Rise of the Black Flame (#1 – 5) – Chris Roberson, Mike Mignola

2 out of 5

This is what I was afraid of with Chris Roberson taking over from John Arcudi as chief storyteller in the Hellboy world: He’s just not very consistent.  Even with a more light-hearted story – as in the Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. series – which is an approach Chris has shown, in his own Edison Rex books, he can excel at – his delivery has been uneven.  The generally shorter format of …and the B.P.R.D. tales is a good training ground, as I can appreciate that stepping in to such a long running title is daunting, and there’s a need to find your voice, but that doesn’t prevent frustration from creeping in when more foundational titles – like Rise of the Black Flame – are crippled.

This could have / should have been a creepy introduction to the Black Flame cult and its first evil god byproduct, Raymond Dietrich.  Instead, it’s a wandering, stumbling affair, with curious momentum-sucking script pauses, a weird discrepancy between art and words, and some rather hackneyed structural aspects – which Roberson has unfortunately been favoring in his Hellboy work thus far.

The first chapter is good, though.  Christopher Mitten’s expressive characters have a lightness to them that’s not common in the photo-based sketch style (see: Sean Phillips; Michael Lark), and the opening intrigue of kidnapped girls that leads two police detectives into the company of adventurer Sarah Jewell and her associate, Marie-Therese Lafleur, is well effected.  They procure a guide, and chase down a lead in the jungle.

And here’s where it starts to fall apart.  Mitten (either from the script or of his own accord) goes with a widescreen style for his page that just doesn’t work too well with his rather open layouts (its a lot of dull space), nor does he offer much to differentiate all the jungle / temple scenes from one another.  On the flipside, he tends to over-emote the action: small guns go BOOM and heads EXPLODE.  It’s a weird push and pull between extremes.  There’s also a humorous – but admittedly immersion breaking – disconnect with the script in terms of tension: fierce battles lack urgency, and a huge army of sword-wielding cultists vs. a pistol is apparently easy-peasey, given our leads’ attitudes.  Again, whether this was poor or lacking script direction or Mitten’s decision, who can say, but the end result is simply unengaging.

Roberson, meanwhile, dangles Black Flame tidbits without really giving us anything new at all, and then will “character build” with completely sudden asides.  The structure of also way too clear from issue two onward: Jungle jungle, character flashback, maybe the Black Flame are here, jungle, and then a cutaway to the cult to end the issue.  That it all drops us on the doorstep of a somewhat foregone conclusion doesn’t help.

The weak concession is that this is far from being horrible, but I still feel like Chris is writing the Hellboy U like a guest star.  It’s not a role I envy, and I’m frankly up in the air as to whether this will settle into a pattern I can get in to.  Time will tell.  But what’s been told is that this Black Flame prequel really doesn’t offer much.