Buried again...

*52 Dept: So, judging from this issue and last, I presume that the 52 writing team’s official stratagem for goosing otherwise unexceptional scenes is ‘just add crazy.’ And I’ll be goddamned if it doesn’t work every time! It helps that the individual plots touched sort of welcome the approach - both the Black Adam and Ralph Dibny areas of the project have a core of jumpy irrationality, nerves-jangling-on-end at the characters’ centers. So it’s all the better that, say, Captain Marvel bugs his eyes out and delivers spirited monologues to statues; just look at this issue’s crazy-free Black Adam scene, a three-page tummyache of wide-eyed kids and chats about the morality of killing and Hope. Thank heavens we’re not too many pages away from amazing blinking resurrection dolls and good ol’ Ralph sprawled in a ditch whispering sweet nothings to his limbless wicker wife and her split-open head. A perversely chipper (and beautifully Kevin Nowlan-illustrated) The Origin of Elongated Man two-pager immediately follows. Deliberate dissonance, or conceptual cluelessness?

All I know is that this Ralph-heavy issue really needed the crazy to back it up, since the plot itself manages to go largely nowhere in a remarkably slapdash manner. Once again, Ralph is involved in a Church ‘O Resurrection event, and once again Ralph winds up in the end sitting around with everything gone, essentially back at square one - sure, this time he’s extra convinced that he can bring Sue back, but that doesn’t mean that the plotline isn’t essentially reloading for another volley of Ralph ‘n Cult cat and mouse. Hey, I hope I’m wrong. I also hope the next big confrontation doesn’t involve stuff like Green Lantern and company somehow going undercover in full costume (damn, good thing they didn’t check under anyone’s hood in the cloakroom, eh?) then immediately breaking important things when confronted with a situation of questionable magical/spiritual/scientific veracity instead of seizing evidence or samples for later study or anything. Because that just makes it feel like the issue was plotted in an awful hurry.

But hey - then we’ve got Ralph curled up to a mannequin wearing his dead wife’s clothes as flames leap up everywhere! It’s better than whining and scolding and angst angst angst, though I could have gone for a bit more substance.

B.P.R.D.: The Universal Machine #5 (of 5)

But there was another comic out this week on the topic of resurrecting your loved ones in a fantastical, death-defying world, and it’s better than 52 in every single way. Actually, it’s the best pamphlet-format comic I’ve read on this New Comics Day; I had my problems with B.P.R.D. (this is issue #28 of what’s essentially an ongoing) when it started, and I openly wondered if certain questionable characterizations (and characters) and the introduction of a blunter brand of humor wasn’t an ill omen of rough times ahead with John Arcudi having joined creator Mike Mignola as co-writer. But this series has really found its ground, and it’s been putting out some strong stories recently - the presence of the excellent Guy Davis on regular art duties also helped smooth everything over.

This issue, the conclusion of the most recent miniseries/storyline, is a bit special in that Mignola actually draws the last five of the book’s 24 pages in addition to offering his usual covers and co-writing. This was not advertised anywhere prior to the book’s release, nor is it even mentioned in the credits - it’s just a special surprise treat for the series’ longtime readers to enjoy. Which isn’t to say that Davis is ever overshadowed; he’s been firing on all cylinders lately, busting out seemingly one amazing new monster design per issue, and this one’s got two of them, a giant, classically-styled, anatomically correct male hooves-and-horns devil, accompanied by a titanic she-crow with a wall of black-and-grey breasts below her neck and a pulsing sack of tiny, scratching miniature feet positioned betwixt her massive mammalian legs.

But there’s more at work than spooks - Davis always brings a lived-in, grimy detail to each sequence, yet still allows for moments of disarming cartoon punch (as grotesque as that crow looks, her head and beak and beady eyes are drafted with jaunty, winsome flair) and a certain sense of lyricism-through-destruction. The final page of those monsters in this issue is just gorgeously mounted, easily comparable to Captain Daimio’s gory crawl to destiny from a few issues back. And it all offsets Mignola’s unmistakable visual style famously, the creator’s signature panel details and softly ominous mood like a dreamy capstone when placed next to Davis’ blood and thunder (and needless to say, colorist Dave Stewart switches his style fluidly between the two). Fortunate then, that Mignola’s sequence is cast in a plot-sense as a literal type of dream, the endless nap of semi-death.

That’s what this whole storyline has been about: the impermanence of death in the Hellboy universe. B.P.R.D. liaison Dr. Kate Corrigan, usually on hand in these stories to spout exposition and helpful background trivia, has taken the more active role of searching for a book that might provide a means of reviving recently-departed team member Roger the Homunculus. She winds up trapped in the lair of a sinister death-conquering collector of rare things, while the rest of the team sits around and swaps stories about returning from the dead, or touching dead souls, or merely witnessing the horror of going to and coming back from the great beyond. It’s certainly been the darkest of the B.P.R.D. stories, the melancholy and horror of things refusing to die always evident.

It’s all tied up here, quite marvelously considering that it’s all basically been a set of short stories with the troubles of Dr. Corrigan serving as connecting tissue. But everything pays off in this issue, with the themes of the little tales we’ve heard syncing up with those of the ‘main’ story in surprising ways (as we learned last issue, immortality really stinks if you’re stuck in one role forever - this time, someone gets a type of revenge), Dr. Corrigan’s generally dependability for mythical minutiae being used to wrap up the conflict in an appealingly unexpected (yet duly foreshadowed) manner, and that final, wistful Mignola sequence attached to bring the whole story’s statement to a close. Saying much more about it would ruin some of the effect, which you’ll discover has been built up carefully over several storylines, even though in retrospect it seems like the only way this thing could have ended.

This is the only you I’ve even known, Johann. I wouldn’t recognize you any other way.”

Mignola and Arcudi grasp the longing behind supernatural (or superhuman) conquests of mortality, and also the implications. Folks want the dead to come back, Ralph Dibny whispering “...try again...” in face of another failure evidence enough. But just as human experience changes us as persons, that greatest of leaps also makes us new entities. Maybe we have new costumes; maybe new bodies. We’re never the same, not while we can still walk around and accumulate experience. It's a magical world for these characters, but even under the mightiest spell the gears of the universal machine turn in their own cruel way.