Written by Charles Meier
The Mignolaverse (i.e. Hellboy, B.P.R.D. and their assorted spinoffs) champion a storytelling trend not often seen in American comics, namely the concept of “what happens, stays happened”. That is to say, no retcons; nobody comes back from the dead (not in their original condition, leastaways) and no events–major or otherwise–get revealed further down the line as improbable illusions or misunderstandings. You know, pretty much like how things go in real life, except this time around there are frog-monsters and sentient sacks of ectoplasm kicking around. This approach has certainly been explored in the past, but in the ever-present shade of the Big Two it remains fairly uncommon.
Whereas Marvel and DC may view such an approach as restrictive (and, to be fair, in their case there’s likely no cramming that genie back in the bottle anyway), Mike Mignola, John Arcudi and their collaborators view it as a narrative perpetual-motion machine, endlessly spewing out new storytelling opportunities. Again, just like life, at least if you look at it a certain way. This means, of course, that special attention must be paid when reading a Hellboy/B.P.R.D. comic, as you never know what seemingly-minor character or plot device will become important somewhere down the line. It also makes re-reading said comics a more rewarding experience, tracking down the first appearance of this soldier, or this psychic street kid, or that suit of power-armor fueled by and wielding Vril energy.
It is this latter that we are concerned with today. The new 2-part story, Sledgehammer 44, releases its first half this week. Written by the now-familiar team of Mignola and Arcudi, with art by Jason LaTour (Wolverine), this microseries–you need at least three issues to call yourself a proper “miniseries”, methinks–concerns itself with the continuing adventures of said power-armor, first introduced in 2007’s Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus. Appropriate to the timeline, it wound up being used as a weapon of war.
This, of course, is a story we’ve heard before, that of an alternate history of WWII where some Golden Age wonder–in this case, a death-ray-spewing dieselpunk tuxedo–is used to waste Axis soldiers. Such stories can invite uncomfortable questions, along the lines of why, if such things were available, the war wasn’t wasn’t won all the sooner. That question, in this case, has a simple and sensible answer–this world’s Third Reich did, after all, count immortal, demon-summoning necromancers among its number. It is, however, a bit more complex than that–it’s clear that, in operating the armor, the Armed Forces are officially meddling in things they do not understand (granted, this is a world in which operating any machinery more unusual or complex than an automobile often seems to qualify as such). Rather than inspire the troops, the Sledgehammer’s presence and operation seems to inspire terror–or at least intimidation–in both friend and foe alike.
This, perhaps, explains, why the suit’s pilot seems such an uncharismatic fellow. We have no idea who he is (so far, anyway), but he shows no signs of being your average quip-spewing, playboy paragon of old-fashioned American can-do know-how–perhaps understandable, as (unusually for this sort of story) there’s no reason to think he invented the thing. In fact, the operator barely speaks at all, and while he seems genuinely concerned for the well-being of his escorts, when you’re piloting a near-faceless pile of metal capable of instantly microwaving people, it pays to have some people skills. As a consequence, perhaps it’s unsurprising that, after saving his escorts’ lives, they end up in a several-page-long argument over whether or not to return the favor.
Which leads into my main complaint about Sledgehammer 44–the pacing. When you’re telling a two-part story (albeit one specifically stated to have direct links to upcoming B.P.R.D. minis), proper pacing becomes even more important than normal. You don’t have a lot of space to get the message across, so it pays to be economical and engaging. While this issue doesn’t entirely miss the mark on that score, far too many pages are spent on introductions and narrative lulls (such as the aforementioned argument). The cliffhanger feels rather abrupt as well. It almost seems like this was intended as the standard 4-5 part story that had its run cut short. That aside, it works pretty well writing-wise–Arcudi (who I believe does most of the actual writing on these books, or at least the scripting) possesses a talent for naturalistic dialogue and low-key characterization, realizing that a quiet conversation between two vulnerable people can carry at least as much narrative force as a set of bold proclamations. The soldiers that form Sledgehammer’s escort might be half-ready to leave him to his fate, but given all that’s going on you can’t quite bring yourself to condemn them. They’re scared, not selfish.
LaTour’s art is, well…okay, here’s the thing. I don’t have anything against LaTour’s work; he’s put out good stuff on other books, including B.P.R.D. (specifically The Pickens County Horror). His work here is no different; Sledgehammer himself is suitably inhuman, the unarmored cast bear a fitting look of wan vulnerability, and the scenes of combat and death sidestep exhilaration to deliver instead a sense of near-disembodying shock that never dulls much below dread. So, with all that going for it, what’s not to like?
Well…Jesus, I feel silly just for typing this, but…it’s the noses. Can’t stand the way LaTour draws ‘em. Everyone in this comic suffers from what I call “Doonesbury Syndrome”; that is, to be in the possession of a proboscis which, in its narrow, rectangular dimensions, resembles something out of an elementary-school geometry assignment than anything you’d ever actually see on the human face. Some of them are all bulbous where they connect to said faces, too, in an apparent attempt to make them more realistic which just makes them even more off-putting, as though they were children’s costume pieces as opposed to the real thing. I have a hunch LaTour drew inspiration from the same place as Trudeau, from the ultra-modern abstract style of the late 1950s, but there’s a time and a place for such things and it’s not really here. Sledgehammer gets off lightest on this front, by not having a nose at all–say what you will, at least LaTour’s not George bloody Tuska.
But, like I say, that one thing aside the art is pretty good. I still would have preferred to see this book drawn by the originally planned artist, John Severin, but there’s nothing I or anyone else can do about that, beyond dedicating this series to his memory.
While it’s not one of the better such projects to come around in recent months, Sledgehammer 44 is still looking to be a worthy addition to the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. mythos. If nothing else, this is a franchise where it seldom pays to skip anything, and more or less comes by it honestly. With Hellboy In Hell back in hibernation for the foreseeable future, there are worse ways to get your fix.