COMIC REVIEW: B.P.R.D. Plague Of Frogs Vol. 4

Plague Of Frogs 4 HCThe world of Mike Mignola’s Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.) is one that you either know and love or will know and will love, when you finally get around to reading the trades.  Yeah, I’m looking at you, slow coach.  It’s been years now since a disillusioned Hellboy left his comrades behind.  Whilst his story continues to be an absolute gem, the spin-off B.P.R.D. series has been leaping from strength to strength.  Far from flailing without Big Red, the other members of the Bureau have been given the space and the stories to shine on their own.

The series retains Mignola’s grumbling sense of humour and displays the admirable ability to hop between epic story-lines and intimate character pieces.  Dark Horse have been collecting together the B.P.R.D. stories in trade paperback for years now, but collectors and newbie comic-gobblers may be interested in getting hold of the Plague Of Frogs Omnibus Hardcovers.  Each one contains three volumes of the B.P.R.D, progressing in story chronology rather than the order of publication (which is why the collection I’m reviewing here contains books 10, 11 and 14.)  Now, I only have a .pdf copy to review, so I’m in no position to talk about size, weight and paper quality.  I’m betting they’d make for excitingly heavy and luxurious Christmas presents, though…

Warning: There are plot spoilers after the jump, so read on at your own risk.

The earlier B.P.R.D. trades collect short stories, beginning with “The Hollow Earth.” Initially, they seem to be just back up adventures, expanding the world of Hellboy a little more and shedding light on his colleagues.  Mike Mignola is an absolute wonder for weaving seemingly disparate strands into a cohesive tale though, and as the series has progressed it’s become apparent that he’s been playing the long game.  However, the books contained in this omnibus are the first to be specifically (and vocally) designed as a single connected tale.  They are “The Warning,” “The Black Goddess” and “The King Of Fear” – sometimes referred to as The Scorched Earth Trilogy.  Writing duties are shared by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi, the art is by Guy Davis, the colours by Dave Stewart and the lettering by Clem Robins.  Lets start with a plot overview and then get into the nitty gritty.

As the book opens our friends in the B.P.R.D. are in a state of mourning and disarray.  Daimo is missing, presumed dead, Liz is tormented by visions of destruction, while Abe and Johann wrestle with guilt and regret.  Bedridden, Panya trawls the past but it is the future that obsesses her enemy, the mysterious Martin Gilfryd.  Desperately intent on achieving his ends, he orchestrates the kidnapping of Liz – the one person he believes can help him.  The rest of the Bureau discover a subterranean army, complete with colossal killer robots, which kind of takes priority.

A devastating assault on Munich leaves the world in no doubt that the Hyperborean threat is real, though they do manage to beat them back eventually.  An investigative thread into the legendary Lobster Johnson turns up more information about Gilfryd (otherwise known as Memnan Saa) and thus may help them to recover Liz.  Johnson may be dead, but it seems his spirit cannot rest.  The Bureau track Memnan Saa down to his lair.  Here we learn of the ‘larger picture’ at last, and the purpose to which Gilfryd/Saa has been working all these years.  As revelations unfold around us, the fortress is attacked and the true extent of  the threat becomes apparent.  Futures hang in the balance, armies battle and die outside, but only Liz Sherman can choose what way we go.  Kate and Bruno try to put Lobster Johnson’s spirit to rest, taking the chance to reflect on the past and any possible future they might have together.

In the aftermath of the attack, the Bureau find themselves very much on their own, cut off from military support.  Liz, Abe and a small squad of B.P.R.D. agents try to track the Hyperboreans back to their source.  Liz becomes separated from the group and is once again consumed by apocalyptic visions.  Meanwhile, the others come face to face with the authors of their woes and are treated to (obligatory) monologues.  Abe’s sense of identity is shaken to the core, and the story is brought to a definitive (and explosive) climax.  The final chapter deals with the fall-out of this epic series and leads us straight into the next book.

Phew.

As a long-time reader, I’m pleased to say that I remain very much impressed with the B.P.R.D. series.  It continues to build upon itself in unexpected and interesting ways, only drawing upon the wider Hellboy mythos when the story really demands it.  It truly stands upon its own two feet for quality and style, and there is no denying the ambitious scale of Mignola’s Apocalypse.  This is no whimper, but an escalating series of bangs, earthquakes, battles and GIGANTIC F*CKING MONSTERS!  The characters are engaging, the reveals are often jaw dropping and the stakes have never been higher.  I found myself giggling one minute and chewing painfully on my lip the next as the creative team worked their magic on me.  Now, clearly somebody who has not read the B.P.R.D. books would be a fool to pick up the fourth Omnibus as their gateway into the world, but I must say, it’s surprising how self-contained the Scorched Earth trilogy is.  Whilst some knowledge is assumed, pretty much everyone either has character moments that neatly delineate them for new readers, or are discussed in a way that puts them in context, even if specific details remain sketchy.

I was thrilled to discover that Gilfryd/Memnan Saa formed the centre of this trilogy.  His appearances in previous volumes have always left me desperate to know more about this mysterious figure.  He’s a fascinating antagonist in the very best tradition and it is wonderfully ironic that he should be responsible for renewing the Bureau’s sense of purpose.  Mignola and Arcudi have managed to sharpen our understanding of him without denying him his power.  Far beyond the craven trickster and wannabe that Panya paints, we see a dynamic man who holds wisdom, power and a horrible foreknowledge – along with his hubristic certainty that the ends justify the means.  I wouldn’t say that we perceive Gilfryd as a hero by the end, but at worst he comes across as horribly misguided.  To this purpose, Panya makes for a useful viewpoint character.  She can shed light on Gilfryd’s humble beginnings in a way that we simply wouldn’t trust from the mans own lips, showing his human side in contrast to the slightly terrifying vision we normally have of him.

Guy Davies’ artwork is up to standard, giving us plenty of action, epic scale imagery and horrible monsters.  It doesn’t stun me in terms of pure art, originality or style, but it is good solid work.  B.P.R.D. has never shot for ultra-realism, preferring a looser style to go with the pulpy story-lines.  I see consistency, proportions and effectively dramatised emotion, and that’s all I need for these adventures.  It is really good to see a comic that doesn’t try to pack a hundred panels per page, though.  Davis has to confidence to let the reader soak it all in.  His artwork is big and proud, and his splash pages pack in the cinematics.  He pays as much attention to the quieter moments as to the explosions, giving his scenes pace and movement to enable the emotions to play out.  The tentative romance between Kate and Bruno is a warm candle in a desolate world, and all the more heart-warming because they are not blatantly romantic fodder.  I always appreciate the refusal in these books to pander to body fascism and over-sexualisation.  People here come in all shapes, sizes and colours: they’re individuals, characterised by their personality and actions rather than their looks.  Other comic creators could do with taking a long hard look at what these guys do.

Let’s wrap this up, anyway.  Did I like it over all?  Hell, yes.  Did I have any problems with it?  One or two.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’m starting to want to know what Joe Public is making of all this.  Several major incidents have happened now on a global scale, yet we never really see the world react.  What are Governments saying to their people?  How are different communities interpreting these events?  The story is focused where it should be, but I’d like a bit of wider context.  Secondly, the story jumps around an awful lot which can make for a confusing first read.  If I were picking up individual issues I may have found the ambition just a bit much for my tastes.  It is worth sticking with to the end though, and well worth reading through several times.  The draw for me is in the widening story and the fabulous pulpy elements, but I can see how some people could find it all a bit knotty.  I’ve yet to see any signs that it’s unraveling, so keep the faith for now.  Mignola and Arcudi seem to know what they’re doing.  These Plague Of Frogs omnibuses give it all to you on a platter, so if you don’t already own the series, I’d recommend picking them up.  Start the story from the very beginning and plough your way through them all.  This isn’t the end of the B.P.R.D. but it does bring to a close one of the longest running plots in the Hellboy universe.  What happens yet?  The New World.  I can’t wait to step into it and have a look around.

 

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

More from the world of Geek Syndicate

%d bloggers like this: