The Universal Machine provides the respite the series needed after two very intense volumes. There are two plot lines: Kate and Devon travel to France in a last bid effort to save Roger, while Ben, Liz, Abe, and Johann sit around and tell “sad ghost stories.” Liz tells one about the death of her family. Its touching, but it doesn’t break any new ground. The other three introduce characters and ideas we will see again, but the story most likely to grab the reader’s attention is Ben’s. He finally gets around to telling them about how he came to spend three days in a body bag. In involves a botched rescue mission in Bolivia, in which his team was killed and half his face was bitten off. Lying there dying he sees a monkey-like creature with the face of a Japanese doll. We’ve seen this creature twice before. The first time was in that same photo album where we met the Black Flame. It was with a woman (whom I assume to have been a Japanese Axis agent) called the Crimson Lotus. The second time was during the Gunter Eiss story. Ben found the creature in a formaldehyde jar and secretly took it. The monkey doll contacts headquarters and apprises them of the team’s situation. Then Ben sees something completely different: a jaguar spirit, with its heart bared like a sacred heart Jesus statuette, reveals himself to Ben and tells him, “The old world is your soul. Leave it there. It is old. The new world is life. Take your life.” That’s when he cuts himself out of the body bag.
In France Kate and Devon--this is the first time we meet Andrew Devon, but he becomes a regular member of the team--travel to a village where they hope to purchase a rare alchemic text that they hope will to tell how to resurrect Roger. Of course it isn’t that simple. These things never are. They don’t get the book and everyone is forced to face the reality of Roger’s death. This comes with a five page epilogue drawn by Mignola himself. Johann finally reaches Roger and realizes that he is in a better place. A happier, more peaceful one. His only request is that he gets a funeral. A proper one, befitting the man he never really was. Each of these stories deals with death. Its finality and its enigmatic nature. Roger, who was never a living creature, is truly dead. Sometimes, even in comic books, dead is dead.
There were things that didn’t really work for me. When we first see Abe he’s in his room, moping at an old desk, and wearing a red velvet smoking jacket. I know its meant to invoke his 19th century origins, but I kept thinking ‘Abe Hefner?’ But that’s at the beginning of the book. By the time we reach the end Mignola and Arcudi have successfully woven together the many stories into a poignant look at loss.
Originally Pubished at: David Bird