Like the last issue, this one is focused on Gustav Strobl, pulling back the curtain further on his time at the Black School. And like the last issue, it’s damn good.
Written by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie
Illustrated by Sebastián Fiumara
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins
Our villain reaches his goal—the mythic Black School, where his training began over two hundred years ago. Here he’ll find the answers Abe Sapien himself has sought for years. Strobl may also find the shortcut he needs to restore his place at the end of the world: tyrannizing mankind at the right hand of the devil.
Mark: This issue wraps up the second last volume of the Dark and Terrible story cycle of Abe Sapien and, boy, does it show. All the pieces are being moved into place for the final five issues.
Since the series began, I’ve been quite frustrated with the limited forward momentum with Gustav Strobl’s story. Aside from his encounter with Antonis Kouvelis in ruined Seattle, he’s largely been chatting while on his road trip with Agent Vaughn, and completely detached from Abe’s own journey. There are times I’ve felt his story would have been better served as a series of short back-ups rather than spliced into Abe’s story where they often interrupt the flow of the story.
But that’s been happening less and less over the last year. And now that he arrives at the Black School, it feels like his story is relevant and connected in a big way. Am I off base? How’d you find it, Mike?
Mike: I don’t think you’re off base at all! Since the start of the series, and especially through Abe’s lonely, Lou Ferrigno-esque wandering, I’ve found Strobl’s slice of the narrative to be super interesting. I guess part of that is due to the fact that I wasn’t sure if he was a real player or not. I feel like we’ve seen our fair share of characters who blow a lot of hot air, and I guess maybe I could have seen Strobl amongst those ranks. But now, after the last two issues, I’d say it’s pretty clear he’s what he says he is.
It took a while to get here, but this was the issue I’ve been waiting for. We’ve seen Abe come to grips with some of the whos and whats in his life, and now we’re primed for what’s coming next.
Mark: I’ve been waiting for an issue like this. As soon as Gustav Strobl’s name was dropped, I knew he was important—so much groundwork had been done to set him up in B.P.R.D.: The Black Goddess and Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels—so I’ve been waiting/hoping for a Gustav Strobl one-shot since almost the beginning of the Abe ongoing series.
And now that’s it’s here, I’ve got to say, it lived up to (and in some places exceeded) my expectations. I love that the Black School is connected to the House of the Fly in Hell, and that all the former students have become those fly-like creatures. This isn’t really a surprise, but it fits very neatly, in a very satisfying way.
I think Abe Sapien is better now than it’s ever been before, but more than that, if it can keep this up, then it’s going to get even better in the last five issues.
Mike: Agreed. I’m going to go ahead and say that there are going to be some spoilers coming up right about now.
So, to take things from the top, the issue kicks off with a short, Abe-related sequence. I can’t say that I quite see how that stuff in North Carolina fits into things, other than to show us that he’s making his way north. Is there something I missed there?
Mark: Damn. I was hoping you’d know. I don’t know what that sequence was about, I’m afraid. I felt like I was missing something. I don’t know at all. I get the feeling one of our sharp-eyed readers will pick it up and point it out and I’ll feel like an idiot for not seeing it.Continued below
I guess we’ll skip ahead to the Strobl stuff then. First up, I have to say Sebastián Fiumara was incredible on this issue. I feel like it’s the best he’s done in the series. He seems to get a real kick out of drawing the Black School, much of it lost in shadows, but the details that peek out from them are so evocative. Sebastián knows how to draw a creepy room full of old books.
He seems to relish drawing those fly creatures, not just for the way they look, but for the way they move. I love the way they’re very still, then very fast.
And—I guess we’re in the spoiler zone, so I can say—the way he drew Gustav’s nose getting hacked off… He totally sold that moment.
Mike: I know we tend to heap praise upon the Fiumaras, but jeez was this issue gorgeous.
Mark: They deserve it though.
Mike: Oh, no argument from me on that! There were pages that felt like Sebastián was channeling New Mutants era Bill Sienkiewicz. His brushy, dry-when-they-need-to-be inks paired with Stewart’s colors rang a lot of familiar, and highly regarded, bells for me. In a long run of stunning pages, this is certainly a high water mark.
Mark: I also want to mention Max Fiumara’s cover because I frequently forget to mention them, and they’re always amazing, and I believe this one is going to be Max’s last one for the series. After this, all will be from Sebastián.
This was another cover, like the one for Abe Sapien #26, which sets up the interiors perfectly. It teases something amazing without upstaging it. It set my expectations at just the right level.
Mike: Oh, for sure. This was not an Abe vs. Bear cover, in terms of expectations!
So, now that we’ve mentioned the flies and the Black School a couple of times, let’s dig into that sequence a little. Can we call it a sequence, considering it’s the majority of the issue? I was surprised to see how tight of a bow it seemed to put on the current state of affairs in all of the Mignola books. I’m wondering what your big take aways are from this.
Mark: My big take aways… OK. Well… I think this is setting the stage not just for the end of Abe Sapien, but for the beginning of the next big cycle of B.P.R.D. (Extra spoiler warning for those not up to date with B.P.R.D.) Varvara’s loose. That changes EVERYTHING. I know Brian and David used to say that they thought Varvara was misunderstood. I’ve never really shared that opinion. I think she’s a monster and the herald of everything to come. We’re going to see demons and vampires ahead, and a demonologist like Gustav Strobl fits into that set-up very neatly.
These glimpses of Hell and the history of the Council of the Fly build that world. This stuff is where Varvara comes from. This is what she left behind, and it’s what she’ll turn the world into.
OK, slightly sideways (again, sorry), but the fly creatures, we’ve seen them in The Transformation of J.H. O’Donnell, and so it was really cool to know definitively what they are. But it makes me wonder what they turned O’Donnell into. He’s a fly creature too, but he never went to the Black School.
Mike: Do we know that for certain?
Mark: Well, no, not for certain. But the last page strongly implied they’d changed him into one of them. His skin peeled back, revealing a fly beneath, and then O’Donnell started weeping.
Mike: To step back just a touch, when you mention how well suited Strobl is for the world to come, do you see him as some sort of catalyst? Is he the next Rasputin, so to speak?
Mark: Yeah, that’s how I see him. He’s not necessarily the big villain, but he’s the one that gives the big villains their foothold in the world. What do you think? I mean, again, I could be completely wrong. I think Brian shakes his head when I mention the Varvara stuff.
Mike: In terms of Strobl, I think everything you’re saying makes sense. I can see things playing out that way. But when it comes to Varvara… I dunno. I’m certainly not shaking my head at any of this, it’s just that she seems way less clear cut to me. I can’t say that I know, or even have an approximation of, what her big goal is. Total chaos? An earthly manifestation of Hell? Some other terrible thing? She’s so chaotic, I honestly can’t see what her grand design is.Continued below
Mark: I think Iosif’s vision of her as a puppet master is the best visual to explain Varvara. She’s cruel, but at the same time she deeply loves humanity. She’s a torturer in love with her victim, enjoying every twist of the knife.
But I don’t think she wants the world to end. She wants it as her plaything forever. Mignola has said his story is a big end of the world story… but it’s also a beginning. This is the mythology of the new world’s birth. So far we’ve seen the B.P.R.D. fighting monsters bringing about the end of the world, but I think we’re about to see a reversal. In future, the new monsters will want to save the world, to keep it in a hell-ish limbo forever, and our heroes will change it to save it for what is to come.
Mike: And it seems that Abe is the world to come. To be continued, I guess.
I want to dig into a bit of the minutia for a moment. When Strobl and Vaughn arrive at the Black School the first thing they do is go through some books. But, seemingly to Strobl’s surprise, one is missing a page. An important page, maybe? I know something is happening here, but I’m in another situation where I don’t know what the hell is going on. Do you have a take on that?
Mark: That’s something that I want to look into. I’ve been busy, so I haven’t gone back through the old books, but I have a suspicion that we may have already seen that page in a past story. I’m really overdue for a big reread. Too many things are becoming vague in my head.
Of course, it could just be setting up a future reveal. Maybe Bruttenholm had that page?
Mike: That’d be something, especially considering that the issue closes with Abe’s arrival in Brooklyn. Now, it’s tough to place when this is happening, but I’m inclined to feel like we’re post Johan and Liz’s recent visit.
Mark: Oh really? That monster in the harbor made me think it was before that. After Volume 10 of B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth, but before Volume 13. I thought that creature got killed in the latest arc of B.P.R.D., although now that I check, it was ambiguous which Ogdru Hem that was. I suppose the next arc will clear up the timeline. Scott Allie’s usually squeezed a reference to the B.P.R.D. timeline into the first story of each collection. I don’t expect this next one will be any different.
(Note: I checked this point later. This story is set well before B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: End of Days)
Either way, that last page, man, I got chills looking at it. I am so ready for this arc. Have you taken a closer look at the cover? I mean, there’s all those tapes of sessions with Abe Sapien… and one tape that says “Langdon Caul”.
God damn it, Bruttenholm knew! He knew!
Sorry, I’m really excited about this next arc.
Mike: I’m excited for it, too. Abe is back in New York, in the building where Bruttenholm died, and is set to make further discoveries about himself. On top of that, his former teammates were/are/will be in the same city. This comic is starting to feel big. Not just in terms of current events, but in relation to its place in the larger world.
So are we about done gushing and tangenting? Wanna pin a score on this one?
Mark: Yeah, let’s do this. I’m giving this one a 8.5. I was tempted to go as high as 9, but I’m still scratching my head over that first scene.
Mike: My score and reasoning are exactly the same! Why did that kid get a splinter? Who knows. 8.5 from me.
Final Verdict: 8.5.