The Hellboy Universe hasn’t always been the sprawling series it is today. Once it had been a single series, written and drawn by Mike Mignola alone. Then, at the end of Hellboy: Conqueror Worm, Hellboy left the B.P.R.D. and went on to have adventures by himself. But what about Abe, Liz, Roger, and Kate? It seemed a shame to dismiss them completely, and so B.P.R.D. spun off into its own series. And with it, came Johann Kraus.
Johann was the first major character to debut outside the pages of Hellboy, but more than that, for readers that had never read Hellboy, he was their proxy. It was through Johann Kraus joining the B.P.R.D. that new readers were introduced to this world. He asked the questions new readers might ask, such as where Hellboy was and when he was going to meet him. He was even the focus of the early three-page comic made to promote the series. Despite being a bag of ectoplasm, he was the character new readers were supposed to relate to. He was their medium.
Spoiler Warning. I’m covering all things Johann related from B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth to the arc that wrapped up last month, B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Flesh and Stone.
NEITHER LIVING NOR DEAD
In Chengdou, China, something was unfolding that would have terrible consequences across the spiritual plane. A demon was released and possessed the entire town. The boy that Johann had been speaking to became a conduit through which energy flowed from the event in Chengdou to Johann and to Heinrich Wagner’s family.
When police arrived on the scene, they couldn’t make any sense of the matter, so they called in Dr. Izar Hoffman, the head of the B.P.R.D.’s psychic division.1 Hoffman immediately saw what the others could not, the spirit of Johann Kraus in the room. He had been outside his body when the energy blast had hit, and so he had survived it, but he had no body to return to.
Dr. Hoffman offered to help, but Johann was unwilling. When the blast had hit, it hadn’t just killed his guests, it had destroyed their very souls, and Johann was overwhelmed with guilt for his part in it. He felt he didn’t deserve any help from the B.P.R.D., that perhaps it would be better if he let his spirit dissipate and become a ghost, haunting his home forever, and generally feeling sorry for himself.
Dr. Hoffman tried to convince him otherwise, but Johann left abruptly, drawn to a graveyard by the unrest of a recently dead man. Johann tried to comfort the spirit and guide him to the afterlife, but he was interrupted by the arrival of a strange man called Wieland Lorst.
Lorst told the spirit that though he was dead, he needn’t stay that way. This seemed far more appealing to him than Johann’s offer to guide him to the afterlife, so the spirit followed Lorst back to his home. Once inside, Lorst revealed himself to be a demon, and consumed the spirit’s immortal soul. When Johann learned what had happened, he tried to kill Lorst, but as an insubstantial spirit, there was nothing he could do to him.
So Johann returned to Dr. Hoffman and the B.P.R.D. created a containment suit for him. Dr. Hoffman also offered him a place in the B.P.R.D., which Johann accepted, but not before he settled another matter. In his new containment suit, he returned to the home of Wieland Lorst. What happened there was left a mystery, but presumably Johann succeeded in killing Lorst.Continued below
This is very revealing about Johann’s character. Johann is a psychic medium, and spent his life helping people. When he had been responsible for the deaths of his clients, it the prospect of helping others that once again gave Johann the will to go on.
It’s also worth noting that Johann committed to the act of killing a demon without second thought or hesitation. This showed very early on that he understood what needed to be done, and his willingness to do it. However, he didn’t ask for Dr. Hoffman or the B.P.R.D.’s help. He went to confront Lorst alone. He had made his previous confrontation personal, but masked it with the rationalisation that he was doing what had to be done.
AGENT JOHANN KRAUS
Johann’s willingness to go to such lengths to help Abe and Roger save their friend quickly forged a strong bond, especially with Roger. He was also discovering the strengths of his new form in this story. He had already died, sort of, and now he found himself in a state where he was practically impervious to any kind of physical assault, so without any combat experience, he had no reservation throwing himself into what would normally be extremely dangerous situations. He could afford to be reckless with himself, because most of the consequences had been rendered null by his current state.
This isn’t always a good thing though. Sometimes Johann forgets to be cautious. Despite his unusual way of existing, he is still mortal. In B.P.R.D.: Born Again, the Bureau was called to Chicago to investigate a haunting by some kind of prehistoric monster. Upon finding its bones, Johann immediately used his ectoplasm to speak with the creature, but soon found he couldn’t control it. The creature hijacked his ectoplasm, and even began using it to give itself a physical form.
This was something Johann had never encountered before (in fact, it was his first encounter with an Ogdru Hem spirit, although a very, very weak one). Things would have ended very badly for him if Liz hadn’t been able to burn out the creature. This is something that’s a great danger to Johann. His ectoplasm can be used by outside entities, sometimes beyond his ability to stop.
By 2004 Johann had settled into the B.P.R.D. completely. He was simply a part of the team. And yet, still alone. Johann’s unique state of existence cut him off from the rest of humanity. He didn’t eat, he didn’t sleep, he couldn’t touch things, he didn’t have a face… He handled it well enough, but these things were certainly changing him.Continued below
B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs showed another side of Johann. He had always been a brave agent, but it was easy to be brave when nothing could really harm him. In this story though, he came up against frog monsters and Sadu-Hem, things that could hurt his ectoplasm, that could cause him to lose consciousness, to banish him at will, and possibly worse. Yet in the face of such things, Johann was not cowardly; he was defiant.
In B.P.R.D.: The Dead, big changes came. The Bureau was being militarised to better fight frog monsters, which led to Captain Benjamin Daimio joining the B.P.R.D., new uniforms, and a relocation to Colorado. Johann seemed to take it all in his stride though. He was the newest member of the group, and the relocation didn’t seem to bother him that much… that is until he arrived. Then he started speaking German while by himself, running around frantically, hearing sounds no one else could hear. This eventually reached a crisis point…
Although Johann himself didn’t know what was going on just yet, it led to the discovery of a secret basement in the B.P.R.D.’s new headquarters, a part of the facility that had been sealed off since an accident in the 1950s. Inside, the Bureau found Gunter Eis, a former Nazi scientist that had been working for the U.S. government since the end of the Second World War.
Johann didn’t show much interest in Gunter. He was far more interested in the secret basement and its archives. Following scratches messages reading “vorsicht” (“Beware” in German), Johann was led to records from the Second World War, and gradually became more and more erratic, behaving less like himself, and working on building some weird device while talking to ghosts.
These ghosts were Gunter’s former colleagues, fellow German scientists that had been recruited by the U.S. government following the war. They were killed back in the 1950s when they had tripped an anti-tampering mechanism in a device created by Gunter. Apparently Gunter had been continuing work on a personal project he’d begun while in the employ of the Nazis…
The 1950s ghost scientists knew Gunter’s device was dangerous, so they didn’t pass into the afterlife. Instead, they stayed and worked on the problem until they figured out how to deal with it. All they needed was a body to set it in motion… which is what they found in Johann. He became the host of five ghosts, working frantically to stop Eis before it was too late (hence all the random German gibberish and not behaving very Johann-like).
The scientists managed it only just in time, averting a major crisis for the Bureau. Though Johann doesn’t usually like having his ectoplasm hijacked, on this particular occasion he didn’t seem to mind.
Johann was a major asset during the frog war. He studied the frogs’ religious sites, worked endlessly on cracking their written language, and even communed with the spirits of their dead. On one such occasion, he even got a glimpse into the nature of the spirit world of the frogs.
The ghosts refused to leave him though, and Johann soon noticed their corrupting influence affecting his colleagues.
Very reluctantly, Johann did what he would have done with human spirits, and took the frog spirits to the brink of the physical plane. There he conducted a séance to help them find their afterlife beyond. What he found was unlike any heaven he had glimpsed before. The hell-ish place he saw at the brink of the spiritual very nearly took him along with the frogs. He barely escaped a fate worse than death.Continued below
Speaking of death…
Roger’s death was seismic in its impact on the comic and its characters. Johann’s reaction was profoundly different than the others though, because while they were grieving a dead friend, Johann didn’t see Roger as dead. Johann insisted his friend’s spirit was still alive and could be saved.
But Roger didn’t want to come back. He didn’t like how easy killing had become for him, and he liked the peace he’d found in his “death.” Finally, Johann had to let his friend go in one of the most beautiful sequences in the entire line of Hellboy books.
I always loved the way Johann respected Roger’s choice here. He wasn’t angry with him, he didn’t try to talk him out of it. He could have, of course, and maybe he would have succeeded, but he recognised this was best for Roger. He could be at peace at last.
Afterwards, Johann buried himself in work, in particular with all the records from the Bureau’s secret basement. Around this time cards bearing the Lobster’s claw symbol began to appear, though Johann didn’t seem to notice them. He was far more interested in the files on an Axis agent, the Crimson Lotus, the grandmother of Captain Daimio.
When Johann asked Daimio about it, he became angry and defensive. Daimio’s reaction only deepened Johann’s curiosity, and no doubt he would have continued to look into it further had he not suddenly become very distracted…
CUT OFF FROM HUMANITY
On a prior mission, Abe Sapien had acquired an artificial body grown by the Oannes Society. With no soul, it was perfect for Johann. It was quite an impressive body too, with almost superhuman strength. After living so long as a ghost in a containment suit, Johann was overwhelmed by the experience. He started to shirk his duties in favour of food and pornography, and eventually hightailed it from headquarters for a night out on the town.
He had chosen to leave at a very poor time. Captain Daimio went all were-jaguar2 on everyone and there was blood and carnage… fortunately Johann did eventually get back to base just in time to save Kate. However, in the process, were-jaguar Daimio ripped out his new body’s throat.
Here’s where it gets really weird though. As Johann’s ectoplasm exited the dead body, it became the Lobster, the notorious vigilante from the 1930s. The Lobster ran into the infirmary, shot ghost bullets at an unconscious Liz Sherman (freeing her from the clutches of Memnan Saa3), and then turned back into Johann again. How the Lobster’s spirit became connected to Johann’s, I have no idea. No doubt, he stirred up something while looking through the Bureau’s second sub-basement, but beyond that I can’t say.
Johann had other matters on his mind though. He found himself once again living as a ghost in a bag. To say Johann took this hard doesn’t even begin to cover it. He was torn from a full human life a second time, and this time he fully understood the magnitude of his loss. It wasn’t like the first time when he had been excited about joining the B.P.R.D. and exploring his new abilities. He was condemned again to a world without sensation.
I think something in Johann broke at that moment. The Johann prior to getting the Oannes body and the Johann after the Oannes body are markedly different. His attention became much narrower, focused on himself.
Now I’m going to take a detour into Johann’s past, because this is an important aspect of his character. Before Johann joined the Bureau, back when he lived in Munich and he still had a body and a career as a psychic medium, he had a man came to him, Major Pavao Delic. The Major wished to speak to his recently deceased wife, Senka. Johann arranged for a séance and found the spirit of Senka… and Johann was immediately attracted to her.
Normally, this would have been a single session to allow the lovers to say goodbye, but Johann encouraged further sessions, prompting Senka to say things she couldn’t say in life. He lied to Major Delic, telling him Senka had more she wanted to say, and he lied to Senka, telling her there was more her husband wanted to hear. In this way Johann grew closer to Senka and learned many things personal to her. He was obsessed with her.Continued below
At the time Johann knew what he was doing was wrong. He knew he’d crossed a line, but I’m not entirely sure he knew when he’d crossed the line. I think for him that’s a little blurry. He has very poor self-control when it comes to denying his emotional needs, and he’s far too comfortable manipulating others to reach his own ends.
These darker elements of his personality took hold again after the loss of his Oannes body. Though Johann was aware that Daimio was just as much a victim as any he had killed during his rampage as the were-jaguar, Johann held Daimio personally responsible for the loss of his body. He wanted Daimio to die, and he wanted to be the one to do it.
Johann had lost his new body, but there was still one more Oannes body remaining. It was an under-developed body, but it was a hope, and he clung to it. He spent most of his spare time sitting by the body in its gestation tube, and the rest researching Daimio. He even tried to convince Panya to use her abilities to find Daimio, a ploy Panya immediately saw through, much to Johann’s fury. Apparently he doesn’t like it when he’s caught in such a blatant act of manipulation.
In B.P.R.D.: The Warning, the Bureau was called to Munich. Johann and Abe soon uncovered a major problem: caverns beneath the city full of Hyperborean war machines, built by the subterrean race they had encountered in Hollow Earth. Before they could do anything to stop them, the machines were activated and rampaged through the city. Johann had to watch as the city where he had lived most of his life was utterly ruined.
Johann was instrumental in stopping the war machines. As he had in Hollow Earth, he learned the location of the machines’ power source from the ghosts of the dead subterranean creatures, and when they found it, he possessed the carcass of an enormous monster and fought the awaiting subterranean army. It was a moment that showed how powerful Johann can be, but it also scared some of his fellow agents.
Despite Johann’s efforts, it was too late to save Munich. Before the Bureau left, Johann paid a visit to the street where he had once lived and said goodbye.
In The Black Goddess, the Bureau located Thadrethes, the city fortress of Memnan Saa. They brought an army to the city’s doorstep, expecting to fight Saa’s army, but instead they found themselves uniting to fight against frog monsters and the subterranean race.
So Johann took this as an excuse to leave. If he wasn’t wanted, he had no intention of staying. Even still, he felt guilty for abandoning them in battle, but he tried to silence his guilt with rationalisation. He hadn’t been sent on this mission to fight, he’d been sent to save Liz Sherman from Memnan Saa, a task was just as difficult as the soldiers’. The truth is he didn’t want to be in the battle, so he did what he wanted and rationalised it after he’d already made his choice.Continued below
His journey into Thadrethes did not go unnoticed. He was soon found by one of Memnan Saa’s monks. Though the man was unarmed, Johann didn’t hesitate to kill him. His reaction to this murder was very troubling…
Afterwards, the Lobster remained, unable to return to Johann. He was stuck. I’m not sure why. Perhaps robbed of a chance to strike at Saa, his spirit became trapped. Johann was conscious throughout all of this, but he had no control whatsoever, a passenger in his own ectoplasm. The Bureau eventually got him back to normal4 and since then, Johann has had no further Lobster incidents.
As you probably already know, Panya has the ability to possess feeble minds, so the implication here is that Panya was watching Johann. It was never made explicit though. When the pelimonkey stole some keys, Johann certainly made that leap, accusing Panya of trying to free all her pets from their enclosure for some nefarious end. Panya belittled Johann’s claims, making him look more than a little foolish in front of Kate, especially considering he was supposed to be on monitor duty at the time.
Shortly after, a volcano appeared in Houston overnight, which freaked out everyone and had them all scrambling about trying to deal with it. With limited agents at the Bureau’s disposal, Johann was left back at base with no supervision, so he of course dismissed his monitor duty and had a security panel lock installed at the entrance to laboratory with the Oannes body in it. You know, just taking care of the important things. Keeping an eye on the disasters all around the world could wait, apparently.
Meanwhile, Panya didn’t like Johann’s accusations, so she made the Oannes body move, letting Johann think the body was finally starting to develop. Don’t mess with Panya. She holds a grudge.
Johann had also started spying on Abe. He knew Abe and Daimio were close, and had installed spyware on his laptop. If Abe found Daimio, Johann wanted to be sure he knew about it.
With all the crises of Hell on Earth, the Bureau was frequently short-staffed, so Johann found himself in the strange position of travel to Moscow with Kate to meet with the Russia’s Special Sciences Service6. After all, when someone asks to talk face to face with the B.P.R.D., the faceless man doesn’t usually get the job. In this case though, Johann was exactly the person the S.S.S. wanted. While Kate was kept busy with bureaucrats, the S.S.S. Director, Iosif Nichayko, took Johann aside for a private conversation.
Iosif, like Johann, was stuck halfway between life and death, requiring a suit to keep existing. He saw Johann as a kind of brother. He also knew about Johann’s abilities, how he could raise spirits through his ectoplasm, so Iosif brought him to a man possessed with an Ogdru spirit.
Johann had tried to commune with an Ogdru spirit before. I mentioned it before, near the beginning of this article, the creature in Chicago from Born Again. It hadn’t gone well. If Liz hadn’t been present, it could have ended with Johann becoming the host to an Ogdru spirit and rampaging through Chicago. However, Iosif seemed more confident in Johann’s abilities and challenged him to try again. Suddenly Johann had something to prove to himself, so he recklessly agreed to Iosif’s proposal.Continued below
Johann surprised himself when he found his will greater than the Ogdru spirit’s. Bolstered by his success, he then agreed to deal with a far stronger Ogdru spirit. Iosif and Johann made their plans and said nothing to Kate.
Johann led a group of Russian soldiers underground to confront the Ogdru Hem. These men were going simply to be corpses for Johann. As they were killed, Johann used their bodies as vessels to get closer to the nest of the Ogdru Hem. While the living men could be corrupted by the influence of the Ogdru Hem, Johann was invulnerable.
When he got to the Ogdru Hem, he activated a nuclear device, and blew it to bits. Meanwhile Johann’s ectoplasm was unharmed, and he drifted from the blast site to a new suit that had been prepared for him by Iosif. The plan had gone off without a hitch.
A NEW SUIT
He had completely gone over Kate’s head on this mission, and he wasn’t even remotely sorry. He even said to her, “It’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.” More and more, Johann was doing what he wanted, when he wanted.
There were a few surprises with Johann’s new suit. He started to sleep, he even had a dream. It was a memory, a conversation he’d once had with Daimio, but it quickly turned into a nightmare as his ectoplasm was taken over by some outside contaminant. Considering how close Johann came to being overtaken by Ogdru spirits in Russia, I’d say there was some stuff going on in his subconscious that he wasn’t dealing with.
Shortly after getting back to B.P.R.D. headquarters in Colorado, Johann was put on a mission to British Columbia with Carla Giarocco. However, he never met up with Carla and her team at the rendezvous point. Instead he decided he’d go hunting for Daimio.
If Johann had been there with his stolen mystical knife, things could have been different. Perhaps it all could have ended there.
Johann was remorseful for abandoning his post, and when he set out to find Daimio again, it wasn’t with thoughts of revenge on his mind. he’d come to realise what a poison his revenge had been. He’d finally let it go, and wished only to stop the were-jaguar’s killing. He tracked down Daimio, and confronted him while possessing a corpse, the knife in hand.
Johann put up a good fight. He managed to stab Daimio with the knife, but his corpse body was torn apart before he do much more. He resumed the battle in the body of a dead moose, until it too was torn apart.
Words can’t do this fight justice, but trust me, the were-jaguar fighting the dead moose sequence has to be seen to be believed. B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Long Death. Check it out.
As for Daimio, he did die that night, though that’s not Johann’s story. Johann found Daimio’s corpse the next morning. I can’t say how Johann felt about this. He is faceless after all, and he didn’t say anything, but I like to think he was sad his friend had died, and relieved that he was finally free.
Following Carla Giarocco’s report on the mission, Johann was suspended from field duty. He had it coming, but for what it’s worth, he was genuinely remorseful. The death of Daimio had changed him for the better, even if it had been a catastrophe for the Bureau. Johann focused on his duties, and no longer visited the Oannes body.Continued below
Then Peter, the lab tech looking after the Oannes body, discovered that Zinco Industries may have a solution to the body’s developmental issues. Peter spoke to Johann and Kate, and a meeting was arranged with someone from the company. Zinco had its own designs on the Oannes body,7 though they certainly weren’t letting on that. The Zinco representative let Kate think the meeting went terribly, but agreed to at least look into developing the body.
Johann was happy to have this chance, even if it was a slim one.
Johann started to show a great deal more maturity at this point. He was aware his job required sacrifice, but he didn’t resent it anymore. It was a cost worth paying if he could help save the world. The change in Johann did not go unnoticed.
The Chicago rescue mission was a disaster. The team’s helicopter crashed a few days’ walk outside of Chicago. Despite his best efforts, the agents under Johann’s command didn’t trust him, especially Agent Enos. He made them uncomfortable. He wasn’t one of them. This is a recurring element in Johann’s stories, which has become more prominent over time, but there’s nothing Johann can really do about it. Sometimes he tries to reason with his fellow agents, explaining that he understands how they feel, but it only ever seems to piss them off and make the gulf between them larger.
In B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Reign of the Black Flame, Johann in one of the teams that infiltrated New York after it had been cut off from the rest of the world for a year. Yet again, they forgot it is a terrible idea to have Johann on watch.
Seriously, why do they keep doing this? He’s absolutely terrible at it.
New York was the home of Zinco headquarters, so Johann had a small hope that he would find the Oannes body. He had no way of knowing that it had become the Black Flame, or that when Iosif found out he went on a vengeful rampage that nearly cost him his life. It was all done in the service of the one he calls “brother.”
Johann made himself even more unpopular this arc. When the mission was falling apart, he called for a full retreat, choosing to leave Liz behind. It was the right call to make, though. It seems his lot in life to make unpopular decisions, especially if it’s a decision Fenix or Enos won’t approve of.
Especially with Enos, Johann (or “Jo Ann” as Enos calls him) has a reputation as a bit of a buzzkill.
Enos wasn’t very good at following orders, but Johann saw potential in him as a leader. He gave him the chance to prove himself in B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Flesh and Stone. And he didn’t do too bad at it either. Ultimately, he decided it wasn’t for him, but it did foster a grudging respect in him for Johann. It may have even kick started a friendship, or at least a grudging respect.
And Johann needs friends. Again and again we’ve been shown how the human agents treat him differently. In B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Grind, Johann only made a small appearance, but it was an important one. It was a reminder that while Johann is cut off other humans in many ways, he is still a human in that suit of his. Just like the man he had been in life, Johann still wanted to help, and he was the only one willing to listen to a barrister in Santa Fe. Johann sitting alone in a coffee shop is one of my favourite images in B.P.R.D. It speaks so much about who he is and why he’s a character worth caring about.Continued below
The upcoming arc, Nowhere, Nothing, Never, is a big one for Johann. That gulf between him and his fellow agents is taking it’s toll on Johann, and he’s approaching a breaking point…
This one was supposed to come out last week, but I fell behind, so I’m taking a break next month. Hell Notes will return in June with the next installment of the three-part Abe Sapien piece. Don’t forget to pick up B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Nowhere, Nothing, Never tomorrow. I’m really digging this arc, and I can’t wait for you all to read it too. Oh, and don’t forget to check out Archie versus Predator #1 as well. There’s something special in there for Hellboy fans.
1Dr. Izar Hoffman: Formerly the head of the B.P.R.D.’s psychic division. He shows up primarily in the 1990s stories and retired from the B.P.R.D. in the early years of the Plague of Frogs cycle.
2Captain Benjamin Daimio / the were-jaguar: It’s crazy to think I’ve been writing this column for over two years now and I still haven’t talked about this. I will some day, I swear. This once one of the most iconic plotlines from the Plague of Frogs cycle. You can read all about it in B.P.R.D.: Killing Ground.
3Memnan Saa: Another character that needs a Hell Notes all of his own some day. He’s got a complicated history stretching back to the Nineteenth Century to the end of the Plague of Frogs cycle. Short version, he was a guy that was hell-bent on saving the world and needed Liz Sherman to do it. His methods were a bit questionable though.
4The Lobster possessing Johann: I wrote about this incident in further detail in a previous Hell Notes.
5Pelimonkey: A pelican and monkey hybrid creature created by the Oannes Society.
6The Special Sciences Service: I wrote a Hell Notes about this organisation a while back.
7Zinco’s plans for the Oannes body: A body for the Black Flame.