Saturday, May 15, 2010

BPRD: King of fear 1-5

With this week's conclusion of the "BPRD: King of fear" mini-series, Dark Horse has promised a major turning point for the franchise. The Hellboy spin-off has up until now been remarkably stable and has lead the publisher to experiment with other similar projects. Ironically, amidst the many spin off minis, the main "Hellboy" series has been distinctively separated from the bulk of the material, leaving "BPRD" to act as de facto flagship title for the whole line. This is all the more remarkable, considering the limited engagement Hellboy's creator Mike Mignola has had with the series of mini-series that is "BPRD".

That Dark Horse is well aware of the virtues of writer John Arcudi and artist Guy Davis' work could not be clearer, considering that "King of fear" is poised to act as a break from the accumulated continuity, but only in conceptual terms. The creative team is set to continue with their roles, with their effort going a long way to provide hints as to the upcoming direction.

Structurally, the five issues are bookended by two long conversation, that fittingly, start and resolve the future direction of the team, albeit from an administrative stand point. In between, the cast is split in two locations, revisiting both the first mission of the team's current incarnation, and their last outing with Hellboy that preceded it. "King of fear" is at it's strongest when it centers on Kate Corrigan, the human face of the paranormal fighting organisation, as she reconnects with a potential love interest from the previous mini-series.

Leaving aside more iconic characters such as Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman, the creative team use those scenes for a trip down the memory lane, that resonates with the feelings of both elegy and horror. The tension is released through the carefully chosen interaction between the characters, as Kate and Bruno discuss their relationship along with the history of the organization. Although the precise incident that leads them to "Hellboy: Conquerer worm"'s Hunte castle feels a bit contrived, a stray plot from the previous mini-series, the rest of the recap works wonderfully.

By sifting through the ashes of that final Hellboy mini-series that was to serve as the ending of the character's adventures in fighting the remnants of occult Reich, the creators employ limitless patience in recapping large amounts of plot, in a way that is very accessible and inviting. Unfortunately, this whole subplot is cut short, as it simply ends with the immediate situation involving Johann Kraus is resolved at the close of the second issue. The back and forth with the scenes featuring Abe and Liz thus turns into two subsequent issues devoted solely to the situation at hand in the "Hollow earth" locale from BPRD's debut mini-series.

The shift is purposeful, as it enables the series to capitalize on the drama and the foreshadowing. A more direct kind of horror is encountered as the BPRD team start investigating the Agarthan monastery, but it still leaves a lot of room for reminiscing of the organization's adventures, following Hellboy's leave. Unfortunately, no doubt because of the amount of plot Mignola and Arcudi needed to reference and provide some kind of closure to, a lot of it requires the reader having recently (re) read the previous books.

Such as it is, the bulk of the sentiment comes of, but, as always with Mignola's epic mythology, some of the minutiae might seem distracting. This is not a problem when it comes to separating giant monster Gods Ogdru Hem from Katha Hem, but it seems a bit careless, when it comes to having one of the team's major foes reappear not only without a proper name, but also lacking the context that was so lovingly introduced in the Hunte Castle scenes just an issue before.

Still, analyzing the scenes for what they are, they reveal a typical adventure plot, with the group even further splintering, enabling the villain to monologue for a long time. This is followed by some contrived drama, giving way to a conversation with Abe Sapien, considering his origins. Having separated Liz Sherman in what turns out to be the action sequence receiving the largest amount of time, Mignola and Arcudi proceed to recreate what feels like the whole of her tenure with the organization. Thus, her scenes end up enacting a dream like sequence, proclaimed to be the definite future by her mystical contacts.

By and large, both Abe and Liz have been in the similar predicaments before, but the ending of the fourth issue suddenly turns out to bring a huge change to the mythos. With the final issue, it become clear that the many homages and call backs have served a definite purpose, and that was to provide an end point to what has been the previous decades stock of plots involving the team. And even more, it serves to set up the make up of the characters and their world that the creators seemingly can't wait to get to. Unfortunately, such a shift seems not only slightly arbitrary, but largely unclear, as the fifth issue starts some time after the directly preceding events. Perhaps the creative team would have been better off, had they used the designated space of "King of fear" mini-series to depict the rapid fire events in more detail, and simply leave the setting up of the new direction for the beginning of the next book.

Even with this, Dark Horse's latest effort mimics "Conquerer worm", that acted as the epilogue for a whole era of Hellboy stories. Yet, while Mignola's decision then certainly seemed noble, as everything in the remarkably dense and complicated plot seemed to indicate that the then-current direction has worn out it's welcome, the same couldn't really be said for "BPRD", at least not at this point. It stands to the testament of the creators that they feel so visionary so as to sidestep the problems that would befall them some time in the future, by making the change so well in advance. Only time will tell if the adventures of BPRD post "King of fear" indicate a turn for the better, or an arbitrary decision, brought on by enthusiasm.

In any event, the mini-series itself has interestingly spent a large amount of space tying in with Hellboy, who was up until now much more present in spirit. By explicitly featuring the dark future that the main series has worked towards, BPRD could well be on the track of realigning to the flagship that has somewhat distanced itself from it's spin offs. Then again, the series parallels the parent book's plot once again in hinting a role for Abe, almost as conflicting and important as that foisted upon his friend's shoulders. The only concrete sense of the book's new direction can be found in the team's next adventure, that could well serve as much of a drastic change of pace, as the initial BPRD mini-series has seemed to the Mignola's work thus far.

Yet, the book didn't really gel into feeling until Guy Davis and John Arcudi succeeded Christopher Golden and Matt Smith. Davis especially brought a distinctively different feel to the art that was missing from the slightly derivative "Hollow Earth" mini-series. And just as the readers warmed up to the war on were-frogs as the book's central plot, so was the new artist quietly accepted as inseparable from the title, a quality that he's retained since, and that is in full display in "King of fear". Interestingly, he is called to illustrate the flashbacks to scenes previously featured in the pages of "Hellboy", and while such a direct comparison to Mignola's iconic art certainly slows down the book, the artist more than makes up for it in the reminder of the series. As always, Dave Stewart is called to separate the mood by coloring David's work differently than the series' creator, bringing out both the bizarre and humane in the characters through his characteristic earthly hues. Again, just being able to read the solid, dynamic layouts of Guy Davis is a boon to any reader familiar with the series, and will no doubt serve to further cement their hopes that the continual stability of the creative team is for everyone's benefit.

John Arcudi was Mignola's second addition to the series, and his character based flavored storytelling is once again on display in "King of fear". And while smoothening out the BPRD creator's mythology is certainly a much less apparent when done in the elusive co-writer credit, he has certainly brought a lot the the series. In regards the just finished mini-series, Arcudi was certainly willing to carry out some swift twists and turns, while all the while keeping his characters grounded and sympathetic. It's a testament to his strengths as a writer that he has managed to keep the writing on a spin-off at such a high level, that it has remained both respectful to the characters, and the accumulated continuity, as well as always providing for interesting excuses to make for the backdrop of a very solid genre book that is BPRD.

All that said, "King of fear" remains what it was advertised to be, a drastic change for the series, and a culmination of almost seventy issues of plots getting to a head. It was also noted to make up a somewhat larger trilogy with the two preceding mini-series, which doesn't really cohere taking into account the continuity that was called upon, and still left partly unresolved following it's conclusion. In any event, it's another typically strong volume in a very particular series, that has persistently remained a fan favorite precisely because of the unusual care and caution employed by everyone at Dark Horse. And even better, there is no reason to think that it won't continue as a prime example of horror/science fiction at it's comic book best.

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