Review: B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Transformation of J.H. DonnellA comic review article by: Zack Davisson
B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Transformation of J. H. Donnell is a missing puzzle piece in the grand vista that is B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth. The odd little insane Professor Donnell has been a mystery for too long -- or maybe a cautionary tale showing what happens when regular humans spend too much time staring into the void. For awhile now Professor J.H, Donnell has wandered the edges of the Bureau, popping up to give speeches an Hyperboreans and times when Ogdru Jahad walked the earth. Finally we get to hear his story.
For a one-shot, writers Mignola and Allie have crafted a tight little piece that keeps the story moving and even has Hellboy in it to cause a bit of a ruckus while the professor attends to more esoteric matters. The spine of the story is a classic riff on Lovecraft: A deceased occultist leaves behind a library rumored to contain rare, arcane texts. An academic with more curiosity than caution seeks out the library, where he finds a second, hidden library piled with books that fill his mind with soul-blasting information and summon ancient horrors.
But this is Mignola, not Lovecraft, so threaded through this tale is some good old-fashioned monster-stomping Hellboy action, complete with quips and fire and everything we love.
In The Transformation of J.H. Donnell, Mignola and Allie took what could have been a perfunctory origin story and twisted and turned it into a sweet little horror yarn that juxtaposes esoteric horror with hard-hitting Hellboy hijinks, and just the right splash of classic gross-out. The use of Hellboy was almost hilariously self-conscious. I could just picture the story planning session with people saying, "Well, we have this quiet, classic horror story to tell about flirtations with the unknown, but we don't want readers to get bored. How about if we mix that up with Hellboy punching it out with a giant goat mummy?"
"Can we set the mummy on fire?"
"Yeah, that works."
As goofy as that sounds, it does totally work. Either sequence on its own would have been a let-down, but bundled together they play off of each other, providing just the right balance for a satisfying single issue.
The artist for The Transformation of J.H.Donnell is Max Fiumara, who I don't believe I have ever heard of before. Fiumara fits easily into the B.P.R.D. universe, but his art is so indistinct that it just blends into everything else. I don't know if Dark Horse is developing some sort of "House Style," but I can't help but notice similarities amongst the B.P.R.D. artists. Just like James Harren, who did B.P.R.D. The Long Death and is currently drawing Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast, Fiumara mixes exquisite backgrounds with awkward characters. I don't know if he is drawing the backgrounds from photo reference or not, but they are really beautiful. The scene where they first enter into the forbidden library is incredibly detailed. I spent more time on those pages of the comic than anywhere else, pouring over those panels, checking out all of the mystic devices and treasures hidden in the dusky room. Like Harren, Fiumara also draws great monsters. His Hellboy looks great. His flaming goat mummy is awesome.
The problem is people. All of the people are too exaggerated, the eyes too large and too far apart, heads like pumpkins stuck on toothpicks, facial expressions stiff and formal. The human characters lack the fluency and believability of the monsters and those picture-perfect backgrounds. Just as with the writing of this issue, where the action is played off with the quiet scenes, B.P.R.D. works best with human characters juxtaposed with the unreal. (Duncan Fegredo's work is the best example of this.)
When everyone looks bizarre, when regular humans have pop-eyes and expressionistic body styles, the impact of the actual weirdness is lessened.
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.