Generally speaking, the physicality of comics is quite a big deal to me. I don’t get the same satisfaction from reading this stuff digitally as I do from the paper and ink version. To be honest, if money was no object I’d be reading all my favourite series in hardback, since a hardback collection or graphic novel that’s had care and consideration lavished upon its production is one of (my) life’s minor delights.
Alas, money is an object, so my collection of hardbacks is strictly limited. The most satisfyingly chunky and heavy of all are the four volumes of B.P.R.D. Plague of Frogs. You could kill a decent-sized rat with one of these things. Possibly even a small dog. You can get the story in other more modest formats but I happened to get the first volume in hardback, and couldn’t bring myself to switch thereafter. (Hang-ups about format continuity = sign of slightly nerdy fanhood, I suspect).
Fortunately, I’ve not regretted that choice, since it’s been a very entertaining and interesting fictional journey.
B.P.R.D. PLAGUE OF FROGS
Written by John Arcudi, Mike Mignola and others, illustrated by Guy Davis and others, published by Dark Horse
B.P.R.D. is a spin-off from Mike Mignola’s famed and twice filmed Hellboy series. The super-long Plague of Frogs story arc follows the adventures of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense’s agents after Hellboy, their former leading light, has resigned (for reasons that needn’t concern us here) to go do his own, solo thing. These four rat-crushing hardbacks mix more or less stand-alone stories with a huge, over-arching narrative.
Early on there’s a changing roster of artists and – to some extent – writers. Ambitions changed, and became grander, as time went on and a consistent creative team settled in (John Arcudi writing, Guy Davis drawing, Mike Mignola as what you might call showrunner/co-writer, I guess? And Dave Stewart, as colorist, doing what he always does: making any comic he touches better. All of them doing a jolly good job, in fact). Longer form narrative takes over, and the storylines gradually become complex, interconnected braids in a pretty epic tapestry, until the final volume delivers a 300+ page single story that (sort of) resolves the whole arc.
That arc is all about a war between the B.P.R.D. and frogs. Not literally frogs – that would be silly, and a very one-sided contest – but froggish humanoids who are the worshippers, offspring, or something of decidedly Lovecraftian Old Gods. It all starts modestly enough with an ugly case of fungally-triggered man to frog transformation in a secret lab, but in due course monstrous gods are stalking the Earth, cities are getting trashed by gigantic machine-monsters, and tanks, dragons and yetis are taking to the battlefield.
Plague of Frogs is notable for the way it combines the epic and the intimate, and I confess the epic stuff isn’t my favourite bit of this series. It’s not uninteresting by any means, but it’s not what got me addicted. No, it was the stuff that goes on around the edges of, or as sub-plots within, that big picture anti-frog agenda that really turned me into a fan. A good deal of it revolves around character.
Hellboy himself only appears very occasionally and briefly in Plague of Frogs. In his absence, the focus is on a disparate bunch, most of whom are – to put it mildly – troubled or unusual in one way or another. There’s the amphibious man, Abe Sapien; Liz Sherman, the firestarter; Roger the golem (a wonderful character); Johann, the ectoplasmic residue of a medium whose body’s gone up in smoke; Daimio, a mysteriously resurrected soldier.
Every single one of these characters, and others, gets some movement and development in the course of these four volumes. What struck me particularly, though, was the deftness and comparative subtlety with which their relationships and interactions with one another are handled. There’s a lovely balance struck between the profound affection some of them feel for each other and the jagged tensions and collisions that arise from a bunch of troubled folk trying to be a team in wildly stressful circumstances.
Much of it – the conflicts and the affection alike – is quite understated, expressed in gestures, silences, indirect reference rather than inter-personal pyrotechnics. The end result is that peculiar alchemy many long-form serialised comics aspire to without nailing so successfully: I came to feel I understood, and cared about, several of the characters without being beaten over the head with big, blatant clubs of hyperbolic character development.
These are horror comics, and there are highly effective moments of creepiness (e.g. Abe Sapien venturing alone into a big, old house where a guy with a harpoon turns out to be awaiting him), as well as violent drama (the resolution of a Daimio-focused mystery is a terrific sustained piece of story-telling combining action and tension and even some pathos). Also to be found here are elements of steampunky science fiction, faintly Aliens-esque war stories, pre-WWII pulp/noir heroics, faux Eastern mysticism, zombies, mummies, a wendigo and much else.
The ending of the whole war on the frogs does manage to be both a bit obtuse and a bit deus ex machina, and actually feels a touch inconclusive (although the BPRD series continues beyond this arc, so that’s not entirely surprising), but it didn’t trouble me too much since so much of what had gone before was so enjoyable and it does rather fit with the overall tone and tendencies of the whole series.
And I’m going to be a bit obtuse and inconclusive at the end here myself, because B.P.R.D. Plague of Frogs contains one of my all-time favourite single panels from any comic ever – one that all by itself reminds me why I love the medium – but I can’t explain specifically why without huge spoilerage of the story. So all I can say is that that image over there of a toddler holding a ball, sitting at the foot of a statue, is a near-perfect bit of comic book creating (drawn by Mike Mignola himself). In its context, it is intensely emotive and eloquent, connecting several threads of plot and character into a beautifully composed, simple and silent image that to the long-time reader of B.P.R.D. packs a profound, multi-layered and moving impact. It’s utterly wonderful.
A whole mountain of careful and considered storytelling and craft, over many, many pages, has gone into delivering the prodiguous punch of that one panel. The whole of Plague of Frogs is a bit like that. It’s the very definition of cumulative effect. Well worth a try.