young Hellboy up under the insistence of Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, who would then form the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (or, BPRD). Those adventures can be found in two films, several comics series, novelizations, and video games. The versatility of this character resides largely in the WWII nostalgia of its origins, the gothic narrative style, and the occult presence throughout.
The neophyte reader need not be intimidated by the numerous spinoffs and story lines in play. While not a reboot, the comic launches near the beginning of the Hellboy timeline replaying a sort-of “greatest hits” of the character’s origins for the uninitiated. We get a quick recap of Hellboy’s genesis and a better understanding of Professor Bruttenholm’s fatherly relationship with him.
This story concerns itself with Bruttenholm’s confidence about the good within Hellboy, while focusing on his anxieties about the evil that may also lurk within. This ploy for narrative tension largely fails due to what many readers already know about the character’s future. However, in later issues it seems possible that an exploration of the psychological state of other characters, particularly as they react to a novice Hellboy, would prove highly engaging.
From there the professor tasks a host of new and old agents with investigating a series of murders down in Brazil, and rewrites his own rules to include Hellboy on the mission. All this setup clanks loudly of exposition, and distracts from the main event.
Throughout the issue colorist Dave Stewart succeeds in utilizing dark tones, bright reds and oranges (for Hellboy) and an earth tone pallet for everyone else. The overall effect creates a brooding, angst-ridden tone that situates itself well with our young protagonist.
Eventually, the setup comes to a close. We’ve met the full cast – faces likely familiar to readers of the B.R.P.D. comics – and enter the dark bedchamber of the laconic hero. With his arrival on the scene, the narrative kicks forward toward the adventure the reader’s been anticipating since page three.
Warts aside, this creative team seems up to the delicate task of handling this throwback. Mike Mignola outlined the plot, but the story is being written with the deft hands of John Arcudi, who wrote a large amount of the BPRD series (and some of another Hellboy tie-in series, Abe Sapien). He’s a writer who has a firm handle on the Hellboy universe, and navigates this exposition-heavy script well. Once all the pieces fall into place, Arcudi hits his stride towards the end of the issue.
The story’s central set piece is found in an old Portuguese fort that was long ago converted into a brutal prison. Following rumors of a curse being placed upon it, the prison was ultimately left abandoned, events that not only coincide with the mysterious murders but also drip with all the gothic overtones that readers of Hellboy have come to expect. It seems too that artist Alex Maleev was relieved to come to these pages: the panels splash against the edges, the fort breaks at the gutters, and the images pulse with kinetic narrative energy. We sense every possibility within these panels.
Alex Maleev, frequent collaborator with Brian Michael Bendis, slides into the signature Hellboy style fans might recognize, but with more detailed line work than the bold and muted style Mignola employed in the original series. Maleev’s interior work and landscapes stand as some of the strongest aspects of this comic. His presentation of the Portuguese fort, complete with peasants and leaning grave markers, stands as the juiciest bit of eye candy in the whole issue.
Fans of this story will likely decry most of the criticisms offered here, and stand satisfied with another Hellboy adventure. And while this story does contain sparks that may soon ignite the blaze of a truly great story, the creative team certainly has their work cut out for them. The standard coming-of-age story, or bildungsroman if you like, shows us an individual who exists in a hostile environment (in this case a demon from hell on Earth) who ultimately pursues adventure and becomes one with the world. Ultimately, the protagonist rises to an authentic version of themselves. When the form is handled well, the emotional payoff ameliorates any reservations one had in the beginning. The true test of Hellboy and the BPRD – 1952 will come with the arrival of issue #2, where we’ll see these characters exert some agency on the story presently constricting them.
Dark Horse Comics/$3.50
Written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi.
Art by Alex Maleev.
Colored by Dave Stewart.
7 out of 10