This spring Mike Mignola's "Hellboy" and "B.P.R.D." universes become richer as Dark Horse Comics releases the miniseries "Sledgehammer 44." Written by Mignola and regular collaborator John Arcudi, and featuring art by Jason Latour, the miniseries plunges into the height of World War II as a man in a suit of iron armor drops onto the European battlefield.
Debuting March 13, "Sledgehammer 44" teases a thread first introduced in Mignola's 2007 miniseries, "Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus" -- the curious hybrid of science and the supernatural that is the Vril Energy Suit. CBR News spoke with Arcudi about the upcoming book, the history of the Vril suit and the pleasures of fighting Nazis. Plus, exclusive artwork!
In "The Iron Prometheus," the Vril Energy Suit was revealed to be the invention of scientist Kyriakos Gallaragas in an attempt to wield the energy of the Hyperboreans. In that story the test pilot who donned the suit, Jim Sacks, quickly met his maker. While we won't necessarily be seeing Sacks return, the suit itself is back in action.
"Mike always planned to bring that suit and character back in the modern continuity. After all, it was seen waaaaaaaay back in 'BPRD: The Dead' in one of the sub-basements of the Colorado HQ," said Arcudi. "We had no real plans to fill in the gaps of the continuity between the Lobster Johnson story and that eventual return, even though we always knew this guy had a rich history.Â This is the first story in that 'missing' lore, taking place right after D-Day in France. While it starts out as a huge, smashing success (literally), it turns out to be something more challenging for all the characters involved."
Arcudi and Mignola allow the Vril suit itself to function as a character in "Sledgehammer 44." With the original pilot Sacks now dead, it's unknown who the man behind the armor really is -- at least in the beginning. Much of the story focuses on the troops who happen to be around the iron behemoth.
"Inasmuch as this is a test drive, the current wearer is a sort of test pilot," said Arcudi. "We never know him as well as we get to know the men outside the suit -- at least not until the 2nd issue. By then he is very much a changed man with a world view, having long lasting effects for some of the so-called supporting characters."
Those supporting characters have important parts to play, as it's they who propel the story -- and each other -- forward against their wicked adversaries.
"They're members of a squad that's been separated from its unit, however, they still take their mission very seriously -- to keep the Vril suit out of the hands of the Germans," said Arcudi. "Initially only one of the squad takes that mission seriously, a real gung ho, alpha male type named Glesham. The others aren't committed until one other member of the squad, Redding -- who on the face of it seems to be the weakest link -- really ends up taking on the mission, proving to be the driving force of the whole story."
At its core, Arcudi sees the story of "Sledgehammer 44" and the Vril Energy Suit transcending its humble origins into something about the affects of power on its wielder. Aside from its burden of responsibility, power brings transformation, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
"Mike used to joke [the character] was inspired by Iron Man -- the obvious superficial similarities are hard to ignore -- but I always felt as if it was more complicated than that," said Arcudi. "I see the wearer of the Vril suit not being so much empowered by the suit and the Vril energy it channels, but changed in a way one wouldn't necessarily expect. To me, it's almost more like a 'Citizen Kane' type story -- and I can just see Mike and [editor Scott Allie] rolling their eyes at that statement, but that's how I feel about it. You're given this great power, and without even understanding how or why, you come out the other end being a very different person than you expected or even wanted to be."
The source of that power, the Vril energy, stems from the teachings of the Hyperboreans, a mysterious ancient people in the "B.P.R.D." mythology. Like many aspects of the "B.P.R.D." world, the Vril Energy Suit represents a blurring between the supernatural and the technological -- a machine powered by mystic forces.
"For the purposes of stories, you can conflate [science and magic], can't you?" Arcudi continued, "Even in real life, practically speaking those lines can be blurred. I don't think most of us really know how a smart phone works, for instance, or even a TV. Not really. Oh, we have a general idea, but how exactly do pictures get transmitted from a camera orbiting Saturn to a TV set in Pottawattamie Park, Indiana? In that regard, it makes fudging the facts a lot easier."
"Sledgehammer 44" has been in the works since 2011, originally conceived by Mignola, Arcudi and artist John Severin. Severin's early involvement helped to shape the story, its World War II setting and the focus on supporting characters.
"Since it was Severin, I wanted to focus just as much on the grunts -- the human soldiers -- as on the 'super' hero in the Vril suit," said Arcudi. "Unfortunately, Severin was never able to finish the book. He was such a joy to work with and obviously he would've done a great job."
After laying the groundwork for "Sledgehammer 44," Severin was not an easy act to follow, but series artist Jason Latour easily rose to the challenge.
"Following Severin is an unenviable task for any artist, but like Sev, Jason has an eye for detail any WWII story requires," said Arcudi. "Jason really understood the feel of the old French village, as well as the United States WWII weaponry and the German armor. Plus, Jason makes the people all feel like individuals. You don't need outlandish uniforms to tell these grunts apart from one another and that was huge for this story."
As for the villains the Iron Prometheus faces out in the trenches, Arcudi said, "Well, what can I say? Nazis! They're easy targets, aren't they? They're bad guys everybody can cheer against. Plus, they dress great!"