Mike Mignola and (usually) John Arcudi have done their best over the years to build up the Black Flame as one of the key “big bads” of the Mignolaverse. Unfortunately their best hasn’t been good enough in this case. Sure, the Black Flame was big, fearsome, and had those all-important Nazi connections, but he was virtually a blank slate personality-wise whenever he showed up. Even if he did represent a formidable mystical threat for the B.P.R.D. I honestly found it hard to get excited whenever his next major appearance was teased. So I was hoping that this origin miniseries, co-written by Chris Roberson and Mignola would finally give me a reason to care about this character.
This is the volume where everything hits the fan. Makoto’s plan to get Nora to help him and the newly-turned Yuuki hits a big snag when she tries to kill him. She smells “a deep black scent” on him and tells Makoto that he’ll be doomed if he continues to hang around with this guy. Yuuki doesn’t take this news well at all and bites off a chunk of Nora’s leg before escaping to find Nao. Meanwhile, Gosho keeps looking for Makoto, spurred on by the still-painful memory of her deceased brother. This leads her to meeting a beyond-sketchy individual who also has some knowledge and experience with vampires in this world.
There’s even more than this to take in as well. Yet there was one small moment about a minor character introduced in this volume that really got me. It really came from out of nowhere and also drove home how much mangaka Shuzo Oshimi’s art has come along since her previous series.
(Spoilers for the parts involving Nao’s family follow after the break.)
With the return to old-school single-issue goofiness of “Friends and Foes” over with, Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier get back to the business of mixing topical social commentary with the dumb antics of the title character. While they’ve tried this approach to great effect in previous miniseries, particularly with their take on the banking crisis in “Hogs of Horder,” this winds up being one of their lesser efforts. Which is too bad because the idea of seeing organized religion being skewered by Groo is one with great comic potential.
It starts off as all “Groo” stories do with the brainless barbarian wandering into a town, and then a fray, and then another town where he learns of the issue at hand. Turns out that a petulant ruler has decided that he doesn’t want his people worshipping the old gods, he wants them to worship him instead. So he declares himself the Star God and gets his subjects started on building a monument to his magnificence. Though he winds up getting deposed once Groo gets involved, that only leads to the ruler spreading the word of the Star God across the country and having his influence grow on Earth and in the heavens.
Satire in “Groo” has always worked by having things be one step removed from actual reality. Even if the names have been changed it’s usually not too hard to see what Aragones and Evanier are poking fun at in a given story. This time around it feels like things are a step more removed than usual as they’re taking aim at the general idea of how religion works and spreads than anything specific. I imagine that’s probably because making any of the religions featured here direct analogues of, say, Christianity, would be asking for trouble (if not death threats). As a result, the satire feels particularly toothless this time around. There’s still Aragones’ amazing art to take in, with the scenes in the heavens allowing him some real room to cut loose with his ability as a caricaturist. This volume isn’t a complete loss as a result, but I can’t say I’m too excited to read the follow-up miniseries “Play of the Gods” which will be hitting stands soon.
Image’s own magazine “Image+” gets its second volume in these solicitations. Normally that wouldn’t be newsworthy, except they’re continuing the trend started in the previous volume of offering exclusive comics with each issue. The first volume had “Here’s Negan!” spotlighting the origins of the character from “The Walking Dead” courtesy of creators Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard. For vol. 2, we’ll be getting the start of the second volume of “Wytches” from writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock. While a proper follow-up miniseries is said to be in the offing, the installments being serialized in “Image+” are said to offer some resolution to the cliffhanger ending of the first volume.
I had honestly forgotten that the first volume of “Wytches” ended on a cliffhanger. My main memory of that series is a general one about how it started with real promise as a horror series before degenerating into a “bug hunt” with the nasties robbed of their menace in the end. The series was quite popular with my opinion being a minority one so it makes a certain amount of sense for Image to promote the series in this fashion. If this does wind up addressing the end of the first volume, then it’s a safe bet that “Wytches’” run in “Image+” will be collected in the next volume. Which would be good for fans of that series, even as fans of “The Walking Dead” wait for a way to read “Here’s Negan!” without having to pick up all of the issues it appeared in.
I got the feeling while reading this graphic novella that the main reason it exists is because Mike Mignola wanted to work with Gary Gianni more than anything else. The story itself is fairly slight as it involves Hellboy sailing off the island at the end of “Strange Places” and finding himself prisoner on a 19th-century sailing ship and its superstitious crew. They’re in the service of a woman working for the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra who is looking for the serpent Heca Emen Raa who provided the early Hyperboreans with the knowledge that became their downfall. She believes that knowledge is never a curse and that what the serpent has to offer can be used for the benefit of all -- by way of herself.
What does Hellboy think about all this? He notes that if you listen to a talking snake there’s going to be trouble. Mignola has Hellboy is on fine comic form here as he responds to his extraordinary circumstances with an air of bemused detachment that can only come from someone who has seen all of this before. Even if the story itself is slight, Hellboy’s one-liners here are some of the best I’ve read in the series.
This volume isn’t worthwhile just for the funny bits, however. The real selling point of this story is Gianni and his meticulously detailed art. He’s not a prolific artist because you really can’t rush the kind of quality work he puts out here. From the overgrowth adorning the ships in a nautical graveyard, to the period-perfect captain and crew of the Rebecca, and the monsters which swarm the ship near the end, there are so many ways to appreciate the intricate nature and design of Gianni’s art. Hell, even the linework of the fog is impressive to take in when you consider all of the lines he had to draw in order to get that effect. Even if the story and page length of this novella aren’t substantial, it’s worth picking up just to appreciate the artist’s work alone. Though the comedy helps too.
The integration of characters from “Watchmen” with the DC Universe is going to take another large step later this year with “Doomsday Clock.” This four issue miniseries from writer Geoff Johns, his first full writing gig since the DC “Rebirth” special, and artist Gary Frank will have the superman of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic series meeting up with the Superman of the DCU. Why? It’s likely they’re going to discuss the nature of causality as seen through comic books while offering up a thinly veiled argument as to why “Watchmen” ruined everything for superhero comics. Or maybe not as Johns’ has long been a proponent of the “everything counts” approach to continuity as seen in his own “Rebirth” stories. So maybe this will be his greatest trick yet: Taking the ultimate story about why superheroes would never work in the real world and folding it into a universe where they do.
Have I mentioned how glad I am that Dark Horse is publishing this series in a two-volumes-in-one omnibus format? Because I’m glad that Dark Horse is publishing this series in a two-volumes-in-one omnibus format. There’s no denying that this series works on a very slow burn, to the point where it feels like not a whole lot happens in its individual chapters. However, when you look at where this volume begins -- with gun-wielding mangaka Hideo and schoolgirl Hiromi following survivors up Mt. Fuji -- and where it ends -- with our protagonists joining a community living on top of a strip mall -- you can see that real progress has been made.
While some may feel that the pace of this series is way too slow, I think mangaka Kengo Hanazawa makes good use of the space afforded to him. Particularly in the many double-page spreads throughout this volume. There is a sense of indulgence to them, as they slow down the pace even more, but it’s generally used to great creepy effect. Whether it’s the reveal of just what is biting everyone’s ankles as they march up Mt. Fuji, or the multiple double-page-spreads which provide a frighteningly effective time-lapse of the disintegration of the social order of everyone going up the mountain, there’s always a point and a payoff when Hanazawa breaks these things out. He even manages it to comedic effect late in the volume with Hiromi’s response to a word chain game.
Hideo is still the focus of the series and this volume also shows that it’s going to be quite some time before he turns into an actual hero. If ever. It’s still fascinating to watch him try to survive within the context of his limited social skills. Even though he’s trying to be an upstanding citizen in the (misguided) assumption that things will return to normal, we still see him resort to some questionable moves here. Such as his manipulation of Hiromi in the volume’s latter half. Vol. 3 ends with some interesting developments regarding the introduction of a nurse who takes no crap and the possibility of a cure, which make me glad that I won’t have to wait another six months for vol. 4 (it’s out in July) to see what happens with them.
The first batch of “Generations” one-shots, specials that feature legacy Marvel heroes teaming up with the originals, rolls out this month. Whether or not it’ll help bring back lapsed fans into the fold is anyone’s guess, but current fans should come away satisfied. That’s because you’ve got the likes of Jason Aaron writing current and past Thor, Greg Pak giving us totally awesome and merely incredible Hulks, and Jason Aaron showcasing all-new and ordinary Wolverines. That’s not a problem for me, but it is interesting to note that nearly all of these look to involve time travel as a gimmick to get these characters together. Which is probably not surprising since some of the team-ups involve the present characters teaming up with their (currently) dead counterparts. Wait… weren’t these one-shots supposed to be reassuring for older, lapsed Marvel fans? Anyway, the only one so far which looks to have two versions of a hero working together is the Hawkeye one-off from current writer Kelly Thompson so that’s a plus.
In completely unrelated news, Warren Ellis is said to be bothering Chip Zdarsky to draw his pitch for a “Fantastic Fourth Reich” series. Because Ellis hears that Marvel likes Nazi comics now. All kidding aside, I would totally read that comic from those creators.
“Dark Horse Presents” is comics longest-running anthology series and has been host to many legendary characters and creators over the years. Its original incarnation lasted a whopping 157 issues, a subsequent online relaunch on failed social networking site MySpace lasted for 36, while its second print incarnation ran for another 36. The current run of the series in a slimmed-down forty-eight page monthly launched in August 2014… and has just come to an end with issue 33. While issues 34 and 35 were solicited, they will not be published. Anthologies have always been a tough sell in the comics market for any era and Dark Horse has been committed to trying to make it work for them for a good long while now. Publisher Mike Richardson wrote in an editorial for the final issue that they may be back in another new format with a star-studded lineup, so he’s not ready to throw in the towel yet. After all, the anthology was critically acclaimed and racked up multiple Eisner wins over its current run. Surely there has to be some way to translate these things into sales?