Despair seems to be the theme running through the two stories in B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Devil’s Engine and The Long Death — and people have good reason to despair. Hellboy is dead. Abe Sapien is shot and in a comma. The forces of evil reign on earth. The B.P.R.D. is looking to snatch whatever flowers of hope still bloom, to gather forces for a desperate re-match, and win some sort of final victory. But the odds don’t look good, and you aren’t going to find much hope in this comic, at any rate.
This collected edition has two unrelated three-issue miniseries from the B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth series, The Devil’s Engine and The Long Death. Both series continue a trend I have noticed in the last few B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth miniseries. They are humanizing the cannon fodder. In the old days, when Hellboy, Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman and B.P.R.D. Agent Billy Redshirt went on a mission together, the odds were pretty good (as in 100%) that Agent Redshirt’s life was going to be short. The human arm of the B.P.R.D. seemed to be there mostly to provide appetizers or bait to whatever monstrosity the monster squad arm of the B.P.R.D. was batting. Not anymore.
With the major players out of action, the humans are having to fend for themselves. Sure, there are a few supernormals left, but they are few and far between and not the heavy hitters that Hellboy is. Now it is up to people like agent Andrew Devon to save the day, and he might not make it.
The Devil’s Engine is a sequel to B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Gods. The psychic homeless girl Fenix is being transported by to somewhere they can put her abilities to use. Agent Devon isn’t really sold on Fenix though; he thinks of her as just some crazy girl off her medication muttering about “bad feelings.” It isn’t going to take much to convince him that he should listen to what she says.
The artist in for The Devil’s Engine is Tyler Crook, who makes a good replacement for Guy Davis.
Crook’s artwork is more distinct, less scratchier than Davis’, but his characters are their world is still recognizable. Fenix and Devon both look like Fenix and Devon. Crook also has a way with nuanced facial expressions. There are quite a few panels that are just Fenix’s confusion over her own sense of foreboding, and her frustration at being unable to explain why she knows what she knows.
Of the two series, The Devil’s Engine is more connected with the ongoing the ongoing Hell on Earth storyline. This story sets the stage for the big boom that is B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Return of the Master where all of the connected storylines finally come together.
The Long Death is my favorite of this collection. Whereas The Devil’s Engine is prologue, The Long Death is epilog. Johann Kraus — fresh in his new Russian containment suit from B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Russia — heads once more into the wilderness to hunt for his old friend Captain Daimio, who Kraus feared had transformed into the legendary flesh-eating wendigo.
The Long Death is a melancholy piece. There are no great heroics here, no redeeming battles; just failure and its consequences. Mignola and Arcudi have done excellent work digging into the dynamics of what humans must feel like working along something like Johann Krauss. One of my favorite moments is two agents sitting in the dirt discussing the afterlife and how the mere presence of Johann Krauss is reassuring; he is walking proof that death is not the end.
Little scenes like this remind me of Shakespeare’s Henry V, where we get to hear the foot soldiers discussing the morality of their campaign, and wonder if their souls can be at risk for following their duty. Or if doing bad things in a noble cause can be forgiven.
I was impressed with James Harren’s art in this series. The guy can draw serious monsters. I don’t know if he is working off of Mignola character designs or not, but both his yeti and his were-jaguar are terrifying, all gangly limbs and gapping maws. He knows how to dig down deep and channel both fear and humanity for his monsters. The yeti vs. were-jaguar battle is spectacular. I love how he gives both of the monsters distinct personalities even in the midst of a pitched battle.
King of Colors Dave Stewart spins Harren’s art into something mythical during the battle. He makes his own yin-yang of violence with the white Wendigo against the red were-jaguar. There are some very nice subtleties going on, like when the Wendigo’s pure white flesh takes on a pinkish hue when he bites down on the were-jaguar, as if absorbing some of its rage. It just goes to show once again how Stewart can take anyone’s art and move it from great to masterpiece with a stroke of his digital pen.
I have been enjoying these little B.P.R.D. interludes in the Hell on Earth series. I know that Dark Horse is building up for the Big Event that is coming soon and that these stories amount to little more than appetizers. But as an appetizer, both The Devil’s Engine and The Long Death are completely delicious and utterly filling.
Like all Dark Horse collected editions, this volume has a bonus sketchbook in the back. I really enjoyed seeing the process, and how character designs for The Devil’s Engine worked from Mignola’s initial sketches and ideas to Crook’s finished work.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the ’90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.