Trouble with Comics

B.P.R.D. - Plague of Frogs, Vol. 1

Writers - Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, Tom Sniegoski, Geoff Johns, Brian Augustyn, Various

Artists - Guy Davis, Ryan Sook, Matt Smith, Cameron Stewart, Michael Avon Oeming, Various

Publisher - Dark Horse Books. $34.99 USD

For those of you for whom this is the first exposure to these comics—I’m envious. Not for you the worry that Hellboy’s supporting cast would falter on their own. Not for you the concern that Mignola would spread himself too thin, or later, that the franchise would be diluted with too many un-Mignola-like creative visions. And not for you the unease that maybe there just wouldn’t be that many good horror stories to tell after a while.

For me, and no doubt many who were Hellboy fans in the ‘90s and onward, these were some real concerns. We’d seen creator-owned genre franchises deteriorate with too many spinoffs, or just too many issues. Mignola had already flirted with selling out with Hellboy team-ups with Batman and Starman (together), as well as the now-forgotten ‘90s Dark Horse hit supernatural heroine, Ghost. Those were fine but forgettable. Was B.P.R.D. going to be the same?

Well, yes and no, though the first effort, Hollow Earth, was decidedly in the Win column. Mignola wrote it just like he was going to be drawing it, instead bringing in Ryan Sook on art. Although Sook takes a different approach to faces, he’s otherwise pretty close to Mignola in style, at least here, as he’s no doubt trying to please his writer and also using Mignola-designed characters and creatures.

Hollow Earth has a good main plot, involving a subterranean “King of Fear” and his trollish minions using Liz Sherman’s pyrokinetic powers to fire up their fearsome, world-conquering machines, but what really makes it work is the amount of effort Mignola puts into fleshing out the B.P.R.D. cast. Hellboy appears in flashback, so that we can see how his warm, welcoming presence helped Liz and Abe Sapien as frightened newcomers to the B.P.R.D., and Hellboy’s example provides the foundation for Abe’s first shot at leading a team in Hollow Earth. We also get to know the delightful Johan Straus, he of the gaseous spirit contained within a clear, humanoid containment suit, and there’s a little more on Roger the Homunculus, who has that great big lock on his genitals that should have started a real world fashion trend.

The question of whether Mignola’s characters would work without a Mignolaesque artist wouldn’t be answered immediately, as the volume includes a couple of short stories (solo Lobster Johnston, a kind of pulp era monster hunter, and a solo Abe story that retroactively introduces Roger) with art by other noted Mignola acolyte Matt Smith. Then, the scales tip a bit from Art towards Commerce, with a raft of one-shots by other creators, as Mignola’s time is taken up with work on and around the Guillermo del Toro Hellboy film. Brian McDonald’s/Derek Thompson’s Drums of the Dead finds Abe fighting a nail-adorned warthog man fighting Abe on a boat, a thin effort not bettered by Geoff Johns’ and Scott Kolins’ workmanlike Lobster Johnston adventure, Night Train. Perhaps the least of the bunch is Joe Harris’ and Adam Pollina’s There’s Something Under My Bed, a generic monster story that has real connection to Mignola’s work and world.

A couple bright spots exist. Brian Augustyn and Guy Davis offer up the entertaining Dark Waters, which is more notable for an impressive Davis art job than a completely cohesive story, although Augustyn at least shares Mignola’s interest in small town secrets, religious fanatics, and the enduring terror of the deep. Mignola also gets partly back into the mix with a script polish on Miles Gunter’s and Michael Avon Oeming’s The Soul of Venice. While some of what made it exciting when first published are no longer such big deals—the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. universe hadn’t at that time done much with vampires, and Oeming was becoming a big deal as an artist on the series Powers—it still holds up as a pretty good B.P.R.D. horror story. It’s also notable for glimpses of sexual depravity that Mignola himself shies away from in his own scripts, plus it establishes Oeming as an artist capable of handling Mignola’s characters extremely well, and with a similarly impressive command of light and shade, even if his style is unlike Mignola’s in most regards. Cameron Stewart also acquits himself well in the Mignola-written, Another Day at the Office, but as the title suggests, it’s a slight, pedestrian effort.

While it might be unfair to call the non-Mignola efforts cynical, they do call into question whether it’s worth doing B.P.R.D. stories without his involvement as writer. Even Dark Waters owes some of its appeal in this volume to what Guy Davis does later, establishing himself as the B.P.R.D. artist for several years. Fortunately, the first fruits of this run are included here, as well they should be if you’re going to use Plague of Frogs in the title.

I haven’t counted pages, but I’d have to guess there’s enough for at least one, probably two more Plague of Frogs omnibuses like this one. It’s in this one where we first see the next direction for B.P.R.D. As with Hellboy, there would be two kinds of B.P.R.D. books—one developing a complex and increasingly horrifying story, with dark gods and destiny and world threats, and the other kind the more self-contained, lighter stories—told by others but perhaps with a more watchful eye by Mignola and editor Scott Allie.

With Plague of Frogs, Mignola gets back to business, taking inspiration from the Bible and mixing it with H.P. Lovecraft in a story involving a kind of intelligent fungus infecting people and turning them into froglike monsters. There are a lot of footnotes in this one, to Mignola’s research as well as past Hellboy stories, indicating he’s put in a good deal of thought into where he’s been and where he’s going. That doesn’t mean the story is dry at all; it’s a lot of fun, and Davis makes an immediate impact, with horrible/cool creatures as well as distinctive takes on the existing cast. His Liz Sherman in particular is unusual, a little harder and not as fragile as Mignola draws her. Longtime colorist Dave Stewart gets to expand his palette much more than the reds and earth tones used on Mignola’s art. As expected in a story with reptiles, there’s plenty of green, but also lots of violet, blue and a wide array of fleshtones. Whereas with Mignola it always seems to be nighttime, with Davis it’s usually dusk.

While this would be a good romp as just a monster story, again Mignola is concerned with character development, and so this is where he finally gets around to an origin story for Abe Sapien, and it’s a strange one best left unspoilt here. Mignola was right not only to invest more effort into planning a long-range payoff with this story, but also to bite the bullet and trust in a talented artist with a very different style than his. Although maybe 20% of this collection is forgettable, by the end of the book we see it start to evolve from agreeable to exceptional, an equal to pure Mignola Hellboy stories. It probably goes without saying that this volume also features a generous sketchbook section from Mignola, Davis and some of the other top-tier artists who drew stories in the book.

—Christopher Allen