Hellboy has been around since 1993, and the Bureau For Paranormal Research And Defense since his first adventures. They’ve been through several heavy-duty arcs, and the world has ‘potentially’ ended several times during what amounted to twenty-five years of battling the forces of evil.
Annnnd this is how it ends.
No, really this time. This is the end of Hellboy. The end of the B.P.R.D. The end of Abe Sapien. And… well… y’know… the end of the world.
Sure, there was a pretty good reason to assume it would all be the end when Hellboy, y’know… died, but hey, stick with it, kid, you’re onto a good thing with the return of Big Red.
The Devil You Know is the arc to end all B.P.R.D. arcs, and as that suggests, it’s a hyyyuge undertaking. But before you go into The Devil You Know… you really kind of need to know your Devil.
If you’ve only watched the Hollywood Hellboy movies, you have about one-sixteenth, maybe one-twentieth of the information you need to have a clue what’s going on here. If that’s the extent of your Hellboy and B.P.R.D. knowledge… put down The Devil You Know right now, and rejoice – you have a whole ‘first coffee of the morning’ shitload of quality reading to do.
But if you’ve come through allllll the rest of it, if you’ve travelled the 25-year road, through Rasputin, and the murder of Satan, and the antics of Hecate, and the frog men, and the Black Flame, and the rising of the Ogdru Hem…
…If you remember Johann Krauss, and you know about Roger the technical homunculus, and you know Ashley Strode, the shockingly young and effective exorcist…
…If you remember the Osiris Club and the Dragon, and you’re up to speed on who and what Ted Howards is and why…
If you’ve come all that way with all these characters, into Hell On Earth and the new reality of the Cthulu-inspired demons and demonspawn running amok on a planet that once could have been said to belong to human beings, then my friends, you have one hell of a treat in store.
Because, as we may have mentioned, this is the end. But the end makes little sense unless you’ve been on at least most of the journey. For the simplest instance, the Earth as it appears here is not the Earth you’ll recognise looking out your window. Britain’s gone. Moscow’s a crater. Most of Japan has burned. And despite, for instance, Hellboy’s killing of the Dragon, hellish creatures roam the plains of the Midwest like buffalo of old. Cities have died. Continents crumbled. And the B.P.R.D. is fighting what is mostly a rearguard action against the complete consumption of the world by its demonic enemies.
Now seemingly leaderless, the demons, without Satan, have been trying to find ways to take control, to finish a weakened, wounded opponent in humanity, which has lost its Hellboy, lost its key ‘superhero’ to stand between the world and its destruction. But ultimately, to use a phrase from this story, “Hell is closed for business,” devoid of imagination and energy to force the battle home.
Well, until right now. The collected 15-issue arc of The Devil You Know starts, inasmuch as anything in a world like the one of late-stage B.P.R.D. can, quietly enough.
In Parkinson, North Carolina, Howards is busy fighting Hammerheads (and if you’ve come this far, you know we’re not talking about sharks). The B.P.R.D. – and his girlfriend, the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman in particular, is keeping an eye on him.
In Wallace, Idaho, Ashley Strode is gettin’ her exorcist on. Must be Tuesday.
But something about the particular demon she’s casting out rings uneasy bells in Ashley’s head, and she calls it in to the B.R.P.D.
A pod of the egg-maturing “cricket” demons takes out a long-serving member of the Bureau before being fried by Liz.
Like a tickle at the back of the brain, Ashley starts to pick up on something. She’s been watching cult activity – as you’d expect, with Hell running around on Earth, cult activity is high and varied. And something starts to register.
There’s an almost doll-like young girl, appearing in people’s dreams all over the place. She calls people to go to a particular region, and will lead them to a new existence. Nameless, and with a strange vision of both destruction and hope, her image is oddly compelling… and the people go. Pack up their lives and go where their dreams lead them.
When we see the girl recruit a familiar clockwork Nazi and a head in a jar, any lingering hope we might have had that she’s a benevolent or even a benign force gets twanged out of the nearest available window, and the whole thing starts to thrum with an energy of anticipation. This, says the energy, is gonna be big.
And it is – the full arc comes in at over 400 pages, and it has roller-coaster peaks and troughs.
The central arc of the girl of people’s dreams and what her ultimate plan is takes us almost all the way through the fifteen issues. Because, as seems almost too obvious to say, this kid is more than a pretty little girl with ringlets. After all, they may be all kinds of trouble, but your average pretty little girl with ringlets – nnnnot about to bring on Armageddon and Ragna Rok. However much they might want to.
If you think we’re about to spoiler you with who she is, and why her wanting to bring about Ragna Rok has a touch more conviction to it than most, you’re out of your freaking mind – and besides, you’d hate us forever for spoiling the journey for you, because this is, when all is said, done, drawn, exploded, and plunged into a pit for all eternity, one hell of a journey.
You do get to find out who the girl is, don’t worry about that – there’s a whole issue along the way that gives you her origin story, so that itch for understanding gets a good old scratching. But for here and now, suffice it to say that while the world of humanity has been sent mostly back to the middle ages in terms of its technology levels, and the B.P.R.D. are getting their SHIELD on, flying about the planet from hotspot to hotspot on what is essentially a flying warship, the rise of this girl is Something Special.
Not just your run-of-the-mill hellscape, this. The story of the girl, her rise, her cult, and the wheels within the wheels of her emergence is a kind of sweeping cape of an arc, that brings in all the lost, all the semi-lost, at least some of the supposed-dead, and some of the supposed-in-comas, for one last “Oh Holy Jesus!” of a battle for the planet.
Yes – sorry if this comes as too big a spoiler, but Hellboy comes back from the dead for this arc. Weirdly and wisely though, he doesn’t overshadow the rest of the team. This is, after all, a B.P.R.D. arc, not strictly a Hellboy arc. He’s here, and he is by his very nature extraordinary, but the storytelling is paced with clockmaking precision, so he doesn’t take over the tale – at least until he’s one of the only voices left that can.
There’s space for Liz’s story here. Space for Abe’s. Space for Ashley’s. And space for many, many more.
And in between all the thinky, talky bits, with people explaining their conclusions, realisations, ultimate codes and the like, there are a whole hell of a lot of battle sequences. If you were a kid when Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. got started, and you used to read out loud the Thwacks and the Oofs! And the Karoooms!, it’s time to start clearing your throat, because here you get lots of quality Kra-Reerks, K-Zzaks, and Brakka-Braka-Brakas. And you have to love an apocalypse that comes with a “Splortch” sound effect. So be prepared for a bloody, grim, exquisitely coloured apocalypse.
Various Cthulu-style demonspawn, all teeth and spindly legs? Check. Our unfriendly neighbourhood clockwork Nazi? Check. Mass slaughter of the faithful? So very, very check. Earls of Hell released from captivity? Yep. Hellboy arisen? As previously mentioned, yep, that happens too. All intertwined with a story that ties the sweet-faced young dream-girl in to a lot of the history of the B.P.R.D. – joyously, she considers Hellboy an overrated inconvenience standing in her way, and if there are gorgeously drawn battle sequences between our hellish hero and some of Hell’s aristocrats along the way to her ultimate victory, then so be it.
When we discover who she really is, the story ramps up another three levels, and the significance and rightness of her being here at the end as its cause and its mover gives you a lot of “Ohhhhh, clever!” satisfaction to chew on as the world… well, goes to hell.
And without spoilering you too much, by the end of this arc, we’ve moved beyond the here and now of the B.P.R.D. We discover who wins the battle for the planet – and while there have been hints planted along the way in other Hellboy and B.P.R.D. arcs as to quite what was due to go down, there’s still enough oomph when it happens to take you by surprise.
It’s difficult to escape a certain sadness at the finality of the ending here, but that’s just because we’ve been with these people a long time. During the course of this arc, in fact, Liz, seeming unmoved by the death of a long-term friend, says that while their living had purpose, she’s frightened that their death had none. And that, to some extent, is the sense we get at the end.
We’ve loved the ups and downs, the trials and horrors of these characters. Their ‘living’ has added to our lives. To think of a comic-book world without them all, and without their struggles to defeat the forces of evil, leaves us a little bereft.
But if you’re going to go out after 25 years, this is an astonishing, brave way to do it. For those who’ve just joined the action, it will be utterly mystifying. To those who’ve been along from the ride for the beginning, The Devil You Know is a masterwork, with consequence, with power, and with an emotional punch that satisfies on every level.
And then, just when you think it’s done, you get some gorgeous Easter Egg content here, with a collection of artwork showing the development of characters, covers, and key scenes from the arc, giving a great insight into the process that took ideas and rendered them into one of the best, most immersive, and emotionally off-beat arcs in the whole of the series.
If you’re a fan of Hellboy, or the B.P.R.D., or Mike Mignola and the team who’ve turned the B.P.R.D. into a must-read universe for over two decades, all our words here will be meaningless. You’ll already know you need The Devil You Know. If you’re relatively new to the team, go back to the start – following the full journey will really pay you dividends, both arc by arc as you read them, and in giving you all the storytelling you need to really appreciate how clever and how all-embracing a finale The Devil You Know really is. You need to be ready for it to hit you with its proper power. So go back. Come to it the long way round. And then, finally, you’ll be prepared for The Devil You Know…Tony J Fyler.