The Black Flame is the biggest villain in the Hellboy universe. So it’s surprising that his “origin story” has not been told before, but this five-issue miniseries corrects that oversight. It all goes back to 1923, with the Cult of the Black Flame, a secret order of priests in the jungles of Siam. Little English girls have been going missing. One in particular taken from Rangoon in British Colonial Burma triggers a visit from two investigators. Initially their inquiries are fruitless, but after they meet up with adventurer Sarah Jewell she arranges a voyage into the jungle with local guide Farang. After a series of jungle adventures (which includes fighting off a bunch of priests with swords) they finally reach their destination. While they free a large group of captives, it turns out that they do not need to free the girl they came for. She has known all along that she was not intended to be the Black Flame’s vessel, but servant and spouse to the true avatar. The story closes with their voyage to New York to begin his “great and terrible destiny.” Christopher Mitten’s artwork is absolutely stunning. He gets the atmosphere exactly right, and crafts a memorable cast in his character designs.
The original The Empty Man series revealed enough about the Empty Man phenomenon to be self-contained. So where does a sequel go? It goes deeper into the way Empty Man cults work, which includes actions they take without admitting their true purpose. And how people infected with the disease try to cope. Those threads come together in the story of Melissa Kerry. Her husband and daughter both know that something is not right, and two outside groups have noticed as well. One claims to be with the FBI–she used to be, and we have seen her before–and the other is mysterious. When the cult comes to collect Melissa they do it in force, wreaking havoc and death on the neighborhood. As the family escapes they see a creature from the Empty Man world appear in our world. More of the creatures appear at the conclusion, signaling something big, perhaps the end of humanity. It’s more than a big reveal, and it’s hard to see where the story can go from here. But there is another (final?) series.
The distinguishing feature of this story is the Russian setting: it’s possible to imagine it taking place in a violent working class subculture anywhere, even taking the sexual politics into account. Ex-hitman Piotr Petrovich had a difficult relationship with his son Kiril, compounded by claiming to be an insurance salesman. Kiril also has a secret: he is a closeted bisexual, a dangerous thing to be in Russia. He decides to move to the refinery city Blackstone (where life is hard but the pay is good) in search of freedom. A year later Kiril returns home in a body bag, and Piotr travels to Blackstone for answers. He expects to identify his son’s killer and exact revenge, but finds a complex political power struggle instead. Unraveling those threads ends up being the core of the narrative, along with a great deal of violence (it is a violent place). He learns many surprising things about his son. In the end he accepts his son’s sexuality, and admires his leadership in Blackstone. But he declines the offer to stay and contribute to the revolution. Which certainly looks like the end of the story, despite the labeling as Volume 1. Brown’s art excels at illustrating the violent action, but is also effective at portraying a variety of facial expressions. His backgrounds tend to be plain, but can also set a scene: there are two splash pages of Blackstone when Piotr first arrives that are especially effective. Despite the twists and turns at the climax it is ultimately a standard revenge story (albeit with LGBTQ elements).
After Vol. 3’s look at the relationship between the Ice Cream Man and his nemesis Caleb (the cowboy), this is another installment that tells stand alone stories in which the title character is barely seen. “Palindromes” is exactly what it says: a story that can be read either forwards or backwards. A clever concept, which even extends to some of the character dialog (“Never, Odd or Even”). The story is about a grieving man who questions the possibility of moving forward, so I suppose that the palindrome also serves as a metaphor for his condition. Another story is about a man obsessed with puzzle solving who finally realizes he has been neglecting his marriage (which saves his wife’s life from a team of monstrous contractors, though neither of them know it). Then there’s the young woman plagued by dreams and visions who winds up in an asylum. The most haunting story is saved for last. It’s about a single father who discovers that his daughter is a serial killer (he’s been reading her diary, and at first he just thought she was becoming sexually active). He steps in and takes responsibility for her crimes, and the issue closes with his final letter to her from Death Row. The collection ends with alternate covers, character designs, and a list of all of the linguistic palindromes used in the first chapter.