Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, they are B.P.R.D.: Hell On Earth #126, written by Mike Mignola (Hellboy In Hell, The Amazing Screw-On Head) and John Arcudi (Hellboy And The B.P.R.D., Major Bummer) with art by James Harren (Conan The Barbarian, Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest) and colorist Dave Stewart (Hellboy In Hell, Conan The Barbarian), and Rumble #1, written by Arcudi with art by Harren and Stewart. These two issues spotlight the balance of mythical spectacle, atmospheric horror, and character-based drama that has made this creative team a powerful force in comics. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
It’s always nice to get a great comic by a strong creative team on any given week, but to get two great comics by the same creative team in one week is an event that hardly ever happens in the current comics climate. There’s a big reason for that: Comic art takes a long time, and a monthly schedule for one book is hard enough for most artists. Especially an artist of James Harren’s caliber. Harren produces about six issues each year—almost exclusively for Dark Horse’s B.P.R.D. series—but those issues are truly marvelous in terms of scope, reaching epic heights of fantasy horror action without losing sight of the intimate, personal storytelling that forms a connection between the reader and the characters.
There’s incredible detail in Harren’s designs and linework, his action has a manga-inspired kineticism that accentuates speed and force, and he understands exactly how to stage a scene for maximum impact, whether it’s a tense conversation unfolding over multiple panels or a dramatic two-page splash evoking fear, dread, and wonder. He’s one of the best in the business, and it takes a while to deliver artwork that looks this good. Months can go by without any new interior art from Harren, but by some sort of holiday miracle, this week sees the release of two comics by this remarkable creator: B.P.R.D.: Hell On Earth #126, the second part of the “Flesh And Stone” arc, and Rumble #1, the debut of Harren’s new Image ongoing with B.P.R.D. collaborators John Arcudi and Dave Stewart.
These two titles show the impressive range of what this creative team is capable of; B.P.R.D. is a bleak, haunting narrative on a grand scale, whereas Rumble is more contained and more comedic, focusing on the residents of an urban metropolis that is in a rapid state of decay. The two books have very different tones, but are similar in the way they take heightened fantasy elements and ground them in a recognizable reality, with B.P.R.D. depicting giant monster attacks through the eyes of troops on the ground and Rumble introducing a down-on-his-luck bartender to a world of bickering demons and scarecrow warrior gods with giant swords.
Described by Image Comics as a book about “a scarecrow-Conan fighting in a Louis C.K. TV show directed by David Fincher,” Rumble is the latest addition to the publisher’s list of high-concept titles. “Scarecrow-Conan” is in reference to Rahtraq, the figure standing ominously in shadow on the book’s cover, an evocatively designed character that has an imposing presence, but a body that can be twisted and distorted to amplify the sense of motion when he’s in action. The title Rumble has a double meaning—it’s another word for a brawl, but it can also mean a deep sound like thunder—and Rahtraq’s arrival in this narrative fully embraces that dual definition. He comes booming into bartender Bobby’s life like a thunderclap, chopping off the arm of one of the bar’s patrons with his giant sword before Bobby takes a baseball bat to the scarecrow’s straw-stuffed head.
That first meeting between the characters dramatically intensifies the story after the mood-setting opening pages, which begin with a majestic image of a towering mountain before shifting gears to show the dilapidated setting of Billy’s home city. That opening sequence creates an exceptional sense of place while providing the first example of the book’s contrast of fantastic spectacle and urban grit; Harren starts big and zooms in for that mountain sequence to emphasize the splendor of environment, which is further highlighted by Stewart’s ethereal palette of soft pink, peach, and blue, but for the city, Harren starts with a close-up shot and pulls back to draw more attention to the shoddy state of this crumbling area.
Rumble #1 places more emphasis on atmosphere and setting than it does on character relationships, introducing the major players in the story but focusing on setting the stage and making this world feel lived-in. That attention to the environment gives the book a European comics vibe, but the design aesthetic is classic Americana (there’s a Paul Bunyan Land amusement park outside the city limits) and the action staging has a manga flair, making Rumble a fascinating fusion of styles. It doesn’t read at all like B.P.R.D., even with the crossover of certain thematic elements.
As one of the few comics with a current issue number in the hundreds, B.P.R.D. has an extensive history that may seem daunting to new readers, but this current arc is surprisingly accessible. You just need to be prepared to dive headfirst into a fully formed world with a large cast populated by characters with complex pre-established relationships. There’s a lot to take in, but last month’s milestone #125 provides a smooth entry point into this expansive environment, breaking down character dynamics, elaborating on past events, and setting up future stories in a way that makes it function like a season premiere for a TV show. It doesn’t tell the incoming reader everything, but it tells enough, providing the necessary information needed to engage with what is happening in the book’s present. If readers are intrigued and inclined to check out past issues, there’s a sizable library of collected editions to get caught up on.
Hellboy and B.P.R.D. creator Mike Mignola plays a part in the plotting of all the “Mignolaverse” titles, but most of the actual writing on B.P.R.D. is done by John Arcudi, who has proven adept at juggling this book’s large ensemble. The #126 issue features three different plot threads, and each one is effective in its own way. The most intimate of the three narratives involves Zinco Corporation employee Evelyn checking in on the testing being done on a mutated human captured in the previous issue, discovering the man’s wallet and learning that he had a young daughter in his former life. It’s a little story in the midst of two much larger conflicts, but that attention to the human side of these fantastic events is essential to this book’s success.
In an issue that features some jaw-dropping visuals, one of the most powerful images is the small square panel at the end of Evelyn’s scene, a stark shot that zooms out to show Evelyn looking at the picture in the background while the man’s few possessions linger in the foreground. All that’s left of this man’s life fits into a plastic bin, and that final panel emphasizes Evelyn’s sadness as she comes to this realization by placing her between blocks of darkness that threaten to engulf her. This emotional moment is immediately followed by a large panel showing two fighter planes bombing a massive monster, pushing Harren in the opposite direction for an action-packed sequence all about how huge the B.P.R.D.’s current threat is.
Director Nichayko and his comrade Leonid successfully take out the beast with an explosive, but Leonid’s cheers of victory are diminished by a stunning two-page splash revealing that the creature was just one of five, and the other four are still trampling on a city. Everything about the image evokes a sense of hopelessness; a stone statue shows two people clutching each other in desperation as a significantly damaged sculpture takes a victorious stance in the background with a knife in hand, the former a representation of fear, the latter a representation of the futility of fighting these extradimensional creatures. Stewart makes gray the predominant color for the splash, establishing a cold, dreary atmosphere that is punctuated by large chunks of green, blue, and pink, courtesy of the monsters, but even those shades have a coolness to them. There’s just enough color to emphasize the otherworldly nature of the beasts, but not enough to interrupt the austere mood.
Stewart incorporates much more contrast in the coloring for the final sequence, using the relationship between hot and cold shades to ramp up the intensity when a raging monster attacks a small group of B.P.R.D. soldiers. Rather than the gray of the previous scene, Stewart employs an icy blue for this snowy setting, creating a strong point of contrast for when the flaming creature charges in with a rush of yellow, red, and orange. Those warm colors cut through the blue with astounding force, and make the final page especially tense as Enos tries to outrun the beast that is quickly catching up to him, pushing the icy shades out of the panel as the flames come closer and closer.
Rumble is a very promising debut, but B.P.R.D. is the book that shows what this creative team is truly capable of when all the groundwork of their story is laid down. It’s sprawling in scope yet deeply personal, and all aspects of the comic work in service of this dynamic. Rumble still has some work to do to reach that level of substance, but the first issue offers more than enough to convince readers to stick around and watch this world grow.