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The Great Hellboy Re-Reading Project Part V: Plague of Frogs

I have recently begun an epic project: re-reading Mike Mignola’s complete Hellboy saga from the very beginning!  What began as a series of sporadic mini-series and short-stories featuring the big red occult investigator has deepened over the past twenty years into what is, for my money, the richest and most consistently entertaining comic book universe of stories out there.  Click here for part one, in which I discussed the very first Hellboy tale: the four-part mini-series Seed of Destruction.  Click here for part two, in which I discussed The Wolves of Saint August, The Corpse and the Iron Shoes, and Wake the Devil.  Click here for part three, in which I discussed a variety of Hellboy short stories including The Right Hand of Doom and Box Full of Evil.  Click here for part four, in which I discussed Hellboy’s last mission for the B.P.R.D.: Conquerer Worm.

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At the end of Conquerer Worm, Hellboy left the B.P.R.D. and then, in the two-issue The Third Wish, H.B. got himself into a lot of trouble at the bottom of the ocean.  We left him floating, alone in the dark waters; a heck of a cliffhanger.  I didn’t know it at the time, but it’d wind up being a while before we returned to Hellboy’s story.

Meanwhile, with Hellboy departed from the B.P.R.D., it became clear that Mike Mignola was interested in expanding the scope of his stories to move beyond focusing only on the big red guy.  Following up on B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth, 2003 saw the release of four B.P.R.D. one-shots, written and illustrated by a variety of individuals.   These were: The Soul of Venice, Dark Waters, Night Train, and There’s Something Under My Bed.  Mike Mignola wasn’t credited as the writer of any of them, and (as a result) none of them are all that interesting.

This was not a good start to the idea of an expanded Hellboy universe.  It just felt like a lame dilution of the series, with lesser artists and lesser writers.  Re-reading it now, Night Train doesn’t even feel like it should be considered in continuity.  Shouldn’t Lobster Johnson be abroad, getting himself killed, in 1939?  Dark Waters is notable because it’s the first Hellboy-universe work of artist Guy Davis, who will soon become the main B.P.R.D. artist.  But other than that, these one-shots are forgettable (and the last one, There’s Something Under My Bed, is almost unreadable).  I was extremely unenthused by these early attempts to expand the Hellboy universe, and I was disappointed by the increasingly slow pace of new Mignola written-and-drawn Hellboy stories.  This was a low point for me as a Hellboy fan.  Which brings us up to 2004’s Plague of Frogs:

B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs (2004) — After those disappointing B.P.R.D. one-shots, I didn’t originally have much hope for this new B.P.R.D. mini-series.  I enjoyed it when I first read it — certainly more than I had the one-shots that had come before it — but it took me a while to warm up to what would become a continuing series of B.P.R.D. mini-series.  It was hard to accept that a “real” Hellboy universe story could be written and/or illustrated by anyone other than Mike Mignola.  But eventually I was won over.  After a few of these mini-series, it became clear that the stories being told weren’t irrelevant fillers.  No, these were critical stories in the unfolding saga.  They also clearly had Mike Mignola’s fingerprints all over them, which made them easier to accept.  My initial resistance was gradually worn down by the impossible-to-deny high quality of these new B.P.R.D. stories, and today it is the B.P.R.D. (not Hellboy) that drives the main developing Hellboy universe story-lines.

This first mini-series, Plague of Frogs, was written by Mike Mignola alone, and with the second one, The Dead, John Arcudi joined as co-writer.  I don’t know the division of labor between the two men, but whatever it is, it has worked in spades.  More on that later.  Guy Davis had illustrated one of those sub-par B.P.R.D. one-shots, and with Plague of Frogs he came on board as the series’ main illustrator, a role in which he would remain for quite a number of mini-series.  Mr. Davis’s style is quite different from that of Mr, Mignola.  Back in Hollow Earth, illustrator Ryan Sook used a style that bore a lot of similarities to that of Mr. Mignola. Mr. Sook was good enough that his art didn’t feel like a lame imitation, it really felt like the right look for a Hellboy story.  Mr. Davis, on the other hand, has a very different style from that of Mr. Mignola.  While Mr. Mignola likes to use a lot of thick, strong blacks and simplified shapes, Mr. Davis’ art is all scribbly, energetic line-work.  His panels have a huge amount of detail, but also a willingness to launch into cartoony exaggeration.  It took some getting used to for me, but I grew to hugely love the distinct look that Mr. Davis gave to his B.P.R.D. books, and I applaud the Mignola team’s willingness to give B.P.R.D. a very distinct artistic style from Mr. Mignola’s regular look.  Looking back on Plague of Frogs now, I can’t believe I ever questioned Mr. Davis’ skill.  The art is amazing.  Issue #1 alone has so many astounding artistic moments: the horrific Sadu-Hem spore; all the creepy background details that can be seen when Liz, Abe & Co. enter the abandoned lab in New Jersey; the great frog-man fight at the end.

The story itself is rich, especially on a re-read.  This mini-series, far from being a stand-alone adventure, would be the first installment in what would become an ongoing series of B.P.R.D. mini-series, and a sprawling story that is continuing to this very day.  The series draws our attention to many moments we have already seen, reminding us of their importance and building on those events.  Abe continues to be haunted by the mysterious “sunken bells are tolling for thee” curse from Wake the Devil (published almost a decade earlier), and by the end of the series Rasputin’s curse has come true and Abe had been impaled and almost killed.  (Though once again Abe seems able to heal from a grievous wound.  Interesting that this has never quite been explained…)  Frog-men come back into play, building on the events from all the way back in Seed of Destruction.  Abe also discovers another connection to the events of Seed when he discovers a newspaper article about a miracle-healing boy that was published on May 11, 1994, the day that he and Hellboy were at Cavendish hall.  That miracle-boy, now grown up, is the one who carries out Rasputin’s vow of vengeance, impaling Abe with a spear.  This is twisty stuff.

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This now-old man (I’m not sure we ever quite got an explanation for his rapid aging) gives us yet another apocalyptic prediction of the end of the world.  Boy, I had forgotten how many times in the first decade of Hellboy stories we got these predictions of global doom!  This one follows the now familiar course, with the twist that rather than Hellboy himself, it is these frog-men who will wake the old gods and bring about the destruction of the planet.  (Another connection to Wake the Devil, as this vision isn’t all that different from the one shared by Kroenen in Wake the Devil #4, just minus Rasputin’s involvement.)  As I have commented in previous posts, it’s remarkable how much of this prophecy has actually come true in the comics that came after this.  The frog-men DID spread across the planet, and they did begin to wake the old gods, unleashing the current “Hell on Earth” story-line that is still on-going.  Where will this all lead?

Issue #5 is magnificent, and the point at which, during my initial reading, I really started to sit up and take notice of this spin-off series.  In a haunting, enigmatic, nearly-silent montage, we follow Abe Sapien as he uncovers a huge chunk of the details of his origin.  We see an mysterious creature that is at once beautiful and grotesque.  (See the image below.)  Its underwater location gives us an immediate connection to Abe.  The creature, or perhaps some part of its essence, becomes encased in stone.  (Was this by choice?)  This stone is recovered underwater by a figure in a complex, Victorian-looking version of a deep-sea diving suit.  The stone is brought back to land, where we see a group of men performing a ritual surrounding it.  The stone collapses in the hands of one of those men, Langdon Everett Caul, who then begins to undergo a transformation… into the creature who will be found and awoken, many years later, who we will know as Abe Sapien.  Holy cow did this issue blow my mind when I first read it, and it remains a treat to this day.  We don’t yet have all the answers, but boy was this a tantalizing taste.  (Several doozies remain: What was that creature?  Why and how did it affect Caul the way it did, leading to his transformation?  Why was Caul’s personality and memory completely lost?  What connection does Caul/Abe have to the mysterious “new race of men” we’ve been hearing so much about???)

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I should also note that Plague of Frogs introduces us to the elderly Professor O’Donnell (though he’s not named here in this mini-series).  He will be something of an enigmatic figure for quite some time, a slightly-crazy man who seems to know a whole lot about Sadu-Hem and the plague of frogs.

B.P.R.D.: The Dead (2004) — The next mini-series picks up right where Plague of Frogs left off.  The B.P.R.D. are trying, unsuccessfully, to contain the spread of the frog-men across the U.S., while Abe sets out to investigate his origins.  I love that we see Abe immediately trying to learn more about his origins, following the revelations at the end of Plague of Frogs.  Who wouldn’t?  It would’ve felt weird to me had Mr. Mignola held off on following up on what we and Abe had just learned.  I LOVE the connection Abe discovers between Caul and the Cavendish family (from Seed of Destruction) — turns out Caul was a sailor under Elihu Cavendish!  That connection still staggers me.

I love Captain Daimio’s introduction!  (“I’m not as pretty as I used to be, but looking around this room, I don’t see how that’s really gonna be a problem.”)  What a wonderful character, a live-wire who shakes up the B.P.R.D. team but who clearly has a lot to contribute.  Liz doesn’t trust him, which means that we the audience begin with the same reaction.  It’ll be a while before we learn Daimio’s full story.  In the mean-while, I like that this initial story gives us plenty of reasons to like and trust Daimio, and also some reasons to dis-like and NOT to trust him!  That gives all of his scenes here and in future mini-series a nice frisson of tension.

There’s a lot of fun had with Daimio’s reaction to Roger (and insistence that he start wearing pants), as well as Roger’s innocent, puppy-dog-like instant affection for Daimio.  I like the snazzy new uniforms, and the look of the new Colorado HQ is awesome.  I love the design, though I will admit to missing the simpler, less-military days of the CT digs.  The very nature of the B.P.R.D. seems to shift with this mini-series.  Before, the B.P.R.D. agents seemed like intellectuals of a more bookish sort (along with the super-powered field agents).  But now the B.P.R.D. agents start to seem more like soldiers.  And the death tole — already pretty high for B.P.R.D. “red-shirt” agents — starts to really mount.

There are a few weaknesses to this story.  I was confused by the creepy German guy, Dr. Gunter Eiss, who they discover hidden in the sub-basement of the new HQ.  When I read this story originally, I confused him with the also-sort-of-crazy Professor O’Connell, who had just been introduced in Plague of Frogs.  I think it would have helped had Guy Davis drawn them less similarly-looking.  I’m also not sure I buy the coincidence of all of this secret weirdness that seems to have taken place in the building the B.P.R.D. just happen to have chosen as their new HQ.  Feels like far too much of a coincidence to me.  I was also left a little confused by the ending.  Was Gunter really down there, alone, all those long years?  Just what exactly was that hugely weird creature who he brings into our world using his own body as the conduit?

My favorite part of the mini-series, and one of the biggest holy shit moments of my re-read project, is the double-page spread in issue #3 in which Johann looks through the scrapbook he found.  WOWSERS!  This two-page spread highlights so much important information in the history of the Hellboy universe!  The images we see here are almost all images that we will eventually see fleshed out in stories that will come in the next decade!!  (These are stories that all take place LONG BEFORE the events of this “present day”-set B.P.R.D. story — once again Mr. Mignola gives us things backwards, starting at the end.)  In the scrapbook we see The Black Flame, who will become a hugely important villain in the present-day B.P.R.D. stories as well as a villain from WWII about whom we’ll learn a lot more in mini-series like Sledgehammer 44!  We see the vril-energy suit of armor (from Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus and Sledgehammer 44)!  We see the Crimson Lotus (who we’ll see Lobster Johnson fight in 1933 in Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus)!  And we see Memnan Saa (who will menace Lobster Johnson in The Iron Prometheus and who will shortly start causing all sorts of trouble for Liz Sherman and the B.P.R.D. in upcoming B.P.R.D. mini-series)!

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Then, at the end of this mini-series, we get the at-the-time-bizarre scene in which Captain Daimio discovers a jar in the bowels of the new B.P.R.D. headquarters with a dead, weird-looking monkey with a white smiling face inside it.  This was a huge “huh??” moment when I originally read that scene, but now upon a re-read I have connected all the dots in one of the hugest OH MY GOD moments of this entire re-reading project.  I understand it all now, and I am amazed!!!  I’ll dig deeply into this awesome-sauce revelation in my next Hellboy post…

The issues discussed in this post are collected in: B.P.R.D. Plague of Frogs collection vol. 1.

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