Friday, September 21, 2012

Recommended Reading for 9/21: B.P.R.D.

Everybody loves Hellboy. Hellboy comics are fun, action packed adventures, with a brilliant mix of folklore and pulp action, and art by creator Mike Mignola, as well as luminaries like Richard Corben and Duncan Fegredo. But I'm not here to talk about Hellboy today. Just gotta mention hi, since he is the origin of what I am going to talk about: B.P.R.D., the series of mini-series featuring the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, who started out as Hellboy supporting cast members, and have since developed lives of their own, and added many characters to the cast since Hellboy left.

The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is a covert government organization that started after World War II, and whose purview is everything that goes bump in the night. Founded by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, The B.P.R.D. has fought vampire, werewolves, things from beyond space, frog monsters, and every other form of nasty. While Hellboy is its most famous agent, the B.P.R.D. has had many other special agents: the merman Abe Sapien, the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman, Roger the Homunculus, ghost-in-the-machine-suit Johann Krauss, tough as nails and possibly undead Sergeant Ben Daimio, and scholar at large Kate Corrigan. The B.P.R.D. cast are all fascinating characters, fitting into, and interacting with, the strange world they live in uniquely.

Mike Mignola has said that part of what he likes about creating his own characters and writing in his own universe is that they can ge in real time and he can change the world. And Mignola is doing things in B.P.R.D. that have created a very different world. The worlds of so much fiction and comics really try to be similar to the real world without upsetting the status quo. Mignola, with co-writer John Arcudi, have tossed the world on its ear in this series, especially in the past couple of years since the title entered its new phase: Hell on Earth. Countries are destroyed, monsters are loose, and the B.P.R.D. is playing catch up. And more than once, a beloved character hasn't made it out of a story alive. The fact that these changes are creator driven and controlled gives them more weight, and make them more emotionally effecting since character death usually means the character is gone, and a change to the world or a character tends to be something that will resonate and not be reverted a month later.

The ability for the world, and the characters, to change is one of the things that not only drives B.P.R.D., but keeps my interest and keeps me coming back month in a month out. The series is a true ensemble, with mini-series switching focus from Abe to Kate to Johann and back, or the occasional one-shot or smaller mini featuring a background character like the somewhat insane professor J.H. O'Donnell or agent Ashley Strode.

Most of the other series I've written about in recommended readings have been either complete, or are a series of self contained stories. as B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth is still going strong, it's harder to discuss theme, as theme often becomes most clear when something is complete. The plots of the series I can discuss some, and will, especially with the series still running, attempt to avoid spoilers.

The B.P.R.D. series started out as the Bureau in a war with frog men, beings who had been created in an earlier Hellboy story. With Hellboy gone, the series took on a more serious tone than the early Hellboy stories. While always a horror comic, Hellboy himself brought a light touch to those stories, with his dry humor and his ability to charge into a situation without heed for his safety. B.P.R.D. rewarded long time readers with not just answers to longstanding questions like the origin of Abe Sapien, but laying new mysteries that were parsed out over issues and years. Liz Sherman has mysterious visions, Daimio struggles with the results of his mysterious resurrection, and the death of Roger the Homunculus are all things that impact the series long term.

The ending of the war of frogs is what really changes the ballgame. The world has been cracked open, volcanoes have erupted, giant monsters tear through the American southwest, and the B.P.R.D. now has a United Nations charter. Missions take place across the globe. And the Revelation that Abe Sapien is the first of what should be a species of men that would usher in a new era, no matter if he wants to be or not, cause friction within the B.P.R.D. And the evil Zinco Corporation is up to their usual brand of no good. The death of Hellboy, and the resultant catastrophe in England, is something else of the Bureau's plate. So all things considered, everyone has their hands full.

One of the most interesting things about the cast of B.P.R.D. is that Mignola and Arcudi are never afraid to pull their punches on how flawed their protagonists are. Each struggles with their own demons. Johann Krauss is bitter at his lack of a body, and when he briefly had one again, glutted himself on sensation, and since its loss has been obsessed with vengeance. Abe Sapien is often haunted by self doubt and questions about his past. Andrew Devon, a more recent addition to the team, holds certain prejudices against some of the more unusual members of the team, and has done some things that aren't exactly on the up and up. Panya, the ancient mummy who has returned to life with psychic powers, always seems to have her own agenda. These flaws make for interesting storytelling, because you're never sure if a character is going to do the right thing, or the right thing for them.

Kate Corrigan is a favorite character, and one who has experienced a great deal of change over the course of the series. When she was first introduced, she was a paranormal investigator and close friend of Hellboy. She would accompany him on missions, providing a thoughtful balance to Hellboy's more gung ho attitude. Over the course of B.P.R.D., Kate has witnessed the death of many of her friends. She has also become one of the heads of the Bureau. She has liaised with Russia, and has gained, and lost, a love. Seeing a character who was introduced to really support a main character grow into her own, and become a character who can headline a story, is one of the great joys of long form storytelling that appears in so few other media.

I usually spend some time at the end of each of these pieces talking a little about art, which is all I feel qualified to do, since I tend to follow comics for story, and not as much for art. But the Hellboy universe titles have always had incredible art, starting with the inimitable Mike Mignola. B.P.R.D. has ad art from such great artists as Ryan Sook, John Severin, Cameron Stewart, and Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba. The current Hell on Earth run is principally drawn by Tyler Crook, who is doing a bang up job, really capturing a world in ruins. But the principal artist on the earlier run was Guy Davis, who is one of my favorite comic book artists of all time. His style is unique. His characters are far from photo realistic, with a fluid look that is just a tad off kilter, perfectly working with his horror background. And no one draws monsters like Davis. his creatures are masses of fangs and tentacles, things that look like they sprang from his nightmares.

B.P.R.D. is a great comic because it tosses all sorts of genres into a blender and comes out with something uniquely its own. Part spy action comic, part horror comic, part character drama, you never know what you're going to get when you enter a new arc, or even a new issue. That level of mystery, combined with the general high  quality of the stories and art, make B.P.R.D. a comic I look forward to every month.

The initial run of B.P.R.D. is available in fifteen trades or four very nice hardcover omnibuses, all easily numbered, so you can start from the beginning and follow right along. Hell on Earth is three trades out, with a fourth due in December.The next issue comes out this coming Wednesday, the second issue in the Return of the Master arc. The October issue will be the 100th issue of B.P.R.D., and will buck the current trend by changing its numbering on the cover to reflect that milestone, and each issue after will be numbered from 100 onward. Personally, I look forward to buying a comic with a triple digit number again...

No comments: