The penultimate issue of “B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth” is here, and it’s soul-destroying.
Written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi
Illustrated by Laurence Campbell
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins
The BPRD faces heavy fatalities as western states are laid waste in the battle with the embodiment of cosmic evil, the Ogdru Jahad. The only hope to destroy the beast may be the unholy plan of the little demon girl Varvara.
Mark Tweedale: Before we get to talking about this issue, there’s a matter from #145 I have to address. The preview PDFs we get sent for reviews don’t always include the letters columns, as was the case for #145. As such, we didn’t have the context of the eulogy in Hellmail.
So with that in mind, this issue hit me hard. Really hard. Like staring-at-walls-feeling-depressed-as-hell hard. Normally I like to read an issue twice before writing a review, but I don’t know if I can yet.
Brian Salvatore: While this issue didn’t quite have the punch to the gut that #145 had, this issue was 20 plus pages of us coming to terms with the fact that, yes, the worst possible scenario unfolded for Iosif, Kate, and Panya. There’s not going to be a retcon here, they are dead. Iosif was pretty clearly gone last issue, but the fate of Kate and Panya was somewhat ambiguous until it was confirmed by Johann and Fenix.
This is the end, Mark: most of the crew is dead, and it doesn’t look great for the rest of the Bureau.
Mark: It really doesn’t. I mean, this is an incredibly bleak issue. The last issue had a lot of death in it, but this was all about feeling the weight of that death. There’s something truly horrible about seeing one of the Ogdru Jahad on a rampage, and the Bureau can do little more than watch and mourn their losses.
Brian: I am always fascinated at the end of epic stories, who is left standing. And while a lot may happen next issue, I find it fascinating that Johann and Liz are, more or less, the only ‘major’ characters from before the last five years or so that are still a part of the Bureau. Fenix is still there, as are some of the ‘grunts’ that Arcudi started to elevate three or four years ago, but for the most part, the Bureau as we know it is gone.
Now, Johann is still out there, but I get the feeling he won’t exactly be coming back to the rank and file after this battle ends, if he comes back at all. Liz is still in the thick of things as well, but it seems like she might literally die trying to stop the Ogdru Jahad.
This is about as bleak as it gets, because even if, somehow, the world can survive, what sort of a world is that?
Mark: I know what you mean. I’m pretty sure this was a thought broached in an early “Hell on Earth” issue, or maybe it was “Abe Sapien,” but there was a sense of ‘What are we fighting for? Even if we win, we’ve already lost.’
Let’s talk about Laurence Campbell’s art for a moment. I’ve noticed when it comes to big, emotional moments, he tends to frame the characters further away, in many cases to the point that the facial expressions are unreadable. Instead, he lets the body language and the composition of the panel give the scene its emotional power. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but highly effective.
I also think it’s something that John Arcudi has noticed about his style and is writing with it in mind. I noticed it in Panya and Kate’s death scene in the previous issue, and there’s a scene with Liz and Tian near the end of this issue that again feels like it was written in a way that was right for Campbell. I really like seeing an artist and writer working so seamlessly together that it’s impossible to tell what elements are coming from whom.Continued below
Brian: Mike beautifully described Campbell’s art last month, saying how he is the most ‘realistic’ of the main series artists, but an element of his work that I think goes unheralded is how great he has gotten at drawing Mignola creatures, and how he integrates them perfectly into a more realistic world. Like, I can’t imagine anyone other than Mignola drawing an Ogdru Jahad that looks both as idiosyncratic as Mignola’s do, but also feel ‘real’ as Campbell’s does.
Arcudi is a master storyteller for a number of reasons, but one of them is how well he knows the artists who draw his work. He and Campbell are getting close to how naturally he and Harren fit together, but in totally different ways. Both of their work can give the sense of impending doom and insanity, but in totally different ways. Harren’s work is all Agent Howards, wielding a sword and flipping the fuck out; Campbell’s work is all Johann, the dead-eyed face of his Sledgehammer mask, like a slow burn in the back of your head, where all you can do is stifle a blood-curdling scream.
Mark: I’m going to launch into spoilers now so we can talk specifics. I really like what’s going on with Johann at the moment. He seems so alien and distant to everyone in the story, but to me, he’s so incredibly human, and more connected than he’s ever been before. In the past, Johann’s always been a bit bad at reading people and a bit obtuse at times, but in the Sledgehammer suit he’s so connected he knows so much more. It was best exemplified when he decided the way they should break the bad news to Liz.
And he’s been struggling with his fading humanity since the “Plague of Frogs” cycle, culminating with Enos’s death in “The Iron Prometheus” last year. For me, seeing this change in him has been very satisfying, even though it’s clearly painful for him.
Brian: Yeah, this is the most human that Johann has been, in one sense of the word, in a long time, even though his humanity has shifted into something almost unrecognizable. The fact that we got a very clear look at his human face in the last panel of the book was another indicator of this.
Liz’s reaction to Kate/Panya’s death was perfect, and it really showed her growth as a character over the past few years. Liz of the past would have, like Johann predicted, burned the motel to the ground. But now, she’s grown almost as detached as Johann has; her role as one of only two creatures on Earth that can really contain the onslaught of monsters has alienated her from the regular agents a bit. She still feels―she admits to being sad to Tian―but everything she feels is tempered by her duty to stop as many monsters as possible.
Mark: The scene with Liz and Tian was my favorite from the issue, in part because I was feeling those emotions right alongside Liz—just kind of numb until it hit all at once. The stillness and emptiness of that scene really worked for me.
Plotwise, things are pretty bleak, and this is one of those things where I wish we could have seen a little more from Varvara, because when her army of angels is wiped out by the Ogdru Jahad, and she’s suddenly in a position where there’s nothing she can do, and I’ve never seen that side of her. I wanted to see what she’d be like when she’s utterly helpless. Of course, you can’t give her that moment without stealing page real estate from another plot thread and every other one in here is more important.
Brian: I don’t know about you, but when Varvara unleashed her ‘angels,’ I fully expected them to be the force that turned the tide in this battle. It just seemed to make sense and, while they may have slowed things down, they were extremely ineffective. And, like you, I sort of wanted to see a bit more of Varvara in those circumstances, but I have a feeling that she will be a major factor in, if not just the finale, then also in the third ‘saga’ of “B.P.R.D.,” whenever we will get that.Continued below
Mark: I think the other thing I have to mention is the premonitions side of things. Fenix has been having premonitions throughout the series, and one by one these things have come to pass. But there was also a vision Liz had in the “B.P.R.D.: King of Fear” arc that showed the future. Throughout the “Hell on Earth” cycle, we’ve seen bits of it start to happen: Carla Giarocco joined the B.P.R.D., a big heli-carrier-type vehicle was introduced, Devon grew a beard and then got buff, Panya got out of here wheelchair…
But Hellboy was there too, and Hellboy’s been dead for a while. And Kate and Panya were there too, and they’re dead now as well. So is what Liz saw in “B.P.R.D.: King of Fear” just a fiction now, or is that future still viable in some way?
Brian: This is something I’ve thought a lot about. So much of this universe has been about destiny and purpose―specifically involving Hellboy―and yet, the end of this saga has been bucking that left and right. The way that “Hellboy in Hell” wrapped up, the aforementioned vision of Liz’s being flawed, etc―it all points to the idea that nothing is set in stone. Every destiny can be re-written, and people’s individual decisions absolutely do have impact, even when they seem like they may not.
Mark: I’ve never been fond of the destiny-can-be-rewritten concept myself. It feels like a cheat. My feeling is that if destiny can be rewritten, then it isn’t destiny; if the future can be changed, then it was a fiction, not the future; a premonition that doesn’t take into account that it was previously witnessed isn’t a premonition because in the mere act of seeing it, it is already been changed. For me, the fun in visions of the future is figuring out how the character gets to the emotional place that enables those events to happen, and how the meaning of those visions are transformed. Context is everything, and visions and destiny always seem to lack context.
Part of my enjoyment for most of the premonition/destiny stuff in the Hellboy Universe is the way a vast majority of the time these things do happen, but not in the way that we thought they would when told the events at face value. That’s part of the reason I’m still holding onto a thread of hope that somehow that “King of Fear” flashforward happens, because there’s a precedent. But honestly, I have no idea how it can come to pass now. But for something that’s hung over seventy-five issues of “Hell on Earth,” waiting until now to say it can be changed feels pretty flimsy to me, like the scene was only there to generate artificial tension.
And I don’t think we’re entirely done with Hellboy just yet, although I’m pretty certain we won’t see another “Hellboy” series drawn by Mike Mignola. I still think he and Hecate are fated to meet at the end of the world.
Brian: That raises an interesting, if not story driven, question: do you think John Arcudi walking away from the series means that certain threads he set up (like the premonition) will go by the wayside?
Mark: I don’t know. But big things like that premonition are tied to Mignola too—he even drew two pages of that sequence—and it was such a huge moment, you can’t really pretend it didn’t exist. If anything, I expect older plotlines (like all the vampire stuff Mignola has been hinting at for years in the various flashback books) to come to the fore.
Brian: So, what are you grading this, Mark?
Mark: I’m giving this an 8.5. I can’t exactly say I enjoyed this issue—this was a devastating read for me—but it is undoubtedly excellent.
Brian: I agree, although my grade is based more on the fact that while this was a superb issue, for a penultimate issue, I wish there was a little more happening, instead of the more reflective tone.
This sounds like we are nitpicking, but that’s what the series has made us do―the bar is set so high that we expect perfection.
Final verdict: 8.5. A bleak, heart-breaking, and magnificent issue.