The Surprise Messages of Sledgehammer 44
THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR MANY MIGNOLAVERSE PUBLICATIONS
When I read Sledgehammer 44, I was surprisingly, surprised. To be honest, I’m not totally sure what I expected, so I can’t say that I was swerved by a complex and personal plot about ghosts and the effect of magical energy on modern humans. I can say that whatever I wasn’t expecting didn’t happen, and that everything that did happen was even more unexpected. Does that make sense? Doesn’t matter! Sledgehammer 44 was a system shock in the best possible way.
After finishing the sixth collected volume of Lobster Johnson, I immediately set out on the semi-sequel series. Whereas Abe Sapien was the first side story in the Mignolaverse, Sledgehammer 44 was the first one-off (or two-off if you count them separately) miniseries to appear “From the pages of Hellboy”. By 2013, the year the first issue released, the Mignoalverse was a living, turning, surprising, and sad accumulation of not only the Hellboy storyline, but the then-main timeline B.P.R.D. series, the Witchfinder series (our own Danny’s favorite!), Frankenstein’s Dance Party, and the then still-running spawn series Lobster Johnson. This has since been followed by some truly wonderful stories about the Black Flame (acting as a precursor to LJ, and this), Rasputin (a sequel to that), and most recently, Koshchei and Crimson Lotus.
One of the more surprising elements of Lobster Johnson (for me) was the fairly constant call-backs and tie-ins to the primary series continuity. I was surprised to see the Black Flame at that point, which made me much more shocked to find him working directly for ol’ Adolf against the Vril powered super-ghost-man himself. To me, the best thing about the Mignolaverse 25 years after its inception, is this recursive spiderweb Mr. Mignola has woven so carefully. The most impressive element of the Mignolaverse is the authors’ ability to no only reference previous story elements, but to tie them together so seamlessly that they seem fully plotted and planned from back in the ‘90s. This is undoubtedly a credit to the amazing creation powers of Mr. Mignola himself, but certainly reliant in no small part to the keeper of the Hellboy holocron, Scott Allie.
Without the dedication and meticulous handling of the Mignolaverse at the top, we’d never get any of these amazing details on the in-between spaces of the Mignolaverse. Would that make the comic series worse? That’s probably a point of personal preference, but to me, it absolutely would. Seeing Abe at the end of Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland, or even more so to see the Caul-like egg of Mona, made that series work for me. Rise of the Black Flame similarly helped tie the hoodoo of the Hellboy pre-history into the modern actions taking place in Lobster Johnson, and echoing through the B.P.R.D. titles. Much opposite to the way that modern Star Wars fans seem to be significantly less interested in the interstitial stories Disney has produced between numbered episodes, Mignolaverse fans seem to be clamoring for more of these puzzle pieces to connect stories they never even knew they wanted. Therein lies the greatest strength of Mike Mignola’s magnum opus: the Hellboy universe hasn’t been about Hellboy in a long time. The Mignolaverse split and spun out from Wake The Devil and Almost Colossus to being about so much more than the best half-demon, rightful heir to England, dead-and-then-not-dead protagonist of all time.
Within the first five years of the Mignolaverse, back when it was just Hellboy and his guest appearances, Mike and company took a very focused weird tale and laid a track that would eventually become a universe of stories that cover nearly every facet of life. I don’t recall any marriages or births, but we have touches of society, normal daily life, food, romance, political structures, governmental bureaucracy, and race relations, on top of the secret history of mankind, an answer to “What would Batman be like if he were real?”, and the genuine feeling of what it’s like to deal with the loss of your favorite homunculus. Sledgehammer 44 is the comic that most deals with what happens after death in the Mignolaverse, as an average, regular human.
While I was expecting some pulse-pounding robot-ish-on-Nazi pounding (did not disappoint), I absolutely didn’t expect a fight of super men, as we saw in the series Sledgehammer 44: Lightning War. This was the first time I can recall that the Mignolaverse showed both what happens when the Black Flame actually fights someone, and also what happens when someone can actually fight back against a supernatural horror, and isn’t a more-human-than-you devil, or somehow also more-human-than-you fish man. But did it? In these pages, we have a genuine and deep philosophical problem: is the Sledgehammer suit a being unto itself? Is there a dead pilot in there? Is the a living pilot, and is he still even a man? What does it even mean to die in this world?
In beautiful Mignolaverse fashion, we don’t get an answer to any of those questions. What we do know is that the suit itself runs off the flame that created everything. We also know that the previous host was a very ordinary man who died in the pages of Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus. We don’t know who the voice is talking with Redding on the ethereal plane, but it might be Professor Kyriakos, or even the original ‘Hammer himself, Jim. Frankly, it could be God, or Asmoedus, or Abe Sapien dead and back in time. What is important is that we see not only that death is even more abstract than we currently living types might consider, we also see that moving on after death can be a choice, and that humans can exhibit genuine free will. This is perfectly summarized on the last page in the series, in which Redding expresses not only that he chooses to stay on Earth in the Sledgehammer, but also that he takes pleasure and joy in the happiness he helped create though his sacrifice.
The Mignolaverse is a vast, amazing world in which things sometimes seem more real than real life. It’s impressive as hell that Mike’s Iron Man character, probably the most unrealistic thing outside of the demons and witches and so on, provides such a beautiful truth about the nature of the world it’s in. Sledgehammer 44 tells a story on the level of human drama you’d expect from a Mike Mignola (and Arcudi for that matter), but it does a lot more along side it. While establishing these short-term characters you can instantly fall in love with, they deliver some of the most exciting and visually impressive action in all of the Mignolaverse, all the while talking about the nature of life and personal agency. If Hellboy is constantly proving people wrong about his purpose and destiny, the pilots of the Sledgehammer prove that average humans can choose to be more, and can even change the outcome of seemingly finalized tragedy.
The most surprising thing about Sledgehammer 44 is on that same final page. When compared to the end of Hellboy, or Lobster Johnson, or basically all other Mignolaverse titles, Sledgehammer has something none of the others have: a happy ending. Once we’re done crying about Rodger or Kate or the like, we can focus on some other elements of the Mignolaverse, and feel a lot better about things. I don’t think that they should make a habit of it, but once in a while, it’s truly great to leave a Mignolaverse comic with hope and satisfaction.