REVIEW: "DC Universe: Rebirth" #1 Makes the Future of DC Comics Look Genuinely Bright
It’s the end of an era. B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth: Gods #3 hits stores today, the final issue of the long-running Hellboy spinoff’s latest miniseries — and with it, the tenure of Guy Davis as the series’ regular artist draws to a close. Davis will be returning for the occasional project in Mike Mignola’s unique horror-adventure universe, and everyone involved gives his replacement, near-overnight success story Tyler Crook, their vote of confidence; given Mignola and company’s track record in selecting artists, from Davis to Duncan Fegredo to Richard Corben, I’m inclined to take them at their word. Even so, as I wrote at length the other day, Davis’ work on B.P.R.D with Mignola, lead writer John Arcudi, and colorist Dave Stewart (not to mention letterer Clem Robins and editor Scott Allie) has been one of the past decade’s absolute high-water marks for superhero (or supernatural action, if you prefer) comics. From sadness to spectacle, horror to humor, stunning creature designs to quiet character moments, there was pretty much nothing the guy couldn’t do.
In honor of Davis, Arcudi, Mignola, and Stewart’s remarkable achievement, I’ve selected a suite of my favorite moments from the Guy Davis era of B.P.R.D.. And in honor of the Ogdru Jahad, the Seven-Who-Are-One dark gods whose rise the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is battling (perhaps in vain) to stop, I’ve expanded the list past our usual “Six by 6″ format to include seven stunning scenes. My hope is that they showcase the range, subtlety, sophistication, and power of one of the best artists working in genre comics — arguably in all of comics — today, and highlight just how well he and his collaborators worked together. Just be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD.
1. Sadu-Hem Reborn (B.P.R.D. Vol. 3: Plague of Frogs)
Demons, vampires, Nazi occult experiments run amok, Lovecraftian entities bent on destruction: Horror has always been the heart of the Hellboy universe. But while many comics display the trappings and markings of horror — after all, it’s as easy as drawing some rickety mansions and creepy creatures — it takes a real mastery of the form, of pacing and tone and knowing just what to show and how to show it to us, to make an image that genuinely unnerves, disturbs, frightens. That’s what Davis pulled off in his first full B.P.R.D. arc, with Mignola on scripting duties. When the mad priest the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development had been tracking finally rips the shroud off the hulking, shambling monstrosity he’s been shepherding, the resulting vision — the evil cosmic entity Sadu-Hem in quasi-human form, or an “elephant-man fungus” as Mignola’s direction to Davis put it — is as horrifying to us as it is to Agent Kate Corrigan as she watches through the window. It’s the eyes that do it, the beady eyes in that massive fleshy head, staring right at us, recognizing us, knowing that we’re there. I feel exposed when looking at this page.
2. The Caverns of Num-Yabisc (B.P.R.D. Vol. 3: Plague of Frogs)
So we know Davis can draw awful things; turns out he can draw awe-inspiring things as well. During an out-of-body experience, the “anthro-amphibian” Abe Sapien has a vision of an underwater temple where dwells a giant jellyfish-like entity — one whose gills and markings bear a striking resemblance to his own. We soon find out that it was an attempt to harness the powers of this being that transformed an antebellum occultist named Langdon Caul into the fish-man we know and love today. But this initial revelation really needed to impress, since Abe’s secret origin was so very different from what most readers likely expected. (I assumed he was from some underwater race, not a one-off mystical mutation.) With Dave Stewart’s luscious blue-greens riding shotgun, Davis created a vista of vast yet simple splendor, and a deity of strange, sinister alien beauty.
3. In the Boardroom of the Black Flame (B.P.R.D. Vol. 5: The Black Flame)
When writer John Arcudi joined the B.P.R.D. team to take on lead writing duties, with Mignola as co-plotter, overseer, and impresario, the black humor always present in Hellboy and its spinoffs started burning darker and hotter than ever. No other sequence illustrates just how weirdly, creepily funny the book could be than this one from The Black Flame, in which the titular villain — a corporate C.E.O. with what eventually proves to be a very unfortunate fixation on Nazi occult programs — calmly strolls into a board meeting in full flaming-skull regalia and sacks his entire slack-jawed staff. Mignola says in the collection’s afterword that the sequence was his idea, but only because he thought it was the kind of thing Arcudi might write himself, showing just how fluid a collaboration the team’s work really is. The idea itself is a beaut, but it’s Davis’s masterful character design for the Black Flame and expertly calibrated body language and facial expressions for the man beneath the mask and his underlings that sell the sequence on the page. Simply put, these are two of my favorite pages from any comic ever: Bizarre, hilarious, perfectly paced, and utterly unforgettable.
4. The Death of Roger the Homunculus (B.P.R.D. Vol. 5: The Black Flame)
In an explosion that seemed to hit me nearly as hard as it hit the doomed members of the Bureau, Roger the Homunclus — a seemingly throwaway character born of a medieval alchemical experiment, revived and rescued by Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. centuries later, and until these three pages a surprisingly charismatic man of action in the team’s adventures — died. With him died the sense that B.P.R.D. would stick with a status quo: A motley crew of scientists, soldiers, and supernatural beings shutting down hotspots of evil activity around the world. No, in this book, our friends and heroes can die, and even the fact that they’re made out of mystically animated inanimate matter can’t put them back together again. It would take several more issues before the team truly gave up on the idea that Roger could be revived, but it was clear to me that all hope had vanished the moment I saw Davis’s menacing rendition of the Black Flame, small and silent and glowing with malice, standing in the corner, waiting to snuff out a hero’s life.
5. Katha-Hem Triumphant (B.P.R.D. Vol. 5: The Black Flame)
Talk about overturning the status quo. In this spectacular spread, Davis and company did more than kill off a character we believed untouchable — they tore up everything we thought we knew about how the world of Hellboy would work. Until the colossal entity called Katha-Hem appeared, towering over the fields and cities of Nebraska, the incidents faced by Hellboy and the Bureau were mostly localized in nature, to the extent that the team’s existence and activities could be kept, if not quite secret, than at least somewhat subdued in terms of public profile. But when the Black Flame and his plague of frogs summoned Katha-Hem, the world as we knew it changed. There’s no denying the existence, presence, and menace of the supernatural once it’s left a Godzilla-style trail of destruction through the American Midwest, killing untold thousands of people and thwarting the mightiest military the world has ever known. No longer was the B.P.R.D.’s mission a matter of small towns overrun by frog monsters or haunted by ghosts, or of abandoned castles occupied by vampire monarchs or relict Nazi scientists. Now it was a matter of stopping the destruction of life on Earth, on a scale no one could possibly miss. Davis’s gargantuan whale/slug/insect creature, bearing down on a town it dwarfed it size, brought this home in a way words could never do; leading up to it by showing us a chastened Black Flame, sitting with his arms on his knees like an exhausted commuter and barely able to articulate the magnitude of his transgression (“I…I think I made a mistake.”), simply proved that for Arcudi and Davis, character beats and world-changing two-page spreads were inextricably linked.
6. Abe Betrayed (B.P.R.D. Vol. 7: Garden of Souls)
Meet the men who drank champagne while their friend became a freak. “Are you the same men making rather merry as I changed from man to fish-creature?” Abe Sapien’s later words to his former colleagues in the Oannes Society — a Victorian cult dedicated to harnessing mystical oceanic energies in order to preserve humankind (well, some of it) in the face of the coming apocalypse, to which Sapien, in his former incarnation as the fully human Langdon Caul, once belonged — were quietly vicious, or as vicious as he dared to get when chatting with nearly 200-year-old cyborgs and übermenschen. But their response to him is even more vicious, in its way: They tell him that back before he transformed, he’d been 100% down with their “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” approach. Abe’s discovery of the story behind his creation in Garden of Souls was as shocking to him as it was to us. We’d known since his communion with the jellyfish god how he’d become an Icthys sapien, but neither he nor we had imagined that he’d originally set out on the journey that led him to his watery preservation tank for reasons as coldly, murderously utilitarian as those of the Oannes Society. The beauty of the sequence above lies in how Davis’s cross-cutting, figurework, and facial expressions reveal just how callous the Society could be — and how Abe’s glass-smashing rage at their betrayal of the man he once was comes with the knowledge that that man would have been just as cruel had their positions been reversed.
7. Daimio and Daryl (B.P.R.D Vol. 8: Killing Ground)
Here’s another desert-island page for me. Killing Ground was still another overturn-the-apple-cart arc for B.P.R.D., in which their field commander Ben Daimio’s terrible secret — that within him lurked a bloodthirsty god of the jungle, held back only by great effort — was revealed at terrible cost. It was also another case where seeds planted long ago — in this case Daryl, a hapless family man who’d been possessed by the rampaging spirit of the Northern wilderness called the Wendigo — blossomed and bore horrible fruit. As these two creatures ran amok in the B.P.R.D.’s mountain headquarters in a story as tense, claustrophobic, and sometimes explosively violent as Alien or The Thing, we wondered how the shattering of the Bureau by Daimio’s transformation would ever be resolved. In the end … it wasn’t. Escaping from the base and wandering into the snowy wastes, a devastated Daimio, the blood of countless friends and colleagues on his hands, sits and waits for what he knows must be coming. Then it’s there, an implacable spirit of vengeance, featuring one of Guy Davis’s strangest and scariest and most unique designs. And that’s how the team leaves us at the end of the arc: With a moonlit image of a guilty man, naked and alone, silently standing before a thing that should not be. There’s so more mystery and melancholy in this one eerily beautiful image by Davis than in many entire runs. As such, it’s a fitting symbol for a truly wonderful body of work.