By Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis, and Dave Stewart
Right then, being officially out of excuses, everyone went out and purchased the first volume, correct? Great because that’ll make it significantly easier to accept the fact that you’re going to need to buy B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs Volume 2. Beyond the endearing characters, immersive atmosphere, soul-shuddering ideas, heartfelt glints of humor, rich textured art and a haunting beauty on every page, this collection is also an absolute master-class in how to effectively tell stories. Employing a cadence of subtle yet often devastating silent beats and wayward glances, Mignola, Arcudi, Davis and Stewart’s story of what it means to be human in a world of monsters is infectious and a brilliantly told example of harmonious artistic collaboration. Intricately woven with a rhythmic flair and an abundance of eerie charm, BPRD continues to be irresistibly unique. With a deep resonance of doom running just below the surface, this collection is truly all about that bass and Katha-Hem’s got all the wrong junk in all the wrong places.
Unlike the initial collection, with its anthological assembly of shorter tales, Plague of Frogs Volume 2 is a much more tightly written affair, very direct and patient in its pacing, culminating in the third act story “The Black Flame.” The familiar cast from volume one has returned, but each one of them is experiencing a type of change, a disruption to what little familiar comforts they had grown accustomed to. One of the strongest aspects to the series are the interpersonal relationships amongst the teammates, those moments that highlighted their trust in each other, but beginning with the opening arc “The Dead” those relationships are threatened. Abe struggles to grasp recent revelations about his unknown past, leaving the field lest he witness even more of those closest to him die. Roger, that lovable homunculus, is eager to fill the impressionable void left by Hellboy and finds a new role model in the mysterious and militant new field commander Captain Daimio. The department itself is relocated from the only headquarters it’s ever known. Liz witnesses all this change undermine the dynamic of her team and unravel her family, and rebels against it even as others slowly embrace it. All the while, the threat of the frogs grows ever greater.
With every change, every victory and every failure along the way, Mignola and Arcudi continually craft the overall story arc much like that of symphony. Each movement, in this case the three arcs that comprise the whole of this volume, builds on each other even as they explore their own individual ideas. The story beats of this entire omnibus are reflected in the microcosm of each arc, each issue and each page. Nothing is superfluous, each dialogue-free page serving as much if not more to the overall narrative as the chapter that preceded it. The same rhythm that brings us to the confrontation with Katha-Hem can be found in a sequence of Roger laying the Cavendish’s skulls together or Johann relenting to lead the unexpected souls of frogs to the other side. Everything is told succinctly, but with just the right amount of room to breathe. It’s structurally lyrical in its elegance, despite the grotesque visages along the way.
“The Dead” introduces the restructuring of the BPRD and balances the typical horror occult action of the team discovering a grave threat in the bowels of their new mountainside home with the quiet, but no less portentous, sequences of Abe’s fever dream trip down memory lane and his confrontation with the spiritual remnants of his former, though still unknown, wife. The unease of all these characters is effectively conveyed as the reader struggles to situate themselves on unfamiliar ground of new surroundings. Daimio’s motives are intentionally unclear, a hardened military man suddenly at the reins of our beloved paranormal squad, takes some getting used to and his actions at the conclusion will hardly instill much confidence that there’s warm blood pumping through his cold exterior. Abe’s story is really at the heart of this arc, a poetic journey for the truth that is both hard to face and painfully freeing to accept. The status quo has been shaken and the ominous presence of the frogs are mentioned, but never faced here instead allowed to simmer on the back burner as the team looks for solid ground amidst the tremors of transition.
“The War on Frogs” comes in like a wrecking ball to this freshly distorted team as this second arc goes full Aliens in its forceful assault on the not-so-underlying frog threat. Visceral horror is found throughout the violent and delightfully disgusting missions to weed out the sleeper-cells of the amphibious monsters. It’s in this arc that Roger and Capt. Daimio’s relationship really develops into a father and son dynamic that’s both charming and disheartening. It’s fun to see Roger light his cigars and deftly lead squads of soldiers with confidence just as much as it’s sad to see his jokes and youthful innocence fade away. The opening chapter here is guns blazing action that relents to quieter character pieces focusing on Johann, Daimio and Roger, as well as phenomenal entry drawn by John Severin that is basically as close to capturing the horror of the original Alien as you’ll find in comics. The frogs are omnipresent through each of the five chapters here and their increasing numbers and its effects unite each story even as they explore different facets of the BPRD members.
We’ll get to Guy Davis and Dave Stewart in a moment, but “The War on Frogs” features tremendous contributions from Herb Trimpe, the aforementioned John Severin, Peter Snejbjerg and Bjarne Hansen. Trimpe’s clean cartooning, while significantly smoother than Davis, is right at home here. His bold lines bring with them a great sense of weight to the powerhouse Roger and Cavendish frogs, while still relaying a range of emotions from the homunculus. John Severin does what he does best and will have you convinced that you’re reading an EC horror comic with his thatched texturing and ability to instill horrific suspense. Snejbjerg and Hansen are one hell of an artistic tandem, instilling a beautiful eerie quiet with whispy figures and an almost watercolor pastiche. Snejbjerg adeptly draws the mundane and the inexplicably otherworldly, but it’s Hansen that steals the show with his smooth vibrant painter’s palette.
Finally, the crescendo comes to a head with the concluding “The Black Flame” wherein we see all of the pieces presented earlier come together into an emotionally fulfilling whole. Even the tiniest slivers, a notebook with clippings or an innocuous artifact in a sea of innocuous artifacts, were in play all along as the characters are brought to a concluding place of tragedy and triumph. Again, the pacing gradually increases in this arc as it has from the first to second and then the second to here, starting with the slow introduction of Mr. Pope and his machinations, and the brief vague dreams of Liz that hint at larger answers. By the time the chapter concludes it’s astonishing just how much was comfortably fit into “The Black Flame” not just what it introduced in its own pages, but everything before it. There are “oh god no” moments and “hells yeah” moments aplenty, it’s clever and engrossing throughout and moves with such momentum that one would hope that the next omnibus is just one long epilogue in order to catch your breath.
Mignola and Arcudi may be behind the words and plotting, but Guy Davis and Dave Stewart are just as much maestros to the emotional journey Plague of Frogs vol. 2 takes you on. Mignola may have gotten the ball rolling building his Mignolaverse, but Davis and Stewart declaratively make the BPRD corner thoroughly theirs. They are synonymous with the title for good reason, they built it into the imaginative playground of horror, humor and action that we all know and love. Davis’ style is deceptively cartoonish with speckled details and exaggerated features, but blows the doors off all expectations with creatures and landscapes of colossal scope. His design work, the details of the mysterious monk in Liz’s dreams with his serpentine cloak or the multitude of fabrics in the new BPRD uniforms or the restrictive containment devices on Pope’s frogs, and of course the evolution of Katha-Hem’s physical appearance, is bogglingly good. Beyond just the raw skills of drafting on display, Davis’ greatest success comes from his ability to understand a moment; knowing when to pull the camera back to see the figure standing alone in a space, allowing for the tension to build, only to let a single instance of peace linger before the true horror is revealed. It’s all pitch perfect and understated in its ability to make you turn the page out of sheer necessity. Stewart in turn continues to reassert his position as best in the coloring business. BPRD is surprisingly less dark than Hellboy proper (though, we do get some shadow heavy moments) allowing Stewart to play with brighter, lighter shades and tones, while still effectively creating ominous moods. Everything he does in “The Black Flame” in particular borders on the ethereal.
B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs Volume 2 isn’t just a gripping story with phenomenal art; it’s Stan and Jack birthing the Marvel Universe. This is world building at a near unprecedented level as these four creators firmly establish themselves as guardians and caretakers of a fully realized, thoroughly piquant universe. With them at the helm, the end product is nothing short of beautiful music.