By Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis, Dave Stewart and Clem Robins
What is there left to do after a near apocalyptic confrontation with an otherworldly, infernal walking mountain of a beast? For the members of the B.P.R.D., you pour yourself a cup of coffee, pull up a chair and mourn your friend while trading stories of the macabre and mourning a friend. BPRD Plague of Frogs Volume 3 (check out our reviews for Volume 1 and Volume 2!) sees the core team of Mignola, Arcudi, Davis and Stewart collaborating as though they were a perfect hive mind; in perfect synch throughout this tome’s 450 pages of reflections and forewarnings. Coming off the massive, horror-fueled action that was the prior entry, this volume succeeds in taking a breath and putting the characters back under the microscope while the horrors continue to simmer just below the surface. It’s about transformations and secrets. It’s about how the past can haunt you (literally) and shape you (also literally). It’s also just about damned perfect.
If the first volume was a medley, and the second was an opera, then this collection is a ballad. With an occasional slow tempo, but one then never meanders, the stories found within are thematically linked and share equal parts whimsy and gut-wrenching tragedy. It’s emotionally steady in how it lulls you into caring, then rises to deliver a punch to the gut only to step away and leave you all the time you need to digest what just happened. Comprised of three of the best tales B.P.R.D. has to offer, The Universal Machine, Garden of Souls, and Killing Ground, this volume is everything that’s great about the series in one beautiful package. The Mignolaverse has always been tightly written, calling back and forth through its history to better delve into the massive world and its inhabitants and here we see the apex of many of the underlying mysteries that have been lingering. Mingle and Arcudi finally reveal the circumstances to Daimio’s rebirth via a “tales around the campfire” setting and then play off it to further explore Abe Sapien’s mysterious beginnings as well as set up the next stage of Daimio’s evolution. It’s all done with a bizarre serenity, that surreal eerie fairy tale feeling that Mignola and Arcudi do better than anyone. Daimio, when he first arrived, was this forceful and grounded action-hero archetype that we all knew would have a myriad of dimensions to him and it all comes to a head throughout these three stories. He’s the cigar smoking tough-guy, sure, but he’s also got a moral compass that supersedes the gruff exterior and we see that compass get completely upended here. It is, brilliantly executed in its ability to make you go “I knew it!…..No, no I didn’t. Damn.”
Each story arc collected here surreptitiously convinces the reader that answers are coming and that a glimmer of hope in this morbid, unforgiving world, can still exist. Putting aside the continuing battle against the frogs and the certain capital “D” Doom that accompanies them, Mignola and Arcudi’s script elegantly weaves together moments in time that belie their earnest presentation. An encounter with a wendigo (who has his own tragic origin to tell) or an adventure to Indonesia or just one night around their own cold headquarters turn out to be reflections of what the Mignolaverse is all about: what separates humanity from monsters and how thin that division can often be. Still railing from the loss of one of their own, each member of this familiar troupe has undergone a transformation borne from their own base desires and fears. Johann, old reliable and lovable spirit that he is, reveals a sundry encounter of his past and is given the opportunity to feel, if not live, in human flesh once more. Abe has been to dark, uncertain waters and after facing it head on finds himself more confident in the man (yes, man) he is as opposed to what he once might have been. Liz, ever in flux, finds herself nearly crippled in confusion and doubt once more only to emerge as enthusiastic as ever with friends old and new to stand beside her. And Daimio, well, he’s a whole other matter. Whatever and wherever these characters may find themselves, they together are what make these books worth reading. Monsters and demons be damned, it’s the way this staunch creative team finds way to make their impossible circumstances feel relatable in their emotional turmoil and supportive actions that grounds these stories despite the supernatural happenings. It hurts, it inspires and most of all, it sings of real heart.
Here’s where reviewing this particular volume becomes more difficult; Guy Davis and Dave Stewart again knock it out of the park. How can one put into words the fact that these two have yet again produced work that resembles virtually nothing else in comicdom in such a fashion as to evoke such vivid emotions? For starters, Davis goes absolutely creature-design bananas. While gruesome creatures from beyond our plane of existence are nothing new to the series, the designs of the victorian era mechanical body suits found in Garden of Souls are a real delight in their rigid, clunky movements and steampunk scuba aesthetic. The Wendigo and Jaguar God are imposing and beautiful in an almost perverted sense; their sinewy, organic texture is tactile while you watch their horrific and occasionally serene actions. More than anything, it’s the detail that can be found on every inch of his pages that makes Davis unique. Everything is addressed and everything has its own individual texture, yet its all married together with his instantly recognizable style. There’s a grace to how he moves the characters about the page, subtle eye glances and nondescript hand gestures that speak volumes about who and what these now beloved characters truly are, even when they themselves seem unsure. It’s a pleasure to partake in, even as the grisly moments try to rip them apart.
Dave Stewart? Yeah, he’s still arguably the greatest colorist in comics. Perhaps when one mentions anything in the Mignolaverse, the mind may flutter images of heavy shadows drenching washed out tones as horror is the assumed name of the game, but take a look and you’ll see there’s a plethora of chromatic application taking place in his work. It is rich. Because these stories are so often effective due to the atmosphere, Stewart plays off of the expected and knows exactly where to have contrast be the most effective. The cold, sterile halls of the B.P.R.D. headquarters is made all the more apparent with the shredding, blistering spatters of deeply saturated red horrors that lie behind potentially any corner. The clay-like apparitions float amongst a sea of murky blues and blacks only to give way to the lively flora and fauna of a tropical landscape. It’s one thing and then it’s another, but they flow together seamlessly in their application, perhaps best demonstrated in the stark, snow-like wendigo and his ensanguined beard. Stewart is the consummate professional in how he himself is a storyteller who never allows his work to overshadow the story laid out by the writer or artist; instead he takes their tones and themes to their natural end-point and in turn, raises the story to a higher plane. The first glance may trick you into thinking that the colors are flatter than they really are, or that the palette is limited to the muter end of the spectrum, but look again because those gut wrenching moments are a direct result of how he plays lighting director during the most mundane and the most operatic moments alike.
Should you read this particular volume if you haven’t read the prior two? Well, yes, it’s still excellent, but the emotional resonance would be lacking. But here’s the deal: these trade omnibuses (omnibus? omniboo?) are beyond redonkulous in their value, so go buy all of them, you beautiful fool you. This particular entry is a start-to-finish emotional journey into the most base of human psychology blended with tropes both old and newly invented by a team working at their highest fever pitch. It does end on a cliffhanger that will leave you reeling to immediately have the next in installment in your hands, but that’s all part of the wonderfully manipulative nature of how emotionally effective this series can be.The events of the last volume may have more bombast than what you’ll find here, but the quiet, introspective moments found within reverberate as loud as any cannon blast. Monsters with heart meet humans without and back again.