Walking the Halls of the Black School: Annotating The Secret History of ‘Abe Sapien’ #30
Since 2013, the Abe Sapien solo series has been relating the adventures of its titular hero in his time since going AWOL from the BPRD in order to investigate his own connection to the apocalypse of the Ogru Hem and the world that’s coming. Periodically throughout the series, guest artists have been invited to depict select stories from Abe’s past, shedding light on various events of the present.
Last week’s Abe Sapien #30 is one such issue. It marks the comics debut of Argentinian gallery artist Santiago Caruso, who brings the perfect tone to the page, with much of the art resembling the medieval woodcuts that so often portrayed the kinds of witches and devils that inhabit this story. The issue sheds much light on the history of Gustav Strobl, the menace constantly lurking in the background of the Abe Sapien series, who is no doubt gearing up for a major confrontation with Abe as this series approaches its climax.
Mike Mignola‘s story with editor and co-writer Scott Allie is rich with allusions, so in order to shine a spotlight on Caruso’s work, I’ve assembled some notes that explain some of the references to both real life history and Hellboy continuity that pepper this issue. An art historian might be better equipped to spot references within Caruso’s work itself, but I can guess with some measure of certainty that the mixture of a fresco style for the pages set in the present and etching for the flashbacks is probably meant to evoke Francisco Goya, who worked in both those media, and whose influence on Mignola is notable, especially in the Hellboy one-shot In the Chapel of Moloch.
On to the notes!
January 1983: The date, location, and presence of Prof Bruttenholm’s Seven and Sevens lead me to believe this issue takes place on the same night as the first flashback issue of this series, #8, in which Abe relates the story of encountering some vampires in Mexico.
John Dee: Dee is the first of a number of real historical figures to be name-dropped throughout the issue. He was a 16th century scientist, philosopher, and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I whose interests blurred the line between science and magic at a time when they were only just being distinguished for the first time. His areas of study included alchemy, astrology, divination, and other occult topics. It has been theorized that he was the inspiration for the character of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Dee, or at least some spectral manifestation of him, appears in the BPRD one-shot The Transformation of J.H. O’Donnell.
Tuba Veneris: “The Horn [or Trumpet] of Venus,” more accurately titled “Libellus Veneri Nigro Sacer,” or “the Sacred Book of Black Venus,” is a Latin grimoire from about 1580, somewhat spuriously attributed to John Dee. The book is a set of instructions for how to summon six demons ruled over by the goddess Venus. You can read it here if you feel like raising some demons this weekend.
Gustav Strobl: Strobl is the first of a number of fictional occultists to be referenced in this book. He is, of course, also the central subject of this issue. The first reference to Strobl we see is in the BPRD storyline The Black Goddess, in which sorcerer Memnan Saa reveals that he murdered his master. We learn this master’s name and a little of his back story in the Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels mini-series.
Since then, Strobl has been a recurring element in the Abe Sapien series, raising recently slain BPRD agent Vaughn from the dead in order to learn about Abe, but also to assist him in his goals, first of confronting his own former master, and then of traveling to the Black School, about which we learn much in this issue.
A number of young people: Our first encounter, as readers, with Strobl’s book Witchcraft & Demonology did indeed feature some young people experimenting with the book, in the Hellboy one-shot Buster Oakley Gets His Wish.
The Black School: Strobl has been talking about — and then subsequently making his way to — the Black School since more or less the beginning of the Abe Sapien series. Here we finally find out in some detail what it actually is.
Tabula Smaragdina: “The Emerald Tablet.” This is a piece of alchemical writing of mysterious origin, first appearing in Arabic some time between the sixth and eighth centuries, attributed to the grandfather of all occult writers, Hermes Trismegistus. The work is considered to contain the secret of the “prima materia,” the starting material for the creation of a philosopher’s stone. The good news is, you can read it if you want to attain immortality. The bad news is, it is complete gibberish basically.
The last boy: This page fills in the details on an element of the Black School first hinted at in Abe Sapien #17.
“Entre, Je t’en prie, de toute maniere, ton â me est damn ée”: The quote around the door frame seems like it should be a quote from something, but despite my most valiant efforts, I cannot find a source. At any rate, it means, “Please come in. Your soul is damned anyway.”
Strobl had his own vision: The image here of the crowned demon riding on the back of a dragon is based on an image of himself that Hellboy has during The Wild Hunt (itself a reflection of a vision had by Igor Bromhead in Darkness Calls), which loosely references the Beast of the Apocalypse, as described in the biblical book of Revelation. A notable difference here from the earlier depictions of this vision is that this vision’s demon is lacking the Right Hand of Doom. What the meaning of this is, if any, I can’t say at the moment.
A priest who’d attended the Black School: This sequence of panels fills in some details on a story hinted at in Abe Sapien #17.
A group of witches: The images on this page and the next of a group of nude witches flying on a variety of objects on their way to the Sabbath match portrayals of witches from the Middle Ages and later, as you can see, for example, in the 1922 “documentary” Häxan. The art here specifically calls to mind Goya’s Linda Maestra (“Pretty teacher”).
Orobas: Orobas is a demon listed in the Ars Goetia. He is a Prince of Hell, controlling twenty legions of demons. His main deal is that he tells truths about the past, present, and future. Also he looks like a horse.
Berbiguier: This is (deep breath) Alexis-Vincent-Charles Berbiguier de Terre-Neuve du Thym, a French author and demonologist who lived from 1765 to 1851. He is chiefly remembered for his autobiography, Les farfadets ou Tous les démons ne sont pas de l’autre monde (“The Imps, or All The Demons Are Not From the Other World”), which tells of how he was plagued by imps his whole life after visiting some fortune tellers in his youth. Modern critics believe he probably suffered from some form of mental illness.
Blavatsky: This is Helen Blavatsky, a non-fictional Russian spiritualist and occult writer from the 19th century. She was a co-founder of the Theosophical Society, which was dedicated, naturally, to the study of theosophy, which is very difficult to briefly sum up, but deals with the attainment of divine wisdom through direct contact with a deeper spiritual reality via meditation and the like. You can tell how important Blavatsky is in her field by how long her Wikipedia article is. Notably, Madame Blavatsky appeared as an antagonistic element in Baltimore: The Curse Bells, but keep in mind that despite being written by Mignola, Baltimore is not set in the same world as Hellboy and Abe Sapien.
Comte Guillaume de Carvalho: As far as I am aware, this is a fictional person, but apparently one that has not made a significant appearance in the Hellboy mythos prior to this, apart from a possible reference to him among a list of occultists in BPRD: Hell on Earth: The Transformation of JH O’Donnell.
Asmodeus: Asmodeus is pretty legit, at least as far as demons go. He is the primary antagonist of the deuterocanonical Book of Tobit, and so makes an appearance in all the major works of demonology and mysticism: the Testament of Solomon, the Dictionnaire Infernal, and various Talmudic legends, among others. He is one of the seven princes of Hell, each of which represents one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Asmodeus’s sin is lust. He has appeared in Hellboy continuity before, most notably perhaps in the Bride of Hell one-shot, which depicted him as a currently pretty busted red winged lion living in a cave and marrying willing virgins. This page depicts him in somewhat better days.
gematria: Gematria is a numerological system that assigns a numerical value to letters and thus words, and finds mystic significance and connection between words with the same value. For example, the number 18 is considered a lucky number in some Jewish cultures because it is the numerological value of the word “chai,” which means “alive.”
Hecate, Hyperborea, vril, and Egyptology: If you’ve been reading Hellboy or its various spin-offs over the years, you know that Strobl’s apprentice was right, and all of these things have been incredibly important in world events.
The apprentice… brutally killed Strobl: He’s not named here, but longtime readers will know that Strobl’s apprentice was Martin Gilfryd, later known as Memnan Saa, a sorcerer who proved to be a thorn in the side of Sir Edward Grey, Lobster Johnson, and the BPRD. The panel of Strobl’s body burning in the fire is an echo of the first reference of him back in The Black Goddess before we even knew his name.
Marbas: Marbas, more frequently spelled Barbas, is another demon from the Ars Goetia. Barbas is a Great President of Hell, in charge of thirty-six legions of demons. He reveals secrets, heals diseases, and transforms people into other shapes on request. He is depicted as a lion who can change into a man; thus his depiction here on the right, grabbing a hunk of brain, as well as on page seven.
Page sixteen and seventeen:
Pandemonium: “Place of All the Demons,” Pandemonium is the capital city of Hell, as established by John Milton in Paradise Lost. Pandemonium has popped up at various times in Hellboy continuity (for the first time, perhaps in “Pancakes”), most notably being a recurring location in Hellboy in Hell, where it is revealed that the great city has been abandoned by all the rulers of Hell (except one) for fear of Hellboy. This panel depicts it in its still occupied days.
A duke in the Citadel of the Fly: The demon who returns Strobl to life is not here named, but we know from his appearance in Hellboy in Hell #4 that this is Amdusias, the demon who dragged Sir Edward Grey down to hell, cursing him with immortality and ripping his body to pieces.
Amdusias is another demon from the Ars Goetia, where he is given the rank of Great King rather than Greater Duke. His great voice is associated with thunder and the blast of trumpets, and he is in charge of the cacophonous music heard in Hell. Counter to his physical appearance here, in the Goetia he has the head of a unicorn.
Antonis Kouvelis: Kouvelis was another student of the Black School and Strobl’s former master. The page here shows a confrontation between the two during the 1920s, but we have seen a battle between the two in more modern times when Strobl and Kouvelis had a showdown in the ruins of Seattle in Abe Sapien #11.
Divizia: Alessandro Divizia is another fictional occultist. In this case, we first saw reference to Divizia after he had died and the BPRD went to investigate his house to find his secret library in BPRD: Hell on Earth: The Transformation of JH O’Donnell. That story featured a number of historical occultists, including John Dee, appearing and turning into giant bugs.
Bromfield: This is almost certainly supposed to say “Bromhead,” meaning Igor Bromhead, a recurring foe for Hellboy who appears in both Box Full of Evil and Darkness Calls.
Crowley: Aleister Crowley is the spoiler here, in that he is the one non-fictional person in this row. You have probably heard of him, as he is possibly the most famous occultist of all time. If you have ever read a comic by Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, you’ve probably seen a reference to him.
Van Laer: Garver Van Laer is another fictional occultist. This guy is one that Abe specifically was briefly obsessed with. We see Abe travel to his house and discover the giant half of a demon that was summoned in his basement in The Devil Does Not Jest.
Strobl actually met Bruttenholm: The crazy thing about Mignola’s plotting is that he works such a crazy long game that it’s often difficult to tell when he’s referencing a story that has already been told or dropping a hint at one that will be told in the future. This reference to Professor Bruttenholm meeting Strobl doesn’t seem to have appeared in a previous issue, as the only Bruttenholm solo stories set in the 1930s that I know of are “And What Shall I Find There?”, “Bishop Olek’s Devil,” and “The Kelpie,” none of which are about a haunting in Sussex.
Naga demon: This is another one of those where it seems to be referencing a story not yet told. I don’t know of a story with Hellboy in Angkor fighting a Naga demon, but maybe this is hinting at a forthcoming story in Hellboy and the BPRD. Given that this story seems to be happening in between Hellboy’s arrival on Earth in the ’40s and the publication of a paperback edition of Strobl’s book in 1958, this seems a safe bet.
Tragic incidents: Here we have another appearance of the Right Hand of Doom-less Hellboy-esque demon. What the significance of this is is hard to say at the moment.
What did you say your name was?: I hate to end on a series of “I don’t know”s, but there are enough demons who can transform into crows or ravens — for example, Naberius, Malphas, or Stolas — that it’s hard to determine which demon is tempting Abe without further information.
All right! So these are the things I caught; I’m certain that I missed some important details due to the complexity of Mignola’s plotting and subtle allusions. If you caught a connection that I missed, especially specific allusions within the art, this is the one time I am going to actively request that you tell me what I forgot. Happy hunting!
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