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The Great Hellboy Re-Reading Project Part VII: The Black Flame

I have recently begun an epic project: re-reading Mike Mignola’s complete Hellboy saga from the very beginning!  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 discuss the major shift in the Hellboy story that took-place in The Third Wish and The Island.

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B.P.R.D.: The Black Flame (2005) — If there was any doubt in my mind that these B.P.R.D. stories were now the centerpiece of the Hellboy universe, that was swept aside by the phenomenal mini-series The Black Flame, which saw the introduction of an important new villain (the titular Black Flame), a horrifying expansion of the threat facing the B.P.R.D., and the devastating death of a major character.

The story opens with the B.P.R.D. in full combat mode, engaged in vicious fights all over the United States, trying to stop the spread of the frog-creatures but daunted by the new nests popping up everywhere.  The conflict with the frogs has turned into a WAR.  The B.P.R.D. agents are no longer bookish academics, they are soldiers.  The fight with the frogs in issue #1 is brutal.  I love the development of Roger’s relationship with Captain Daimio and Roger’s mimicking of Daimio.  It’s such an interesting progression for the sweet Roger.  I love that Zinco finally re-enters the main story, after having been mostly on the sidelines since way back in Wake the Devil a decade earlier.  Issue #2 of this series introduces the new Zinco head, Landis Pope, and his assistant Marsten, both of whom will remain major players in the Hellboy universe for quite a while.

The introduction of The Black Flame is (as I have discovered in this re-read) classic Mignola, once again giving us the end of the story before the beginning.  The Black Flame (into which Mr. Pope transforms) feels like a brand new villain for this story, but we’ll soon discover that in fact Pope is just mimicking a major WWII villain from the Hellboy universe.  In fact, we already saw a glimpse of the WWII Black Flame in the scrap-book that Johann was looking at in The Dead #3, and in the gorgeous Guy Davis-illustrated spread of Pope’s office in issue #2 of this mini-series we can see that Pope has what appears to be the charred corpse of the original Black Flame behind glass in his office!!

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Then, in issue #3, we get the first appearance (not counting the glimpse in the previously-mentioned scrapbook from The Dead #2) of Memnan Saa!!  It’ll be a while before we learn his name, but there he is, in a vision haunting Liz.  In issue #6 he gives Liz a vision of the ancient human priest with a red hand-print on his face.  This guy pops up every now and then, whenever we get a glimpse into the secret backstory of the Hellboy universe.  We’ll later learn that this human priest (we’ll learn much later that his name was Shonchin) was taught the secret of Vril Energy by the Hyperboreans.  Here, he is seen holding an object that was able to summon/control that Vril energy — Liz will soon use it to channel her fire to destroy the Katha-Hem.  Coming off of the info-dump from The Island #2, it’s awesome seeing these disparate threads of back-story starting to come together!

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The bizarre Professor O’Donnell pops up again, recognizing what he calls Katha-Hem in issue #3.  (This reminds me of the Ogdru Hem that we just heard about in the Secret History of the World from The Island #2.  The Ogdru Hem were the “children” of the Ogrdu Jahad, vicious monsters that wound up entombed in the Earth.  I didn’t really understand all of this originally, but my reading of this scene now is that the creature Katha-Hem is one of the Ogdru Hem.)  O’Donnell’s words are haunting, now that I know where this story is going.  “When he comes, people won’t just die.  The world will start to change.”  We have seen that happening in the B.P.R.D. “Hell on Earth” story-line (that began several years after this mini-series).

The most notable aspect of this mini-series is the tragic death of Roger in issue #3.  At the time I originally read that issue, I didn’t at all believe that Roger was actually dead.  (My belief was solidified by Johann’s being convinced, in the following issues, that Roger was still alive.)  But, impressively (and sadly!), Mr. Mignola & Mr. Arcudi have let this death stick.  It’s a powerful raising-of-the-stakes here in this story.  Things are more serious now, more dangerous, and this War on Frogs is not going to be ended easily.  Getting back to Roger, it’s interesting that, when reading these stories originally, it felt to me like Roger had been around for so long (thus my shock at the death of a long-running character).  Publication-wise, he had been.  But on this re-read, when I know how many more stories are ahead than there are behind, it feels to me like Roger was only around for so short a time!  (This makes me MORE sad at his early demise!!) I still miss this great character.

The ending of this mini-series is another important turning point, as the unleashed Katha-Hem devastates an American city (the series is surprisingly vague as to exactly which city that was) before Liz is able to destroy it.  Now the whole world not only knows about the B.P.R.D. (I don’t think the agency was ever intended to be secret, as it was in the two Hellboy movies, but I always got the sense from the comics that the public knew very little about what the agency really got up to) but about this terrible, non-human menace facing the globe.  (We’ll see a newspaper headline in the first issue of Garden of Souls that refers to the devastation, noting “Govt. Agency Revealed” so I guess that means the B.P.R.D. WAS sort of secret in the comics, though that was never a major plot point previously.)

Hellboy: Makoma (2006) — This two-issue mini-series has a framing device illustrated by Mike Mignola that is set in 1993 (after Professor Bruttenholm set off on his ill-fated arctic expedition with the Cavendish family, but before the events of Seed of Destruction).  But the bulk of the story is illustrated by the great Richard Corben.  I wouldn’t have thought Mr. Corben’s style would mesh with the world of Hellboy, but it’s weirdly perfect for the telling of this African legend that just might give us a peek at Hellboy’s ultimate fate.

There is a lot of juicy stuff in the opening few pages, illustrated by Mr. Mignola.  The short story of Hellboy’s first visit to Africa, back in 1947, is delicious, and isn’t the stunning image of the Elephant-spirit calling three-year-old Hellboy “Anung Un Rama” one of the very best panels Mr. Mignola has ever drawn??

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I also love the third panel on page 1, where we see an old deep-sea divers suit.  It feels like foreshadowing of the Oannes Club guys we’ll see soon in Garden of Souls!

When I first read Makoma, it felt initially like an irrelevant side-story.  But the ending of Makoma is intriguing, and something I have thought a lot about over the years.  We see Makoma (who is drawn to look like Hellboy in this re-telling of the story) face a seven-headed dragon.  He is able to defeat it, but at the cost of his own life and that of his friends.  I wonder, was that seven-headed dragon supposed to actually BE the Ogdru-Jahad? (Was Makoma involved in originally imprisoning the Ogdru-Jahad?  He wasn’t mentioned in The Island #2, but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility.)  Or is this just intended to be a parallel story that hints at where Hellboy’s own story is heading?  Makoma’s death feels like powerful foreshadowing of Hellboy’s eventual “death” at the end of The Fury.  Does Makoma’s eating his own friends in order to gain the strength necessary for his final battle bode ill for H.B.’s former B.P.R.D. comrades?  I suppose we’ll see some-time down the road…

B.P.R.D.: The Universal Machine (2006) — This is one of my very favorite B.P.R.D. stories!!  After the epic The Black Flame, we get this slightly lower-key story, in which Abe, Liz, Johann and Daimio regroup while Kate investigates some wonderfully classic Hellboy universe weirdness.  But in the end, I find The Universal Machine to be one of the richest of the Hellboy universe stories.  We get wonderful insight into Abe, Liz, Johann, and Daimio, and delicious peeks into each character’s secret history.  Meanwhile, I think the paranormal threat encountered by Kate — the collector Thierry who taunts Kate with a secret book that might hold the key to resurrecting Roger — to be one of the most interesting menaces our B.P.R.D. heroes ever faced.

As much as I love all the back-story we get of the gang back at B.P.R.D. headquarters, I love even more that Kate gets to step back into focus in this story.  I love seeing her back out in the field and I love that, in issue #5, she’s the one who is able to save the day.  She’s able to be both a “woman of action” (as she calls herself) by slicing of Thierry’s fingers, and she also uses her brains to outwit her captor.  What a winning combination!

Issue #1 introduces B.P.R.D. agent Andrew Devon.  He’s so snappily dressed when we first meet him!  He seems so normal!

I was firmly in love with Guy Davis’ work as B.P.R.D. regular artist by the time this mini-series was published.  To see why, just look at the gorgeous huge panel towards the end of issue #1, showing the multi-dimensional layout of Thierry’s creepy shop/library, stuffed full of macabre artifacts.

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Issue#2 gives us Daimio’s origin, as we see his mission to Bolivia that went horribly wrong, winding up in his getting killed and then resurrected.  I am endlessly intrigued by the crazy-weird huge jaguar-god that Daimio sees after his “death.”  It reminds me a lot of the fish-god that Abe saw back in Plague of Frogs #5 (before Langdon Everett Caul’s “rebirth” into Abe).   Even more interestingly, right before seeing the jaguar-god, Daimio sees one of those smiling, white-faced monkeys!!  We know he found one in a jar in storage at B.P.R.D. H.Q. back in The Dead and is now keeping it in his office.  These story-threads are about to come together!!

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Issue #4 introduces Darryl the Wendigo.  It’s such a sad story.  But it’s so great to see Hellboy again, even in flashback!!  I never would have predicted that we’d see Darryl the Wendigo again, but he’s going to be so important just one mini-series away, in Killing Ground.

I love the surprise of Mike Mignola returning to illustrate the sad, sweet epilogue at the end of issue #5, in which Johann (and we, the readers) bid a final farewell to the spirit of Roger the Homonculus.  I was very disappointed at the time that this seemed to be the end of the character, but now I’m at peace with it and I can enjoy this bittersweet ending for such  great character.

B.P.R.D.: Garden of Souls (2007) — Things continue full steam ahead with another incredibly marvelous, memorable B.P.R.D. installment.  Somebody sends Abe a cigar case with Langdon Evertt Caul’s initials engraved into it, along with a map to a location in Indonesia.  Abe and Daimio follow the clues and uncover an incredibly weird series of events, most notably a group of old men in metal suits with a plot to kill millions.

Issue #1 begins in London in 1859, as Langdon Evertt Caul and his friends view the unwrapping of a mummy from Thebes.  Only, it turns out the mummy is still alive!  This is Panya, the long-lived, slightly-telepathic woman.  This is such an intriguing introduction to the character.  Mr. Mignola and Mr. Arcudi have been stringing us along about Panya for years.  I don’t believe we have ever learned much more about her true origins, nor her purpose in the larger story being told… I hope someday we will…!

I love that we see Memnan Saa in this flashback, though here he’s just a pitiable eccentric and not a super-villain.  (And at this point in the narrative we still haven’t gotten his name.)

Daimio’s weird dead white-faced monkey jumps to center stage in Daimio’s crazy-bizarre dream/vision freak-out in issue #1.  Things really come together in issue #3, when Johann figures out that the Crimson Lotus was Benjamin Daimio’s grandmother.  At the time, that didn’t really mean much to me, only the possibility that Daimio was hiding something bad in his past.  But now during my re-read, this was a huge HOLY SHIT moment and finally explained, for me, all this craziness with these monkeys!!  Years later, in Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus, we’ll see the Crimson Lotus herself (in a story set back in 1933).  It seems that the Lotus controls and uses these (maybe-mystical) white-faced monkeys to do her bidding.  At the end of that series, one of those Monkeys is found.  The police take it as evidence, but when the government steps in and claims jurisdiction, we learn that they take all of the evidence away from the local police.  In the last panel of the story, we see that dead monkey in a jar being put away into storage.  WHERE IT WAS FOUND, DECADES LATER, BY BENJAMIN DAIMIO IN B.P.R.D.: THE DEAD #5!!!!  Holy cow!!!  Now, we still don’t exactly know what those monkeys are, and we don’t know why one appeared to Benjamin Daimio in his vision when he was dying in Bolivia.  But clearly he recognized it when he found it in the B.P.R.D. sub-basement.  (Though we don’t know if he knew of the connection to his grandmother or not.)  This is an absolutely super-cool series of connections that has totally and completely blown my mind.  I can’t believe how carefully Mr. Mignola & Mr. Arcudi have layered all of this into these stories.  Just wow.  (And one last note: now that I follow all of this, it makes’s Daimio’s dismissal of Abe’s suggestion that he check out the local orangutans in Garden of Souls #2 so funny.  Daimio: “What?  Monkeys?  No thanks.”  HA!!)

In issue #2, Johann finds a scrapbook that shows us the “Sledgehammer” Vril energy suit, which we will later see in Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus and Sledgehammer 44.  And, even more tantalizingly, some mysterious Lobster cards are seen floating down as Johann walks away!!  I love that Lobster Johnson is about to re-enter the Hellboy universe in a big way for the first time since back in Wake the Devil.

I love the whole crazy business with Caul’s former buddies in the Oannes Society, now living in robotic suits that resemble deep-sea diving equipment.  I adore Guy Davis’ memorable illustration in issue #2 of the huge man talking to a guy in a robotic suit, walking up the path to an enormous beautiful mansion deep in the secluded jungle.  How much do I love this crazy-weird series that it gave us this wonderfully unique image???  I just love this whole back-story of the Oannes society, as we learn more about Langdon Caul and his friends’ obsession with the sea and what they have been trying to accomplish all these years.  (And we’ll learn more about the Oannes society in future stories…)

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That very same issue gives us another artistic triumph moment from Mr. Davis: Memnan Saa’s vision to Liz of an apocalyptic world in which the huge horrible creatures (Memnan Saa calls them “Sentinels;” they are Katha-Hem creatures like the one Liz destroyed in The Black Flame) have destroyed the world, sitting atop the rubble of humanity’s cities and spewing forth frog-creatures everywhere.

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Once again we must face the question that this series has been posing since the very beginning: is this terrible vision of the future an unavoidable destiny for mankind, or will our heroes in the B.P.R.D. be able to find some way to stop this??  (I also love that, in issue #3, while Johann is excited about the Daimio-Crimson Lotus connection he’s discovered, what Liz is intrigued with is the photograph of Memnan Saa!!)  (Who also pops up in issue #4 — we see that Panya had met him in London a century before, much to the chagrin of her benefactors in the Heliopic Brotherhood.)

Ahh, the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra.  I believe this is their first mention in the Hellboy universe, but this group will continue to be up-t0-no-good in future Hellboy stories (all, of course, set in the PAST of the Hellboy universe), particularly in the great Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels mini-series.

The story builds to a phenomenal climax in issue#5, gorgeously illustrated by Guy Davis, in which Abe desperately takes on these crazy robot-suit guys (his former friends) in an attempt to stop their mad plot.  This is a real stand-out story for me.  So much fun.

We’re really in the thick of an astounding run of B.P.R.D. stories.  I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on the next one, Killing Ground, as well as the start of the next big Hellboy-centric epic, Darkness Calls.  See you then!

The issues discussed in this post are collected in: B.P.R.D. Plague of Frogs vol.2 and vol. 3.

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