Combining the two issue ‘Cold Day in Hell’ run with the three issue ‘Wasteland’ arc, Volume 7 of BPRD’s Hell on Earth cycle brings home to you just how far we’ve come from Hollow Earth (which began, to my continued amazement, over a decade ago). In the beginning, BPRD were an adjunct of Hellboy, constituting Hellboy’s back-up in many ways: Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman. When Hellboy lucked out, sick of all the compromise and the bureaucracy and BPRD was given a strip of its own, it felt like a risk. Can this thing stand alone? Without Hellboy? Are you kidding? Pretty much from the outset, there was a confidence there, alongside the sort of oblique ‘I’m not quite sure what just happened but I’ll carry on reading until it makes sense’ storytelling that you get all over the Mignolaverse. As it proceeded, BPRD established a sort of template – incorporating monster-of-the-week storylines alongside a tension between doing ostensibly the right thing and following the rules (as well as historical storylines fleshing out the BPRD’s past) – and the template has grown, BPRD becoming a sort of global entity that now liaises with other versions of themselves elsewhere (see ‘Moscow’). BPRD even had the cojones (a word I hate using but it really is the only word for it) to all but destroy the Earth (or at the very least Great Britain) as everything quite literally goes to Hell, with monsters every which way and society torn asunder, when it became the Hell on Earth cycle – and just as readers were nervous when Hellboy left, so again there was nervousness – can such a level of calamity be maintained? We needn’t have worried. One thing BPRD has demonstrated above all things is that – like, say, Game of Thrones – no one character is bigger than the strip. Abe can leave, Liz can disappear, BPRD can be dominated essentially by the kinds of functional characters who used to wear the red shirts on Star Trek (you know, the ones who always died) – and still: it all works.
So what do we have here in issues 105-109? Well, Abe hasn’t quite gone yet (sorry – I’ve been reading ahead), he has woken from his gunshot induced coma and is surveying the wreckage of the world, monsters swarming everywhere, fires burning, people screaming, leviathans perched mysteriously upon rocky outcrops. Elsewhere Director Nichayko (the dome-headed Mysterio-lookalike from the aforementioned ‘Moscow’ arc) is ploughing a particularly bloody furrow through miles of long-legged beasties (readers of BPRD do like to see the odd bit of exploding monster and that itch is satisfied in the opening pages) on his way to a line of dark stones (readers of Stephen King’s ‘N’ will know anything involving stones usually ends up bad for all concerned). Panya (a mummy from Thebes, originally, you’ll remember) wheels herself about the BPRD headquarters as BPRD head Kate Corrigan and co discover Abe’s now empty pod (he’d been recovering in a water-filled tube for quite a few editions – but it is here, in issue 105, that he disappears, heading out towards his own strip – which of course you can read more about over at Abe Sapien: Dark & Terrible) and start to search for him. And so it goes – firing off into the future via Abe, striding into the past and gifting us some more of Varvara’s back story (dark and terrible Varvara, the blonde haired demon child stored in a bottle these days, a character that seems to have been a gift to the BPRD writers over the years, an ageless child, full of ripe wisdom, wicked delight, barely concealed hatreds) – ‘A Cold Day in Hell’ moves lots of BPRD subplots on by increments and as such functions in the same way as some of the meatier X Files (when X Files had overarching seasonal arcs involving the Smoking Man, before it dove into a cliff) whilst at the same time coming closer to Hellboy’s current environs than it has for some time (with so many monsters walking the Earth there hasn’t been the need for demons in a while). The set-to that rounds out issue 106 is a doozy.
The three issues of ‘Wasteland’ eschew the bigger plots in favour of a localised story – a BPRD troop is on a mission, led by gas in a bottle dude Johann, when they come into contact with what is essentially an enormous floating jellyfish whose head splits open to spew red spores that only go and transform anyone who comes into contact with them into Carnage-like huge tongued monsters (which grounds the military copter and leads to something of a running battle between contaminated and non-contaminated BPRD men). What ensues is basically BPRD does The Stand (and again, this reader can’t help but think: if you like Stephen King, you should be all over BPRD), as the remaining soldiers pass through abandoned towns worrying. ‘This is the end!’ one of the soldiers exclaims, ‘It’s the end I know it. Haven’t seen a soul for miles, cars don’t work, phones, radios.’ What BPRD goes on proving is that the end sure can last and articulating the various and varied manifestations of the end sure is a lot of fun. There are monsters, grenades, monsters blown up by grenades, holes in the ground full of fire and burning monster corpses. You know, the usual. The airborne contaminants make for an interesting new strain of horror as does the passenger the reduced troop pick up along the way (there are some really delicious moments in ‘Wasteland’ involving a small child and its now contaminated mother who appears to retain residual feelings for her boy).
And, of course, there is Howards. We first met Howards back in ‘The Abyss of Time’ (see left), when he and a small band of soldiers discovered a small cellar that once belonged to the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra (serious BPRD backcountry) and Howards himself picks up a Hyperborean blade (stick with it) – a blade that he puts to extremely good use at the climax of ‘Wasteland’. The frame in which Howards stands covered in blood with his ankles covered by the corpses of various creatures is worth the price of admission alone. ‘What did you say his name was?’ one of the soldiers asks later. ‘Howards. We trained together,’ comes the answer. ‘Conan is more like it,’ the original guy says. Oh yes. The added joy of the ‘Wasteland’ arc is the art by Laurence Campbell which gives all of the untrammelled horror a real grounding in reality. Campbell takes no short cuts and his rude style – in which we sometimes glimpse terrible things through a sort of red fog – really boosts the pleasure of reading. (BPRD draw on talent they feel is appropriate to a particular arc which makes for a sometimes unsettling read as you pass from one arc to another; which isn’t to say it’s problematic and more to say that when they get a good one, as they have with Campbell, it gives things that added jolt).
All told, BPRD Volume 7 is a great read with enough here to move several storylines along for more committed readers whilst at the same time allowing newbies enough pleasure and enough coherent storytelling to hopefully hook them and send them barrelling back through the previous volumes. It might be a little like catching The Wire at Season 4 by this point but that isn’t to say that you won’t get a big kick out of all the good stuff.
Any Cop?: Re-reading Volume 7 to write this review, I was filled with a desire to go back to the start – of the Hell on Earth cycle but also maybe BPRD in its entirety. Any book that encourages you to read almost 20 other books has got to have something going for it.