“B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth” comes to an end.
Written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi
Illustrated by Laurence Campbell
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins
Liz Sherman blew up the center of the earth to stop the spread of the frog men with which the Black Flame planned to overrun the world. Although she killed that Black Flame, the devastation Liz wrought brought about a new Black Flame and a more terrifying worldwide wave of monsters. Facing an uncertain future, the BPRD count up their casualties as Hell on Earth comes to a close.
Mark Tweedale: This issue is truly the end of an era, so all three Mignolaversity writers wanted to chime in on this one. Given this is the end, it’s going to be pretty hard to avoid spoilers of any kind, so, you know, spoiler warning.
Well, it appears we can add another name to the list of the dead. For me, Johann’s death was the least surprising. John Arcudi has said on a few occasions that Johann was the character he most related to (though this changes periodically), and I got the feeling that when John left, he was taking Johann with him.
And Johann truly got his moment too. I’ve long felt he’s been adrift from his humanity, wanting to get it back, but ultimately feeling powerless to do so. But here he found it. He chose not just to die, but to destroy his eternal soul to give the world a little more time. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this was Johann at his most human, even though he was literally wielding the power of god.
Mike Romeo: There was a moment in the last issue where Johann took control of the ground situation in Kate’s absence that make me wonder if he was setting up to take the mantle of field director. It’d made a lot of sense for him, I think. His growing detachment from his humanity could have been a benefit when the times got tough, especially considering that Kate would become a little too attached at times.
While his sacrifice is undoubtedly an incredibly human act, I don’t know if I’d consider it his most human. One of the things that I’ve always found fascinating about Johann is that he finds ways to recapture feeling human, but they’re always so isolated. In yesterday’s best moments piece, I covered Johann’s immediate tendency towards sex, violence and overeating, all things he was able to experience after losing his body. The problem was that he didn’t pursue these things in conjunction with every other aspect of being a human, instead focusing almost exclusively on what seemed the most obvious. We saw this recently when he has all of the cosmos open to him but chooses instead to play catch with an imaginary dog.
Sacrificing himself so that the world may live is one of those easy human ideas that Johann seems to gravitate towards. I’m not saying that the act itself is easy, but more that coming to that conclusion is easy. Just like cruising for girls or marveling at your own capacity for violence, right? So while the consequences are far greater than any of his previous humanistic proclivities, I consider this final act to be an equal slice of a whole.
Mark: I guess what I mean by ‘most human’ is not about the physical qualities of being human, but rather his connection to other people. Johann always struggled with this, even when he was a medium. He has to force himself to think about how others feel because it doesn’t come naturally to him, and being a ghost in a bag made that so much worse. But he’s always had the desire for connection. This is what I mean by him being at his most human. This change tore down those barriers. He felt everyone on the deepest possible level. So, yes, ultimately his sacrifice would have been easy, because it serves a core need of his character, but I don’t think that lessens it. If anything, it made it more beautiful—in his last moments, he became what he had always wanted to be, but always fallen so far short of.Continued below
Brian Salvatore: It’s interesting to hear you guys debate this concept because, to me, it went the totally opposite way. Sure, the act benefited humanity, and so could be seen that way, but this is him accepting his total break with the human race. This is him doing what no human could ever do and, in doing so, places him above humanity in a very real way. Perhaps it is through his complete severance that he felt his mortality at the forefront, and that feeling led him closer to his humanity, but we’re getting lost in a semantic quibble here.
I want to touch on something Mark said earlier, which is that Arcudi has mentioned Johann as his favorite character to write, and so it makes total sense to me that Arcudi would write Johann as the hero of (this part of) the story. He is the character, perhaps, that has grown and changed the most over Arcudi’s tenure on the book, and so seeing his final transformation come in Arcudi’s finale wasn’t totally unexpected.
I feel we will have a lot to say about the epilog to the issue, with the Bureau regrouping, but before we get there, I want to throw our attention over to Laurence Campbell’s artwork. Campbell, as we’ve all said over the past few years, has become the series’ most reliable artist, becoming their go-to guy after James Harren took off for “Rumble.”
This issue has a little bit of many of the things that Campbell does so well: the vastness of space / the brain / the ethereal plane (which we first saw in his “Sledgehammer” work), the Mignola-esque monsters, the subtle interpersonal dynamics of the various agents—it is all here in this issue. And yet, even though the issue features Johann’s self sacrifice, which killed the largest monster to ever threaten Earth, this issue felt smaller and more personal than I expected, and much of that is due to Campbell not going after the huge, Hollywood shot all the time. But rather, he uses a panel to show Liz’s feet on the table during a meeting and more than half a page to show Johann’s Sledgehammer mask from four, ever increasing, angles.
For a series that has had its fair share of monster artists, I don’t know if anyone could have pulled this issue off better than Campbell did.
Mark: Arcudi really tailors his script to the artist, to the point that you can’t imagine anyone else doing it. If this had been written for Guy Davis, or Tyler Crook, or James Harren, it would have been different book. But it was written for Laurence Campbell and so all those big moments feel like they could’ve only been drawn by him. The line blurs to the point that I can’t tell what’s Arcudi and what’s Campbell.
I loved the way he drew Johann’s final stand against the Ogdru Jahad, with Johann’s spirit being stripped away a little more with each panel. There’s less and less Johann until all that’s left is his final smile.
Mike: If I can plug tomorrow’s Robots episode for a second, John and I get into this stuff a bit. There’s talk about his different approaches for different artists, as well as some really interesting bits about cinematic inspiration for how John scripts, specifically for Campbell. I really hope folks check it out.
In looking over this issue again, I’m struck by Dave Stewart’s handling of color, as per usual. Something that really struck me, though, was his balance of warm and cool tones to convey action in the Liz / Ogdru Jahad passage. It’s similar to something that Mark and I touched on in a recent “Rise of the Black Flame” review, but handled in a different way. In that issue it made the fight scene feel jerky and disjointed, while here his balancing of color helps Campbell’s story flow in a huge way. Instead of alternating, the warms and cools share space in the panels, guiding the reader through the reading. It also helps to draw a distinction between Liz and the monsters, I think. She’s burning hot and bright, fighting to maintain her comparatively short, human existence. Meanwhile, the Ogdru Hem/Jahad have the benefit of eternity on their side, so they are more coolly gliding through things. It’s this sort of subtle storytelling contribution that earns Stewart his high-rank amongst colorists. The guy’s a master.Continued below
Brian: It’s funny that, for a guy that is the industry standard and everyone’s example of a transcendent talent, he can still manage to be underrated. I had noticed this earlier, but after reading your comment, Mike, I went back and took another look, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t, perhaps, the single most effective bit of work in the entire issue. That detail—which, I’m sure, many won’t even notice—elevates the storytelling considerably.
Mike: I think that’s one of the great things about his work, right? You don’t necessarily read it so much as you feel it. It’s almost subliminal in its nature.
Brian: It’s a little sad that this is the last time we’ll be seeing these four mammoth storytellers—Arcudi, Campbell, Mignola, and Stewart—all working together, at least for the foreseeable future.
Mike: I’d add Clem Robins to that line up. For as easy as it is to miss a colorist’s contribution, it’s even easier to not see the lettering. I mean, that’s the mark of a great letterer, right? They fade into the background.
I think Robins, in a way, is just as responsible for unifying the look of these books as Stewart is. His approach to this line of comics is so idiosyncratic that I think a lot of people would be able to recognize this work as belonging to a Mignola book if the art was stripped away. Just panels and word balloons, I mean, and I think that’s pretty powerful.
Brian: So, let’s dig into the backend of the issue a little bit: Johann successfully saves the world, and we’re left with a smaller Bureau crew, and lots of ‘dead’ monsters lying around in the streets. While this is far from the sunniest ending out there, can we all agree that things look far better than we thought they would at this point in the story?
Mark: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say no one expected sunny skies and birds chirping. This middle part of the issue was a bit of a mixed bag for me, because it’s the ending of “Hell on Earth,” but it’s also trying to make it clear that there’s still more to come. And if I’m honest, I didn’t really need that. All the tying up of loose ends (like the ‘we’ve found Abe’ moment) felt tacked on, and I would have preferred to see this sort of material in the first issue of the next story cycle rather than here.
That’s not to say it was all like that though. The stuff about Johann, and especially the mention of Fenix going missing after a mission really worked for me.
Mike: I see what you mean, Mark, but I sort of feel like this was something that needed to be there in a way. I think that it maybe could have benefited from a couple more pages, though. A little more with Fenix and Devon would have been interesting, just to get a little bit more of a grasp on where things stand.
I also think this epilog is important because now it opens the door to a time jump between arcs. If the writer needs to, we can skip over Devon getting his legs under him and Abe going through whatever he’s going to need to do to be healed. Plus, readers don’t have to come in cold to a new status quo, which may be something that’s viewed as a hindrance to editorial at Dark Horse.
Brian: I think I side more with Mike here than I do Mark, for a few reasons. I do think it is important to show that the world is still carrying on, and that the Bureau is a force, even in their severely limited state. I also think that the epilog section provided nice closure for these characters who, let’s be honest, we may never see again.
If the new writer comes in and decides that they wants to focus more on some new characters, we may not get much Fenix or Devon. Or, from a purely nostalgic sense, maybe Arcudi wanted to give them one last moment before he hung up his pen on the series. I get why Mark thinks that this stuff is better served for the start of the new cycle, but since we know so little about the what/where/when of that cycle, I think it was good to include this stuff here.Continued below
The Abe thing, however, did feel incredibly tacked on.
Mike: I was flabbergasted when I read the Abe thing. It’s astounding that the hasty wrap-up to the “Abe Sapien” series occurred after the big events of “Hell on Earth.” I mean, I guess it sort of explains why those agents were total pricks about picking Abe up, though. Devon’s made no secret of his feelings towards Abe, and I’m sure that comes through in his handling of the situation. But the fact that Johann and Kate were long dead by the time Abe got scooped up only served to further illustrate how out of step “Abe Sapien” was.
Mark: I think this is a moment where the delays on “The Exorcist” arc affected the way this played out. Had that story kept to its original schedule, the end of “Abe Sapien” and “B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth” would have only been a month apart, with “Abe Sapien” #36 arriving in between “B.P.R.D.” #146 and #147. This does explain that weird mood of the pick-up sequence at the end of “Abe Sapien.”
I guess my problem with this part of the ending was that it was too ‘nuts and bolts’ for my tastes, but even then, that was only part of the scene. The final two scenes with Varvara and then Fenix were more my kind of stuff. I really liked both those moments. Honestly, given the way Fenix’s story has played out up to this point, I’d be perfectly happy if that’s her ending and we never see her again. But, you know, there’s still all those loose “Abe Sapien” threads to tie up.
Mike: I totally agree on the Fenix front. She was a squatter type before we got to know her, seemingly riding the rails from place to place, so it’d be well within reason if she just sort of drifted on to whatever chapter of life is next for her. But, as you said, we never got to see her and Abe reconcile, so the smart money’s on her coming back.
Which is kinda cool, I think. Now that Liz has settled into herself and her lot at the Bureau, maybe Fenix can play that come-and-go-as-I-please role?
Mark: My god, I am so excited about seeing an Abe and Liz reunion. I want to see the team start pulling together again after such a long time of being apart.
Brian: I echo both of your sentiment about Fenix having a great ending here, but I also think she’ll be back to reconcile with Abe.
Like I touched on earlier, this is a far more optimistic ending than I expected; even Johann’s death isn’t exactly sad. This issue had no real moments of heartbreak—although the arc, overall, had plenty. This issue was all about resolution and hope for the future, which is something I didn’t think the series could ever really offer again.
To me, this is a 9.0 comic.
Mark: I’m going for an 8.5. I had braced myself for a depressing ending, but I wasn’t expecting an ending this upbeat. It was a very pleasant surprise. I especially loved the way Johann and Fenix’s endings were handled.
Before the final story cycle begins, I’m going to have to do a big reread of “Plague of Frogs” and “Hell on Earth.” It’s going to be tough, because I can’t imagine the series without John Arcudi. He’s been working on it since 2004… an incredible twelve-year journey.
Mike: This feels really bittersweet. I’m excited that we get to see an era come to a close as John wraps up his run, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t wish we had some more “B.P.R.D.” from him on the horizon. This has been one of my absolute favorite ongoing titles for years now, and John is obviously a huge part of that. Even though I’d have loved to see a couple more pages to flesh out the epilog, overall the issue did the trick for me. I’m pulling out a 9 for the occasion.
Final verdict: 8.83. No, this is not the end of “B.P.R.D.,” but it’s still the end of an era. John Arcudi’s run was incredible to behold, and you’d be crazy not to pick this issue up.