This week's "B.P.R.D 1946" #3 from Dark Horse marks the midpoint of the first miniseries depicting the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense in its earliest incarnation. The story, written by B.P.R.D. and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola with Joshua Dysart and illustrated by Paul Azaceta, matches Professor Bruttenholm (or "Broom," as he's known affectionately) against a sinister – yet also adorable-- Soviet menace in the race to uncover the secrets of Nazi mysticism in the immediate aftermath of World War II. CBR News caught up with Dysart and Azaceta to discuss the series and the future of B.P.R.D.'s past.
"1946" takes place about two years after Professor Broom found the child Hellboy in the middle of a mysterious Nazi mystic ritual, apparently an effort to help Hitler win the war. "After finding Hellboy and bringing him back to the US, Bruttenholm goes back to Germany to find out exactly what the hell was going on," Joshua Dysart told CBR News. "The Reichstag has fallen. WWII is over. Now Berlin is divided into sectors; each sector is under control of a different occupier. Most at odds are the Russians and the Americans. This mounting tension is ground zero of the Cold War. Into this comes our classic monster hunter: Professor Bruttenholm, the same man that two years prior adopted a baby demon and was just cheeky enough to call it 'Hellboy.'
"The Nazi administration machine is being dismantled, causing a scramble for information. Bruttenholm is tasked by the President to investigate and unearth any Nazi dealings with the occult. What Bruttenholm is not aware of is that the Russians have also sent in a specialist. What follows is a slow burn of a story that will, at the end of its fuse, blow up into all kinds of pulp-ass awesomeness."
Indeed, Dysart promises readers everything they'd want from a Hellboy-verse story."There's vampires, mechanical Gorillas and all sorts of Mignola goodness," the writer said. "Everything you'd want from a Hellboy-verse story. It's a supernatural mystery romp through rubble-strewn, war-blown Berlin. I'd call it a tumble into early Cold War history, Hammer-film style. I'd trot out the burlesque girls, dress them up like mutant Nazi vampires and have them dance around blast craters in the street, that's how I'd describe 'B.P.R.D.: 1946.'"
At the center of all this action is Varvara, a Russian operative who very closely resembles an evil little girl. Dysart assures the squeamish that Varvara has no historical analogue. "She was Mike [Mignola]'s idea and I took to her instantly," he said. "Varvara is the head of the Russian occult investigative unit, for those 'just catching up.' She and Broom are the most natural characters in the world for me to write. I had blast with their scenes together. I'm really happy that people are responding so strongly to her. She seems to be the high point of the book for many. Mike and I intend to keep her popping up for a long time."
In a recent interview with CBR News, Mike Mignola stated he would like to establish Dysart and artist Paul Azaceta as chroniclers of the mid-century adventures of the B.P.R.D., similar to the way he's given John Arcudi and Guy Davis a great amount of control over the modern-day adventures. For Dysart, the 1940s and '50s represent an ideal era for these types of stories. "The end of WWII is an absolutely fascinating time," he said. "First off, it's more difficult to end a conflict than it is to start one. So right off the bat the end of the war is more fascinating to me than the beginning. But beyond that, our entire world was remade by that war. It fueled anti-colonial sentiment in Africa. Shifted economic power onto the United States. Changed the relational dynamic of Europe and Asia. The Cold War was the aftershock of WWII, the race to dominate the socioeconomic shift in powers brought about by the end of the global conflict.
"In my very first meeting with Mike, I told him that I always felt Hellboy was a metaphor for the Cold War. I mean in the early days, Hellboy was always dealing with some kind of repercussion from Nazi occult experimentation. It was as if the war echoed on in the occult world. So that's why I think this is such a cool thing for me to be a part of. The potentiality of it is already built into the work.
"Right now we're dealing with the very early days of the Cold War so we'll be talking about the National Socialist migration to South America. The capturing of certain German occultists to work for the United States. The race for Antarctica. Stuff like that. Then we'll move into the real spy stuff. How cool is that going to be?! Occult spy stuff!! I can't wait for that.
"So we'll be tapping into this stuff all while documenting the buildup of the B.P.R.D. as an organization and an institution."
Mignola's unmistakable style has greatly influenced other artists who've worked on Hellboy and B.P.R.D. titles, maintaining a recognizable aesthetic while allowing for subtle innovations that play to each artist's talents. "I think Mike has influenced my approach to comics since way back when I first came across his art," Paul Azaceta told CBR News. "That's probably what he saw in me that made him think I could pull this off. Then getting to actually draw something in his world was something that didn't take too much of a stretch. I think there's a certain pacing and panel arrangement that Josh and I tried to keep consistent with the other books but at the same time we never tried to imitate any of them. The uniqueness comes out of just doing what we do but with Mike at the helm hopefully it still has some of that Mignola magic."
Azaceta is also quick to praise colorist Nick Filardi for the distinctive use of reds or grey-blue tones to set a scene, or the sharp contrast drawn by bright red Soviet flags against an otherwise dim background. "I like working with him for a reason and part of that reason is what he brings to the pages," the artist said. "I know Nick and Mike had a few conversations about the 'Mignola' approach to coloring and then Nick went back and knocked it out of the park. Also, Mike has told me several times that he always thinks about color when he's drawing and he helped me a lot with the series in that respect. Although the flags were my idea I think it came from those conversations. I learned a lot working on the issues and I'm glad it shows."
With the Hellboy universe extending in all directions-characters like Abe Sapien having their own solo adventures, the B.P.R.D. showcased in two distinct eras, animated DVD adventures and the "Hellboy II" film sequel on the horizon-Dysart and Azaceta have the task of carving out their own unique corner, something singular yet part of a larger whole. "Being a fan of all things Mignola I'm just glad to contribute at all," Azaceta said. "Mike really has the whole universe in his head already and I feel that Josh and I are in it to help him flesh it out. So getting 'B.P.R.D. 1946' down definitively ends up being just a small step in what Mike has planned. It's like creating a new branch for Mike to let his imagination run wild on."
For Dysart, the "1946" series plays a specific role in a grander scheme. "This is going to sound crazy, but I hope our 'retro-B.P.R.D.' ends up being considered the 'grounded' part of the Hellboy Universe," he said. "I know the broad strokes for both the regular B.P.R.D. series and the Hellboy books and they're crazy cool, but they are going to get more and more fantastic as the frog invasion continues and Hellboy comes closer to his intended fate. Meanwhile we'll be on the back end, tying things down with the weight of history. Ultimately serving Arcudi/Davis by following any rules they set down in the present while still embellishing fully on the past.
"You know those great old films your local TV horror host used to show late on Friday nights, the ones with the vampire hunters sneaking into crypts to stake the ghouls? Or the ones with the walking skeletons supported by fishing wire that you can totally see on camera? Or the mad scientist sewing two heads on a guy? That's us! That's the part of the B.P.R.D. we want to do. Only we don't have any budget constraints and we've got that Mignola touch."
Dysart has plenty of experience playing the mad scientist. His past comic work shows an affinity for horror and monster stories: "Swamp Thing," "Conan and the Midnight God," "Van Helsing," and "Tex!," a George W. Bush parody, all have elements of the strange. "The earliest stories I can remember reading were monster stories," Dysart said, "There's something in the monster story that has always spoken to me. You can use a monster to talk about any human condition, any theme. They are, by their nature, embodiments of our fears, our concerns, our doubts. For example, I think Mike and Paul and I are using monsters to tap into the tragedy non-combatants suffer during wartime in 'B.P.R.D.:1946.' Not to get too heady, but that's what we're going for with some of this stuff. So monsters are a pretty versatile tool for the pulp writer."
Dysart and Azaceta will also contribute a '1946' story for Dark Horse's Free Comic Book Day offering, which includes a new Hellboy short by Mignola and artist Duncan Fegredo, and a new B.P.R.D. tale by Arcudi and Davis. In addition to their team-ups, Dysart and Azaceta are keeping busy with other projects. "'Buddha #1' from Virgin Comics hits in March," Dysart said. "In October, my new ongoing series, 'Unknown Soldier,' will hit from Vertigo. And next year you can expect the 'Greendale' graphic novel."
Azaceta mentioned that he's been assisting artist Michael Lark on "Daredevil," and that he would be illustrating the full issue #106. "I have some other Marvel work coming but it's too early to say much," he teased.
And as to the "B.P.R.D. 1946" follow-up? Dysart says it's already in the works. "I'm on the verge of breaking down 'B.P.R.D.: 1947,' which is going to be a lot different from '46."
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