B.P.R.D. to the Rescue!

Posted by on January 19th, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Writers: Mike Mignola & John Arcudi; Artist: Guy Davis; Dark Horse; 152 pp., $17.95; Color, Softcover; ISBN: 9781595824110

The Black Goddess gives us more of what we’ve come to expect from the B.P.R.D. series:  monsters, magicians, daring rescues, raging conflict, and heroes returning from the dead.  It’s a very different, less brainy, approach to horror than that of some of the more research-heavy, almost folklorist, Hellboy tales — and the fact that Mike Mignola  and John Arcudi can do either with equal grace surely speaks to both their skill as writers and their grasp of the material.  The artists, Guy Davis and Dave Stewart, are equally dexterous, and they employ marked, but subtle, differences in their depictions of various locales, activities, and time periods.  Their work is beautiful, detailed yet understated, and always exactly suited to the action of the scene.

The plot involves the B.P.R.D. team tracking the clues to find pyrokinetic agent Liz Sherman, and then launching a mission to save her from the evil mystic holding her entranced in a secret city deep in the Stanovoy mountains.  Of course, it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.

©2009 Mike Mignola

The truth is, I never quite know what’s going on in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.  A typical adventure begins with its agents someplace creepy investigating some unexplained phenomena.  Then they’re attacked by frog people, Rasputin, Nazis, a mad scientist with his head in a jar, gorillas with bolts in their necks, ghosts, giant Lovecraftian monsters, or some combination thereof.  What follows is a scene of unimaginable destruction, artfully portrayed and lightened by some restrained but witty dialogue.  In the end, the immediate menace is vanquished, but we’re left with the sense that the real apocalypse has only just begun.

In the course of the story, we are offered explanations, here and there, about why all this outrageous stuff occurs, and the explanations usually seem to involve some centuries-old conspiracy, and occult secrets, and the personal biographies of half a dozen characters, plus the institutional history of the Bureau itself.

Personally, I never quite grasp the explanations.  Partly that’s because I don’t read the comic often enough, or carefully enough.  But partly it’s because Mignola and Arcudi write so that you don’t really have to be up on the minutiae.  That sets this series apart from some others we all could mention, where the plot of any given issue only makes nominal sense, and only seems at all interesting, if the reader is already familiar with a decade or so of back-story (and in some cases, only if she took careful notes).  That must be an easy trap to fall into, since so many titles fall into it.  And the most obvious alternative would almost seem to be even worse: self-contained stories, only nominally in series since nothing in today’s issue can rely on anything that happened in yesterday’s, or affect what will happen in tomorrow’s.

Mignola and Arcudi, however, show that other possibilities exist.  The story of The Black Goddess surely does relate to earlier B.P.R.D. tales, and to Hellboy stories as well.  But I think a curious and reasonably intelligent reader could easily start with this volume, and enjoy it.  There is a complex story unfolding here, for those who care to work it out — but for those who don’t, the battles with the frog people are plenty enough fun on their own. The combination of pulp adventure and monster-movie sensibility makes B.P.R.D. a ripping good time, and I almost prefer to leave the mysteries unexplained.

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