After having read all six oversized volumes of the Hellboy Library Editions, I couldn’t imagine that any spin-off series of one of the greatest American comics could be any good, especially with Mike Mignola’s limited involvement. I am glad to say that this first of four volumes collecting the first cycle of the B.P.R.D. series, which has been dubbed “Plague of Frogs,” lives up to the quality established by the Hellboy series. This first volume is uneven, but by the end the writers and artists have found their trajectory and have begun to settle in to what has become an acclaimed run.
“Hollow Earth” kicks the series off with a bang, as Abe Sapien, Roger the homonculus, and new recruit Johann Kraus team up to find Liz Sherman, who has gone missing after a spiritual journey to learn how to control her hazardous powers. On the surface, “Hollow Earth” is a story crafted in the Hellboy tradition, featuring lots of monsters fighting monsters, and vast subterranean tunnels. But really the story explores how Abe and Roger are dealing with the aftermath of Hellboy’s departure from the B.P.R.D., and there are many tender moments as the characters reflect on their own friendship with Hellboy. Essentially the story serves to redefine their roles in the Hellboy universe, now that they are without big red’s help. Johann Kraus is also a fascinating new character who has plenty of opportunity to excel in the pages of the ongoing narrative. Ryan Sook’s art clearly mimics Mignola’s style as well as quality, and the pages are often beautiful.
“The Killer in My Skull” and “Abe Sapien vs. Science” are two shorter stories, both written by Mignola and illustrated by Sook, that further explore the character of Lobster Johnson and depicts the resuscitation of Roger after the events of Conqueror Worm. “The Killer in My Skull” is an enjoyably pulpy narrative, and “Abe Sapien vs. Science” gives the chance to build a relationship between Abe and Roger. Both are solid reads.
“Drums of the Dead” is a freaky little solo story featuring Abe. Whilst the idea is interesting and the artwork is grotesquely beautiful, the story stumbles slightly without Mignola’s direct input. It’s an enjoyable enough story, but it just doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the Hellboy universe. Also, Abe’s sharpened teeth look a little too scary.
“The Soul of Venice,” like “Drums of the Dead,” also doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the Hellboy universe, but this is more to do with the pacing of the story and Michael Avon Oeming’s cartoony artwork. However, it’s great seeing the main team together for the first time in full, with Liz, Abe, Roger and Johann, all having their moments to shine.
“Dark Waters” is the first work by Guy Davis on B.P.R.D. and it is also one of the best stories in this first volume. Roger and Abe go to a New England town to investigate the corpses of some witches that are a little too fresh. It’s a great reflection on America’s own dark history of witch-hunting, and again gives an opportunity for Roger and Abe to interact. Davis’ artwork is stunning, and is a natural fit for the Hellboy universe despite a very different style from Mignola’s. I particularly like his interpretation of Roger.
“Night Train” is another stumble in the collection, with Geoff Johns providing an uninteresting story about a ghost train and Scott Kolins on artwork that is just a bit too cartoony / superheroic for a Hellboy-universe story. However, it does have significant impact as there are a few good scenes showing Roger and Liz interacting and gradually becoming close friends. I liked this element, but the other stuff I could have gone without.
“There’s Something Under My Bed” is the worst story in the collection, as writer Joe Harris‘ dialogue comes off as very stiff and unnatural, with several jokes that don’t land, and Adam Pollina’s zany artwork which has very little smooth flow. It’s not terrible but I found very little that I liked in the story.
Mignola returns to writing duties with the great short “Another Day at the Office,” with wonderful artwork by Cameron Stewart. It’s very short, but basically shows Johann and Abe taking on some zombies. Stewart’s artwork is simply superb. I would love to see more of his work on B.P.R.D. for sure.
The volume closes with the extended opening chapter of the “Plague of Frogs” cycle, suitably titled Plague of Frogs. Guy Davis returns on artwork and continues to impress whilst Mignola is once again on writing chores. The team take some seeds from the classic Hellboy story Seed of Destruction to open up this ongoing story of the Frog plague. The true stars of the book have to be Johann and Abe, as they go head-first into battle. Abe’s origins are also hinted at, adding even more complexity to one of Mignola’s star creations. Whilst the story is only a beginning, it’s a great one at that and the best story in the volume. Absolutely superb.
Whilst there may have been a few duds in the first volume of B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs, the great stories really overcome the lesser ones. It’s a great continuation of the Hellboy mythos and I cannot wait to see more of Guy Davis’ work in future volumes. Great stuff, recommended.