Okay, so I didn’t exactly turn around and get another update up right away, as I’d planned to do. I’ll try harder next time.

ToyFare 100

Before we begin, a brief plug: I’ve got two pieces in this month’s ToyFare magazine (#100). The first is an interview with the design group The Four Horsemen, and then there’s my usual “What’s In Store” in the price guide section. You can find ToyFare at comic shops and pop culture stores (like Newbury Comics), or you can order a copy online here (link may not work for a week or so).

Hellboy: On Earth as It Is in Hell

Hellboy: On Earth as it is in Hell by Brian Hodge.

I finally caught up with the various Hellboy lore (graphic novels, graphic anthologies, prose anthologies, prose novels, and the movie) a few months back, so it was nice to have something more to read. Hodge’s novel is the first of a number of planned Hellboy books by various authors.

Hellboy was created in 1994 by comic artist and writer Mike Mignola. I actually liked Mignola’s artwork long before I became aware of Hellboy; he drew a relatively obscure graphic novel titled Wolverine’s Jungle Adventure (1990), which was written by Walt Simonson and is much more mature than its title would suggest. Mignola’s art appealed to me even then; it featured clean, sharp lines, solid colors, and none of the distracting hyper-detail and cross-hatching of that era.

I’m afraid I didn’t read the Hellboy comics until after I saw the movie last year, but I quickly rediscovered what I’d loved so much in Mignola’s art–as well as discovering that Mignola and I shared a love for the pulp authors of the early twentieth century, such as H.P. Lovecraft.

For those who don’t know, the Hellboy stories detail the adventures of the title character, a demon who appeared in an old church in England in 1944. The product of a Nazi occult ritual gone awry, Hellboy was found by Allied soldiers and adopted by a secret American government organization called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). They raised Hellboy and he eventually became the Bureau’s best agent, fighting supernatural threats all over the world (while dark hints begin to appear of what his role in the world really is–or will be).

Mignola has carefully controlled his creation. Other than his own work, only a few Hellboy stories are “canon” (the film is decidedly not). The novels, however, are developed with Mignola’s input, and as such can be considered canon (by Mignola’s own admission).

There are two previous Hellboy novels, The Lost Army and The Bones of Giants, both by Christopher Golden. Both featured black-and-white illustrations by Mignola himself. Sadly, Mignola’s art is absent from Brian Hodge’s On Earth as it is in Hell, but what we do get is the best Hellboy novel to date.

The story begins when the Vatican’s library is attacked by angels. Or more specifically, seraphim, the legendary Old Testament incarnations of God’s righteous wrath. It seems the angels were after a specific ancient text that could shake the foundations of the Catholic Church. As luck (or design) would have it, the text survives the conflagration, and Hellboy and the BPRD are flown into Rome to investigate.

Hodge’s story “Far Flew the Boast of Him” in the Hellboy prose anthology Odd Jobs was one of the better pieces (and my personal favorite), so it comes as no surprise that he’s done right by Mignola (and Hellboy) here. While he includes the requisite monsters, dark evil forces, and paranoid conspiracies one expects from a Hellboy story, Hodge also offers good characterization and even a few literary touches. I know from experience how tricky it is to translate the colorful, larger-than-life characters of comic books to the more realistic style of prose (especially when they have names like “Hellboy”), but Hodge’s novel is one of the best such efforts I’ve read (he even addresses the name issue in one amusing exchange).

While I recommend one read the comics before moving on to the prose works (you can start here), if you’re intrigued by Hellboy but don’t like comics, this novel is probably the best introduction to his world outside of Mignola’s work.

And speaking of Hellboy’s world…

Black Flame #2

BPRD: The Black Flame #2 (Dark Horse Comics)

When Hellboy officially quit the BPRD a few years back (Hodges’s novel is set in 1996), Mignola, in effect, quit it as well. While he continues to draw Hellboy’s solitary adventures (though even that will change with the next miniseries), other creators have filled the demand for Hellboy-related material by continuing the adventures of the BPRD in its own series.

So far, BPRD has been more-or-less monthly, but each storyline is broken up into separate story arcs. After a couple of miniseries, the book settled into to a fairly regular schedule with the same writing and artistic teams. The first of the current run was Plague of Frogs, followed by The Dead, and now, The Black Flame. All three series have been drawn by monster-artist extraordinaire Guy Davis (whose “Marquis” comics are superb).

The main characters in BPRD include Liz Sherman, a pyrokinetic; Abe Sapien, a kind of a polite, intelligent version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon; Roger, a human-sized homunculus with a child-like intelligence; Johann Kraus, a disembodied spirit (ghost) contained in a special suit; and my favorite, Kate Corrigan, a former NYU professor and specialist in folklore and mythology who has no supernatural powers whatsoever.

The running theme through the three series has been the growing threat of the “frog monsters”–half-man, half-amphibian creatures who have a habit of infecting humans and turning them into new frog monsters. The creatures are spreading across the U.S. and the BPRD is working desperately to contain them.

The Dead took a break from the frog monster threat to examine the Bureau’s haunted new headquarters in Colorado and delve into Abe’s personal history, but the frogs are front-and-center once more in The Black Flame, as a familiar name from the BPRD’s past–the Zinco corporation–begins to raise its rather skin-impaired head.

It’s difficult to summarize what’s going on in BPRD without giving away the plots of the first two series (and probably the whole of Mignola’s Hellboy-related corpus), so I’ll just review this issue specifically.

As always, Davis’s art is top-notch. It’s tough when an artist creates a signature comic book that becomes associated with his style–especially a style as distinctive as Mignola’s–then hands the reigns over to another artist (though Mignola still plots the series).

But sometimes, if the artist is the right one, it’s great. I’m still not fond of Davis’s faces–everyone looks the same, and their noses are all too big–but there’s no denying the man knows how to draw monsters. Davis draws the best Lovecraftian beasties I’ve seen in comics. And aided by Dave Stewart’s beautiful color work, BPRD is one of the most attractive-looking comics out there.

As for the story itself: in this issue we meet Zinco’s new owner (the last one having met an unfortunate fate in the Hellboy graphic novel Wake the Devil) and find out a bit about his Evil Plan™. It’s a bizarre amalgamation of science and sorcery, which has become a staple of BPRD even as Mignola takes Hellboy himself in a more folklore/mythology direction.

But Hellboy and the BPRD are still in continuity, and those who have read this summer’s Hellboy miniseries “The Island” will know a little more about what’s going on with the plague of frog monsters than the members of the BPRD do (too bad HB can’t check in with someone).

On a side note, one of the most exciting bits in this issue was the discovery that a certain fan-favorite Hellboy villain is apparently still alive or, at least, intact (look carefully at pages 2-3).

The Goon #14

The Goon #14 (Dark Horse Comics)

There were two things that led me to The Goon. First, there was a Hellboy/Goon crossover in Goon #7, which led me to pick it up. And second, Mezco, the company putting out the Hellboy action figures, announced they were going to do Goon figures in the same scale.

At that point, I assumed there must be something to the hubbub, so after enjoying the Hellboy/Goon crossover, I picked up the first Goon trade paperback, Rough Stuff. And when I got to the part with the giant talking fish quoting Quint’s various lines from JAWS, I knew I’d found something special.

The Goon is the brainchild of writer/artist Eric Powell. It centers around the title character, a hulking thug with an overbite and a scally cap who doesn’t go in for zombies.

Yes, you heard right, zombies. The Goon is a wonderful stew of pop culture, mostly from the ’30s–’50s period. There’s a lot of influence from the old EC Horror comics and the works of artist Wally Wood, but I’ve always seen the comic as a sort of twisted cross between Popeye, Dick Tracy, and George Romero zombie movies.

The series takes place in an indeterminate time period, a sort of mélange of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s as they’re remembered in greeting-card nostalgia. Until recently, Powell’s art style was fairly cartoonish (especially in his depiction of Frankie, Goon’s hilariously pugnacious sidekick, whose pupil-free eyes recall Little Orphan Annie), but recently Dark Horse has improved the paper the comic is printed on, allowing Powell to use more pencils and develop the almost Rockwellian style he’s been moving toward (the comic has featured a number of Rockwell parodies).

But back to the issue at hand (pun intended): in #14 we discover the secret of the Zombie Priest, Goon’s arch-nemesis. This issue also features the welcome return of Buzzard, one of the series’ most fascinating and tragic characters.

The main story is fairly short, so the issue features two amusing back-up stories, one drawn by Neil Vokes and the other by Kyle Hotz (as well as a bizarre one-page short by Powell at the end, featuring what I’m guessing is a real-life acquaintance of Powell’s).

Why two back-up stories in a single issue? Perhaps because Powell was busy working on…

Devil Dinosaur

Marvel Monsters: Devil Dinosaur

I don’t read any Marvel Comics these days (mostly just Dark Horse, if anything), but I had to pick up this one-shot. Not only was it drawn and co-scripted by Eric Powell (with Tom Sniegoski), but it stars one of my favorite obscure Marvel characters, Devil Dinosaur.

I first came across Devil Dinosaur when he and his sidekick, an ape-man called Moon Boy, appeared in a couple of issues of The New Mutants (which I was reading for their connection to Cable, whom I loved in my adolescent unawareness of quality). I found the notion of this semi-intelligent red Tyrannosaurus so cool that I immediately painted my Tyrantisaurus toy red, making a pretty good approximation of the character while costing myself hundreds of future eBay dollars.

Marvel is pushing a whole bunch of monster-related titles this month as part of a Halloween-themed celebration harkening back to their early (pre-Spider-Man) days, when their bread-and-butter was the monster comics created by the legendary Jack Kirby. As it happens, Devil Dinosaur was one of Kirby’s last creations for Marvel, so he’s a fitting character to start the Marvel Monsters series.

That said, this comic feels a lot more like an issue of The Goon than a Marvel comic. Powell’s influence is everywhere, from the Goon-ish look of the Hulk to the Dr. Alloy-like dialogue of Devron the Celestial.

The story is pretty simple: on his home planet, Devil Dinosaur has helped Moon Boy’s friendly Small Folk defeat the vicious Killer Folk. Two Celestials, Devron and Gamiel (think Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation) have been watching all this, and when Devron teases Gamiel for being wrong about the superiority of the Killer Folk, Gamiel decides to even the odds by importing the Hulk from Earth and plopping him in the middle of the Killer Folk as their new champion.

Of course, lots of fighting ensues, helped immensely by Powell’s wonderful art. Powell obviously remembers the time when comics just tried to be fun. It’s good that comics have moved beyond that and evolved into “an original American art form,” but sometimes it’s great to just read a goofy, colorful comic book.

The issue also features a back-up story in the form of an old Jack Kirby comic from 1960 that introduced “the Hulk”–not the familiar green-skinned behemoth of ’80s television and bad Ang Lee films, but the original Marvel Hulk, who was apparently a furry alien monster not unlike Gossamer from the old Marvin Martian cartoons. I didn’t find the comic that interesting; Kirby was working a mile-a-minute in those days, and it shows. Still, it’s always interesting to see ’60s-era art in a glossy contemporary comic.

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