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B.P.R.D: Hollow Earth & Other Stories
Mike Mignola, Ryan Sook, Christopher Golden, Tom Sneigoski, et al
Dark Horse / Titan paperback £13.99
review by Patrick Hudson
When Mike Mignola and John Byrne introduced Hellboy in 1994's Seeds Of Destruction, Mignola's arresting drawing style immediately made it apparent that this was something new and exciting. His impressionistic art has the flat multi-dimensionality of a children's cut-out theatre, with loosely drawn figures surrounded by fields of colour or - more commonly - blocks of rich black shadow, creating an atmosphere of eerie mystery that immediately draws the reader in to Mignola's artful combination of mad Nazi scientists, Lovecraftian horror and pulp super-heroics.
In common with all good ideas, the central concept is disarmingly straightforward. Hellboy is the product of a Nazi experiment in the occult gone wrong, appearing as a red, horned baby on a remote Scottish island in the closing days of WWII. Raised by kindly humans, Hellboy now works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research & Defence (this volume's titular BPRD) and fights the powers of darkness.
The series focuses on action, with the low-level melodrama of the lives of the B.P.R.D investigators acting as a backdrop to the main narrative. The characterisation is much the same standard as one sees in glossy sci-fi dramas on TV: a few standouts (Roger, Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman, as well as Hellboy himself) surrounded by a less interesting support cast. While Hellboy is not without dramatic elements, it is at its best when the eponymous lead is laconically punching out zombies, falling out of planes, or being caught in sudden explosions.
Hellboy certainly hit a chord, and the comic has become a firm cult favourite. With several collected volumes, prose novels and a role-playing game in print, plus the seemingly standard comicbook fare of action figures and statuettes, we await only the big-budget action movie (currently filming in Prague, and directed by horror man-of-the-moment and Blade II director Guillermo del Toro) to send Hellboy into the stratosphere of mainstream success.
In the years since Seeds of Destruction, Mignola has managed to gradually expand the Hellboy franchise and the volume at hand collects one of the first spin offs from the main series, dealing with the investigations of the B.P.R.D after Hellboy's resignation at the end of Conqueror Worm. Pyrokinetic Liz Sherman is missing after trekking to the mountains of Central Asia looking for peace from her inner demons. Following a psychic cry for help, amphibious Abe Sapien leads the homunculus Roger and the ectoplasmic Johan Krausse to look for her.
This story is backed up with teaser pages originally published in the newspaper-format Dark Horse Extra, and back up stories from the Hellboy series Box Full Of Secrets and Drums Of The Dead. It's all good stuff, but makes the whole thing seem a little bitsy (particularly bearing in mind that it costs 14 quid: is it my imagination or are the prices of these things creeping up?). The eight pages of concept sketches and character designs that closes the volume is included, I suspect, to bring the page count up to a complete section: better than a few pages headed 'notes', I guess, but not as good as another eight pages of story.
Mignola's art is one of the major appeals of Hellboy, contributing much to the series' droll laconic charm, and one of the traps of extending the Hellboy franchise is that new hands will not have the deftness of touch that Mignola brings to the strip. However, Ryan Sook does an excellent job of mimicking the shadowy contrast of Mignola's work, but brings a busier composition and page construction, with more panels per page, and more characters per panel. In B.P.R.D there are no single panel pages (quite common in Mignola's work - check out the beautiful moment when Giurescu runs into Hellboy on his horse in Wake The Devil) and the action is traced in frantic multiples of panels where Mignola might present the same events in a single choice moment. This is not necessarily a bad thing (and could be a product of Golden and Sneigoski's script) and the art has many moments of breathtaking spectacle and dynamism.
The main storyline (Hollow World) is typical Hellboy fare, mixing elements of Buddhist mythology, UFO cultism and explosive action with the usual aplomb, and the support stories are interesting, filling in little gaps in the over-arching narrative and in the character of Abe Sapien. Drums Of The Dead is least successful, because the script (by Brian Reynolds) is too wordy, and the art style (Derek Thompson) is more mainstream super-heroic realist: without the flattened, impressionistic art Hellboy threatens to become just another post-Swamp Thing occult super-hero.
If you're familiar with the world of Hellboy, you'll want to pick up this well-crafted extension to the Hellboy universe. If you haven't read Hellboy before, start with the Seeds Of Destruction trade paperback and read it from the beginning. You're in for a real treat from one of the finest works of contemporary fantasy in any medium.
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