“B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth” returns from a two-month hiatus in fine form.
Cameron Stewart (“Fight Club 2”, “Batgirl”) returns to the character he developed in “B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Exorcism”. Last time we saw Ashley Strode, she’d learned only the most basic aspects of exorcism as the world started to fall apart around her. Now that Hell’s closed its doors and civilization has ground to a halt in the face of the apocalypse, Ashley’s using what she knows to delay the end. A crumbling house in a small town holds bizarre secrets that make Ashley wish she’d stayed with Liz and Kate—because it might take the whole BPRD to handle this.
Mark Tweedale: ‘Exorcism’ was one of my favorite stories in 2012. I clicked with Ashley Strode immediately, I’ve been eager to see her again ever since. To say I’ve been anticipating this one for a long time is an understatement. I get the feeling Mike and Brian feel the same way, since all of us wanted to get in on this review.
Brian Salvatore: ‘Exorcism’ was maybe my favorite comic of 2012, so to say I’ve been waiting patiently for this is an understatement. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for the book dropped off quite a bit when it turned out that Cameron Stewart would not be writing/illustrating the arc himself, but rather collaborating with Mignola, Chris Roberson, and Mike Norton.
That’s not a knock on any of those guys—Norton is an incredible artist who I think does quite well here (more on him later), but Stewart is such a singular talent and has such a different approach than many of the standard Mignolaverse artists, that it was nice to see him pop up on the book.
Mike Romeo: I’m leaning towards Brian’s look at things. I’m excited for a new Strode story, but was really excited for Stewart to return to the character. Now, that said, I’m a big Mike Norton fan to begin with, and I thought he exceeded my expectations. He’s been doing “Revival” for a while now, and that book tends to be quiet for stretches, so I sort of lost sight of his ability to draw really great, extended action sequences. But, as said above, we’ll get more into him in a bit.
So where do you want to start, Mark? Was this first issue worth the wait for you?
Mark: It was. I’ll admit, was really looking forward to seeing Cameron Stewart writing and drawing this one, and it’s a shame he couldn’t wrap it up, but once I started reading, I got caught up. This is a very different story from the usual “Hell on Earth” stories, and we get to see another side of the end of the world through Ashley. No Ogdru Hem, no mutant humans… I appreciated the change of pace.
And Ash gets to show off how competent she’s become since 2012’s ‘Exorcism’. It’s satisfying to see the change in her, how confident she’s become.
Mike: Absolutely! That chase scene into a demon battle was not only a treat to read, but also really insightful as to where she is as a character. I immediately understood that she’s been out there for a while now, doing exactly this type of work.
I want to get into the meat of things here, so I’ll go right ahead and call spoilers. There’s not too much in the narrative to ruin, but there were some cool character beats that I wouldn’t want to take from anyone.
I’m a sucker for exorcist/demon hunters. I think it’s such a great character character type that, when done right, can create a mood and narrative that I fall right into. These characters, and Strode falls right into this, have an almost wild west sheriff way about them. The loner who travels from town to town in an effort to maintain some semblance of law and order.
In this issue we find out that, for obvious reasons, Strode is on ‘detached service,’ which means that she’s out there on behalf of the Bureau, but not under their direct supervision. Which is not only super cool, it also points back to what Mark said earlier about her being more confident than ever. On top of her detachment, we also find out that she hasn’t checked in with Kate for a while now.Continued below
So what do you guys think about this? We’ve got an agent running solo in a series where we’ve been conditioned to expect teams, basically freelancing and going where the winds carry her. She straight up took someone’s gun, which I’m going to assume isn’t protocol, right?
Brian: This reminded me of a scene from the (I think) third season premiere of The Walking Dead, where we catch up with the group and see how far they’ve come, in terms of their ability to deal with zombies without incident, and without really breaking a sweat. We’ve all seen these sorts of scenes before – it is shorthand for catching up the reader that things have changed, and the character we knew as a bit of a neophyte is now more experienced.
Everything about Strode is cool, collected bad-assery. She’s not fucking around on any front—and no, I can’t imagine her taking that gun is protocol. To answer your question, Mike, I think this is a nice change of pace from the normal Bureau stories. One of the discussions we’ve come to expect from this series is the agent desiring to break with standard protocol, and a supervisor taking issue with that. Here, we get Strode doing whatever she wants, and not worrying if what she’s doing fits in with anyone else’s plan.
The only downside of stories like these is that they can seem a little detached from the overall tale, and if you’re someone who is invested into the ‘big’ story more than the characters, this can feel a little slight. I’m not in that camp, though. Despite the book hurtling towards the conclusion to the “Hell on Earth” saga, I enjoy these little detours into the world.
I know you guys are more caught up on “Abe Sapien” than I am, but this to me feels like what the best issues of that series are like—micro snapshots into the world that “Hell on Earth” investigates on a macro level.
Mike: It’s pretty clear she’s past blurring the line to get the job done, right?
Mark: Yeah, well, like we’ve seen, she hasn’t really been answerable to anyone for a while.
And, yes, this is like a detour. It feels so different from the usual “Hell on Earth” story that it could almost be another series. I can see how some readers might be frustrated with pressing pause on the main plotline, especially when this one seems so disconnected, but I can’t personally relate. As for “Abe Sapien”, that series has been undergoing some major changes lately, and becoming a bit more epic, but you’re right, this does feel more like that series. Actually, the demon stuff overlaps thematically with “Abe Sapien” quite a bit, especially the Gustav Strobl stuff.
Brian: So, let’s talk about the issue’s main plot. We see Strode following a series of clues—all tied to a symbol that appears on a number of different items. After battling a demon, as one does, we find Ashley in her hotel room, where she has a board with various photos/notes on it. One of the words—Yamsey—stands out to her overnight guest, who informs her that that is actually the name of a small town nearby, which sends Strode off on her motorcycle to investigate.
What I loved so much about this sequence is that, to me, this sums up the past 4 years in Ashley’s life. Doing something incredibly dangerous, and then reading the tea leaves that said event leaves in its wake. You know this isn’t the first time she’s been dealt a hand like this before, and it is such an elegant way to give us some exposition without the classic “As you know, Bob” dialogue.
Mark: Yes, there’s an immediacy to it. It’s all made to catch us up, but it doesn’t feel like it. Plus, it casually fleshed out Ashley’s character too. I think another thing this story does really well is stand alone, while simultaneously tapping into story threads from the main “B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth” plotline, “Abe Sapien”, and “Hellboy in Hell”. The exposition here could have made this book feel leaden, but instead it feels brisk and lean.
As for that symbol Ashley keeps finding, it reminds me of the symbols usually associated with demons and alchemy in Mignola’s books, like the one on Ualac’s box from “Hellboy: Box Full of Evil”.Continued below
Mike: These sigils that show up so often in Mignola’s books look like they’re Enochian, which is the language of angels and is based, I believe, on celestial bodies. Symbols like the one above are often associated with specific demons. Ualac’s symbol is on this chart, but as ‘Valac,’ which is an alternate spelling.
I find the implications behind the use of this language to be interesting. While we’ve constantly seen demons across this line of comics, we’ve never really had anything ‘angelic’ so blatantly laid before us. But then this language runs throughout the books, which if to be taken in a real world context, would imply some sort of ‘heavenly’ presence in the world. Now, I’m not saying that I’d expect Judeo-Christian, wing-wearing, trumpet-playing beings to descend upon us, but there has been some hints at Abe being an angel over in his book.
Mark: I’ve never mentioned it, but yeah, I’ve been thinking it. It wouldn’t surprise me if Abe was indeed one of the ‘Greater Spirits’ from the beginning of the world.
I really need to do a Hell Notes about exorcists and demons. It’s long overdue… Did you find the symbol Ashley’s been chasing?
Mike: The sigil that keeps popping up for Strode belongs to Balam (or Balaam, Balan), who is either a duke or prince of hell, with forty legions under his command. He’s three-headed, and is known for giving perfect answers, granting wit to man, and casting invisibility.
Has Balam come up before?
Mark: Not that I know of. I had a quick look through the second Hellboy Library Edition, but Balam wasn’t one of the many demons in its sketchbook section.
Brian: One of the really rewarding parts of being a Mignola fan for a long time is seeing how he is willing to take leaps in storytelling/mythology that might seem, at the outset, like they are from out of nowhere, but with just a little digging, seem completely natural. The idea of angels go hand in hand with demons, but—like you guys have already said—that feels new to this world.
I’m familiar with a Balaam from my undergraduate work in scripture; his name derives from a term for foreigner, and interestingly, he is one of the few people to be referenced in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy texts (though his appearance in the Qur’an is metaphorical and oblique). However, that is not the demonic creature we are referencing here, although it is thought that the Biblical figure is the demon’s namesake.
I think it makes a lot of sense that, as we’ve seen a lot of Hell’s agents involved in the affairs of man, that Heaven’s agents would be as well. I always thought that, eventually, we would get a hefty dose of Heaven v. Hell (Dawn of Judgment) in “Hellboy in Hell”, but it now appears that won’t be happening.
I think we should probably transition to talking about Norton’s artwork here. One of the things that blows me away with Mignolaverse books is how, due to the anchoring presence of colorist Dave Stewart and letterer Clem Robins, almost anyone’s work instantly feels apiece with classic Mignola stories. Norton is an artist that I wouldn’t necessarily peg as a perfect fit for this type of story, but damn, he does a fine job.
I have a particular sequence I want to talk about later, but I want to hear about your overall opinions of his work here.
Mark: After Norton’s work on “The Sixth Gun: Days of the Dead”, my brain immediately went ‘Oh, I’d love to see this guy in work on a Mignola book someday’. And then I noticed the B.P.R.D. symbol in an Instagram and I thought he was possibly working on a story for the next story cycle of “B.P.R.D.” To see him on this story in particular though, that was a surprise.
It’s not just that he fits into the Hellboy Universe, but he sits comfortably in Cameron Stewart’s style of storytelling. I remember when I first read “Exorcism” I thought the story felt denser than the average issue, so I went back and counted how many panels there were per page and discovered it wasn’t my imagination, the story averaged more pages per panel than your average “B.P.R.D.” That’s true of this arc, ‘The Exorcist’, too. (It’s worth noting, Norton had to work fast on this story, so he had assistance on the thumbnailing from Dave Stokes.)Continued below
For me, the main thing is that Ashley feels like Ashley. It seems Norton was very attentive to the body language Cameron set up for her in ‘Exorcism’. But then I don’t know how far Cameron Stewart got into this story before he realized he couldn’t meet his deadline. This is a story where I really want to get a look behind the scenes, to see what came from each of the creators. I think they struck just the right balance in terms of continuity of the look and approach to the storytelling without making it feel like Norton’s being held back.
Mike: Agreed. And, of course, Dave Stewart made this issue really sing. I know the guy’s a coloring chameleon, but I really liked the way he worked with Norton.
And while he certainly took his cues from what had come before, I also got a distinct sense that he’d been looking at some Illyana Rasputin/Magik “New Mutants” issues.
I can’t be the only one who thought that, right? Because I was pretty stoked on it, even if I’m making connections that aren’t really there…
Brian: I didn’t put that together, but that’s pretty great, Mike.
The scene I wanted to touch on earlier was the scene you just referenced, Mike. This was one of the coolest sequences of recent memory, both visually and conceptually. I love how we can see Ashley in both realms, and Norton did a great job making the transitions between the two jarring for the reader (aided, as always, by Stewart’s colors). In some ways, this scene perfectly sums up Ashley’s life, by straddling the two realms, as well as straddling her role as a member of the Bureau but also as a solo act. When this scene ended, I felt like it both caught me up on her life, and also gave me a totally new perspective on her.
Mark: It’s also echoes a scene in ‘Exorcism’. Ash was obviously new to everything back then and skittish. The contrast between that scene and the one in this issue speaks volumes of her growth. I particularly liked how in ‘Exorcism’ she had a shell that became a sword, whereas here she’s holding Ota Benga’s talismans that became his sword. She’s not an apprentice any more.
Mike: Certainly not! It was a powerful scene amidst a powerful issue.
So, we’ve thrown around a lot of words about this one, how’s about we leave a little something for the folks at home and get down to rating the issue?
Mark: I’m very aware I’ve been throwing a lot of 9s around lately, but honestly, these last few months, the books I’ve been reviewing have been fantastic. This one is certainly a member of the 9 club for me.
Brian: I’ve been sitting here for a solid two minutes trying to find a reason to bring it down below a 9, and I can’t. I’m with you, Mark – this is a 9.
Mike: This is a solid issue that I think would be rewarding for long-time readers as well as those new to the character. 8.5 from me, with high, high expectations for the rest of the series.
Final Verdict: 8.8. An excellent start to a new arc, and the welcome return of Ashley Strode.