By Mike Mignola, Scott Allie, Max Fiumara & Dave Stewart
Today in obvious news: Mike Mignola leads a team who have put out a great book.
Abe Sapien #35 is the penultimate issue in the run and much-like #34 before it, opts for a gentle simmering tone instead of one of high-octane action, continuing the idea of “calm before the storm”. Abe has always been the gentle, reflective, intellectual member of the BPRD gang, so it’s fitting that the closing chapters of his solo story should be told this way. Really, that’s the most evident thing here, something that’s been clear across all the Mignolaverse output lately: This is a team who know their characters inside out. Where Hellboy in Hell‘s final issues were all about rough & tumble monster punching and satanic imagery, Abe Sapien‘s are a more peaceful glide through the water as we approach what will be, undoubtedly, an aesthetically arresting, but emotional devastating, climax with issue #36.
This is not a fast gallop toward the end, but a gentle dance. The issue glides through a nightmare world toward what is being set up to be a near Lynchian abstract approach to cerebral horror. The story continues a trend for the series of Abe having information poured at him by other, more mystical characters. It’s archetypal in its process. Potentially a little old-fashioned, but very Mignola & Allie. And this works for Abe, who at times can be quite a passive character – at least seemingly. He’s glides through the world absorbing information, drinking up stories and listening in on other’s tales of adventures as much as he engages as his own. Abe is the person so many young travelers like to think they are. Whilst this aspect of his character can make the occasional single issue a little unrewarding as a solo piece, very much the case here, this exposition he absorbs always becomes an incredible vital piece of the narrative moving forward. In Mignola & Allie we can trust that these 22 pages of gentle, nightmarish simmering will pay off in next month’s closing installment. What may have been lacking this month in story is more than made up for in atmosphere. This issue almost feels like the setting of the stage for what is to come and it works, creating a great, though unfulfilling on its own, issue.
As for art? The Fiumara brother’s corner of the Mignolaverse has always held a biblical tone, most evident this month with the cover. It’s reminiscent of church windows in the way it’s constructed, and re-approaches Abe as looking somewhat angelic compared to his normal monstrous look. By structuring the frame so we are looking up at Abe instead of looking front on, and giving him a strong stance instead of his usual clever-boy-lingering-in-the-shadows get up, we see Abe as more a creature of heaven than a fish-man of hell. It’s an incredibly clever idea, exposing Abe’s personality over his appearance without a single word of dialogue on the page. He looms there, much how Hellboy loomed on the cover of Hellboy in Hell #7, vacant and thin, gazing unto the reader as if breaking the fourth wall, aware his series is soon to finish. With both covers also sharing a cameo from matching fruit, and Abe Sapien #35 featuring a certain tree that sprouted upon Hellboy’s demise, the team are cleverly tying their titles together, though not in a “Big Two overbearing summer crossover” fashion. Mignola and his gothic squad are bridging their titles together in a subtler, more adult way: Through tone, imagery and atmosphere.
With the cover serving as an overture for the art inside, as much it should, Fiumara and Stewart spend 22 pages proving why they are stalwarts of Mignola’s creative family. The scratchy penciling invokes fairy tales. The inks are so bold they feel violent: The double-page spread of Strobl’s impact making particular use of ink to represent utter, guttural devastation. And color-wise Stewart continues to cleverly treat every corner of the Hellboy universe he plays in differently. Abe Sapien has always been his most muted Hellboy work. Here that continues, with the exception of the Eden-like garden that has become of England. Instead this is a landscape of luscious greens that leap from the page. It is here that Abe feels comfortable, initially unwilling to leave. How fitting that Abe should find comfort in this garden: Green like him. Wet like him. And in England: Where his best friend was born. So naturally, Stewart colors it brighter than anything else he’s colored in Abe Sapien before.
In contrast to the high use of negative space over in Hellboy in Hell, this is a book where every inch of every panel is packed to the rafters with complex penciling. What we’re looking at here could be an album cover for a 1970’s prog rock band, storyboards for the best horror film of the century, or somehow both. There’s a notable contrast between the murky colors and sharp inks. This enables each and every stage of the artistic process to become clear & evident as its own form and at times does draw you out from the narrative, as you can too clearly see the stages from pencils, to inks, to colors. This could have been a negative, but once again this is a team who know their characters. Taking you out of the story to acknowledge the beautiful precision with which the art has come together is the best possible way to get the reader into a similar head space as the intellectual Abe.
Right now this is 4-star book, but only because it doesn’t quite deliver as a solo issue. As it feels, much how the cover was an overture for the book, the book is an overture for the impending final issue. It’s easy to imagine that if issue #36 delivers quite how #34 & #35 have, and #35’s role in setting up #36 becomes clear, this review may require an edit to tip it over to 5-stars.