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The Great Hellboy re-Reading Project Part XIV: Lake of Fire

My epic project to re-read Mike Mignola’s complete Hellboy saga from the very beginning is finally nearing its conclusion!

What began as a series of sporadic mini-series and short-stories featuring the big red occult investigator has deepened over the past twenty years into what is, for my money, the richest and most consistently entertaining comic book universe of stories out there.  Click here for part one, in which I discussed the very first Hellboy tale: the four-part mini-series Seed of Destruction.  Click here for part two, in which I discussed The Wolves of Saint August, The Corpse and the Iron Shoes, and Wake the Devil.  Click here for part three, in which I discussed a variety of Hellboy short stories including The Right Hand of Doom and Box Full of Evil.  Click here for part four, in which I discussed Hellboy’s last mission for the B.P.R.D.: Conquerer Worm.  Click here for part five, in which I discussed the beginning of a series of B.P.R.D. spin-offs and a whole new expansion of the Hellboy universe: Plague of Frogs.  Click here for part six, in which I discussed the major shift in the Hellboy story that took-place in The Third Wish and The Island.  Click here for part seven, in which I discussed the incredible B.P.R.D. mini-series that became the new central focus of the continuing Hellboy saga.  Click here for part eight, in which Hellboy finally returns to the spotlight with Darkness Calls.  Click here for part nine, in which the Hellboy universe expands with spin-off series focusing on Lobster Johnson, Abe Sapien, and the founding of the B.P.R.D.  And click here for part ten, in which I discussed the “Scorched Earth” trilogy of B.P.R.D. mini-series that wrapped up the series to that point and began the “Hell on Earth” story-line. Click here for part eleven, in which I discussed the death of Hellboy in The Storm and The Fury.  Click here for part twelve, in which I discuss the new B.P.R.D. “Hell on Earth” story-line.  Click here for part thirteen, in which I discuss the game-changing B.P.R.D. mini-series The Return of the Master along with the beginning of Hellboy in Hell.

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It’s exciting to be so close to the end of this massive re-read project.  Onward!

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth #105-106: A Cold Day in Hell (2013) — This two-issue story brings a welcome focus onto Iosif and his relationship with Varvara.  The first page of issue #105 spells out the horror happening world-wide: monsters and upheaval and death.  Our heroes have proven to be woefully inadequate at stopping any of this.  Is this truly the end of the world?  Meanwhile, on page two, a transformed Abe Sapien emerges from his coma and discovers that, in his absence, the world has gone entirely to hell.  But the main story here is Agent Giarocco’s joining Iosif on a rescue mission to a town in Russia besieged by monsters.  Iosif’s real mission, though, is to the damaged station that for years has been transmitting and incantation that allowed the powerful demon Varvara to be imprisoned.  At last we learn how she went from feared head of the Russian S.S.S. to a captive in a jar!

At the start of issue #106, Varvara’s true dream form looks for allies in Hell, but finds only chaos, a result of what’s been happening in Hellboy in Hell.  The lords and dukes of Hell have been scattered.

I wonder why Panya doesn’t tell Kate and the others than she saw Abe wake from his coma?  After all this time, I still don’t know what Panya is up to…

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Abe Sapien #1-3: Dark and Terrible (2013) — A new Abe Sapien ongoing series kicks off, following Abe after he woke from his coma and fled the B.P.R.D. (in A Cold Day in Hell).  We’re over two years into this Abe solo series at the time of this writing, and I must admit that I’ve never been quite sold on it.  I’ve enjoyed these Abe issues more on this re-read than I did initially, but this lost and purposeless Abe is an unsettling change from the character I used to love.  Also, while I think the Fiumara brothers are amazing artists, I don’t love their somewhat scratchy artwork for a Mignolaverse story — I find I prefer the clean lines of artists like Duncan Fegredo, Tyler Crook, and James Harren (each of whom have wildly different styles, but for me they feel more “right” for a Hellboy universe story).  I’m also still not in love with the new, slack-jawed look of transformed Abe.  Is my problem simply that he’s less human-looking now?  That could be, but I think there’s just something in this new Abe look that is somewhat off-putting to me.

Anyways, this series finds Abe on the run.  In issue #1, he hides in a train car and we hear bums comparing notes about the chaos in the world.  One talks of a secret government mission underground: “Whatever they blew up down there made all the vampires come outta the ground as poison fungus and it’s been infecting people.”  So is THAT what was going on back in Pickins County Horror?  Good to know.  (By the way, we get another Pickins County Horror connection in this issue, as Agent Vaughn, introduced in that story, is assigned to track Abe.)  But getting back to the bum’s comments, this seems to indicate that Liz’s actions in The King of Fear #4 DID cause all the chaos of this “Hell on Earth” story-line.

Issue #1 introduces us, at last, to Gustav Strobl.  This is the “vile occultist” who Panya first mentioned way back in B.P.R.D.: The Warning #1.  Somehow Strobl is still alive and active today (just as the long-lived Memnan Saa was, at least until Liz fried him).  In issue #3, Vaughn gets himself killed (another B.P.R.D. agent bites the dust), but Strobl finds him and resurrects him.  Uh oh.  (The pairing of Strobl and the undead Vaughn will continue as a subplot throughout this Abe solo series.)

In issue #2, we see in flashback that Panya told Abe: “You were born for the world that’s coming… YOUR world.”  It’s interesting that Panya seems to believe, as Landis Pope/the Black Flame did (in King of Fear) that this new world is somehow Abe’s world.  Panya implies that the B.P.R.D. will use any means necessary to discover what’s going on with Abe unless he leaves to discover the truth for himself.  Is Panya being helpful here, or does she have another motive in sowing mistrust between Abe and his former B.P.R.D. friends?  Has Devon somehow been right all this time in having reason to mistrust Abe?  Panya also tells Abe that Hellboy has died in England (which Kate discovered in the short story An Unmarked Grave).

In issue #3, a priest quotes familiar words to Abe: “Sunken bells are tolling for thee.”  Wow, I can’t believe this line from Wake the Devil is still important to Abe’s story almost two decades later.  The priest then transforms into an Ogdru Hem and wreaks havoc.  I don’t get this.  If the priest was infected by the “hammerheads” who passed through the town, why did it take him so long to transform?  This opening Abe story-line didn’t thrill me.

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth #107-109: Wasteland (2013) — Johann and Nichols (introduced in The Long Death, where he was also partnered with Johann while searching for Daimio) lead a B.P.R.D. rescue mission to Chicago (looking for the three agents who were lost in the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra temple in The Abyss of Time). Of course, this goes badly wrong and they’re attacked by a huge monster spewing gas that turns people into monsters.  Their plane crashes, and the surviving agents must make a long, dangerous walk through the city.  We see that Chicago has been devastated.  In issue #2 we get a horrifying glimpse of the city in flames, with a huge beast towering over the skyscrapers and spewing toxic gas.  The towns around the city are mostly deserted, leaving only a few ragged survivors and roaming monsters.  This is the new normal in “Hell on Earth” — earthquakes, people turned into monsters, and constant attacks of the “hammerhead” monsters that we’ve been seeing a lot of lately.

As the agents make their trek, we meet a new female human agent, Becca Gervesh, and she tries to save an orphaned boy whose mother has been transformed into a monster.  When I initially read many of these story-lines, I was somewhat frustrated by how almost every new “Hell on Earth” story introduced new human agents.  I had a hard time telling them all apart!  But on this re-read, I am enjoying the way Mike Mignola and John Arcudi have been fleshing out the non-powered members of the B.P.R.D.’s “rank-and-file.”  The recurring presence of these human agents has helped weave these different stories together into a connected continuity.  And, of course, it helps to get to know and care for the “red shirts.”

In issue #3, the agents find the Heliopic Brotherhood site and Howards wakes up and goes all Conan on the monsters.  Seems that the persona of the stone-aged warrior Gall Dennar has stayed with Howards!  Interesting…   Howards is going to quickly become one of my favorite B.P.R.D. characters.

Lobster Johnson: Satan Smells a Rat (2013) — The amazing Kevin Nowlan returns to the Hellboy universe to illustrate this one-shot.  It’s a great weird pulp tale with zombies and thugs and dames and, oh yeah, a doctor experimenting on homeless people.  We meet Dr. Andres, who is working with a crippled rich man in a wheelchair who hopes the doc’s experiments will help him walk.  This will be important down the road.

Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus (2013) — Tong family couriers are getting murdered in Chinatown.  Meanwhile, Detective Jake Eckard is on the trail of the Lobster — he tracks down and grills Harry McTell.  Issue #1 ends on a great cliffhanger, as the Lobster encounters the female Chinese wizard the Crimson Lotus — Daimio’s grandmother!!!  And she’s surrounded by a cadre of those white-faced grinning monkeys!!!  It’s so cool to see this all come together.  As I have discussed in earlier posts, the connections between Ben Daimio and the Lotus and those monkeys has been a huge discovery of mine through this re-read.

I love seeing the Lobster fight those crazy monkeys in issue #2!  It’s unclear what happens when the Lobster shoots the Crimson Lotus.  He seems to defeat her, but she’s likely still alive.  (Back in those early B.P.R.D. mini-series, after Johann found the scrapbooks, I believe we heard that she was eventually put on trial.)  Meanwhile, Eckard’s cops find one of her dead monkeys.  We then learn that all their evidence is taken by the FBI.  The story ends with an image of that dead monkey in a jar, put away in an evidence room.  Decades later, Ben Daimio will find that monkey in a jar in The Dead #5!!

Abe Sapien #4-5: The New Race of Man (2013) — Abe arrives at the Salton Sea, where the first huge Ogdru Hem was released in King of Fear #5.  The creature has been laying eggs, and a community of people have gathered around these eggs.  Some are praying to them, looking for meaning in this new world filled with these terrible new gods.  This is an interesting exploration of how everyday people would react, trying to find some sort of meaning in this new “Hell on Earth” world.  But I was disappointed Abe didn’t learn more at the Salton Sea.  And I am confused as to how the large Ogdru Hem that hatched from the egg died in the Salton Sea.  It was just the usual properties of the Sea??  Seems very anti-climactic to me.

Hellboy: The Midnight Circus (2013) — Following the wonderful Richard Corben-illustrated House of the Living Dead, we get another gorgeous Hellboy hardcover OGN, this one illustrated by Duncan Fegredo, making a welcome return to the Hellboy universe after having completed the Darkness Calls quadrilogy.  The story is set in 1948.  Young Hellboy hasn’t yet sawed off his horns, so this story must be set before the events of B.P.R.D.: 1948 and B.P.R.D.: Vampire.  As the story opens, we see Malcolm Frost warning Professor Bruttenholm that Hellboy is evil.  (Malcolm Frost appeared in Seed of Destruction, and in the 1998 short story The Right Hand of Doom we learned from his son, Adrian Frost, that Malcolm tried his whole life to convince Bruttenholm that Hellboy was too dangerous to be allowed to live.)  Hellboy overhears this exchange and runs away, only to stumble across a mysterious circus filled with demons and magical creatures.

In the circus, Hellboy encounters an alluring, red, horn-headed woman.  I think this is Hellboy’s sister, who we just learned of in Hellboy in Hell #3!  We also meet the circus owner, an old man with a beard — but if you look carefully, you’ll see this is Astaroth!  He has that distinctive orange ring, and we see his true form in a mirror towards the end of the story.  Astaroth calls the woman — who I believe is Hellboy’s sister — Gamori.  (She calls Astaroth her uncle, which makes sense since we learned in Hellboy in Hell #3 that Astaroth’s brother Azzael was Hellboy’s father.)

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Gamori tries and fails to convince young Hellboy to use his Right Hand of Doom to unlock the gates of Hell.  Astaroth believes Hellboy will eventually come around, but Gamori urges Astaroth to kill him, saying: “In time he’ll be the ruin of both of us.”  (This already seems to have been the case for Astaroth.)  Astaroth decrees that Gamori shall never harm Hellboy while he (Astaroth) lives.  Since we just saw Astaroth kick the bucket in Hellboy in Hell #3, I am very much expecting to see Gamori re-enter the picture some-time soon!!

This great story — wonderful on its own but loaded with meaning for attentive Hellboy fans — is accompanied by magnificent art by Duncan Fegredo.  I love the stylistic shifts as Hellboy moves through the story.  We see traditional ink lines for the sequences in the B.P.R.D. Connecticut headquarters; then we shift into lush watercolors once Hellboy enters the Midnight Circus; then more simplistic drawings when Hellboy reads Pinocchio (I love the parallels between Hellboy and Pinocchio — both wish they were a real boy); and then a sketchy look when the B.P.R.D. agent is telling the story of the old hobo ghosts.  This is gorgeous, brilliant artwork.

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth #110-114: Lake of Fire (2013) — Tyler Crook returns to the art as we finally catch up with Liz (last seen in an ambulance, all bashed up, in The Return of the Master).  Apparently she was crushed in a collapsed building but, as usual, is healing rapidly.  (Is this an answer to the question of how Liz — who should be about fifty years old based on the Hellboy chronology — still looks so young?  Does she have a Wolverine-like healing factor that keeps her young?)  Liz is taken to a hospital that, unfortunately, falls under the control of the creepy Dr. Clyburn, who is performing horrible experiments on the patients.  Liz, of course, kicks his ass.

Back in Monsters (which was the only time we’d seen Liz since the events of King of Fear #4, except for that one panel of her in the ambulance in The Return of the Master), it seemed that following the dramatic events in the Earth’s core, Liz had lost her powers.  The early issues of this new story-line seem to confirm that.  However, over the course of this very-satisfying story, we see Liz finally accept the truth of her oft-repeated mantra that “the fire is a part of me.”  She regains access to her powers and is able to defeat Dr. Clyburn and his hideous creations.  It’s awesome to see Liz get her mojo back in issue #113 and kick some ass.  And then, even more wonderfully, we see her finally return to the B.P.R.D., back in control of herself and her powers.  (Recall that during her last few years as an agent before King of Fear, Liz was mostly out-of-it and unreliable as a result of the manipulations of Memnan Saa.)  It’s an incredible, deeply satisfying moment in issue #114 when we see Liz putting back on her cross necklace and B.P.R.D. uniform.  It’s been almost a decade of stories since she was last a B.P.R.D. agent.  This is an extraordinary payoff, one of my favorite moments in the entire series, and a great example of the wonderful flowers that can bloom from this sort of long-form storytelling.

There’s a lot more going on in this story-line than just Liz, though!  In issue #110, the mystery of what has happened to New York is raised.  The city has apparently been entirely cut off from the outside world for over a year.  In that same issue, we see Reverend Paul Nedin of the “First Church of the Living Earth.”  He had previously appeared in New World, and he appears to have converted to a new religion worshipping the Ogdru Hem.  He gets a lot of time here; I wonder if this character is going to be important down the road.

Fenix, meanwhile, arrives  at the Salton Sea, which Abe just left!  (He was there in Abe Sapien #4-5.)  In issue #111, Fenix meets the old man, Bob, who Abe also encountered.  This is a neat crossover, as the character was introduced in the Abe series but it’s here in B.P.R.D. that we learn his story.  (He was once involved in a bomb-making plot and seeks to atone.)  As much as this Lake of Fire story-line is about Liz, it’s also notable for finally giving us a glimpse into Fenix’s background.  I’m fascinated by the sad glimpses we’re given into Fenix’s past.  We learn that she sees and talks to the ghost of her dead sister, who tells her things — this is how Fenix knows when bad things are about to happen.

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In issue #111 we get a great moment in which almost all of the human B.P.R.D. agents introduced over the last several years all find themselves together back at the Bureau headquarters.  Giarocco, Gervesh, Nichols, and Howards, they’re all there!  Very cool.

We’re starting to see very close cooperation between the B.P.R.D. and the Russian S.S.S.  It’ll be very interesting to see where this is all going and if Iosif can truly be trusted.  I was thrilled when Iosif points out to our B.P.R.D. friends the possibility that the Zinco Corporation is up to no good.  Finally!!  Hellboy readers have known this for two decades, since Wake the Devil!!

I’m pleased to see that Liz is saddened to learn of Sal’s death in The Return of the Master.  That was a nice touch.  Poor Sal.

At the end of this story, Liz is at peace and back with the B.P.R.D., and so is Fenix.  The New York mission is about to begin.  A HUGE B.P.R.D. arc is coming!!

I’ll be back here soon to discuss The Reign of the Black Flame…!

The issues discussed in this post are collected in: B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth vol. 7 A Cold Day in Hell, and vol. 8 Lake of Fire, Lobster Johnson vol. 3 Satan Smells a Rat, Abe Sapien vol. 3 Dark and Terrible and the New Race of Man, and Hellboy: The Midnight Circus.

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