The end of the world isn’t easy. Bullets, grenades, and napalm are still the weapons of choice for the BPRD in the post-apocalypse. Luckily, they have a secret weapon: Agent Howards aka Gall Denar. The latest story arc of BPRD Hell on Earth by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, James Harren, and Dave Stewart puts the spotlight on Agent Howards and his history with the monsters. Beware! Spoilers ahead! This week we’re discussing “Flesh and Stone!”
The BPRD aren’t doing well. To limit the risks of monster hunting, they’ve essentially become scouts for Air Force bombing runs. When one bombing run goes wrong and angers a sleeping monster, an entire team is lost except for Agents Enos and Howards. We learn through flashbacks that Howards, as Gall Denar, once led a hunt to kill a similar monster in ancient times. Their tribal shaman had actually crafted magical runic stones to help, but were lost in a lake on accident. Howards recovers the stones in the present day, and uses them to great effect when the BPRD hunts the monster down a second time.
The BPRD knows Howards is something of a barbaric, monster-killing maniac; but this is the first time Howards breaks his silence when ordering Enos to fire the grenade launcher. Back at base he’s something of a savior figure, and we see one agent has drawn Howards’ Hyperborean sword onto the BPRD emblem. There’s some discussion throughout the story about the BPRDs need for leadership, and this story is in part setting Howards up as one of those potential leaders. Yeah, it’s hard to see him leading teams without ever speaking, but he’s definitely being established as a symbolic, inspirational figure for members of the BPRD. Howards doesn’t need special powers to be a complete badass.
I’m a big fan of James Harren’s work in Hell on Earth and in his other book with Arcudi and Stewart, Rumble. Harren does really kinetic imagery, and Arcudi writes to these strengths. Most importantly, Arcudi knows when to pull back dialogue and let the art tell the story, he doesn’t step on Harren’s toes. “Flesh and Stone” is a slow, atmospheric story told in large part by the art of Harren and Stewart. There are big action scenes, but if you compare it to their last Hell on Earth arc, “The Reign of the Black Flame,” then you really see how they take their time with “Flesh and Stone.” But it never feels long, or drawn out. The pacing is spot on for a story like this, and they take their time with the main Howards story and a few side stories to set up characters and build tension for future stories.
“Flesh and Stone” doesn’t do anything obvious. The developments are small, and subtle. I tend to be hard on stories which seemingly go nowhere, and “Flesh and Stone” at a glance falls into that category. The thing is, BPRD is a series I respect a lot. I trust that there’s a big payoff coming with Agent Howards, and I trust BPRD to follow through with plots that I wouldn’t trust other books with. I enjoy the guessing, I enjoy the action, I enjoy all the tension and build up. For instance, Iosif and Varvara are given a story in “Flesh and Stone” that just reaffirms the tension between these two characters. It’s a tension that feels like it’s been building for ages. It’s inevitable that she will eventually escape, but then what will she do to Iosif? Will she fry him then and there, or trap him as her own play-thing? Is her camaraderie with the man holding her imprisoned just a show? There are endless possibilities.
BPRD Hell on Earth is a book about the inevitable. We were warned the world would end soon in Hellboy, and it came. Now the Black Flame is intent on releasing the Ogdru Jahad one way or another. Varvara seemingly desires to lead the armies of Hell against the monsters on Earth (and to save Russia). And the BPRD still has a big role to play. But we never have a clear picture of exactly what’s coming, we just know it’s big, and it’s inevitable. Mignola, Arcudi, Harren, and Stewart build the tension and craft a world where I can’t help but anticipate the next big thing. But the real fun is in the build up.