BPRD: Plague of Frogs
Created by: Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis
Published by: Dark Horse
ISBN: 1593072880 (Amazon)
Pages: 1462 (roughly)
Spin-offs are always a bit of a dicey proposition. For every well-received Frasier or Rhoda, there are many more that fail to capture that spark of interest that dazzled the audiences of their progenitors. The Tortellis, Just the Ten of Us, Joey. Every spin-off is something of a funambulist and over a variety of perils there are these fine lines they must traverse. Beyond the normal gamut of ways in which a new series might fail, spin-offs have additional baggage threatening. Too derivative. Not derivative enough. Under-developed characters. Too deep in the shadow of the original.
Still, in some cases, a spin-off is the only way in which to preserve well-loved supporting characters when their series turns in a new direction. Such was the case for the cast of BPRD. While long at home in the pages of Hellboy, Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman, Kate Corrigan, and the mononymous homunculus Roger (each members of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) were left lurched in the conclusion to “Conqueror Worm.” Hellboy, discouraged by the duplicity with which the Bureau had treated Roger, leaves the organization to pursue a more personal venture. The series Hellboy at this point cuts ties with the BPRD and, more importantly, with Abe, Liz, and the others. Hellboy becomes a book with a cast of one.
The only problem here is that Hellboy’s BPRD cohorts are great characters and readers want to know what happens to them. Behold the birth of BPRD, the series.
I was nervous. I loved these characters. Kate was as yet underdeveloped, but Abe had a rich history to be explored, Liz’s inner struggle was left unresolved, and Roger was just fun. I wanted BPRD to be as awesome as Hellboy was. I wanted this spin-off to be the exception to the rule.
And then I read the first arc, The Hollow Earth, a story delving into a neat piece of 19th century fantasy lit legend. It fell flat. The story (with three writers) struggled to find its feet. The elements were there, but the tone was off. Ryan Sook’s art was accomplished but felt too much like an aping of Mignola’s work on Hellboy. When I first saw panels from the book, I thought Sook would be a good fit, taking over where Mignola left off. It didn’t work out.
The group of stories caused my fears to grow. A series of one-shots, each featuring a different artist/writer combination, almost wholly failed to do anything worthwhile with the Bureau’s peculiar agents. There was one exception. “Dark Water,” written by Brian Augustyn with art by Guy Davis, was the perfect mix of who the BPRD should be and what the series could be. I suspected that it was Davis’ art that really sold home this vision of the book. Sadly, “Dark Water” came early in this series of short stories, so by the time the next arc began, I was ready to bid farewell to the Bureau and to characters for whom I no longer cared.
Fortunately, the fates would intervene. The day the first issue of the next arc, “Plague of Frogs,” came out, someone from my local comics provider accidentally placed the book in my pull box. I got home with the week’s haul and found chapter one of BPRD: Plague of Frogs shuffled in with my other books. I picked it up, discouraged that I had paid for what was in all likelihood a dog, flipped through and discovered that Guy Davis had drawn the story. Comforted that at worst I would be able to indulge in some very good art while trying to ignore some mediocre story and inept handling of characters, I plowed through the book.
It was good. Very good. I wasn’t ready to pronounce BPRD now a book that I wanted, but I wasn’t any longer convinced that I didn’t. At the least, I would get the rest of this arc. Again, at worst: I still had Guy Davis to enjoy.
The thing about BPRD is that “Plague of Frogs” is just the start. That story is when things finally click. The series not only becomes this dynamic mix of quiet character moments and large, Hollywood set pieces, but it takes on a harness of building tensions. BPRD is absolutely driven by Big Ideas. It starts in “Plague of Frogs” and even if you have some idea that Things Are Afoot, you really can’t conceive just how tremendous these will be in scale.
“Plague of Frogs” does three things right. More really, but I’ll focus on just three.
1) The third volume of BPRD stories introduces a driving story-force for the series. Previously, both BPRD and Hellboy had simply been a series of loosely connected (if that) investigations into discreet episodes of the paranormal. There had never yet been the feeling that there was a larger story at play. (While Hellboy did have the whole Ogdru Jahad thing going on, it was never really anything more than this ominous background to the series.)
“Plague of Frogs” introduces a Threat, something that couldn’t be wrapped up over the course of a single arc. Something dangerous. Something that not only would bite the Bureau in the ass over and again, but something that if not contained, would pose a real threat to the entire world. Within “Plague” it’s not clear just how big a threat the frogs would become, but this is where it all starts—and while it starts small enough, things rather quickly escalate over the following books.
One of the really cool things about BPRD as a series is that it doesn’t fear alternating drastically the status quo of the world it takes place in. Not only do the characters age at the same rate we do, but if the story demands it, entire cities or nations can be destroyed (sorry Nebraska!). At the beginning of the series, the threats the BPRD encounters are generally unknown to the average citizen, but by even halfway through the series, everyone with a television knows of the frog menace. This sets up some very interesting storytelling possibilities for future series.
2) “Plague of Frogs” begins to draw Abe Sapien out from merely being a simple sketch. Previously, he had never been depicted as much beyond being a man-fish with no history prior the Bureau discovering him in suspended animation. “Plague” starts exploring that Prior and Abe, in many ways, begins to become the driving force for the series.
Taking lessons from the exploration of Abe, Mignola (joined by John Arcudi from volume four onward) take pains to focus on characterization for all the primary agents of the Bureau. These are complex people with complex histories living in complex circumstances. It makes sense that their personal stories would require special attention even in the midst of great cataclysm. Frequently, the book retreats from action-packed battles or investigations to eavesdrop on conversations between agents far from the field, holed up in cafeterias or offices, prisoners to mundane tasks and their own wounded psyches. It makes for a great story and BPRD's is built on the strengths of such moments.
3) Guy Davis. Just as I can’t imagine a Hellboy apart from Mike Mignola’s exquisite artwork, it now seems impossible that a worthwhile BPRD could exist without Guy Davis helming its illustration. His presence and world-building are felt in every volume. His talent is awe-striking and he essays these figures with an imagination that rivals or surpasses Mignola’s own. So powerfully has he inscribed BPRD with his autograph that I would prefer to see Abe and Liz and Roger et al drawn by him rather than by Mignola himself.
Davis’ strength lies all over the map. He draws compelling visions of terror: frog-monsters, Lovecraftian elder-beasts, demons, and proto-humans from time-before-history. He illustrates believably down-trodden humans: doughy, aging people who wear their histories in their faces. He offers up set-pieces that are inexplicably detailed: lush jungle environs, cluttered Victorian mansions, and smouldering cities in ruin. Guy Davis is easily one of the most talented artists working in comics today. His sense of visual storytelling is unfailing and the emotion he can carry in even a single panel is only matched, I think, by the work of Fabio Moon. There may be others who eclipse Davis’ abilities, but I cannot think of who they might be.
Recently, with “The King of Fear,” the first arc of BPRD has wrapped up. Counting “Hollow Earth” this first arc fills ten volumes, nearly 1500 pages. Mignola has termed this entire storyline Plague of Frogs and having just finished reading its final chapter earlier this week, I can say I’m entirely satisfied with how the team of Mignola, Arcudi, and Davis have wrapped up the plague. Of course there are plenty of loose ends, but seeing where we (and the Bureau) are left at the end of “The King of Fear,” I’m hotly anticipating seeing where these three creators will take us next.
I was hesitant to pick up the conclusion to Plague of Frogs because I had read a number of negative reactions, some bordering on irate. I was silly to have been concerned. The act ends well, giving some sense of closure to several lines of story that have run throughout the series while still putting pieces in place for Act II. The feeling I get is that these several other reviewers desired something more like a Hollywood ending, a big on-screen conflagration with protagonists combating their foes in a knock-down, drag-out bout of superpowered fisticuffs. Certainly, in considered Liz-Sherman–style, there is something of a conflagration, but it and its effects occur almost entirely off-camera. In fact, the greatest moments of explosive climax occur unseen between the pen- and ultimate chapters of the volume. In a very real way, this is probably more fitting than to have the disaster take place in page after page of gut-wrenching action. The conclusion seems easy to the untrained eye, but really: this finale is less about the solution to these characters’ overt problems (i.e. the frog menace) than it is about what these events do to the agents’ constitutions.
BPRD remains one of my favourite books and Davis’ art throughout sings in a way unheralded. That Arcudi should be the primary writer on this series and still not be celebrated as one of the Great Writers of adventure comics is astounding. Even the covers that Mignola regularly prepares are works of art. BPRD is an entirely worthwhile series (though I might recommend skipping volume 2, The Soul of Venice, and the other volumes that do not contribute to the storyline as a whole).
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
1 Star = Bad
I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
Review copy submission may be facilitated via the Contact page.