WWII Iron Man? Meet Mignola's SLEDGEHAMMER 44
Since Mike Mignola created Hellboy in 1994, he’s gone on to develop around that devilish character a whole world of heroes, villains and scenarios that rival even the best superhero universes. And amongst that growing pantheon of heroes like Hellboy, Abe Sapien and Lobster Johnson is a new hero joining that group: Sledgehammer.
With the second issue of Sledgehammer ‘44 on stands this week, Newarama spoke with both Mignola and Arcudi about this World War 2-era series, from the armored suit to the men behind it, and the Nazi forces they unite to fight.
Newsarama: How do you think Sledgehammer fits within the pantheon of heroes like Hellboy, Abe Sapien and Lobster Johnson?
John Arcudi: Well, I think Sledgehammer fits in pretty well. In some way he's more fantastical of a character than the others; basically he looks like a robot. We haven't really had anything like that in the B.P.R.D. universe, especially not in its own title. You have a ghost-man with Johann, a fish-man with Abe, a demon-man with Hellboy, but Sledgehammer's the first real robot-man.
But while he looks like a robot and employs these science fiction elements, on the other hand we're also bringing in more human attributes with the person inside the suit.
Nrama: We've seen robots in comics before, even robots fighting Nazis. What makes Sledgehammer '44 unique?
I don't want to reveal too much, but the arc readers will see in Sledgehammer '44 is a little different than what people will expect. Mike and I aren't looking to start another Iron Man franchise or something; we're trying to tell one of two discreet stories about a character and his transformation from a soldier into whatever it is his armor turns him into. Will he become a big hero? A smaller hero? An angel or a devil?
Nrama: Mike, the VES Suit now called Sledgehammer is a thing that's been in the back of your mind for awhile now -he even popped up years ago as a minor character in the first Lobster Johnson series, Iron Prometheus. How'd the pieces come together for this new series now?
Mike Mignola: I don't remember if I had the idea of this robot suit guy before I did the Lobster Johnson series; I might have. The Lobster Johnson series might have been an excuse to do the VES suit. I don't remember exactly.
But even then I knew - and I think you'll see in the sketchbook section - that the technology would continue to exist even after we killed off the character in Iron Prometheus. The daughter of the scientist who created it survived, so she was out there somewhere. And I already did a drawing of the second generation of the VES suit, in which he wore a leather jacket. That was much more of a nod to the old movie series like the Rocketman and stuff like that. I really modeled the look of Sledgehammer after those kinds of movie serial characters. Even back then I thought he was a fun character, and I liked the idea of having something like a superhero in the Hellboy universe because we didn't really have anything close to that.
Actually, let me change that. Sledgehammer '44 was originally written for John Severin, because he did the western series Witchfinder for us. As he was getting near to finishing that, John Arcudi asked him what he wanted to do next and John Severin said he wanted to do a World War 2 book. At the time, that was a weak spot for us historically in the timeline of our books; Lobster Johnson dies before WW2, and Hellboy doesn't come until the end of WW2. We didn't have a character other than Professor Broome who's really functioning in the middle of WW2, and even Broome wouldn't have been in the middle of it in a combat situation. So we began trying to come up with a story about American GIs in WW2, which is what of course Severin wanted to do, but set in the Hellboy universe. Then I realized that's where this second generation of the VES suit would come in. Sledgehammer '44 started as a project for John Severin, but by that time he was getting ill and it didn't work out. So John Arcudi had written this plot about army men in the field, mostly focusing on these GI characters, but introducing the second generation VES suit. With Severin unavailable, it just went on a shelf. But then when I saw Latour's stuff, I realized that here was a guy who could really pull it off.
Nrama: Latour's work shares a lot in common with yours earlier in your career. It has a darkness to it, but with a veneer of comedy - or at least something not quite the traditional square-jawed heroics we see in comics. What made Jason perfect to do this book with you?
Mignola: Well, there's no one particular thing I'm looking for.Hellboy was a different case, as we really needed someone who had a little bit of my style in there but wasn't an imitator or something - that's how Duncan Fegredo fit in so perfectly. With B.P.R.D. and the other Hellboy related books, they're not one specific style. So you're just looking for the right artist for a particular job, or just a guy you like. When I saw Tyler Crook for the first time I knew he was great, and had something extra. Tyler isn't just drawing people moving around, but has a special something that separates him from other artists.
With Jason Latour, I loved the solidity of his work and the bounce. There's also a trace of humor. There's a lot going on in his work, but he's also one of those guys who can draw anything. I like that. And he's not a traditional superhero-type artist.
So many guys in comics, you look at them and they're great but they're a "superhero" guy. Especially with something like a WW2 book, you need an artist who can draw people wearing clothes. With superhero guys, some fall apart when they have to draw regular people or stuff that's time period stuff. Some guys when you ask them to draw a WW2 book, their tanks will look a lot like spaceships.... even if they use reference, because it still looks too modern. But when I saw Jason's stuff, I knew he could draw anything. so yeah, I'm very happy to work with him.
Mignola: That kind of stuff doesn't generally interest me at all, but in broad terms it kind of does what, once upon a time, these mystical Hyborean shamans and the like could do. It draws down that Vrill energy and converts it into power. So basically it sucks this energy out of the atmosphere through the fork on its back, and transforms it into shit you can fire out your fingers.
In the original sketch for the second generation VES suit I had a big ray gun strapped to his leg. I'm not sure when that got discarded or if that sketch didn't make it over to Jason Latour, but the idea was going to be that all of this energy was funneled through the suit and squirted out thru that gun - something the first generation suit didn't have. So basically the VES suit is a conduit for that energy.
Arcudi: This version of the VES suit does a certain amount of levitation and also amplifies the physical strength of the wearer. The primary thing is that it harnesses vrill energy waves and can emit them explosively but primarily in a pyrotechnical fashion. That's more or less the powers you'll see in the first issue, as well as the effects wearing the armor has on people in a more nuanced manner.
Mignola: That’s the downside; all of the vrill energy is funneled through the suit - having effects on the person wearing the suit. It's like dealing with radiation; you just can't play with that stuff without having in affect you.
Nrama: And who pilots this VES suit in Sledgehammer '44? Is it one guy, or a team of people?
Mignola: John and I haven't covered a complete history of the various VES suit trials. So there was the guy who wore it and was killed in it in the Iron Prometheus story, and I assume there's been other test pilots in the suit between then and the events of Sledgehammer '44, but maybe not. John and i haven't worked that out yet.
But in this first Sledgehammer '44 series, it's dealing with one guy wearing the suit at the beginning, but then I can't say anything more about it without giving away what happens at the end of the series.
But it is a suit meant to be work by different individuals.
Nrama: Seeing this iron monstrosity on a WW2 battlefield is certain to send Nazis running. What kind of thing could possibly stand in Sledgehammer's way?
It's a tricky thing, doing stories set in the past because if this suit was used a million times during WW2 then people would still be talking about it in modern times. I knew going into this book that
these stories had to be relatively small stories so it didn't make too big an impact on history. So while it's a spectacular piece of machinery, it's top secret and something almost of an urban myth. Like how people might say "the Nazis had spaceships. The Nazis had robots. I hear the Americans had robots, or the Americans have this mechanical man." It's one of those things where you might have heard stories about it but the government denies it ever happened.
Nrama: Scott Allie tells me that when this character was first being developed, some of the Dark Horse staff called it "Mike's Iron Man." Are there thematic ties between your creation and Marvel, and how would you differentiate them?
Mignola: Well, it's my Iron Man in that it's a guy wearing a suit as opposed to it being a robot. And really, it all came of me wanting something that had the clunkiness and powerful feel that the first Jack Kirby version of Iron Man had. There's just this great, clunky shape to it.
The hardest thing about designing this character actually was doing the head. It was hard to come up with a head for him that didn't look like Iron Man. Instead of eye holes I had three lenses, making it not Iron Man. I think purely as a design thing I kept thinking of that old Iron Man. I liked the idea of a guy wearing a suit that could level a building.
Nrama: Last question - you mention more stories in the future for Sledgehammer '44 and the VES suit; could we see it someday, somehow interacting with your other big heroes like Abe or Hellboy?
Mignola: Well, that would be telling.
Mignola: John Arcudi and I are definitely going to be doing another three issues of Sledgehammer '44 following this first one. I think that's going to get in the works later this year with it coming out at the end of 2013 or sometime in 2014. So that's in the works, but beyond that we've also got some more ideas..
Nrama: I'd love to see Sledgehammer stepping on the toes of Abe Sapien or something.Arcudi: Sledgehammer will play a larger part as time goes on; it's just up to Mike and I to work out the details. Mignola: Yeah, it's fun to do those things. But I don't want to say any more. [laughs]