Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #272: B.P.R.D.: Hell On Earth Vols. 1-3 by Mignola, Arcudi, Davis, & Crook

Transitions are hard for any organization -- maybe you're being restructured, maybe you're going through a rebuilding year, maybe your funding was cut and everyone's on half-hours to ride it out. It's even tougher when your charismatic founder has been gone for a decade or so, and even his stepson, who held the whole place together for a long time, has moved on to other things. Add in the aftermath of a major initiative that technically succeeded but proved much more costly than expected, and it's a recipe for problems.

The second overall plotline of the B.P.R.D. series -- after "Plague of Frogs," which took ten years and a couple of thousand pages to tell -- starts off in the aftermath of a global catastrophe and features a B.P.R.D. team deeply divided and profoundly damaged by the end of that war against the frog-monsters. Perhaps "New World" will end up being about some other existential threat to mankind, since that's what the B.P.R.D. is there to stop -- but, so far, it's mostly about office politics, and who distrusts who, and what schemes may have happened or be coming together. As usual, their stories are written by series creator Mike Mignola with John Arcudi, and these three volumes see a passing of the main art duties from Guy Davis, the primary B.P.R.D. penciller for many years, to Tyler Crook, who may have as many in front of him.

But, just in case you don't know what I'm talking about: The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense was originally a US government operation, started by scientist Trevor Bruttenholm in the aftermath of WWII. Bruttenholm also adopted a mysterious little guy, nicknamed Hellboy, at about the same time, and the two grew up together: Hellboy became the B.P.R.D.'s premier field agent for the second half of the twentieth century, before leaving right after the turn of the century. And there were a lot of supernatural menaces to fight along the way. Mignola creates a cosmology for this and the parent Hellboy series from materials both Lovecraftian and Miltonian: there are many-angled ones lurking sideways to reality and demons to torment mens' souls. After a decade-long period of escalating danger after Hellboy's departure, the B.P.R.D was subsumed by the UN after saving the world -- messily, loudly, very much in public and with repercussions that may never settle down -- from those invading frog-monsters and the gigantic creatures that they spawned or grew into.

B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth Vol. 1: New World is set right after that transition: Dr. Kate Corrigan is the B.P.R.D. field director, but it's vague who she reports to at the UN (or upstairs at B.P.R.D.) or how much bureaucracy is involved. And her time is spent keeping the field agents from each others throats: ex-professor Andrew Devon is sure that Abe Sapien really is the frogs' prophesied messiah/leader/antichrist, and Abe's fighting back by demanding that the bookish and not really field-useful Devon be fired immediately. The German mystic Johann Kraus is engrossed in the possibility of growing a new physical body for himself, but not so much that he isn't carrying on his own battle, far more subtly, with the ancient mummy Panya, who clearly has her own secret plans and gives as well as she gets.

New World's supernatural story is a small-scale one: Abe is off in the Northwest woods, investigating an entire town that went missing. Along the way, he meets a couple of old friends that we didn't expect to see again -- but it's clear that this is a rare moment of relative quiet in a world where massive volcanoes destroy major cities and huge crab-monsters pop up regularly. And there is the matter of the deaths of everyone in more than one small town: this is what a quiet B.P.R.D. story looks like now. It's one in which only a few hundred people die.

Gods and Monsters collects two shorter series, each of which carefully places one major piece onto the table. The expected one is Liz Sherman, the troubled firestarter who saved the world from the frogs, dying at least once along the way and racking up major guilt for the destruction she caused. She's been off the grid and out of the book, but she re-emerges here, into another nasty situation. The other half of this book introduces Fenix, a young psychic amassing a large following as she leads them around the southwest. (There's some bafflegab about a large proportion of the US population becoming nomadic in the aftermath of the failed frog apocalypse, since population centers are now more dangerous, but society doesn't seem to have completely fallen apart, which is what that would actually mean. One has to imagine most of America and the world quietly hunkered down, trying to live their lives and not have their souls eaten by various horrible creatures.)

Gods and Monsters also sees the beginning of a major transition for one of the core members of the team: these issues are three years old at this point, so saying that much shouldn't be a problem. But, again: this is not a world that has gone back to normal, but a world where the paranormal erupts violently somewhere in the world nearly every single day. Some of those eruptions are ghosts that kill a few dozen; some are megastorms that destroy London; some are monsters that level Seattle and require major military armament to kill. All this goes on in the background of the B.P.R.D.'s story. it's not called "Hell on Earth" lightly.

And then Russia sees Dr. Corrigan and Kraus travel to Moscow to consult on an issue for Russia's Special Sciences Service, now headed by Director Iosif Nichayko -- whom we last saw, dead, in the Abe Sapien story "The Abyssal Plain." Nichayko has a problem: one of those crab-monsters is in a deep cavern of an abandoned industrial city to the northeast, and its calling zombie-like humans to it, building a nest and clearly preparing to spawn. None of Nichayko's men can get down to it -- no living man can. But Kraus is no living man -- he's just a disembodied spirit.

Nichayko is another one of "Hell on Earth"'s many schemers -- long-time readers will immediately wonder what happened to the SSS's original leader, the creepy ageless demon/girl Varvara, and we do find that out by the end of this story -- clearly working some angle of his own, and possibly only barely keeping the SSS together in the face of plots and schemes. And we don't know enough about him to even guess if he's better or worse than the alternative.

Together, these three volumes show a world in turmoil and distress. At the very best, it's holding steady and managing to stop each new supernatural threat in turn. But that's a rosy view: these B.P.R.D. stories actually show a world and an organization left a little weaker, and little less stable, and a little more brittle with each event. It's a dark, dangerous world, but these stories are told well and with real humanity: this is one of the very few stories about the end of the world that I can actually tolerate.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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