Thursday, June 11, 2015

B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth Vols. 4-10 by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & various artists

The world is falling apart: even though the battle against the invasion of the frog-monsters was technically successful, intrusions of massively destructive extradimensional supernatural entities are now common, and clearly at least tens of millions of people have died in the US alone. in fact, I would argue that its unrealistic to have so many products of industrial civilization still available at this point in the B.P.R.D. story, given how much devastation has already happened. (Let's see: New York is gone, as is all of Great Britain. I think Seattle as well, and probably Chicago. Similar things are happening around the world, so it's difficult to see how global supply chains -- or even smaller local ones -- can function at all in a world with gigantic crab-monsters and supervolcanoes erupting randomly.)

Putting aside the fact that the B.P.R.D. should no longer have access to helicopters and telecommunications and manufactured bullets, for the moment, the world of Hell on Earth is about as dark as a superhero-derived comic can get. In the first three volumes of this series, we saw the B.P.R.D.'s top agent, Abe Sapien, shot and driven into a coma from which he hasn't emerged in the main series. We saw the architects of the B.P.R.D.'s greatest successes -- reformed demon-child Hellboy and firestarter Liz Sherman -- gone from the agency for different reasons. We saw the people left squabbling with each other -- ex-academic Andrew Devon accusing Sapien of being the prophesied messiah of the frog-monsters, disembodied mystic Johann Krauss and the incredibly old mummified Panya engaging in something more subtle but still clearly at odds -- while new director Kate Corrigan struggles to make any successes in a world collapsing around her. Even the B.P.R.D.'s rivals/allies, the Russian Special Sciences Service, are hard-pressed to contain the new supernatural menaces, as their current Director (Iosif Nichayko, a zombified Cold War sailor in a containment suit) struggles to contain the former director (the demon-in-the-form-of-a-young-girl Varvara) as the technology that underpins his containment spells collapses.

And, of course, there are gigantic crab-monsters, pieces of a vaguely Lovecraftian apocalypse, scattered around the world. Some are moving and destroying everything in their path, some are standing still and laying what may be eggs, some are even more enigmatic. It's possible to destroy them, but not through any kind of conventional weaponry. (I don't recall any discussion of nuking the things, which is surprising -- but the focus of B.P.R.D. is always on that agency, so any other kind of military options happens behind the scenes or not at all.) This is a world where multiple characters regularly talk about the end of human civilization, and it feels a bit pat when other characters try to talk them out of it.

These seven books collect thirty-six basically monthly issues: a few scattered one-shots and mini-series at the beginning, and then the unified B.P.R.D. monthly comic from issue 103. (Those two things, though, are identical except for name: for a while, the comics market valued novelty, so each new B.P.R.D. sub-story had its own title. But then, that market started valuing continuity, and the exact same publishing program subsumed the same monthly output into a single title.) The stories move around the large cast -- those already mentioned, plus the young precognitive woman Fenix, who shot Sapien but finds her way into the B.P.R.D. by the end of this stretch of stories, and a number of other "conventional" B.P.R.D. agents, a few of which even make it to the end of these stories alive and intact. One of those agents, Howard, has an experience that may have turned him substantially less conventional, but that's not entirely clear to his teammates in these stories.

So: each story is basically about a B.P.R.D. team going to investigate some horrible thing, and more-or-less stopping it, sometimes even without all dying themselves. Each story can be seen as a success, with enough squinting. But the overall flow is utterly bleak: the B.P.R.D. is losing cities, and countries, and valuable agents and materiel. And the best they're getting for those losses is that things are no worse, or only slightly worse, today than they were yesterday. Towards the end of these stories, there may be some brighter spots: Fenix may turn into someone deeply useful to the team, and Liz does find her own way back to the B.P.R.D. and her powers for a fiery battle over New York with a particularly nasty character called the Black Flame.

The "Hell on Earth" storyline is already about as long as "War on Frogs" was -- and that's counting the one-offs and side stories from the first storyline that really weren't about the frog war -- with no sign that it's going to end particularly soon. It may just be that "Hell on Earth" is the world the B.P.R.D. live in now, and all they can hope to do is keep that apocalypse off, one day at a time. Or, maybe, the giant monsters can be driven back, and humanity can have a little space to regroup and rebuild. I hope we see at least a little of the latter, because, otherwise -- as I said above -- I have a hard time seeing how any factories anywhere are still operating, or even how most of the people still alive are getting the food they eat every day. It's difficult to picture a functional economy in this ravaged world.

The B.P.R.D. stories are dense and complex in a post-superhero mold: readers do need to know who the characters and monsters are, and the history of their conflicts. But writers Mignola and Arcudi keep this from being soap opera on the tights-and-capes level; their people are all psychologically real, even when they're dead spirits in a balloon suit. This definitely is a comics series for people who like dark contemporary fantasy -- it's the distant spiritual heir of Black Easter, filtered through a thousand comics and heavy-metal album covers -- but it rewards those readers with a world of texture and nuance. The art is more varied in this run than in most of the frog-war storyline -- which was primarily by Guy Davis -- but the main artists, Tyler Crook and James Harren, are very much in the same dark, scratchy style as Davis, though each brings his own idiosyncrasies to the drawing board. Some of the artists are a little cartoonier than I think really works for this series, particularly Peter Snejbjerg, but in general all of the varied looks blend well together and create one single overall story.

This is not at all the place to begin: I'd suggest dropping back to Hellboy, for the purist, or the beginning of B.P.R.D., for the best effect, or at the very least the beginning of "Hell on Earth" to know what's going on. But this is a series with a clear vision, followed over the course of many years, and it's encouraging to see that working so strongly in today's flavor-of-the-moment comics market.

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