B.P.R.D. books 1-14, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis, Dave Stewart and lot of other people, Dark Horse Books, 2003-2010.
Most of the occult investigators I’ve reviewed are Victorian or Edwardian, with a few mucking around in the 1920s. B.P.R.D. (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) is the modern equivalent. with a dash of super-hero and James Bond tossed in to liven up the mix. The cast is large and flexible; the foundational members are Dr. Kate Corrigan (occult specialist,) Abe Sapien (fishman who was originally a 19th century occultist,) Johann Kraus (a medium who lost his body and now lives in a containment suit,) Liz Sherman (fire-starter) and newest member, Andrew Devon (normal guy — what’s he doing here?) Others who move in and out of the storylines are Capt. Benjamin Daimio (a were-jaguar monster/revived dead person), Roger (a homunculus) and Panya, (a resuscitated mummy.) As the whole series spun out of Hellboy, he is also a presence, though he is on permanent leave.
B.P.R.D. is more a world than a storyline with characters; technically, I guess it’s part of the Hellboy universe, but Hellboy is so far removed from the daily comings and goings of the group that I think in terms of the B.P.R.D. universe with vague connections to the big red guy.
These first fourteen trade paperbacks collect what Mignola has deemed the first long arc of the series, seventy regular issues that more or less chronicle the war against the frog monsters that actually started back in Hellboy #1. To fully appreciate all the elements in this arc you probably also need to read the Hellboy collections Seed of Destruction, Wake the Devil and The Conqueror Worm, plus the Lobster Johnson book, The Iron Prometheus, and the first Witchfinder series, collected as In the Service of Angels.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, almost 100 comics all told, but I have to tell you, it’s worth every minute and every cent. The story line develops slowly, takes twists and turns as the characters spend as much energy dealing with each other as they do actually fighting the various menaces that confront them. Characters die, characters leave, characters betray, and some are even unpleasant. Two of the fourteen books, 1946 and 1947, deal with the origins of the bureau in the aftermath of World War 2. They don’t make any direct contribution to the storyline, other than setting up the political and monetary conflicts that continue to the present day.
The first two books, The Hollow Earth and The Soul of Venice, are collections of stand alone tales that refine and tie together the characters and concepts that will drive the rest of the series. Although Mignola oversaw the details, a variety of writers and artists contribute to these stories in varying combinations, almost like they’re trying out for the regular slot. Like a lot of people, I’m a sucker for the Lobster Johnson stories, and there is one solo adventure and another that connects Lobster, World War 2 and the B.P.R.D.
Plague of Frogs (book 3) gets the main arc fully underway as Kate, Liz, Abe, Roger and Johan follow up on a giant fungus that has escaped a B.P.R.D. research lab. Guy Davis starts as the regular artist and in his hands, the fungus is one of the creepiest critters I’ve ever seen. A climactic battle reveals that the frogs are back and ready to wreak havoc on the world. It’s a close one, and Abe is apparently killed, but as we view his near death experience, we get our first glimpse into his origin. Mignola obviously knows how to parcel out stories in just the right way, at just the right speed, to keep readers coming back, but this may be his best teaser ever.
Capt. Benjamin Daimo sits up and cuts his way out of a body bag in book 5, The Dead. With half his lower jaw cut away, he’s the epitome of the tough guy marine, and to everyone else’s dismay, he’s put in charge of the B.P.R.D. while Kate is assisting Abe in his search for further information on his origin. Among other things, Daimo is to oversee the Bureau’s move to an abandoned research facility in the Colorado mountains, a large, foreboding structure with dark secrets of its own.
The Dead marks the debut of John Arcudi as regular scripter, and it’s hard to know how much detail in the story is actually his rather than Mignola’s, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The constant switching back and forth between characters and across time seems more effortless than ever. A madman sealed in a lower level of the ‘new’ headquarters since the end of World War 2, fore- shadowings of future adversaries, another of Abe’s visits to his own past are all woven around a tense adventure story. I haven’t done a body count on any of these books, but on a really primal level, Mignola, Arcudi and Davis are very fond of blowing stuff up.
As with other books in the series, The Black Flame contains more plot elements than it’s possible to coherently summarize in a small space. The title character is the anti-Bruce Wayne, a millionaire playboy who develops an alter-ego based on a Nazi original, with the goal of becoming the leader of the frogs. To that end, The Black Flame helps bring about the advent of Kata Hem, a god even creepier than the fungus guy, only to find that he, the Flame, kinda got things wrong. He’s a servant, not a master. Oops.
Roger the homunculus, until now a child-like innocent, has found his mentor and role model in Daimo, adopting a swaggering bad-ass attitude that ultimately gets him ‘killed.’ And in the meantime, Liz has her first full encounter with Memnan Sa, a Fu Manchu-looking character who may or may not be on the side of the angels. All this, by the way, is taking place as the combined armed forces and B.P.R.D. agents are waging full scale war against the swarming frogs and the monstrous, steadily advancing Kata Hem.
The Universal Machine takes a side-trip as Kate and Devon trek to a remote French town in search of a rare book that just might have the secret to restoring Roger to life. It doesn’t go well. Though lacking any of the abilities of the rest of the team, Kate’s knowledge of the occult and quick-thinking turn an ugly situation around, though without the hoped for results. We find out a little more about Johan’s origin, more about Liz’s origin, meet Carl the Wendigo and tie the whole book up with a poignant final meeting between Johan and Roger.
If I have to pick a favorite out of the series, it’s unquestionably book 7, Garden of Souls. I’m only going to say this: a living mummy, Victorain cyborgs and a finale to Abe’s origins. If that doesn’t do it for you, you’re hopeless.
I guess I have to add that Johan gets a body, because the results of that along with a taste of Daimo’s backstory make up the bulk of the narrative in Killing Ground. And the mummy. And the wendigo. And Memnan Sa. And Lobster Johnson.
Books 8 and 13, 1946 and 1947, reveal the beginnings of the bureau under the guidance of Trevot von Bruttenholm in the ruins of post-war Berlin. Both books provide well-earned breaks for Arcudi and Davis.
But you’ll notice the arc has kinda moved away from the frogs over these last few issues. They come roaring back in The Warning, teaming up with the subterranean Hyboreans, introduced in book 1. Memnan Sa is confronted by the bureau in his lair, easily outwits them, and takes Liz for his own purposes. She has, he reveals, a higher calling.
That calling is revealed in The Black Goddess, which is the climactic battle we’ve been waiting for. Even though it will take one more volume to wrap everything up, this is where the majority of the plot lines come together and the big evil confronted.
One would assume War on Frogs, book 12, is another collection of stories with guest artists, mostly filling in gaps in the main character’s lives. It’s a loose group of stories and by this time, I’m gettting imaptient. B.P.R.D. is far from perfect, and this is an obvious time-filler.
King of Fear wraps up the storyline, and despite the promise of a cataclysmic battle, this book is more low-key than one would expect. All the major story arcs are resolved (they have to leave something to drive future issues) and just about every major character that has appeared over this long story reappears: The Black Flame, Lobster Johnson, Hellboy, the Victorian cyborgs. The frogs are apparently stopped.
I have to tell you, these quick summaries (did you notice they got “quicker” as they went along?) don’t begin to do justice to the wealth of character and action and creepy details, don’t even suggest the complexity of the plots and their magnificent interweaving through time. There’s not so much detecting going on as in a normal Occult Detective book, but the mysteries that are there have more to do with the depths of character than figuring out the source of a manifestation. If your only acquaintance with the B.P.R.D. is via the Hellboy movies, you are getting shortchanged. This is one of the best, most consistent comics on the market, far ahead of even the other Mignola occult series, Witchfinder and Baltimore. Do yourself a favor and catch up. Book 15 just came out a month or so ago, starting a whole new arc. A whole new reason for looking brightly into the dark future.