B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth Volume 3 Review
All art in this review was created by:
Writers: Mike Mignola, John Arcudi
Colorist: Dave Stewart
The third hardcover omnibus edition of B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth is a satisfying, wholly entertaining collection of both long arcs and shorter stories and marks a substantial change in the tone of the John Arcudi penned series.
Opening with the three part story Wasteland, we are shown immediately that the state of the world following the chaos at the end of the last omnibus is grimmer than one could have imagined. We see a kind of bleakness that the B.P.R.D. series hasn’t ever explored unto this point that is jarring at first. B.P.R.D. has always tread in dark water, but where older stories when reaching a particularly dark point would still be a kind of Grand Guignol, existing as a in macabre fantasy, in Wasteland, we witness something decidedly more subdued. Much of this has to do with the pitch perfect art style of Lawrence Campbell in his first appearance on the series. The tone of the story calls for a type of realism that Campbell excels in.
The focus of the story is on the regular humans caught up in the apocalypse, rather than Johann, the single paranormal entity on the good guys’ team and Campbell is given pages and pages to absolutely nail the facial expressions and body language of these average joes. Especially striking are when Johann and the regular humans are in the same page. An important thread moving forward in Hell on Earth is Johann’s detachment from humanity, and there are a few panels in Wasteland that beautifully illustrate this piece of character development without any text needed to make it clear. These types of panels are why comics work as a medium. Ted Howards is formally introduced and makes a particularly striking impression in one of the most surprising moments in the entire Hell on Earth cycle. As told in a series of single issues, this particular story comes across as unfulfilling and more somber than it needs to be, but as a single story with three chapters, part of a whole, it’s engrossing and appropriate stage setting for what’s to come.
The next tale in the omnibus is A Cold Day in Hell, with art by Peter Snejbjerg. This one features Carla Giarocco and Iosif Nichayko on a mission in Russia. This is a two part story that’s pretty breezy and light compared The the previous one. We get a lot of great characterization for Carla, recently hardened after a series of disastrous missions, and Iosif is given plenty of spotlight as well, shining light in places that previously made him seem somewhat duplicitous. We get a better sense for him in this story, and that’s where the real value of it lies. We are given more of Varvara’s background and we get some fun reminders that this story is taking place simultaneously with Hellboy in Hell. The art by Snejbjerg is particularly enjoyable, especially during the climax of the story. There are some really inventive layouts in there that we don’t usually get in this series.
Lake of Fire comes next and really starts to kick the whole Hell on Earth story into high gear. We mainly focus on Liz, with Fenix’s homecoming to California mixed in. This story is very exciting, marking the beginning of the Hell on Earth cycle really finding its footing narrative-wise. It’s an absolute page turner. We get a great sense for how the world has changed after the end of Return of the Master but where the previous global status quo changes were usually somewhat glossed over with montages or news reports and double page spreads of some horrible disaster, in this story we really get to just settle into it by watching a handful of people react to their changed circumstances. Liz’s friendship and flirtation with her doctor is particularly fun to see, as is Fenix’s interactions with the Ogdru cult at the Salton Sea. Taking Liz out of the picture for a few books was a good move, since she was such a focus of the last cycle, and bringing her back into the fold at this particular point in the story also feels like a very well thought out narrative move.
The art by Tyler Crook in this story is a cycle-wide standout from page one. No one on these books can get their characters to emote the way he can. On a story like this one, where the important beats are deeply personal ones rather than purely plot or action driven, having Crook on as illustrator is a perfect choice. Dave Stewart makes his presence known in a big way on this story as well. Tyler Crook’s bigger, more cartoonish figures leave a lot of room for Stewart’s way of forgoing gradients in favor of putting one shifting color after another in solid sections abundantly clear. In this way, Stewart can show off his aptitude for using the best, most appropriate colors and never having to use anything in between.
The final story in the omnibus, Reign of the Black Flame, is very special. Every pressing narrative thread up until this point explodes into a climax as the B.P.R.D. storms the new Black Flame’s seat of power in New York City. Characters who up until now have only spoken to each other in fluorescent-lit rooms together are now forced to make life and death decisions together. The Black Flame is revealed as a devastating enemy, some kind of Bacon-esque nightmare on steroids. Relatively new “enhanced” characters Howards, Fenix and Iosif are given a spotlight, showcasing their vitality as part of our cast of characters and we get a lot of great material out of the troubles our more traditionally human cast of grunts go through.
The art on this story is unreal. It’s the opinion of your reviewer that Reign of the Black Flame, in terms of comics art is a standout in all of contemporary comics, period. James Harren is a master. His expressions, his poses, his sense of movement, his monster designs (holy crap, his monster designs) are an island unto themselves. Every page is a treat. Each page shows you something you’ve never seen before. This is an urgent story, and Harren’s art is synonymous with urgency. His panels demand attention. They’re crude and wild and magical. I’ll tell you this right now; no one in comics draws guts like James Harren draws guts.
The third hardcover collection of the Hell on Earth cycle is at once challenging, entertaining, somber and explosive. In this book lies a distillation of the whole cycle, spanning its most memorable, vital moments, sending the B.P.R.D. onward into the apocalypse. There’s no going back now.