This penultimate issue not only does a great job of bringing the story of this latest B.P.R.D. storyline to a climax, it raises the bar yet again for the Hellboy-verse. The creative team of writers Mignola, Arcudi and artist Crook have delivered a bleak coda with Hell on Earth: Russia. When the end of the world comes it is not going to be prevented by Hellboy punching out Cthulhu again. Those days are gone and cleverly each of these miniseries have developed individual B.P.R.D. members, while at the same time isolating them in the face of Armageddon.
In this series Johann the ectoplasmic scientist and Agent Kate Corrigan first traveled to the Kremlin following reports of a gruesome find; encountered an unusual and brutally pragmatic Russian agent – who is also undead; and followed the supernatural trail to the village of Rampayedik, featuring a population of unusually placid zombies.
The tension is ramped up in this fourth issue when Johann and a squad of soldiers enter the catacombs beneath Rampayedik to face the monstrosity responsible for the eldritch goings on. What follows is the horrific corruption of each member of the squad, with even the ethereal Johann at risk, as the creature cleverly uses its wiles to learn his weaknesses. The writing really stands out during the sequence. The fatalism of the soldiers brings to mind the often cited bravery of the Russian forces who fought on the Eastern Front, during what Soviet historians terms the Great Patriotic War, suffering incredible losses but continuing on regardless. The scale of the threat sketched in these issues brings to mind that determined push once again. It is a fascinating approach, presenting a different perspective on a conflict, which despite its fantastical nature, is no less gripping. A further reminder of the cost of that conflict is provided by one of the soldiers continually referring disparagingly to Johann as ‘German’.
This is also a story about Johann’s heroism, demonstrated by how his awe at the willingness of the soldiers to face death gives him the inspiration to adapt his supernatural abilities to a highly dangerous situation. That final page casts some doubt on just how invulnerable even a disembodied phantom is. This entire series could be described as a symbolic and very literal test of one man’s spirit in the face of absolute despair. The gallows humour of the early issues of Hell on Earth: Russia is not entirely absent, such as Johann’s moment of wry realization when he discovers what his enemy is up to, but ultimately Mignola and Arcudi are introducing less slapstick and more bloody-minded refusal to say die in the face of Cthulhu nasties and fungal demons.
Artist Trevor Crook’s contributions can not be overstated. There is a great level of detail in his scenes, but also a looseness to both the characters and monsters assembled here, that allows them to be cartoonish yet horrific. This is reassuring, as a more realism-inclined artist would probably produce something too grim for words. Crook has fun with the nightmarish visions handed to him by the script. Mention should also be made of the amazing covers by Dave Johnson, resembling Soviet propaganda posters. Very eye-catching work, that should tempt readers to snap these issues off the shelves.
This is top stuff folks. Go get a taste of nightmares.