Mike Mignola has been an "artists' artist" since he first blew everyone away in the mid-late eighties, emerging from behind a Walt Simonson/Jack Kirby fusion with his now unmistakable atmospheric and angular chiaroscuro style. Just as he was becoming one of the biggest names in comics, with books like the 'prestige' format 'Batman: Gotham by Gaslight' tailor-made to showcase his brilliance and originality, he decided to jump ship. Leaving superheroes and the 'big two' for the creative freedom of Dark Horse, he joined Frank Miller and John Byrne as part of the 'Legend' imprint of creator-owned titles. When 'Hellboy' debuted, the strength of the art obscured the insecurities Mignola felt as a writer. The first mini-series, 'Seed of Destruction', was scripted by John Byrne, but 'Wake the Devil' saw a rapid development in his abilities as a storyteller, as he broke free of the assembly-line mind-set that reinforces a distinction between writers and artists at Marvel and DC. His honesty and utter lack of pretention has always been admirable, and from the start he explained 'Hellboy' as a vehicle for his obsessions with pulp fiction and gothic horror, with a reckless approach to plotting that was often decided by an urge to draw a giant ape with bolts in its neck (for example).
The scope and complexity of the 'Mignolaverse' grew exponentially when the BPRD and Hellboy went their separate ways. John Arcudi took the 'Plague of Frogs' storyline in exciting and always unpredictable directions, and Guy Davis emerged as a singular artistic force, with Eisner awards confirming the critical and popular acclaim he so richly deserved. When Mignola chose Davis as artist on the first 'Plague of Frogs' arc, he was best known for his run on the Vertigo series 'Sandman Mystery Theatre', which was not the best representation of his abilities. Given their seemingly opposing artistic styles, it is a testament to Mignola's judgement that he saw the potential in Davis, who is now considered the most imaginative monster artists ever, perhaps even better than Mignola himself. The Hellboy and BPRD books have become the most reliably entertaining and artistically brilliant titles on the shelf, using a combination of respected veterans and gifted newcomers: Richard Corben, John Severin, Duncan Fegredo, Ryan Sook, Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon, Paul Azaceta, Jason Shawn Alexander, Peter Snejbjerg, Ben Stenbeck, Sebastian & Max Fiumara, Scott Hampton, Kevin Nowlan, Jason Latour... and so on. Pound for pound, Hellboy, BPRD, Abe Sapien, Witchfinder, Baltimore and Lobster Johnson have the best art in mainstream comics.
With Volume 4 of the 'Hell on Earth' storyline, the reader gets two entertaining tales, smaller in scope, that serve to develop newer characters and resolve one of the original series best narrative threads. With Guy Davis gone, Mignola's unerring eye for talent is proven once more, with two exceptional new artists who each put their skill to the test on their respective stories. 'The Devil's Engine' is illustrated by Tyler Crook, who has a style similar enough to Guy Davis' pencils and inks to keep the unique look of BPRD intact, but uses a flawless European 'ligne claire' that contrasts with the sketchier, suggestive rendering of his predecessor. 'The Devil's Engine' begins with Agent Devon trying to escort the teenaged danger-detector Fenix back to BPRD headquarters. What promises to be an aggravating train-ride with a hostile girl who may or may not have useful premonitory powers, soon turns into a nightmare. After she freaks out and leaps from the moving train, Devon is forced to follow. She provides all the proof he needs of 'useful abilities' when the train crashes violently into a deep crater, killing the passengers. Their close call provides little relief, however; terrifying Hammerheaded monstrosities force them to seek refuge in an overturned trailer. Their desparate battle for survival makes for an exciting tale, and Crook proves himself to be among the very best artists in comics.
Both of the stories in this softcover collection are great, but it is 'The Long Death' that steals the show. Johann heads north to find his former boss, Ben Daimio, whose shocking secret about his mysterious death and rebirth in South America resulted in the massacre of several BPRD agents. It also destroyed the colossal human body that Krauss had been able to inhabit, living once more as a human, instead of a vaporous ectoplasm in a containment suit. When the Jaguar-god that has possessed Daimio faces off against Daryl, the Wendigo, it is one of the best issues of the year. The writing is excellent, but the art of James Harren is truly something special. He renders the violence between two legendary creatures with an exaggerated style that is stunning; this three-issue mini-series put the comic-world on notice -- James Harren is a f***ing superstar. It's a fun read all around, but the art alone is worth the price-tag.