For a world that got its start in a battle against undead Nazis, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy Universe has spent surprisingly little time in World War II. But now, along with the help of writer John Arcudi, the history of the conflict that gave birth to the B.P.R.D. finally gets its due with the continuing tales of “Sledgehammer 44.”
This November, Dark Horse brings back the undead battle suit in “Sledgehammer 44: Lightning War,” a three-issue miniseries by Mignola, Arcudi and artist Laurence Campbell. While the first Sledgehammer series told an origin of sorts for the G.I. armor that is powered by the souls of fallen soldiers, this new book will delve deeper into the mind of the soldier called Redding who found himself an unwitting occupant of the tank-like suit last time around.
For “Lightning War,” Redding’s story gets more personal and more explosive as Mignola and Arcudi told CBR News about the origins of the character as a project for late comic art legend John Severin, the reason they decided to soldier on past the origin series and how WW2 battles add to the overall tapestry of the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. world.
CBR News: Guys, when it comes to Sledgehammer, I was curious to hear about how the specific collaborative process you have and how it applied to this character from the start. Mike, what was the original core of an idea you had for this part of the Hellboy Universe, and how did John expand upon that and add some things that maybe you didn’t expect?
Mike Mignola: When I did the Lobster Johnson book “The Iron Prometheus,” I had done this prototype suit. And at that time, I loved the look of the suit and was really happy with it, so I designed almost as a throwaway a later version of it where it was basically the same character but with a leather jacket, pants and a clunky belt. And I just thought, “I’ll just file that away, and maybe someday it’ll be something.”
Later, we were talking about doing a World War II book because John wanted to do something set in WW2 with John Severin, and that’s when I dusted off this idea and said, “I’ve got this guy.” As much as we loved WW2, we really had nothing in the world that took place during the war. Hellboy showed up at the end of WW2 as a baby, and Lobster Johnson I had the good sense to kill off before WW2. So WW2 we really loved, but we had absolutely no character to plop into the middle of it.
As far as my contribution to that first series, I think other than the opening sequence of the bomber dropping him in a can — well, I think that was the only original idea I had. With John wanting to write Severin a war comic, I think the idea was to drop this guy in there and put him out of action so it was mostly a G.I. story.
John Arcudi: Right. I can’t believe that Mike and Scott [Allie] went for that when I put it together.
Mignola: See? You’ve got a nice place where everybody loves you and you get to do what you want. [Laughter]
Arcudi: And then Mike came in to the second issue of that first series and tweaked the sort of dreamy sequence — I don’t even know what to call it. It was that weird sequence where Redding understands all this.
Mignola: Yeah. It’s a sort of supernatural/cosmically aware thing. That’s always a tricky bit because I’ve always got such a specific idea of how the supernatural stuff works in the Hellboy world. So I came back in after John had written it and made some suggestions and rewrote a little bit of that stuff, and he was nice enough to tolerate my meddling.
Arcudi: It worked better. That’s all that matters, right?
The impression I’ve gotten talking to you guys over the years is that Mike always brings the conceptual side of these things while John always brings in the human element. With Redding, who eventually becomes Sledgehammer, we got a kind of tweak of the classic WW2 grunt story where the bespectacled man in the unit turns into the do-or-die soldier. What was the attraction to making that character the mind and heart behind the armor in the end?
Arcudi: I guess I never know how to answer these questions because as I wrote this stuff, it all sort of fell into place. As Mike said, the real catalyst for this was that we’d just finished “Witch Finder” with Sev, and Sev said, “I want to do something else. Maybe a WW2 story.” I was all for it, but like Mike said, the only thing we had was this character, who we had to think of quickly. Mike trotted out the armor and had this bit about a unit being there when the armor dropped and fought a Nazi robot, but I didn’t think much about it beyond knowing that these guys would have to deal with the armor by the end of the battle and that one of them would end up inside. It only developed in specific as I wrote it. I’m sure that’s not the answer you wanted! [Laughs]
Mignola: Well, thank God it developed as you wrote it. Otherwise I don’t know what would have made it develop.
Arcudi: Yeah. We conceived of it quickly because we wanted to keep Sev working. And I knew the story, but I didn’t know which guy I wanted to do what. But as I wrote it, it made sense. We had this guy who wasn’t really a cowardly guy, but he was saying, “Why are we here? I don’t understand this.” He was the entry point for the reader, so eventually it made sense for him to be the one in the armor.
Well, carry that thought process through to today. As we all know, Jason Latour ended up drawing the series in the end, and it got a good response. So how did you take the fact that you could do a second series into building an actual story for this second series? Was there a thread tugging about you about who Redding was?
Mignola: Well, we always think in terms of collections. So when you have a two-issue thing that everyone is happy with, you say, “That’s too short for a collection, so we need to do something else that’s at least three issues.” And there was also this discussion of, “Is this another ongoing series of miniseries?” — because you don’t want to force something that doesn’t want to go on and be four or five books — or did we just want to tell a story in three issues that said all we need to say about this guy? That was the catalyst for this, and then I said to John, “It’s whatever you want. I came up with that opening bomber bit, so whatever, man.” [Laughs]
Arcudi: Obviously people wanted more. It wasn’t just like we wanted to fill out a collection. People did want more of this story, and Scott said, “If they want more, we have to do enough to justify a collection, and after the three-issue arc, if people still like it we can figure out if there’s more to do.” It’s never entirely driven by whether or not the readers want it. Usually it is, but sometimes a story will end at a certain place, and there’s just nothing more you can do with it. Besides bringing Bucky back from the dead. You can always do that. [Laughter]
Mignola: And with all these things, when we introduce something new like this, the first story stand alone and just introduces the idea. And if it’s a one off and stands on its own like “Screw-On Head,” that’s great. One thing was all it’s meant to be, and we can leave it alone. But if it works, if people like it and we like it, then it’s a question of whether it can be a part of the continuity. I mean, it’s already in continuity, but we need to see if there’s a way we can connect some dots so it becomes an important piece in this big Hellboy/B.P.R.D. Universe.
Arcudi: And the thing about this stuff is, it’s already an important piece of the universe, but the way to anchor what we put in a little better is to fill out the story if interest justifies it.
The end of the last story did connect up to the wider universe when Professor Bruttenholm and Doctor Gallaragas showed up. That could be seen as the end of that story or the beginning of another. How do you follow up on it in the new book?
Arcudi: I didn’t feel like this was a character who would keep having adventures like — well, the obvious analogy would be Iron Man. I didn’t think he’d be something like that because of the cosmic elements at the end of the first two-parter beg the question of “What do you do with all these things?” These questions are big especially considering that Redding is dead inside of this armor. What is important to a man who is dead? Those questions become a huge part of what the Sledgehammer character is all about.
So for the next three-parter, I wanted to focus on that. What would finally arouse that guy and that armor to actually do something? I tried to make it more personal and more intimate. And then the result of his agreeing to enter into the fray, as it were, ends up being much more cataclysmic than the first two-parter.
You guys talked about wanting to have a character to fit into that WW2 era, but setting this in 1944 still puts it pretty late in the game. We’re deep into the war in Europe by then. Do you feel that puts some time pressure on these stories because it won’t be long before Hellboy shows up
Mignola: One of the things that’s tricky when you’re doing a character and inserting him into the past is that if he makes too much noise, then why in 20 years of Hellboy and B.P.R.D. stories has no one gone, “Oh yeah! And then of course there was Sledgehammer kicking ass all through WW2”? If he was out there chucking tanks at things and doing all this big stuff, he would have come up in conversation somewhere along the way. So one of the things you have to know is that you can’t do too much with this guy. We can do some really cool stuff, but we have to keep it relatively small. That can be frustrating when you’re trying to tell a story in the past, but you’re going, “Don’t make too much noise.” But I think it can also be kind of good. You’ll never overstay you’re welcome.
Arcudi: Exactly. The way to make it believable that there wouldn’t be a lot of reminiscing about this guy while there has been a little bit more reminiscing about the Nazi and Imperial Japanese villains that have shown up in scrapbooks or here and there in “Lobster Johnson: Scent of A Lotus” is that it has a little bit more impact on the B.P.R.D. continuity to date. People will have to read the next “Sledgehammer” series to find out what I’m talking about.
Mignola: It is fun when you have the “Lobster Johnson” series set in the ’30s and the “B.P.R.D.” series set now that you can find little, not super obvious,Â threads so that this stuff all feels after 20 years like a consistent universe. And that could only happen if there were two-and-a-half writers on this stuff. Over all that time, I did okay for a while, but then John came in and did the other 90% of this stuff. So it’s nice that we have a couple of guys’ visions guiding this as opposed to Marvel and DC where you always have guys coming in and going, “You know the last 20 years? That was all a dream.” They forget what the last guy did and start all over. It’s been pretty smooth. I don’t think we’ve made any errors where we have to go, “Oh shit! How do we fix that?”
Arcudi: Yeah. It helps us keep things concise. But by the same token, if it’s a universe that readers believe in,Â just like when you first find out that the Civil War was more complex than you learned in grade school there’s still more about that first half to be revealed. There’s history or continuity or whatever you want to call it that can be explored in a way that’s entertaining.
Mignola: The idea is that all these things back this a richer, fuller world without rebooting things or undoing things. There are just these gigantic open spaces like WW2 where one day, we can go, “You know, we’ve said almost nothing about WW2.” There are a couple of good sized things we could drop in there, and there’s still tons of room. It’s nice to have a really big playpen to play in.
The final piece for any of these series is the art team that will come on and execute the final ideas, and the new Sledgehammer has a bit of a change up, right?
Mignola: Laurence Campbell is drawing this series. Jason was off doing some Marvel work or some other things.
Arcudi: You know, I think he’s doing “Winter Soldier,” and I did not mean a slight when I made that crack about bringing back Bucky. [Laughter] It was a complete coincidence. It’s just that Bucky was one of my favorite things at Marvel in that they never brought him back. It gave a sense of some kind of mortality to the Marvel Universe, and it was gone. I was wounded by that personally, so it has nothing to do with Jason.
But we were lucky that Laurence was available. He’s done two issues by now, and man — it’s incredible!
He’s been working on “B.P.R.D.” stuff for a little while now, and I know his detail is something that’s been an asset there. Is there any change in his approach now that he’s doing a WW2 story?
Arcudi: It’s bigger. I wasn’t kidding when I said this series has a more intimate motivation, but it ends up blowing up. There’s [the B.P.R.D. mini ] ‘Wasteland’ which was an interesting story about the end of the world, but this ends up being oddly bigger in terms of his imagery. It’s good stuff.
Mignola: One of the things that’s really exciting about it is that Laurence is not at all a guy you’d ever think of labeling as a superhero artist, but this is the closest we’ve come to some classic superhero type imagery. The first time we’ve seen that stuff in 20 years of these books. And if you have a traditional superhero guy who draws somebody flying, you just kind of go “Of course that guy can fly.” But if Laurence draws a guys flying, you go, “Oh wow! That guy’s flying! That’s amazing!” It’s beautiful. And any time you’re doing time period stuff, you need a guy who can sell the real world. You need a guy who can draw helmets and machines and make it concrete. And Laurence does that beautifully.
Arcudi: There’s a nuts and bolts feeling that he brings to his superheroes that makes them feel pretty real.