“Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: 1955 – Occult Intelligence” comes to an unsatisfying close.
Written by Mike Mignola and Chris Roberson
Illustrated by Brian Churilla
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins
The BPRD agents are surprised to find a familiar enemy involved with the island attacks, and Bruttenholm digs deep to uncover the truth behind an international supernatural conflict and the BPRD’s role in it.
Christopher Lewis: Fair warning everybody, since this is the final issue there are going to be spoilers.
To start out, I have to give a lot of praise to Brian Churilla and Dave Stewart. Their art has been the highlight of “Occult Intelligence.” Chris Roberson’s writing on the other hand has been a mixed bag, with this issue taking the cake for significant pacing problems and redundant or flat dialogue.
In fact these issues were so prevalent that I was taken out of the story numerous times. I mean right out of the gate Valentin Moravec had clunky dialogue as he was fighting Hellboy, repeatedly saying ‘You will not stop me again’ and how he was going to kill Hellboy. This type of dialogue distracts from the scene and immediately throws off the vibe of the issue.
Mark Tweedale: Yeah, it breaks the sense of it even being a fight. Dialogue in a fight scene should be as close to staccato as it possibly can—short sentences, very direct—because otherwise it kills the pacing and the sense that there’s physical exertion involved. They don’t have spare breath to chat.
When I look at a scene like this, I have to ask why the dialogue is there—what story purpose does it serve? From what I can see, it’s recapping. Inside a fight it’s trying to tell us what Valentin wants, who he works for, suggest a nefarious purpose, demonstrate his powers to Hellboy, tell us that the Bureau isn’t Valentin’s only adversary… actually, I’m not going to list it all. You get the idea. That was roughly a third of what the scene had to cover and even that is too much for the scene to bear.
If a fight has that much exposition to cover, then the fight scene isn’t the problem. It’s the symptom of a larger structural problem.
Chris: I completely agree. This conflict and repetitive dialogue started in the last four pages of the previous issue and continued here for ten more. Granted there was more going on in this scene than just the fight with Valentin, but this is a key example of the pacing issues I mentioned, as this section of the story was unnecessarily drawn out. In fact cutting out some of the redundant panels would have given the scene greater impact and left additional room to expand the endings of the other storylines, which all felt rushed to me. In my opinion, if the ending is not done correctly then it can ruin the entire story, which it did for me in this case.
Mark: I think the various endings didn’t work because the previous two issues didn’t do the heavy lifting. Think about what the Hellboy plotline has been about. He and three other agents arrive at the island and talk about something weird going on, then a giant turtle attacks and Hellboy beats the crap out of it, then there’s more talking, then Valentin attacks, then a giant bird attacks, and finally Hellboy and co. are left to wonder what the hell is going on.
The B.P.R.D. sent four agents with very different personalities to investigate: Hellboy, Stegner, Archie, and Woodrow. Yet when broken down into steps, the investigation looks like one person. And they are literally fed information from start to finish. They ask a question and they get a direct answer with as much information as the interviewee can provide. In terms of what they accomplish during this investigation, you can swap out the B.P.R.D. agent in a scene with any other B.P.R.D. agent, and the information they learn would remain the same.
In other words, the scenes are not about the characters. Think about how different this story would be if Archie and Hellboy hung out investigating Ham, curious Woodrow investigated the turtle corpse, and suspicious loner Stegner started poking around on his own. Each of them can learn crucial information without getting the full picture, then we have the Valentin fight, then we connect the dots. Already the story is more interesting, because we would learn about the characters through the course of their investigations.Continued below
That’s where the big problem is. The characters and the story are disconnected. What’s Hellboy’s character arc in “Occult Intelligence”? Or Archie’s? Or Stegner’s? There are glimmers of character moments, but they only exist in a single scene and do not affect the rest of the story.
Let’s take a look closely at Stegner. His story in “Occult Intelligence” is that he shows up on the island, and during introductions he’s his usual stand-offish self. Later when Archie is catching up with his buddy, Ham, you’ll see Stegner is not at the table. He’s off in the background reading a book. (By the way, this is is the only panel in which you can clearly see that it’s him.)
When Enkeladite shows up, Stegner recounts his run-in with it in “B.P.R.D.: 1948.” Then finally Hellboy ends up dragging Stegner around the base because he’s drunk, trying to drown memories of his dead buddies in the war.
There’s a story that connects those scenes and gives Stegner an arc. During the Ham interview, Stegner sitting alone sets up the drinking scene, after all Ham and Archie being together just reminds Stegner of his friends that aren’t there. And “1948” was a horribly traumatic story for Stegner—several agents and friends died in that story because of Enkeladite, and yet seven years later, it seems like the government has learned nothing. They’re making the exact same mistakes.
So Stegner’s expository Enkeladite speech could have been used to reveal the damage he still carries with him from “1948,” adding a personal stake into the story. It could have been the connective tissue between all Stegner’s scenes. It would not only explain why Stegner was drinking heavily later, but make us feel the reason behind it, not just be told it awkwardly in the middle of a scene.
As the scene stands in the issue, Stegner being drunk serves no story purpose other than to put him in peril when Valentin attacks. It could be cut out and the story wouldn’t change.
And I can do this for every single character in this story. Even Hellboy. No one has a character arc, and that is a huge problem.
Chris: In trying to tell the larger narrative it seems that Roberson sacrificed the characters. I think the root cause is that Roberson is trying to tell too much in a short period of time. Think of it this way, there are three storylines going on and a lot to cover in three issues. Roberson is essentially trying to lay the groundwork for his larger Occult Cold War story, show the American government’s clandestine activities in the South Pacific, show that the S.I.D. is part of the war without Bruttenholm’s knowledge, develop Susan’s abilities, grow the larger Hellboy Mythology (e.g. connecting “Rise of the Black Flame” to “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.,” and talking about the ‘third eye’), grow the adversarial relationship between Hellboy and Valentin, etc.
When there’s this much going on, there’s no time for character development. I have to think this is why there were so many times the characters received direct answers, as everything needed to be transparent to move the story forward quickly and not confuse the reader. It’s a sacrifice of quality for quantity.
Mark: I would’ve liked a bit of decompression in this. “Occult Intelligence” feels like five issues of material crammed into three. There are lots of cool things going on in this final issue, but they don’t have the impact they should. It’s not just the character we lose in the rush either, the atmosphere and mood suffer too, which is worrying in a “Hellboy” title, since atmosphere has always been a defining aspect of the series.
And I guess the title is a part of the problem too. The series is called…
The “Hellboy” logo dominates the covers. Yet Hellboy isn’t really the main character. Sure, he’s always there, but he’s a passive character. He doesn’t move the plot forward, he just follows Archie around until something needs punching. Trevor Bruttenholm was the most active protagonist in this arc, and yet he’s stuck in the B plot. I would have liked to have seen his story (and Susan’s story) in a one-shot or two-issue arc where they could have been developed fully. If Archie, Stegner, Susan, and Bruttenholm can occasionally sit out an issue, why not Hellboy too?Continued below
“Occult Intelligence” is a story that could have benefited from having Hellboy benched. We would have lost the pages giving lip service to a character that doesn’t move the plot forward, and when the monsters attack, there could’ve been some real tension. The only problem is, that “Hellboy” logo makes readers expect plenty of Hellboy, even if it’s not good for the story. I’d like to see Hellboy as just another Bureau agent, instead of existing in a narrative bubble of artificially elevated status. Maybe we occasionally need an issue or two of…
Chris: You hit it on the head. Moving in a different direction, I really love the Hellboy mythology stuff. What did you think of Dr. Sandhu talking to Susan about the third eye of Shiva? Eastern mythology and Shiva have been coming up quite a bit in Roberson’s writing, and I can’t help but connect the discussion of Shiva’s third eye to the mysterious ‘third eye’ that opened up on Liz Sherman’s head back in “The Black Goddess.” If this is a real connection, then Liz destroying Memnan Saa after he threatened Abe and Kate would be comparable to Sandhu saying ‘the opening of Shiva’s eye could bring great destruction.’ Which also means Sandhu stating Shiva’s third eye represents an insight to see beyond the temporal world would also relate to Liz.
I have to wonder, could Liz’s special abilities be greater than we realize? Could we see her looking beyond reality (maybe into the Infinite) sometime during the “Devil You Know.”
Mark: The reason Liz has her powers has always been a big question, and yet never something that really needed an answer either. Part of what I loved about “The Rise of the Black Flame” was the way it was able to talk about Liz’s powers without actually talking about Liz. There was some ambiguity to play with, some holes to fill in on our own.
This issue had a lot of ‘building for the future’ pieces in it, not just for “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.,” but for the Hellboy Universe in general. We finally got confirmation about Sandhu’s brother here, and it seems to hint toward seeing him again in the upcoming “Rasputin: The Voice of the Dragon” miniseries out later this month.
The big stuff though is, of course, all the occult agencies out there. The Russian’s Special Sciences Service (S.S.S.), Britain’s Special Intelligence Directorate (S.I.D.), and now the United States of America’s Center for Defense, Research, and Development (C.D.R.D.).
While this is the first time the C.D.R.D. is named, it’s certainly not its first appearance in the Hellboy Universe. It’s been in the background for a very long time. John Arcudi first showed it back in “B.P.R.D.: The Dead.” The C.D.R.D. employed Nazi scientists and (among other things) studied the work of Professor Kyriakos Gallaragas and Doctor Helena Gallaragas (from “Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus” and the “Sledgehammer 44” series). From “The Dead” we know that the C.D.R.D. had strong connections to the military, and “Occult Intelligence” certainly makes this much more explicit.
“Occult Intelligence” paints the early years of the B.P.R.D. differently than I once imagined. They’re playing catch-up with everyone—they’re the public face of paranormal investigation while all these secret organizations work behind the scenes.
Chris: The faces of these occult organizations are protruding from the shadows. That being said with one more issue left in “1955,” I don’t know think we will see them again until “1956.” Thus far Roberson has kept his one-shot issues as self-contained stories used to expand the characters of the B.P.R.D. “The Unreasoning Beast” brought a new B.P.R.D. ward, Victor Koestler, into the mix and “Secret Nature” gave us an emotional connection to Woodrow. Honestly, I have really enjoyed his stand-alone stories, so I am looking forward to the last issue of “1955.”
Mark: Yes, at least for now, the one-shots aren’t as hobbled with setup for future stories.
Chris: Overall, this is not the worst issue of “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.” I have read, but considering I enjoyed the first two issues of “Occult Intelligence,” the conclusion here was highly disappointing. Everything seemed to just fall apart with the rush to the finish line, and I really never found myself caring for any of the characters. This is just poor storytelling, therefore I am going to give this issue a 5.5.Continued below
I also have to point out that there’s a trend with the problems we noted continually showing up in Roberson’s longer stories (two/three-issue arcs), so I am not optimistic for “1956,” his multi-year ‘Occult Cold War’ story, or the future of the series.
Mark: There were a lot of exciting developments in this issue, teasing big things in the future… but all were soured by such a wooden issue. There’s so much in this issue that should have been exciting, that could have played with character and mood. The preoccupation with the future makes for emotionally hollow, underdeveloped stories like “Occult Intelligence.” And I say underdeveloped because on paper this was a great idea for an arc.
This isn’t as bad as “B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Exorcist,” but considering the same story problems keep popping up again and again, I’m giving this issue a 5.
Final verdict: 5.25 – A disappointing end to “Occult Intelligence.” The art is its saving grace.