Comic Picks By The Glick

B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth vol. 9 — The Reign of the Black Flame

October 9, 2014

While a new volume of “B.P.R.D.” is always a reason to get excited, this one promised to be something special.  Not only was it going to involve the organization taking the fight to ZinCo after all these years along with this latest incarnation of the Black Flame, but the setup for this was handled expertly as well.  I was expecting another volume along the lines of “The Return of the Master” that fully advanced the main story while being an exciting read in and of itself.  That’s… not quite what we get here.  There’s still lots to enjoy about this collection, but “The Reign of the Black Flame” stumbles in a couple key areas.

Let’s start with the story as the B.P.R.D.’s incursion into New York occurs on two fronts.  Liz, Fenix, Johann and their team approach from the sea while using Fenix’s powers of prognostication to sneak in undetected.  Meanwhile, Agent Giarocco and her crew -- including the now completely badass man with a mystic sword Howards -- are paired up with Iosif and his buddy Leonid, along with some heavy artillery to take on whatever they may find along the way.  That they’ll encounter a variety of monsters is a given.  Whether or not they’ll have the capacity to take on the Black Flame and all of his subjects, even with Liz back and firing on all cylinders, is something else entirely.

The thing about ZinCo is that they’ve been around for quite a while as the “evil corporation manipulating things in the shadows” for quite a while now.  Appropriately enough, their involvement in the title’s apocalyptic shenanigans dates back to vol. 5 of the original series which (coincidentally) was titled “The Black Flame.”  However, it wasn’t until recently that the B.P.R.D. finally got the idea that these guys may be up to no good.  I can understand how the use of dramatic irony here to let the readers know about ZinCo’s true motives while keeping the title organization in the dark was meant to build tension.  Keeping them there for as long as Mignola and Arcudi did ultimately makes the B.P.R.D. look just a little dumb.

Given that ZinCo and the Black Flame are the reason New York dropped off the map, I was expecting lots of dramatic fireworks as the teams realized they had been duped by this corporation.  Lots of score settling and information gathering of the violent kind would naturally ensue.  That doesn’t happen here as the team just seems to shrug it off for the most part.  Granted, there is a great scene where Iosif confronts Marsten -- the face of ZinCo in the series for a while now -- and shows him just how powerless he really is.  Given all that the company has done to further the end of the world over the course of the series, I was expecting more scenes like that as the B.P.R.D. tried to avenge their ignorance.  My expectations were not met.

Then we’ve got the title character himself.  This is his third major appearance in the series, and the fourth that I’ve read in the Mignolaverse after “Sledgehammer ‘44.”  To be sure, that’s not a whole lot in the whole scope of things considering the prominence he’s been given whenever he shows up.  What I’m trying to say is that in his few appearances, he hasn’t really been developed into a proper character.  In “Sledgehammer,” he was a Nazi superhuman given a chance to display his powers for the glory of the reich by Hitler himself.  Later, a ZinCo executive found his suit in “B.P.R.D.” and tried to control the plague of frogs, only to subsequently recognize his role as a prophet of the end.  Here, he’s an avatar of the Ogdru Jahad and their monstrous forces of life which infest the city.

These are all interesting roles, but over the course of his appearances I’ve gotten the feeling that Mignola is more in love with the character’s design than the character himself.  The form of the Black Flame conforms to the story being told rather than having the character impose his will upon it.  In his previous incarnations in “B.P.R.D.” he usually takes the form of ominous expository mouthpiece, and that’s true again here.  Even with all of the literal pyrotechnics of his battle with Liz here, it’s hard to get that invested in a character who is more defined by his look than anything he’s actually said or done.

So yeah, those are (most) of my issues with this volume.  Once you get past them, however, the rest of the book is pretty great.  Mignola and Arcudi (more the latter than the former here) handle the interaction and general camaraderie of the two B.P.R.D. teams quite well and give most of their members some moments to stand out.  In Liz’s case, we get to see her light up like never before in the pages of this title or “Hellboy” as she gives the Black Flame and his creature support all she has and then some.  Iosif also gets some real scene-stealing moments here, aside from his aforementioned confrontation with Marsten, as his Russian brand of can-do optimism helps leaven the mood in the strangest of ways and aids him in his direct assault on ZinCo’s headquarters.  Then you’ve got Howards, who spent an unknown amount of time reliving another life as a barbarian fighting off similar monsters, who has turned into a blisteringly effective fighter as he goes “YAAAAAAAAAA!” before bringing the hurt to the bad guys.

Mignola and Arcudi don’t forget about New York itself, as we also find out that there’s more to the city than the Black Flame and ZinCo.  We get some insight into what the city was like when it was cut off from the rest of the world and how the corporation swept in to provide stability and take over.  There is a resistance group working against them, which Liz’s team meets in an encounter that goes from tense to amusing.  More haunting is the grove encountered by that group early on where they witness the cost of waiting until now to get into the city.

All of this is less-than-expertly-rendered by regular “B.P.R.D.” contributor James Harren.  I need to qualify that because he’s done some excellent work on previous arcs of this title, as well as Brian Wood’s “Conan.”  On first glance, his work here seems sketchier and less-detailed than those other efforts.  My first thought was that the the large cast and scale of the story forced him to rush things a bit in order to make sure these five issues came out on a monthly schedule.  As things went on, I still became immersed in the story and my concerns faded into the background.  Harren’s work may have been rushed, but his action scenes are still very dynamic and full of drama.  No matter how many times Howards charges the enemy positions, it looks incredibly dramatic in every occurrence.  The same goes for Iosif’s one-man assault on ZinCo’s headquarters, and Liz’s blazing balls-out fight against the Black Flame.  To sum up my feelings on Harren’s art in this volume, what it lacks in raw and specific detail it makes up for in energy and excitement.

“The Reign of the Black Flame” didn’t meet all of my expectations, yet still wound up being a pretty good read in spite of it.  Not many comics can pull off a feat like that, so all of the creators involved deserve some extra credit for that.  With this being a kind of climax point for the story, I’m thinking that things will be dialed back a bit as Mignola and Arcudi plan for the next major change to the “B.P.R.D.’s” world.  If nothing else, at least these coming stories don’t have to deal with being compared to an arc where everything was firing on all cylinders.

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