Welcome to Hell Notes, the column where Mignolaversity takes a closer look at various aspects of the Hellboy Universe.
It’s been a little while since my last column. Sorry about that. I’m juggling full-time work and part-time university this year, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to scale back Hell Notes from monthly to bi-monthly. There will be a new Hell Notes on all the odd-numbered months from now on.
At the beginning of the year I kicked off a three-part Hell Notes about Abe Sapien. Part one covered Abe’s life as Langdon Everett Caul, an American scientist and member of the Oannes Society in the 19th Century. Part two will be looking at Abe’s life as an agent of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.
Spoiler Warning. I’m going to be covering Abe’s entire career as a B.P.R.D. agent. Most of it is featured in stories that have been out for a while, but the current ongoing Abe Sapien series occasionally has flashback stories to this era too. So if you want to avoid spoilers, make sure you’ve read Abe Sapien #8, #15, #23. I’ll also be talking about Abe Sapien: Subconscious, a short story that appeared in last month’s Dark Horse Presents #11.
WAKING TO A NEW LIFE
Over the next few months, Bureau scientists, Dr. Roddel and Dr. Cobb, worked to awaken the amphibious Abe, though Dr. Roddel’s heart wasn’t really in it. He was far more interested in dissection. However, Dr. Cobb insisted that they exhaust all options for waking Abe before moving on to such things.
On the 2nd of March 1979, the scientists succeeded in waking Abe. He wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms though. For days after, Cobb and Roddel carried out various tests on him. Abe’s first memories of the Bureau were terrifying, and would haunt his nightmares for decades.
Finally Hellboy interceded…
Abe had no memory of his life as Caul. His earliest memories were the voices of Cobb and Roddel discussing his dissection while he slept. He never suspected he had been anything but an amphibious man his entire life.
This didn’t bother Hellboy though. Of course, Hellboy himself had no memory of a life before coming to Earth, so he was very accepting, and the two became fast friends. While Abe wasn’t a Bureau agent in any official capacity, Hellboy took him along for missions to Toronto, Munich, Cyprus… and China.
Abe didn’t have this luxury though. Without Hellboy around, Abe was confined to Bureau headquarters, his only real friend being a teenaged Agent Elizabeth Sherman. He spent much of his time exploring the library, poring over books, studying the paranormal. Caul’s intellectual curiosity was certainly still a part of Abe, and he proved to be an excellent student, which greatly impressed Professor Bruttenholm. He became convinced Abe would make an exceptional agent.
In February 1981, the Professor managed to convince B.P.R.D. Director Thomas Manning to take Abe back out into the field. Director Manning wasn’t exactly easy to convince. Even though the China incident wasn’t Abe’s fault, Abe had still been there and he had no intention of allowing another situation like that to occur.Continued below
Unknowingly, he and Van Fleet disturbed six ancient Hyperborean spirits. These spirits consumed the souls of the locals in Saint-Sēbastien so that they could resurrect their master, a Hyperboean Black Priest called Cedu-Barra. Sounds bad, right? Well, actually it was much worse. Whenever Hyperborea is involved, things are always worse than they first seem. You see Cedu-Barra had learned the secrets of Vril from Heca-Emem-Ra herself… You may remember her. She’s also known as the Black Goddess, Hecate,1 and many other names. And she’s bad news.
Cedu-Barra went on to become the second most powerful person in Atlantis. He survived over the millennia by creating six spirits that would transfer his spirit from one host body to the next. Through this method, he had achieved a sort of immortality, a Hyperborean spirit surviving in the bodies of humans.
In 1884, the Queen Victoria’s paranormal agent, Sir Edward Grey, interrupted the transfer of Cedu-Barra’s spirit into his new host body. For nearly a century Cedu-Barra had remained trapped in a dead body. (If you’ve been reading Frankenstein Underground this should seem really familiar.2)
My point is, this was supposed to be a simple mission. Instead it became the sort of mission few Bureau agents could handle. Abe’s fellow agents were killed almost immediately, so he found himself utterly alone.
Well, not entirely. Long ago, the people of Saint-Sēbastien had been suffering through a plague and prayed to Heaven for forgiveness. But Heaven did not hear their prayers, so they prayed to the sea instead. The sea sent them a little girl, a child of the sea, just as it had once done in the ancient cities of Leto and Babylon (in legends referred to as a “children of Dagon”3). The people of Saint-Sēbastien rededicated their church to the sea and were healed. Since then, there had always been a child of the sea on the island.
And the current child of the sea, an old witch, had the corpse with Cedu-Barra’s spirit trapped. As soon as the six Hyperborean spirits attacked, she sent the corpse into the island’s church to keep it safe. The old witch was killed shortly after, but her spirit lingered and assisted Abe in working magic that was able to stop Cedu-Barra.
Afterwards, Abe was told to leave, but he wouldn’t go until he was sure Cedu-Barra had been dealt with, so he went to the church of Saint-Sēbastien. As Abe stepped through the doors of the church, he saw a vision of the spirit that had been worshipped there, the spirit that had sent its children to Leto, Babylon, and Saint-Sēbastien…
All this unfolded in a story called Abe Sapien: The Drowning. I recommend going back and rereading this one, because it’s one of those stories with lots of connections to various elements of the Hellboy Universe. As more of these connections have become apparent in modern stories, this one is now an even better read than when it first came out.
But even with all that aside, it’s just an excellent Abe story. It showcases his strength as an agent. Abe is excellent at rapidly assessing a situation and taking swift, calculated action. When attacked by one of the six Hyperborean spirits, he knows to shoot their candles. Abe is a very different kind of agent to Hellboy, who would have managed to muddle through, beating the crap out of everything in sight.
But this story also showcases Abe’s frailty. He was never responsible for what happened in China, but Abe still feels guilty about it. And when his fellow agents are killed in Saint-Sēbastien, Abe blames himself. He doubts himself constantly, and these doubts manifest as visions of Hellboy, Liz, and Professor Bruttenholm, each questioning him and accusing him. In particular Liz points out that the agents that died were her friends.Continued below
In the short story B.P.R.D.: Casualties, set August 1981 (six months after The Drowning), Abe, Liz, and Agent Vaughn were investigating a werewolf incident in Minnesota. Vaughn didn’t follow instructions and nearly got himself killed, but Abe immediately blamed himself. He didn’t want to be responsible for the death of any more agents. And he still feels responsible for the deaths of Liz’s friends.
Throughout the eighties, Abe continued to demonstrate his skill as a paranormal investigator. In June 1982, he got rid of a nokken spirit that had been masquerading as a little boy by possessing his corpse (Abe Sapien: The Haunted Boy). In January 1983, Abe was sent to look into a case of people that were supposedly disappearing into Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, only to discover a nest of vampires (Abe Sapien: The Land of the Dead). And in August 1984, while others were panicking and shooting, Abe figured out how to deal with an animated dead Russian that climbed out of a submarine and onto the deck of his ship (Abe Sapien: The Abyssal Plain).
It’s a long way off… a really long way off (like over a decade away)… but someday Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. could reach the 1980s, and if it does, I’d love to see it explore Liz, Abe, Bruttenholm, Sal, Anastasia, and others…
OK, getting back to Abe, if you still have any doubts about his ability as an agent, I present to you Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest. Yes, Abe knows his stuff when it comes to the supernatural. He’s booksmart, he’s got great instincts for the paranormal, and he’s even capable of some witchcraft if need be (much like Professor Bruttenholm), but he’s also a hell of a fighter and that’s what this story showcases. Abe is damn hard to kill and can take a hell of a lot of punishment. This was shown again when Abe went up against Ogopogo, the lake monster (Abe Sapien: The Ogopogo), and numerous times since. He heals fast, and despite all the trauma he’s been through over the years, he doesn’t bear even a single scar on his body.
But Abe does something extra strange here. He decides to wear dark glasses, a fake beard, and a hat. He hadn’t covered himself up like this since his first missions in the early 1980s, so what’s going on here? I suppose if you’re going to interview a woman that may be working with frog monsters, perhaps parading an amphibious man in front of her is not a good tactic. But I think there’s more to it than that.
Abe had a bad feeling about these frogs right away, and he had a bad feeling about the house they were visiting… Cavendish Hall.
Does that name ring any bells? Captain Elihu Cavendish had been Langdon Caul’s captain for sixteen years. Abe may have had no conscious memory of it, but I think some dormant part of his mind did, and it manifested as a feeling of unease.Continued below
Later, when Abe saw the frog monsters, he admitted to himself that he felt some sort of kinship with them. On other occasions Abe has mentioned that the question of what he is is something that troubles him, and I believe in Seed of Destruction, part of the reason he’s wearing a disguise again is because of those fears. He was subconsciously retreating from himself.
This is only my theory though. In the comics, whatever Abe was going through during Seed of Destruction remains largely unsaid and unexplored.
During his investigation of Cavendish Hall, Abe stumbled across the body of Elihu Cavendish and was possessed by his spirit. I wonder if Elihu sensed Langdon Caul in him, if their connection from over a century earlier somehow made this possession possible, or if perhaps it was what drew Abe to finding him in the first place. However it happened, Elihu used Abe to attack Rasputin, the mad monk that had destroyed the Cavendish family line. Elihu threw a harpoon through Rasputin’s chest, which worked out rather well for Hellboy, Abe, and Liz, because at the time things were looking pretty grim for them, what with Rasputin raising Sadu-Hem and trying to free the Ogdru Jahad and all.4
Afterwards, Abe had no memory of his time while possessed by Elihu, though he would eventually bear the consequences for what had been done. Rasputin’s ghost remembered his killer, and three years later he appeared before Abe in Hellboy: Wake the Devil, and cursed him.
That last bit, spoken from the head of Father Nicholas Budenz, was the first time readers got a hint at the story behind Abe Sapien, and what it means exactly is still a big question.
Let’s get back to the direct aftermath of Seed of Destruction for a moment. This has been touched on in a pair of stories (Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Abe Sapien: Subconscious). Following Professor Bruttenholm’s funeral, Hellboy visited the church in East Bromwich, the place where he first appeared on Earth, where he had been found by Professor Bruttenholm on Christmas Eve 1944. Hellboy had never been there before, and it was where he had met his adoptive father, but it was also a place connected to a past he didn’t want to know about, a place connected to his most deep-seeded fears about himself.
Later, he wrote about what he saw there to Abe Sapien. As is usual for Hellboy, he tried to downplay it, but I find it touching that he trusted Abe and shared some of his deepest fears with him. You learn a lot about a character when you see how they handle grief and who they choose to share it with.
Slightly off topic, but I hope some day we’ll get a short story about Liz’s grief at this time too. She had already lost one family in her life, and then she lost another father, and her “brothers” were both keeping to themselves, grieving privately. Meanwhile, Liz’s power had been used by Rasputin and nearly released an Ogdru Hem on the world. I wonder how she dealt with that. I’d like to think Abe was there for her.
We’ve certainly seen Abe’s concern for Liz several times in the comics. In Hellboy: Almost Colossus Abe stayed by Liz’s side as she lay dying, refusing to believe she even can die. But then she did. Of course, Roger showed up later and brought her back at the cost of his own life, but for a little while there Abe thought she was gone.
Roger’s sacrifice here earned Abe’s loyalty, and in an act reminiscent of Hellboy saving Abe from the Bureau scientists, Abe ended up saving Roger from Dr. Roddel’s scalpels and microscopes and making a mess of the Bureau labs in the process.Continued below
While Abe trusted Roger, the Bureau’s funding bodies didn’t, so they had a bomb installed in him. The fallout from that rather stupid act nearly tore the Bureau’s special talents taskforce apart. Hellboy left the Bureau without even saying goodbye. (I can imagine this was all too familiar to Abe. It was probably very similar to the way things unfolded in 1979 after the China incident.)
Abe had struggled with fitting in at the Bureau at the best of times, always self-conscious of the way he smelt, having agents hum the Jaws theme when he was nearby, but putting a bomb in Roger crossed a major line. In the past he’d stayed at the Bureau because it was somewhere safe and Hellboy had made it feel like home, but after what they’d done to Roger, going anywhere seemed better than staying.
I’ve no doubt Abe would have left if he hadn’t had a vision of Liz in trouble. Liz had been on a sabbatical from the Bureau for the past two years, staying in a remote monastery,5 learning how to better control her power, to live with it instead of fighting it. Then she got kidnapped by the ancient Hyperborean slave race that lived in the Hollow Earth.
Abe, Roger, and Johann Kraus teamed up for the rescue mission. This was Johann’s first mission, and as they worked together, Abe came to realise that with Hellboy gone, he was had become their de facto leader. Now it was his job to make the Bureau feel like home. Eventually it was Liz that convinced Abe to stay with the B.P.R.D. when she decided to return. He had family there again, so he gave the organisation another shot.
A PREVIOUS LIFE
For a couple more years he worked at the Bureau with no major dramas. Then he got called into New Jersey where a lab had been studying a fungus they had found in the ruins of Cavendish Hall… a fungus that went on to possess a guy and turn several others into frog monsters. It turns out Sadu-Hem was still alive.
This was pretty poor timing for Abe. He’d been having dreams of bodies sinking into the ocean depths, filled with the words spoken by Father Budenz’s head. It was an unpleasant reminder that Rasputin’s curse still hung over him.
The Bureau tracked the down the Sadu-Hem fungus-man to Crab Point, Michigan, so they embarked on what would be an utter disaster of a mission. Their helicopter crashed upon arrival and the survivors were dragged into “The New Temple of Mysteries,” with pews full of people that had been turned into frog monsters. At the head of the church was Sadu-Hem, and by its side, a man that spoke for Sadu-Hem.
Before too long all hell broke loose as Liz set fire to the church and the frogs while Kate fought glowing green skeletons. Meanwhile Abe went off in pursuit of Sadu-Hem’s speaker. This man had worshipped Rasputin for a decade since the events of Cavendish Hall, and when Abe was alone, he attacked him with a speak, fulfilling Rasputin’s curse.
As Abe lay dying, he saw a vision…
Sorry, I couldn’t edit that down. This sequence is at the heart of Abe’s story, plus it’s one of the scenes that made me fall in love with guy Davis’s work.
So, recognise the guy in the diving suit? That’s Langdon Caul. You know, the human Abe was before he became Abe. In Abe’s vision he watched as Caul took the stone egg back to America. He watched the Oannes Society’s ceremony with the egg, and then the egg crumbling away, and then… he ceased to be a spectator.
After the two merged, Abe no longer witnessed this vision as an outsider, but from inside Caul’s body. Two separate entities had become one.
Abe was pulled from his vision as he was revived from his death. All things considered, he made a rather fast recovery, but what he had seen had changed him. For the first time he some idea what he might have been before he was found by the Bureau in 1978. And he wanted to know more.Continued below
Edith pulled Abe into a fantasy where he was Langdon again and she was alive once more. They could be together forever. But Abe couldn’t lose himself in the fantasy or hide from the truth. As he faced the truth, so did Edith, and at last she could be at rest.
Abe didn’t remember his life as Langdon, but he wanted to, so he took many of Langdon’s belongings with him back to his living quarters at the Bureau. He started dressing differently too, wearing long-sleeved shirts that couldn’t have been comfortable with fins on his arms.
He didn’t return to field work either. Instead Abe remained in headquarters, focusing on the research side of things. After all, Caul was a scientist… Abe seemed to be pushing the aspects of his personality that he decided were most Caul-like, almost as though he could become him again. He was lying to himself, and a part of him knew that, but another part had convinced him that the Bureau Agent he’d been for the last twenty-five years had been the lie.
Kate tried to talk him into returning to field work, but Abe only became more despondent. Kate was the one person that knew about what was really going on with Abe. Two years earlier he had told her they weren’t really close friends, but now she was his closest confidant. Being there for him at this time certainly brought those two closer together.
Roger had also tried to talk Abe into the field, insisting he wasn’t acting like himself anymore. This only angered Abe and made him more obstinate. And then Roger died.
This got Abe back in the field, but he still had Caul on his mind. He was slipping into depression, and though it was it was easy to point to Roger’s death as the culprit, he knew it wasn’t it.
Around this time Abe started to explore the other part of the vision he’d had while he had been dead… the stone egg. The Bureau had uncovered records of something similar in a town called Hallam, so Abe went to investigate. What he found I can’t say. That’s a story that hasn’t been told yet.
And then suddenly Abe found another lead to his past. He was sent Caul’s cigar case with a map inside, which led to an impromptu trip to Balikpapan, Indonesia. Interestingly, Captain Ben Daimio came with him. These two barely knew each other before Roger’s death since Ben joined after Abe had stopped doing field work. But, after Roger’s death, the two were in the field side by side and Abe helped Ben deal with his own feelings of guilt in the role he played in Roger’s death. And I guess they grew closer, because when Abe decided to go to Indonesia, he asked Ben to come with him. I figure he needed the support of a friend, but one he could rely on not to pry either. I guess he needed someone like Hellboy.
In the night, Abe was visited by a young girl who gave him a note containing co-ordinates. Abe set off straight away, leaving behind Ben, for a small island nearby. And that’s when he found some cyborgs.
These cyborgs new him immediately as Langdon Caul, and were convinced that the spirit of Oannes flowed through his body. They believed that it was the will of the Ancients (their name for the pre-human Hyperborean people) that had brought Caul back to them. Looking through their home, Abe soon discovered the truth about them.
These had been the men that had been with Abe when he had been changed from Caul by the spirit in the stone egg. And they were happy about this change. They had celebrated while he had been stuck in a tube.Continued below
The Oannes Society cyborgs assured Abe that had roles been reversed, he would not have acted differently. The spirit of Oannes had been made flesh. That was a cause for celebration.
Abe also found Panya while exploring the house. She was a living ancient Egyptian mummy, kept prisoner by the Oannes Society because they thought she was Naunet, a deity of the primordial watery abyss. Panya dismissed this claim as nonsense.6
It was Panya that had brought Abe to the island, using her mental powers to control a mentally challenged girl. The Oannes Society had no idea. She’d also been using the girl to contact Ben Daimio, to show him the locations of several devices set up by the Oannes Society to create tidal waves.
You see, the Oannes Society had a plan. They were growing bodies, perfect physical specimens, to be “spiritual reservoirs.” The end of the world was coming and no one could stop it. The Oannes Society thought they could save the spirit of humanity though. They were going to create tidal waves to devastate Eastern Asian coastlines. Millions would die, but their spirits would be guided into the four bodies they had made, to be gods over the next great age, each body a living nation of humanity.
And all this had been Langdon Caul’s idea.
Abe had wanted to be Langdon Caul, but upon seeing who Caul had been clearly for the first time, he suddenly preferred being Abe much more.
I have to say, Garden of Souls is my favourite B.P.R.D. story, and I suppose a big part of that is seeing Abe come to life again, raging against the man he’d once been. He utterly destroys the Oannes Society’s plans. He blew up Dameron, cracked open Ensner’s cyborg body and left him to die, and hacked Edward Sundbourne to bits (the only one that didn’t have a cyborg body… he’d upgraded to one of the spiritual reservoir bodies).
Only McWhirter escaped, though Abe didn’t know it. He thought he’d been killed in the explosion that killed Dameron, but actually McWhirter had escaped in a certain familiar submarine…
But it wasn’t the wendigo doing the killing. It was Ben thanks to a curse that turned him into a were-jaguar.7
Abe didn’t see Ben as anything more than an innocent victim though. While there were those in the B.P.R.D. that wanted to find and kill him, Abe wanted to help him. So Abe led the search mission, determined that he would be there when Ben was found. Yet I think he was also readying himself to kill Ben if what he found was no longer his friend.
He didn’t find Ben though, and soon he was pulled into another mission involving Memnan Saa,8 the mysterious man that had been appearing in Liz’s dreams. This is coming into the end of the Plague of Frogs cycle so with each new issue things kept getting worse for the Bureau. But, throughout all of this, Abe was an excellent leader in a way we hadn’t seen since Hollow Earth. It really felt like we had him back. Sure, everything was falling apart around him, but Abe, he was going great.
Well, kind of. I mean, obviously you kidnap Liz, and he’s going to get angry. You’re talking about one of his best friends and adoptive sister.Continued below
Oh, and just to make him extra cheerful, he went on a mission into the Hollow Earth, where he lost Liz again, then got captured by the Black Flame who had this news waiting for him…
Now, Abe denied this and told the Black Flame he was crazy, but the truth was, this was something Abe had feared since Seed of Destruction. And after everything that had been happening at the Bureau, it didn’t take much for some of Abe’s fellow agents to think maybe Abe was just another Ben Daimio waiting to happen.
One of those agents, certainly the most vocal about it, was Andrew Devon.9 As far as he was concerned, the Bureau should at least investigate the Black Flame’s claims rather than dismiss them on the basis of Abe’s character. Abe’s character wasn’t the issue for Devon.
But for Abe, someone that had felt like he’d been apart from everyone else as long as he could remember, this was the breaking point. And out came angry Abe. Thing is, as angry as Abe was, I still think he handled things pretty well. Given the pressure he was under, he was justifiably angry.
Oh, and the apocalypse had begun. That’s kind of a major thing. I should probably mention that. Worldwide disasters killed millions and an Ogdru Hem had taken up residence in the Salton Sea. So Devon’s claims had that extra string of associating Abe with all this horror.
Throughout all of this, Abe hadn’t given up looking for Ben. And in B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: New World, Abe abandoned his mission and found him in the woods of British Columbia. Abe didn’t call in the Bureau or anything. He simply talked to his friend, and offered to help in any way he could.
I think Abe needed to have faith that Ben could be something other the monster he’d been cursed to become. He needed to have hope for Ben, so that he could have some for himself.
And Abe made the wrong choice.
No, Ben himself wasn’t a monster, but he wasn’t stronger than his curse either. Abe wasn’t around to see it, but Daimio did end up killing many more people. The people that didn’t trust Ben out there alone were right. He was dangerous. Having faith in Ben’s better nature was not enough.
So what about Abe? Devon may be a bit of an ass at times, but he could be right about Abe. And by not considering the possibility, Abe could set in motion events that will ultimately do more harm than good.
Which brings me to a certain sixteen-year-old called Fenix Espejo. Fenix knew things. She knew when Houston was about to turn into a volcano, she knew when hammerheads were going to attack, or earthquakes were going to hit… and she knew something about Abe that terrified her so much, she did this…
And I’ll wrap this up in January 2016.
1Hecate: I’ve written a Hell Notes column about her…
2Immortal Hyperborean Spirits: This should sound familiar to those of you reading Frankenstein Underground. In the fourth issue, the overlap between it and Abe Sapien: The Drowning is particularly noticeable.
3Child of Dagon: On occasion, Abe himself has been referred to as a child of Dagon.
4Rasputin and Sadu-Hem: Rasputin was a big problem throughout the 1990s. He found Sadu-Hem and woke it, and in so doing set in motion the events that would lead to the end of the world. After all, Sadu-Hem was meant to be the first Ogdru Hem buried in the ground to awaken before the end of the world.
5The Monks of Agartha: These guys claimed to be direct descendants of the first humans, spiritually connected to the Hyperboreans. And that outrageous claim actually turned out to be true.
6Panya/Naunet: Panya probably isn’t Naunet, but given her reputation for deception, I still have some doubt.
7Captain Benjamin Daimio: I really need to write a Hell Notes about this guy some time.
8Martin Gilfryd/Memnan Saa: Oh, and a Hell Notes about this guy too.
9Andrew Devon: Oh, I’ve actually written a bit about this guy here.