Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

10 December 2010

BPRD, v. 1: The Hollow Earth and Other Stories

Collects: BPRD: Hollow Earth #1-3, Abe Sapien: Drums of the Dead #1, stories from Hellboy: Box Full of Evil #1-2 (1998-9, 2002)

Released: January 2003 (Dark Horse)

Format: 120 pages / color / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781593072803

What is this?: A series of short tales about the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense after Hellboy leaves.

The culprits: Writers Mike Mignola, Brian McDonald, Christopher Golden, and Tom Sniegoski and artists Ryan Sook, Matt Smith, and Derek Thompson

I wanted to know what Hellboy looked like when there was no Hellboy in it. Turns out, it looks a lot like a fish.

Abe Sapien, the fish-man BPRD agent, takes center stage in three of the four stories in BPRD, v. 1: Hollow Earth & Other Stories. Is he interesting enough a character to take that burden? Well, maybe. Abe begins the book seeking a new direction; it’s beginning to look like the BPRD isn’t where he wants to spend his life. But if he does stay, can he fill the gap in the organization that Hellboy (sorta) filled — that of the leader of the organization’s “special” agents?

BPRD: Hollow Earth and Other Stories coverThese ideas are prominent in the Hollow Earth miniseries, which leads off the collection. While wondering whether to continue with the BPRD, Abe learns pyromancer Liz Sherman is in trouble, so he takes Roger the Homunculus and Johann Kraus, the disembodied German medium, along with him to Asia. There, they find a destroyed monastery, civilizations and monsters inside the Earth, giant war machines, and Nazi wreckage. (The Nazis always seem to play in somehow.)

When I write it out like that, it seems like it has all the winning elements — monsters, action, possibilities for good character interaction. But it doesn’t add up on the page, and I wonder if the involvement of three different writers — series creator Mike Mignola, Hellboy novelist Christopher Golden, and Tom Sniegoski — had something to do with that. The monsters lack the character and distinctiveness that Mignola generally gives the monsters in his Hellboy work, and the Hollow Earth idea isn’t developed enough to engage me. There are some nice character moments between Roger, Johann, and Abe, and Liz’s story gets advanced, but it never feels like enough character moments. “The Hollow Earth” needed something more than pages of operations manager Kate Corrigan looking worried. If the other stories in this collection had moved the characters forward as much as the opening story, perhaps that would have made “The Hollow Earth” a part of a satisfying whole.

The two back-up stories in the middle of The Hollow Earth & Other Stories are very different beasts, despite both being written by Mignola. One is a throwaway story of a 1930s Lobster Johnson investigation, which I would imagine was included for completionists or to add to the page count. The other is a flashback in the life of Abe Sapien, who sees Roger the Homunculus in restraints, about to be dissected by BPRD scientists. Remembering that was almost his fate, he steps in to make one more attempt to revive Roger before the scientists start their dispassionate final work on Roger. It’s an appropriate, if slight, story for the collection and for Abe’s development.

The final story, the one-shot Abe Sapien: Drums of the Dead, has Abe in charge of psychic Garrett Omatta, investigating why madness and sharks follow certain ships as they cross the Atlantic to America. I was impressed with the background writer Brian McDonald chose for the story — the reason for the sharks and the possessions of crew members was an excellent idea, well executed on the page. However, there’s a fight scene in the middle of the book that feels out of left field, an action scene meant to fill pages and the requirement for an action scene. Still, there are worse faults to have.

The art in this collection is, generally, very good. Both Ryan Sook, who drew “The Hollow Earth,” and Matt Smith (no, not the eleventh doctor), who worked on the two backups, have styles that fit with Mignola’s art very well. Sook’s work almost seems like he’s imitating Mignola; in any event, even he lacks the spark that separates Mignola from the crowd, the art fits the story, and Sook’s storytelling is good. Smith is more easily differentiated from Mignola, more splotched with darkness, but his art fits in with Sook’s and Mignola’s quite well. The artist for Drums of the Dead, Derek Thompson, is completely different, and although his loose-limbed, slightly exaggerated characters fit the story, his work looks completely out of place in the Hellboy universe. I did, however, think his underwater scenes were very good.

This doesn’t feel like a BPRD collection, and it doesn’t really feel like Hellboy. It feels like Mignola casting about for something to do with his other characters and not quite finding it yet. He has Abe Sapien as a lead character, but the stories in this collection don’t convince me that he is a lead character — the chief character in an ensemble, yes, but not quite enough to carry a collection. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel enough about the BPRD either. Maybe future BPRD collections will settle what the BPRD stories are to be about, but The Hollow Earth & Other Stories feels like there’s a big hole at the center, needing to be filled.

Rating: BPRD symbol BPRD symbol (2)

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