Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #225: B.P.R.D.: 1948 by Mignola, Arcudi & Fiumara

Today we continue A Week in Hell, with a look backwards....

The Hellboy universe has gotten large and complicated, with characters and stories ranging from the late Victorian era (Witchfinder) to the pulpy 1930s (Lobster Johnson) to the modern day (most of the main plotline of Hellboy itself). The stories of the B.P.R.D. -- the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development, founded in the waning days of WWII by Trevor Bruttenholm, the scientist who also found and fostered Hellboy -- mostly follows Hellboy's; there's an extensive shelf of their exploits in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first. But there's also a thin (so far) thread of stories about the earliest days of the B.P.R.D., with books covering 1946 and 1947.

And then last year the story continued, with B.P.R.D.: 1948, written by series creator Mike Mignola with John Arcudi (co-writer on the vast majority of B.P.R.D. stories) with art by Max Fiumara. Hellboy is in this book, but he's only a minor character: he stays back at B.P.R.D. headquarters in Connecticut while Bruttenholm and the vampire-possessed soldier Simon Anders travel to an Air Force base somewhere in the southwestern desert to investigate reports of gigantic, unearthly, predatory creatures.

They're not alone: 1948 is a bit stuffed with characters, not all of whom get a chance to do much. Most of the scientists at the base -- involved in a series of nuclear-bomb tests for a very early Project Orion-style spaceship (so early that they don't seem to have even built a prototype or model of the ship; they're still at the blowing-up-bombs stage) -- serve as foils to explain things or react to Bruttenholm's wild theories, with the exception of the gorgeous Dr. Anna Rieu. And the rest of the B.P.R.D. soldiers -- with the exception of their hot-headed leader, Stegner -- are there to fight and die in horrible ways. Even Colonel Betz, the military head of Project Enkelados -- as the spaceship project is code-named -- mostly gets to look pensive or surprised while other people explain things to him.

This book feels like a building block: as if Mignola and Arcudi are establishing things that they'll want to use later. Bruttenholm postulates that this particular A-bomb test -- in a region of the desert known as "a mecca for shamanistic rituals" -- broke a hole between worlds in a thin place, and that destroying the fused sand the explosion caused will close that hole. Rieu turns anti-nuke over the course of this book, and we learn that she later was an important figure in that movement -- and was notably absent in a 1983 scene. And Anders -- that soldier with a vampire mark on his chest -- broods and lashes out and goes monster-hunting on his own and generally acts like a rogue cop in a 1980s movie, which looks like it will lead to him being kicked out of the B.P.R.D. Oh, and Varvara -- Bruttenholm's opposite number, an ageless demon in the form of a young girl who runs the U.S.S.R.'s anti-supernatural operations -- keeps haunting Bruttenholm, for reasons of her own that may become clearer later.

The mystery of the strange creatures is solved without a lot of fuss: they're big and nasty and hard to kill, but entirely physical and unintelligent. And Bruttenholm hits on the correct solution pretty quickly. So 1948 is focused mostly on character issues: Bruttenholm's frustrated courting of Rieu, Anders's growing self-loathing, and a side order of Hellboy's own unhappiness, back in Connecticut. 1948 doesn't really stand alone -- or even tell a particularly sturdy story by itself -- but it's an interesting piece of the larger puzzle, and worth reading for those who are still piecing that together.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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