B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth, Vol. 6
Written by Mike Mignola & John Arcudi
Illustrated by Tyler Crook
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins
Covers by Mike Mignola with Dave Stewart
Chapter break art by Ryan Sook
Dark Horse Comics
Release Date: August 7, 2013
Cover Price: $19.99
Regardless of how well versed a comic book reader might be in the various comic book universes (DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, etc.), jumping into a new series can be a daunting challenge. Picking up an issue in the middle of a story arc can be just as challenging, if not outright frustrating. Mike Mignola, the creator of the Hellboy universe, has partially solved that problem by clearly demarcating the beginning, middle, and end of particular story arcs. It’s a major selling point Mignola and Dark Horse exploit smartly, but even then, the Hellboy universe can pose a significant challenge to hopeful new readers or casual readers. B.P.R.D. (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development), Mignola’s long-running Hellboy spinoff unfortunately falls into this category.
Mignola first spun off the B.P.R.D. into a standalone series more than a decade ago. Short story arcs and self-contained miniseries were the norm at first, but they’ve grown increasingly more complex and, some might suggest convoluted, since then. The latest standalone story arc scripted by Mignola and John Arcudi, B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth, began with the New World miniseries three years ago and shows no signs of wrapping up anytime soon. The latest trade collection, The Return of the Master, is far from a jumping-on point for new or casual readers (they should begin at, well, the beginning and work their way up). As the title implies, The Return of the Master involves the return of a familiar B.P.R.D. and Hellboy villain, possibly Rasputin, but possibly another villain (or villains) altogether.
When we catch up with the B.P.R.D. in the first issue of the series, fan-favorite Abe Sapien, the sentient amphibian and Hellboy associate, has been temporarily shuffled to the sidelines, the victim of an errant bullet that’s left him slowly recovering in a water tank. The first-page recap informs readers that Liz Sherman has gone missing. Johann Strauss, an incorporeal being who interacts with the physical world thanks to an ectoplasmic-containing suit, has been temporarily suspended, leaving Dr. Kate Corrigan as the undisputed leader of the B.P.R.D. Taking a page from Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and DC’s Gotham Central series, the focus in Vol. 6 of Hell on Earth is on the non-super-powered field agents, specifically, but not limited to one Carla Guarocco and Sal Tasso.
Corrigan sends Guarocco to Scotland with her own B.P.R.D. team to investigate reports of a charismatic occult leader, Lazar. Lazar enters the first panel as a Constantine lookalike in a tan trenchcoat, but eventually takes on the appearance, behavior, and vocal tics of an entirely different man. Aware of the B.P.R.D.’s presence, Lazar sends an after wave of mystically powered forces to overwhelm Guarocco and Tasso’s under-powered, under-prepared team. By the second-to-last page, all hope seems to be lost for the B.P.R.D.’s B-squad. More importantly, the events in Scotland also have a ripple effect, stirring a variety of H.P. Lovecraft-inspired monsters from dormancy to tear down cities around the world. Those final pages promise more mayhem and destruction as, of course, most comic-book series – the Hellboy universe is nothing if not a clever supernatural spin on costumed superheroes – should.
Despite the promise of things to come, Vol. 6 starts off shakily, spinning and shifting from one subplot to another, introducing barely distinguishable characters before moving on to the next subplot. It makes for hard going at first, especially for a casual reader trying to find their way through this particular story arc. And while illustrator Tyler Crook acquits himself well when The Return of the Master goes big in terms of scale and scope, his character work leaves something to be desired. Crook has the Hellboy house-style down when it comes to Abe Sapien, Johann Strauss, and a few other familiar faces, but often fails to distinguish individual human characters sufficiently. Sometimes that means readers will be forced to re-read dialogue balloons to figure out who’s talking. It’s a minor detriment most of the time, but a significant one when hell literally breaks loose and it becomes difficult to tell one secondary character from another. Then again, secondary characters in the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. universe tend to have a short shelf life in the Hellboy universe.