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Hell Notes: The Fiery Elizabeth Sherman

By | August 23rd, 2013
Posted in Annotations | 11 Comments
Logo by Tim Daniel

With B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Lake of Fire out this week, we finally see the return of Liz Sherman. True, she never’s been completely gone, but since B.P.R.D. King of Fear concluding mid 2010, her appearances have been few and far between. Damn it, it’s good to have her back.

Please note, this column contains spoilers for those that have not yet read up to and including B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Return of the Master.

Agent Elizabeth Anne Sherman was introduced to readers April 1st, 1994, in the second issue of Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, her painful backstory laid out within a few pages of her first appearance. Right away she came across as a person haunted. And how could she not? What happened to her when she was only eleven stuck with her and defined her. And no wonder either. After the incident that killed her family, Liz was kept in solitary containment, afraid of hurting anyone else, while also afraid of being alone. Things were pretty tough until Hellboy came along.

From B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth #2

William tries to comfort his sister
For a while, Liz didn’t even remember what had happened, and no one was telling her. It wasn’t until she was visited by her family in a dream turned nightmare that she was finally able to acknowledge what had happened. As traumatic as it was, it was her first step towards moving on. In 1974, at age twelve, she became a ward of the B.P.R.D., beginning a long period of being observed by scientists and taking plenty of pills.

By 1976, Liz was really only talking to Hellboy, and spending her time reading things like Famous Monsters of Filmland. While Professor Bruttenholm thought Liz needed normal human interaction, Hellboy was of the opinion a little ghost hunting would be fun for her. It turns out they were both right. When Liz tagged along with the Professor on a field trip to Massachusetts, she met a boy called Teddy that pulled her out of her shell a bit, and even got her talking about how she accidentally killed her family. He also joined her when she decided to solve the mysterious witch hauntings on her own. Things didn’t exactly go to plan, but it gave her a glimpse of a future at the Bureau. As she observes to Abe several years later, “You see me getting an office job?“

From Wake the Devil
That’s not to say things went smoothly as a Bureau Agent. Liz repeatedly quit and rejoined the Bureau. She was given simple cases, such as cattle mutilations, so as not to trigger an episode. The heavier stuff fell to Hellboy, Abe Sapien, or other agents. She had demonstrated she had a passion for this stuff at fourteen years of age, yet she was never trusted to deal with it.

Then Rasputin entered the picture. During the Cavendish Hall incident of May, 1994, he siphoned off Liz’s power to strengthen an Ogdru Hem called Sadu-Hem. Liz was saved and turned her flame loose on the monk, but she had been used brutally. So three years later, when she saw an opportunity to be rid of her power, she took it.

The homunculus, later named Roger by Hellboy, drank deeply from her power, and from it gained life. A B.P.R.D. Agent, Bud Waller, was forced to shoot Liz in the arm to get her to break the connection, provoking a fit of rage from Roger, who murdered Waller before escaping. After the encounter, though there was nothing physically wrong with her, Liz began to die. Her doctor said it was as if something invisible yet necessary to her survival had been removed.

For Roger, his awakening had been a savage one, which is strange considering how kind and childlike we readers know him to be. In later B.P.R.D. stories it is observed that Roger is a bit of a blank slate and tends to cobble his identity together out of those he surrounds himself with. When Roger was found in the alchemist’s secret chamber, he had almost no personality. However, he acted in defence of Liz when he awoke, and when Hellboy tracked him down eight days later, Roger displayed compassion, empathy, and regret, to the point that he was willing to give the power that gave him life back to Liz.

Continued below

I think Roger turned out the way he did because of Liz. Through the life-force he absorbed, she was the first person to make an impression on him, and it forged his moral centre. Over time others such as Hellboy, Abe, Johann, and Captain Daimio, would have a huge effect on him, but I think at his heart he and Liz shared a connection that ran far deeper. When Roger died years later in B.P.R.D.: The Black Flame, Liz moved into Roger’s room and stayed there for the rest of her time at the Bureau. I think she was more wounded by his death than any of the others.

For me, this is the most heart-breaking sequence in these comics to date

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to Liz getting her life-force back from Roger. She had spent her whole life hating her ability, and now she was faced with the grim reality that she couldn’t live without it, so Liz went on a leave of absence from the Bureau to seek a way to control it. Her search led her to Agartha, a monastery in the Ural Mountains, above the Arctic Circle. For the next two years she studied, learning not to suppress her flame, but to accept it as a part of her. She gained a level of control far beyond anything she had before.

Her training came to an abrupt end when “the Servants of the Left Hand” showed up, slaughtered all the monks of Agartha, and stole her spirit to power their ancient Hyperborean machines and a Hyperborean sword-like device. Of course Abe, Roger, and new-guy Johann Kraus came to rescue her and all was well. This was only Liz’s fourth appearance in the comics, and it was the third time she had had her power taken and spent the rest of the story incapacitated until being rescued (and considering Wake the Devil and Almost Colussus covered a single story arc concerning her, it’s really three out of three). Sure, in B.P.R.D.: The Soul of Venice she got to set some bats on fire, but again in B.P.R.D.: Night Train she was kidnapped and in need of rescue. She just never really got to do very much in the early days.

Then along came B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs. I love this mini for many reasons, not least of which is that in this story Liz steps up and becomes a fully-realised character. She wasn’t just the victim anymore. Liz kicks arse.

It’s incredibly satisfying to see her so confident and in control of her abilities. And her teammates recognise this about her too. When Kate is in danger, Abe doesn’t say, “You stay here, I’ll save Kate!” He trusts Liz to do the job on her own, even though there’s a town full of frog monsters out there. This is the same person who was relegated to the easy missions years earlier. Despite her rather impressive efforts, some frogs make it out of this story alive, beginning years of fighting frogs and some very big changes for the Bureau.

With Abe out of commission, Captain Daimio stepped in to fill the role of leader and bring with him all his military expertise. Liz and Daimio got off on the wrong foot right from the get go with her calling him “Captain Zombie” before realising he was only in the next room. Despite assurances that Daimio wouldn’t change anything, the Bureau was relocated to new headquarters in Colorado by the end of the day, and shortly after they found a crazy Nazi scientists locked in a secret basement. You know, the usual. The back and forth between Liz and Daimio in B.P.R.D.: The Dead is a lot of fun. This was John Arcudi’s debut story, and it’s clear he was determined to make it a fun one.

Enjoy the fun while it lasts. Things get pretty bleak for Liz from here on.

After being given a strange flower by a mysterious old woman, Liz passed out and was visited by a shadowy figure in her dream. The stranger, who would eventually be revealed as Memnan Saa, warned her that things were bad, much worse than she could imagine. Shortly after Liz awoke, the Black Flame killed Roger and summoned Katha-Hem. Saa had been right. However, the infuriating riddles he spoke in were something that, since one of her friend’s had just died, Liz did not have the patience for. Instead of waiting for him to come to her again with another riddle, she decided to pay him a visit with the aid of Johann.

Continued below

Roger’s Hyperborean device
Once inside Saa’s mind, Liz insisted he tell her what to do, while Saa insisted she could not be told; He explained to her he could only show her and hope that she sees. Luckily, Liz saw an object which had been lying around in Roger’s room.

With the Hyperborean device in hand, Liz went off to confront the monstrous Katha-Hem with no idea what she was going to do when she got there. When she arrived, Memnan Saa showed her another vision, this one of primitive human shaman holding the very same Hyperborean device in his hands. Liz began to mimic his words and then…

Liz assumed everything that needed to be done had been done. She’d saved everyone from the doom Saa spoke of in her visions. It was over. Then Saa returned again, this time showing her visions that will look disturbingly familiar to readers of Hell on Earth, the Earth in ruins, overrun by monsters. He ended with a cryptic warning, “Whom do you trust?“

The Crimson Lotus on trial, 1946
The timing of this vision is no coincidence, for shortly afterwards Johann came to her with news that Captain Daimio’s grandmother was an Axis agent in the Second World War, the notorious Crimson Lotus. It fed all her doubts about Daimio, and Memnan Saa’s warning haunted her.

Enter Panya, a living mummy with psychic abilities. By this point, Liz was sleeping badly, and Panya’s experience was a comfort to her. When I first read this stuff years ago, it was great to see Liz actively trying to tackle this thing with someone that actually knew something about it, but reading it now… it’s worrying. Panya knew more than she should, and she was working her way into Liz’s visions even before Liz approached her. I don’t know what Panya’s game is, but as time passes it becomes more and more obvious she’s definitely playing at something… but that’s a conversation for another Hell Notes.

Oh, and then in B.P.R.D.: Killing Ground Daimio turns into this:

“Whom do you trust?”

This is the moment that broke Liz. She gave into Memnan Saa and he began to take her away… but then Lobster Johnson took over Johann’s ectoplasm and shot Liz’s comatose body and the Memnan Saa in her vision fell down and Liz woke up and Lobster Johnson vanished and Memnan Saa looked really angry… and he was bleeding. The Lobster actually hurt him. Honestly, if you asked me how Lobster Johnson was able to show up, or why, or really any question at all about this sequence, the best I could do is shrug and go, “Um… because of… stuff?” The Lobster is a giant question mark.

This “stuff” was a good thing for Liz though. A cloud was lifted from her and she was back to normal again… and eager to track down Memnan Saa to make sure she could stay that way. A quick séance with Lobster Johnson’s spirit gave them a name, “Gilfryd,” and soon a team of B.P.R.D. agents were on their way to Saa’s… trap. Just when Liz seemed free of him, she walked right into his grasp.

The Bureau managed to track her down in B.P.R.D.: The Black Goddess. Memnan Saa had her in an ancient Hyperborean city, Thadrethes, where he was preparing her for a battle with an army of frogs monsters and servants of the Left Hand. With her power, he is able to turn the frog monsters into dragons and turn them on their own kind.

I think it’s pretty clear at this point that Liz’s power is something truly incredible. In fact it is Vril, the fire of heaven, the secret flame, the very same power harnessed by the Watcher, Anum, to create the Ogdru Jahad. It’s been used by Hyperorean priests, by anicient human shamans, by the Prometheus suit and the Epimetheus suit (also known as Sledgehammer)… It’s shown up many times in many forms throughout the Hellboy universe, and every single time it has required a tool to work with, or a lifetime of studying, or access to ancient arcana. Liz first started using it as a child by accident. She never needed to learn how to use it, only how to control it. There is no one else that can do that. Liz is utterly unique.

Continued below

Memnan Saa calls her “the return of the power and promise of Vril to man.” Later, when he threatens Liz’s friends, a third eye opens in her forehead, and she breaks his control and burns him alive. It is an incredible display of power, but it leaves one very big question dangling… what is Liz? We don’t know how she came to be how she is. We know all about her sad story as a child, but nothing at all about the origin of her power. That’s a pretty big mystery considering she is one of the most powerful (if not the most powerful) characters to grace the pages of Mignola’s works.

Yes, Liz has three eyes in this picture

In B.P.R.D.: King of Fear Liz had had enough. She was ready to take on the frog monsters and their allies single-handedly if she had to. It seems to be her cruel lot in life to be used again and again, and this latest incident with Memnan Saa left her understandably pissed off. She and Abe led a mission to Agartha, back into the inner world from Hollow Earth to find the frog army, but soon after they headed underground Liz was separated from the others, then unexpectedly stepped out into this:


This wasn’t a vision. Liz could feel this world and smell it. As she explored, she found ruined futuristic transports bearing the B.P.R.D. logo, dead B.P.R.D. troops in unfamiliar armour, and photos of her friends. Devon had grown a beard and bulked up, Panya was walking, Hellboy was back at the B.P.R.D., and Abe… looked very unfamiliar.

Shonchin
While Liz struggled to make sense of this, she was approached by a mysterious man. It was Shonchin, the shaman she had seen using the Hyperborean ddevice to channel Vril in her vision during the Katha-Hem attack. He pointed into the distance, to a vision of Hellboy and Hecate. Hellboy, who was not strong enough, pleaded with Liz to “do it.” Somehow Liz knew what he meant. Under the guidance of Shonchin, she released all her flame, scorching the surface of the world and with it the monsters that have taken over.

Though she was in her future world, Liz was also still back in the caves deep in the earth in present day, and when she released her flame, she scorched the inner world, killing the subterranean race that lived there, the army of frogs that was incubating, the Black Flame, and destroying the Hyperborean war machines that were becoming bodies for Ogdru Spirits. It brought an end to the Plague of Frogs cycle, but at a terrible cost.

In the final pages of King of Fear, Liz was sitting in a bar in Bangkok. Unable to light her cigarette on her own, she asked a stranger for a light. She was finally rid of the ability she hated so much.

Liz didn’t appear again until B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Monsters. By then she had made her way back to the States and was living in a trailer park with two guys called Jeb and Todd. How she came to live with them and why is still a mystery, but it is at least partially because she wanted to keep a low profile, though this also begs the question, why come back to the United States at all then?

Rumours spread through the park that Liz used to be a secret agent, and when a domestic disturbance broke out, two of the residents came to her instead of calling the cops. But it was not your regular domestic disturbance…

Most of the trailer park’s residents had become members of a bizarre cult, and had begun to change into something other than human. Even the two guys Liz was living with were a part of it. I don’t know much about this cult. It seems to be similar to many others that sprung up shortly after the Hell on Earth cycle began, although it is worth noting that this particular cult has something to do with the Salton Sea monster, so maybe there will be a connection explored in B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Lake of Fire. As for Liz, she was able to escape from the crazy cultists, even without her usual fire power. This story really shows how tough Liz can be, even when she’s hopelessly outnumbered and unarmed.

Continued below

Since then, Liz has only shown up one more time, and only for a moment. In B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Return of the Master there were a series of disasters all round the globe. In Utah, Liz got caught right in the middle of it.

And that’s it. Monsters and her one-frame appearance in The Return of the Master are all we’ve seen of Liz for the last four years. She’s a character surrounded by a lot of intrigue, but you know, take all that away and I’d still love her. She’s a broken, tortured character, yet she’s tough as nails and won’t take anyone’s crap. Reading that first issue of Lake of Fire was a breath of fresh air. Liz is familiar and a comfort in a world gone to hell, and god I’ve missed her.

SHE’S BACK!!!

//TAGS | Hell Notes | Mignolaversity

Mark Tweedale

Mark writes Haunted Trails, The Harrow County Observer, The Damned Speakeasy, and a bunch of stuff for Mignolaversity. An animator and an eternal Tintin fan, he spends his free time reading comics, listening to film scores, watching far too many video essays, and consuming the finest dark chocolates. You can find him on Twitter @MarkTweedale.

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