At one point, the narrator of this tale, telling the story of a mysterious event that led to the seeming insanity of a B.P.R.D. consultant, rattles off a list of famous, real-world occultists, like John Dee, and Eliphas Levi, that he supposedly met during the events of this one-shot. It’s an easy trick to pull off, with the Internet now making the esoteric more accessible than ever, but a welcome touch that Mike Mignola and his creators still tether the dark fantasy universe that Hellboy and its satellite titles occupy to real life. The nod to reality also helps cement Mignola’s Lovecraft roots, where the true nature of the dark and foreboding universe is always just outside the periphery of our vision.
The Transformation of J.H. O’Donnell certainly plays with how the things we don’t see color our perception: the tale is a flashback, but one that is the secondhand telling of a character who only knows what the currently-deceased Hellboy and the currently-loopy O’Donnell–seen babbling about Enochian script and Paracelsus’ Alphabet of the Magi–have told her. What is known is that Hellboy and O’Donnell went to the house of a deceased necromancer, hoping to claim some ancient texts, only to encounter…something horrible. O’Donnell got the worst of it, and appears to have cracked, giving dual meaning to “transformation” (possible spoiler: the revelation at the end of the comic has some elements of transfiguration, albeit a more horrific version) Perfectly fitting for Max Fiurma’s hyper-stylized, deformed figures, which makes me think of Humberto Ramos channeling the wide-eyed lunacy of Jhonen Vasquez’s Invader Zim or Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. Dave Stewart, whose colors were more muted (but still splendid) with his work on the Brubaker and Phillips’ Fatale, gets to cut loose with high contrast between dark blacks and the bright red of Hellboy’s skin and the subtle shades of green in a field that the consultant is found in after the incident (chanting Lovecraftian gibberish that was seen earlier).
Though the story plays on the unreliability of the narrator’s primary sources, the sequence detailing exactly what happens to O’Donnell is shown clearly, even if he (nor we) are exactly sure what is going on with the robed figures whose only words are “Ammem,” “Nogoth,” “Habbeth,” and “Nem-Ett” in varying orders. Somehow, I think this would have been more brilliant with us seeing even less of what was going on, though the effect of this depiction is still disorienting and creepy, especially in how Mignola, co-writer/editor Scott Allie, and Fiurma jump between what’s happening with O’Donnell and Hellboy in what would amount to Darren Aronofsky-style fast cuts in film.
Like in B.P.R.D.‘s other stories in the Hell on Earth cycle, including the most recent mini-series Russia, Transformation of J.H. O’Donnell is about magnifying and twisting aspects of its central character’s personality and history. Russia had disembodied psychic Johann Krauss encountering Soviet zombies (recalling the WWII Siege of Leningrad), and here O’Donnell’s obsessive love of occult texts comes at him in a form that drives him mad. What this theme ultimately means for the entire arc of Hell on Earth, hinting at the end of the world, remains to be seen, but it’s an interesting approach to the apocalypse.
(For more about the Mignolaverse and what’s coming up from there, see Rob Orr’s Review/Article of Hellboy: The Fury, and reviews of B.P.R.D.: The Long Death, Russia (see above), and Jacques Nyemb’s interview with artist Tyler Crook).