3P Reviews, Graphic Novels and Comics, Hellboy/B.P.R.D.

The Monsters of the Week and Their Day Job – B.P.R.D. Plague of Frogs: Volume One

BPRD Plague of Frogs Book 1 AP

You have no idea how excited I am to have gotten here. I’ve tried not to show my hand too much over these past few months, but as much as I love the Hellboy series, I think I love B.P.R.D. more.

I picked it up originally after I got through the Hellboy books, thinking it would just be a light little spinoff featuring characters I liked from the films. What it turned out to be was an epic exploration of raw human emotions told through the lens of a few paranormal characters in a world that holds ground with The Lord of the Rings in terms of depth of lore. When I tell you this series is vast, take whatever you’re imagining and increase it tenfold.

Knowing where this series eventually goes, its origins seem almost humble.

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3P Reviews Series: B.P.R.D. Plague of Frogs: Volume One

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Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: Familiarity with my Hellboy reviews helps.

Content Warnings: Mention of death, kidnapping, immolation, slavery, Nazis, cults, disease.

Star Rating: ****

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Part One: The Empty Chair at the Table

BPRD Plague of Frogs Book 1 AD

B.P.R.D. is the story of what happened after Hellboy quit, from the perspective of the characters he left behind. It takes on a more team-oriented approach, both in its pages and in what was happening behind the scenes. While Mignola was still heavily involved in the creation of this series and even jumped in occasionally to draw and write for it, B.P.R.D. brought in new lead art and story teams, as well as more frequent guest creatives. Initially, it was envisioned as a light monster-of-the-week side project to contrast with what at that point was Hellboy’s descent into the surreal. You can see this format in the first two thirds of this book. In the last third, though, the story kicks into something new and utterly different from anything we’ve seen in this world so far.

If you read my other reviews, you’ll recognize a few familiar faces. The opening story, The Hollow Earth, focuses on Liz Sherman, the pyrokinetic who made up one of the three spokes of the initial Hellboy team. She only made a few brief appearances in Hellboy, once when she was captured by and killed Rasputin, and then again when she revived Roger in an attempt to extinguish her own powers. Liz is a much more developed character in B.P.R.D., though her time being kidnapped and unconscious is far from over.

At the start of the story, she has left the bureau for the umpteenth time in search of peace of mind. She spends two years at a Tibetan temple, learning to control her power and cope with the trauma it has caused her over the years. She was absent for Hellboy’s departure, but shortly after it, she runs into her own trouble when underground creatures attack her temple and take her hostage to fuel an ancient machine.

At the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, an internal crisis is unfolding. Kate Corrigan, another familiar face, is in a position somewhere between field leadership and administrative duties. An old friend of Hellboy’s, she has a connection and close friendship with the supernatural agents at the bureau and acts as something of a mediator between them and the cold higher-ups like director Tom Manning (the bastard who ordered a bomb to be planted in Roger). Kate is trying to mop up the mess that caused Hellboy to leave and has a lot on her plate with keeping her existing crew organized and happy, so she’s stretched thin right from the start. Her compassion keeps her fighting to give characters like Roger a voice, but at the end of the day, she’s still a human herself, and her administrative role puts an emotional distance between her and the others on the team.

Roger doesn’t seem to mind. Continuing from the Hellboy series, Roger has become a fully-acclimated B.P.R.D. agent, and a valuable one at that. He doesn’t hold any grudges from his shaky introduction to the bureau, at least not externally, and overall he’s a delightful character with an upbeat personality that holds the group together. Roger is something of a puppy to the group, adored by his fiercely protective friends, though often spoken down to because of his straightforward and often blunt way of thinking and speaking.

Roger is no longer the newest supernatural member of the B.P.R.D., with this series introducing the character of Johann Kraus to serve as something of an audience vector. Johann looks like a ghost in a diving suit, and you may recognize him from the second Hellboy movie. He’s a psychic medium who was killed in the middle of an out-of-body experience. His physical body destroyed, Johann’s soul survives in a fragile vessel made by the bureau and has recently been added to Hellboy’s former group because of his paranormal status. Though his personality has yet to be fully fleshed out, Johann adds a new dynamic as the only major character who has never met Hellboy. He doesn’t share the sorrow at Hellboy’s departure that the others do, which isolates Johann even more than his status as a newbie. However, his role as a scholar and his ability to talk to other spirits make him a valuable new addition to the team.

None of these people are the protagonist of this book. For that, you will have to turn to the fishman on the cover.

As I mentioned previously, Abe Sapien was my favorite character from the films. He’s most of the reason I decided to read this series, because I wanted more Abe. In the films, he’s an awkward intellectual type who reads three books at a time and has an encyclopedic knowledge of almost everything. In the comics, he’s very much not that. It’s difficult to say exactly what his personality is at this point in the series; like Johann, he remains nebulous in his characterization. However, the book is quite clear from the start about who this first story is focused around.

With Hellboy gone and Liz largely out of commission, Abe is the seniormost field operative, and therefore the de facto leader of the team. Unlike Liz and Hellboy, Abe isn’t really tough or magical; he can swim well and breathe underwater, but outside of aquatic missions, he’s basically the same as an ordinary human. On top of that, Abe carries with him several emotional burdens. The others have plenty of their own, but while theirs are internal struggles, Abe’s are both internal and external. He is slow to trust others, even those he considers close friends.

Liz and Hellboy have been at the bureau since childhood. Abe didn’t have one. He was found in a tank in a basement and has no memory of who he was before. His lack of powers combined with his distinctly inhuman appearance makes Abe more vulnerable than those other two, and the B.P.R.D. did not make a great impression on him when they first opened up his tank. Early experiments before the bureau recognized him as more than a specimen have left their mark on Abe, making him mistrustful of the very agency for which he works. He views Kate as a friend, but a distant one who can’t ever know Abe the way Roger, Hellboy, and Liz do.

Hellboy was the one who got the others to treat him like a person, and Abe has a particularly strong reverence for him because of it. They were very close in the days when they worked together, Abe looking up to Hellboy like an older brother. From Abe’s perspective, Hellboy always had things figured out, being much more capable in and out of the field, where Abe was always the awkward shut-in who could only just hold his own. Now Abe is thrust into Hellboy’s position, with others like Roger looking up to him. He’s not Hellboy, and he knows it.

At the start of The Hollow Earth, Abe is leaning toward following Hellboy’s lead and quitting the bureau, taking Roger with him. The bureau planning to destroy Roger if he stepped out of line was a cold reminder that the bureau sees characters like himself as tools to be used and discarded at their convenience. Abe holds no attachment to the place itself, the only things keeping him here being his friends. With most of them gone, almost anywhere seems better to be than the bureau.

Abe’s packing gets interrupted when Liz appears in his room, a flaming hologram begging for help. Delaying his moving plans for one more mission, Abe heads up a field team to fly to the temple where she was staying.

The team discovers the temple partly destroyed, corpses littering the ground. Many of the dead are monks from the temple, but there are also strange demonic creatures, and Liz. Liz’s fire, the source of her power and the force that holds her consciousness, has been removed from her body. Johann and Roger determine that it has been taken into the deep crevasse that now runs through the temple floor. The team descends with Liz’s empty body and wander through the tunnels.

The crevasse gives way to immense underground chambers full of ancient machines and echoes of a history we’ve heard a bit of before. Back in one of the earlier cycles of the world, these impish creatures were slaves to an ancient group of human-like beings. Their masters died out years ago, but the creatures built the ominous machines and have recently gathered together to try and form a kingdom of their own. They intend to use Liz’s fire as a power source.

The team of course stop them, get Liz’s spirit back in her body, and find a way out of the tunnels. The resolution of the story is visually spectacular and decently exciting, but it doesn’t pull out any particularly intriguing twists. A straightforward ending is probably best; the purpose of this story is to introduce the series, and the series will start twining and twisting in due time. The resolution of the escapade has Liz returned to the bureau, Johann officiated into the group, and Abe agreeing to tentatively stay. It’s a solid start, visually and narratively cohesive with a clear continuity to the Hellboy series that doesn’t rely on his presence. You can see where the series might go, and it’s fun.

I’ll tell you now, though, however predictable the story seems, what we have moving forward is anything but.

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Part Two: ROGER!

BPRD Plague of Frogs Book 1 Y

… Or, it will be eventually. For now, the middle few issues inside this collection are much what you would expect from the premise: a series of paranormal investigations conducted by the various members of our established team.

There are a couple of stories added to the end of the Hollow Earth section of the book, but they fit more neatly with The Soul of Venice and Other Stories for my purposes, so I’ll slot them in here. If you think of a typical episode of a show like The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that might give you an idea of what to expect with these. Some of them flesh out individual characters further, giving glimpses into their pasts or thoughts, but most are little adventures centered around some interesting new monster the team has to find and then stop. It’s standard procedural fare, but it’s not bad, especially if you like paranormal procedurals like I do.

The monsters aren’t the only things that vary in this section. According to the foreword, the episodic start of the series was something of an experiment. Mignola remained at the helm of the project along with editor Scott Allie and a few other background regulars, but as Mignola was busy working on both the Hellboy comics and the first live-action movie, he took more of a back seat for this project. The first few issues of B.P.R.D. were created by a small army of guest artists and writers, each bringing their own styles and interpretations to the characters. Because longer arcs hadn’t been established yet, guest creators had a fair degree of flexibility in how they presented the team members. The result is that these issues don’t all flow together cleanly, but they do create a lovely mosaic of stories that fits the in-universe team dynamic.

Where the Hellboy series is largely about the creatures and worlds that mirror the character’s mind, B.P.R.D. gives a sense of a vast physical world, full of people and creatures of all sorts. You get the sense that anything could exist in the world they’ve created here, and dealing with the “anything” is what Abe and the others do best.

The first of these issues, Abe Sapien Versus Science, details an event we’ve heard about but haven’t yet seen: Roger’s revival. In an earlier Hellboy issue, Wake the Devil, Roger stole Liz’s fire to bring himself to life; after going through a change of heart, he gave it back to her and returned to a lifeless shell himself. We know that Roger eventually found another energy source, and it turns out he doesn’t need anything as dramatic as a human soul to power him – he just needs a very good battery. In this issue, we see that Abe was the one to flip the switch to its max and bring him to life once again. The story is short, but its strength is in its simplicity. Abe never met Roger, but he trusts Hellboy when he says Roger is a nice person. While Roger’s body is dormant, the B.P.R.D. scientists have full reign to poke, prod, and cut into it in an effort to understand how he works. Abe has flashbacks to his own treatment when he first came to the bureau, which prompts him to sneak in and try to wake Roger up. In doing so, he fills a role similar to what Hellboy did for him years ago. Artist Matt Smith takes a very Mignola-esque approach to the visuals, which is perhaps fitting given Mignola wrote and inked this one himself. There are subtle differences in the composition and character faces that suggest the hand of a different artist, but the parallel to the Hellboy comics creates a nice transition for the later issues.

Drums of the Dead takes a vastly different approach. Illustrated by Derek Thompson and written by Brian McDonald, it shows one of Abe’s solo missions shortly after he joined the bureau. The linework is heavily detailed with deep facial furrows and prominent textures that emphasize just how alien Abe looks compared to those around him. The narration is done in the style of journal entries, showing off a sharp-minded, sometimes quippy, but much more nervous Abe than we’re used to. This Abe is younger, new to the bureau and a bit lost without Hellboy covering his back. There are a few stories floating around that reveal his transition from a ward of the bureau to a competent agent like we see in the main timeline, and this one falls a bit later in that transition. By the end of the investigation, Abe has successfully figured out the issue, and we’re to take his journal entries as part of his final report.

The story itself is very well-told and brings a dose of cold reality to the typically fantastical nature of the series. Sailors along a shipping trade route keep hearing drums when they pass a certain spot, then they experience hallucinations and jump into the sea, drowning or being eaten by sharks. Eventually, Abe discovers the shipping lane was once part of the Triangle Trade Route, which trafficked humans. The hallucinations are coming from the ghosts of enslaved people who jumped from slave galleys into the ocean. It’s rare we see the horror of slave galleys addressed in fiction, but I think this comic walks the fine line of making its parallels to reality impactful without being exploitative to the real-life victims. There is a monster in the story, but an empathetic one, and one that reflects the horror and tragedy of the history of this region. The monster isn’t defeated in combat; instead, the ghosts are put at peace by retrieving their bones and giving them a proper burial. I’m sure there are things the story could do more effectively (and again we have the problem of treating Africa like a monoculture), but Drums of the Dead is a solid story that sticks with you. Not all of the B.P.R.D. comics have this kind of weight attached to them, but this sort of thing isn’t uncommon in this series either.

The Soul of Venice is another solid entry, though for different reasons. Artist Michael Avon Oeming co-writes this story with Miles Gunter and Mike Mignola for a story that feels of a spirit with Hellboy, but still something all its own. Together, these creators start to get closer to what the tone of this series will be moving forward, working with the group as a full team where most of the other entries in this part of the book work with only a few characters at a time. In the story, Venice is severely polluted — more than usual — and the cause appears to be supernatural. The team track the source down to a hedonistic vampire who has stolen the spirit of Cloacina, Roman goddess of the sewers. The vampire aims to sacrifice her to a demon, and paralyzes the B.P.R.D. agents with a spell when they appear. The spell works on everyone except for Roger, because he isn’t human. While the vampire negotiates with an unimpressed demon, Roger attacks him and frees Cloacina’s spirit, who thanks him. Even though the vampire is dead, the demon sticks around to ask Roger about Hellboy. When Roger says he hasn’t seen him, the demon says to send his regards and then returns to Hell. The day is saved and Roger has a nice little picnic with a statue of Cloacina.

However, not all of the stories in this collection stand out so brightly. Dark Waters is the next one, and while I quite enjoy its even pace, it ends up being one of the more forgettable entries when set against everything else. Written by Brian Augustyn and illustrated by Guy Davis, this issue trades the bold colors of other entries for a more subdued palette of earth tones. There is something appealing in the type of linework Davis uses, capturing a unique blend of realism and stylism with the sketchy textures and expressive faces. The overall page is also very cinematic, showing varied angles and an excellent sense of individual panel composition. The story sets Abe and Roger in a small New England town that has just discovered some corpses while draining a small pond. The B.P.R.D. has been called in because the corpses are hundreds of years old but look like they died yesterday, suggesting something paranormal is afoot. The corpses belonged to three women accused of witchcraft and killed during a bout of witch hysteria in the 1700s. When a local pastor starts to stir up trouble over the bodies, we learn that the mud of the shrunken pond has absorbed some sort of evil essence from the executions. The mud latches onto the priest and uses his anger to grow more powerful. After some struggles, Abe and Roger put a rest to the mud creature by giving the women belated funerary rites.

Dark Waters captures a hint of something I like about the B.P.R.D. series in general – it sets up a little microcosm of characters and drama and gets you invested in them. The main limitations the issue faces are its length and ending. While the setup is interesting, it loses you in its latter half because the underlying lore around the mud monster and why it possesses the priest end up lost in the need to wrap things up. The monster design is also fairly basic, and while it serves the story, it really doesn’t stand out much. In the sketchbook notes at the end of this collection, there are some earlier, more elaborate designs for this monster that I really like. I understand why they opted for something simpler, but I think the desire to keep this issue simple ended up constraining it in the end.

Night Train has a similar issue. Written by Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins with Kolins also providing the art alongside co-artist Dave Stewart (the main colorist for this and the Hellboy series), Night Train tells a story of Roger and Liz tracking down the ghost of a train full of passengers who died in the 30s. Like Dark Waters, the art style of this one has fewer shadows and fainter contrasts, but maintains stylism in its composition. Night Train is very elaborate in certain shots and conveys a significant amount of emotion and drama with its panel composition alone, using this to good effect in delving into Roger’s head. This was another story I remembered fondly when I started through it a second time, but by the end, I remembered why it didn’t do a lot for me before. The story is that Roger and Liz are sent off camping to wait for this train that keeps appearing along a particular section of track. They find it and the ghosts it carries, and follow them to an old house in an abandoned town. The man in the house is a Nazi, and it was he who derailed the train in the 1930s while fighting Lobster Johnson*. The man tricks the ghosts into chasing after Liz before Roger sets them right and they carry the Nazi off.

As with Dark Waters, there are interesting parts to this story. I like the interactions between Liz and Roger, and this episode highlights how Roger continues to feel guilty about his first encounter with Liz. There are also some very effective visuals with the train, and while I don’t know that this art style would have worked for the whole series (they go very 90s with Liz’s hair), I do like how distinct this version of the characters is. Ultimately, the problem with Night Train is again its ending; the story is resolved very abruptly and doesn’t have the time to settle it’s A Plot and B Plot simultaneously. I’m glad they chose to emphasize Roger’s internal character story over the business with the train, but with Liz unconscious for the latter half and a relatively elaborate backstory involving Lobster Johnson losing his sidekick, the comic is tightly pressed for time. It ends up feeling rushed, touching upon more intriguing things than it ultimately has time to deliver on its own.

There’s Something Under My Bed also probably wouldn’t work stylistically for the whole series, but it’s nice to see as a small part of this sequence. Written by Joe Harris with separate pencil and ink artists (Adam Pollina and Guillermo Zubiaga, respectively), There’s Something Under My Bed makes a tonal shift from other entries. It’s trying for something more comedic and cartoonish, which generally works because this story revolves around children and their toys. Young children in a neighborhood keep disappearing at night, seemingly snatched from inside their locked rooms. When the B.P.R.D. goes in to investigate, Abe discovers the culprits are toy monsters that can come to life. He gets kidnapped instead of the child, and has to work with a group of distraught preschoolers to escape the monsters and their drill sergeant leader. It’s a sillier story than most in this series, and parts of it are so tonally different from what you would expect that they feel almost like a bizarre fanfiction. But the art style is appealing and gives an original take on the characters, so it works as part of this overall sequence. Plus, it’s fun to see Abe very out of his element, and has a sweet ending.

Finally, Another Day at the Office is a tiny eight-page story with little meat on its bones, but it serves as a useful bookend to the one-offs as the book transitions into its final massive section, Plague of Frogs (as you might have guessed from the title of this and the next few books, Plague of Frogs is a  bit of a big deal). Another Day at the Office brings back Mignola for the story and has guest artist Cameron Stewart working with heavy, energetic lines as he draws out a short sequence of Abe and Johann tracking down a necromancer possessed by a long-dead tyrant. There isn’t much to the story and the conflict is resolved with all of one tranquilizer dart, but the visuals are worthwhile and there is something amusing in the idea that, occasionally, zombie apocalypses are easily averted.

Through all of these stories, we don’t see much character development or establishment of team dynamics, but we do get a bit of a feel for the series’ starting point. The purpose of these one-off encounters is to set up a standard for what an ordinary, day, week, or month might look like to these characters. We had that with Hellboy, but even his short stories were mostly solo missions. Here, we have the team adjusting to Hellboy’s absence and working as they ordinarily would. Sometimes all of the team members are out at the same time, sometimes they’re paired up with one other person depending on who’s available and suited to the job, and sometimes they’re on their own, by choice or circumstance. The spread of creatures and different attitudes the stories make toward them give this series its vibe. In some procedurals, the morality of the villains is very one-note and the trajectory of each episode rarely diverges from a basic model. This series is not that; the creatures the character encounter can be born of magic, mysticism, curses, divinity, and metaphor, but often their origins are as irrelevant as they are mysterious. Sometimes there’s just a bunch of werebears or something off in the woods somewhere. The protagonists aren’t always there to fight or kill, and in fact, through all of these stories, the only time the villains die is when they get into scuffs with each other. I like that this series is willing to give its antagonists complexity and motivations, even if those motivations are unreasonable. It gives the series a lot to work with moving forward.

However, the identity of this series remains only half-formed. It can continue going on like this for a while if it likes, but I probably wouldn’t be talking about it now if it had. At the end of this experiment with guest artists and writers, the B.P.R.D. development team started something much larger. Mignola returned to launch a multi-issue arc with artist Guy Davis (who you’ll remember from Dark Waters) cementing the look of the series for the next several books. They envisioned a return to the very first Hellboy comic, where Hellboy, Abe, and Liz fought some frogs, Rasputin, and a squid god.

Friends, it’s time for the Plague of Frogs.

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Part Three: Origins

BPRD Plague of Frogs Book 1 AX

The final part of this volume, the titular Plague of Frogs, grows organically from the more episodic middle section. The start of the story follows a now-familiar format: a paranormal thing, in this case a mushroom, is causing ambiguous trouble and the B.P.R.D. are called in to investigate. What’s different this time is mainly the time the series has to tell its story. The investigation is longer, with multiple tiers, and similar to The Hollow Earth, we have enough pagespace free that some of it can be devoted to what the characters are doing between missions.

They do live here after all, or at least some of them do.

An early source of intrigue before the call about the rogue mushroom comes in is a dream Abe has about the sea. In it, hundreds of figures are pulled downward toward the abyss and he himself is compelled to join them. In the background, a voice repeats a poem:

Do you hear, sunken bells are tolling for thee, out of the caverns of Num-Yabisc, dark and terrible deep, the ocean is calling her children home.

We’ve actually heard this haunting poem before. Abe appeared infrequently in the Hellboy comics, but ominous tidings, including this poem, were common on the few occasions where he showed up. In the first Hellboy issue, Seed of Destruction, Abe speared Rasputin through the heart during the big climax. Later, the ghost of Rasputin reappeared to Abe in Wake the Devil, foretelling that Abe would one day be speared in a similar way.

Abe wakes up from his portentous dream and promptly keeps it to himself. He and Liz run into Johann while getting their morning coffee and the group have a brief chat about dreams and sleep before Kate grabs them for a new assignment. The dream continues to bother Abe, but he doesn’t mention its contents to anyone, only vagaries about not sleeping well. Liz catches on, and while they are scouring the depths of a basement in search of some men and a strange mushroom, she prods Abe a bit. He doesn’t bite; even though he and Liz are close, we get the sense that he’s not a particularly open person, especially when it comes to his own backstory.

The team soon run into monstrous creatures with frog-like tendencies, and they know that means bad news. This is the third time they’ve encountered the humanoid frog-monsters; Abe, Liz, and Hellboy fought them in Seed of Destruction, and Roger and Hellboy fought them in Conqueror Worm. They come from humans who are corrupted with some sort of mystical pathogen, in this case fungal spores from that mushroom. The mushroom, as it turns out, came from Cavendish Hall, the place where the B.P.R.D. first encountered the frogs. After finding a strange spore at the site, Director Manning had the brilliant idea to grow in in one of the B.P.R.D.’s labs for… reasons.

Oh, not “I have nefarious plans to end the world” sort of reasons; Manning is a callous fool, but incidentally so. The B.P.R.D.’s standard practice is to lock up and seal away anything associated with their investigations that isn’t actively harmful. There’s a quasi-scientific side of the bureau that seems to run tests for military development based on the artifacts they recover, and this serves as a frequent source of drama for the series.

In this case, they misjudged how dangerous the spores were and an obsessive researcher from an outside institution broke in to release the organism, apparently possessed by it from afar. The mushroom infected the researcher and two guards, turning the latter into the frog monsters.

Something interesting happens around this point in the series. If you have read the Hellboy books, the terminology will sound familiar as characters start to talk about a being called Sadu-Hem. Like any good paranormal fiction, the Hellboy series has an elaborate in-universe mythology and history that could rapidly fill up a lore bible. I’m usually not a fan of that, because with deep lore comes a litany of jargon names and intricate associations you have to remember, none of which is worth the brainspace when you are just getting into a series. Front-loading jargon causes most readers to tune out the nonsense words, meaning it’s harder to get into the story and the audience won’t internalize the important jargon alongside the characters.

Hellboy does something very clever, though, by having its protagonists be just as unfamiliar and disinterested in jargon info dumps as the audience. When an arch villain is monologuing about their plan, the typical response from Hellboy or another B.P.R.D. character is, “Yeah yeah, you’re going to release the ancient something-or-other to cleanse the world of blah blah blah.” They’ve run into their fair share of cults and none of them ever required understanding the religious teachings of said cult in order to stop them from causing chaos. While the characters do pick up parts of lore from context, and Kate in particular is well-versed on the technicalities of some of these things, for the most part, the characters have avoided internalizing a deep understanding of things like the Ogdru Jahad and its 369 hellish offspring.

Except, the thing is, once you hear about the Ogdru Jahad and the 369 Ogdru Hem enough times, the repetitive parts will start to stick, and you’ll gain enough familiarity to parse what is the rambling of deranged fanatics and what bits are actually important. See, Hellboy’s story arc overlaps with this one because that dragon he’s supposed to fight and/or tame? That’s the Ogdru Jahad. According to the legends that drift around, the Ogdru Jahad was created by a being whose hand was eventually grafted onto Hellboy. The dragon was imprisoned, but not before it spawned hundreds (369 specifically) of other monsters called the Ogdru Hem. A pre-human civilization trapped each of them or put them to sleep with magic, but the creatures are all still very much alive and waiting to wake up all at once. The squid creature from Seed of Destruction is the same as the mushroom creature in this volume, a creature called Sadu-Hem. It is one of the smaller Ogdru Hem, and its goal is to wake up the others.

Even if you haven’t read through the entire Hellboy series, if you’ve spent enough time in this world, you’ll start to piece together that there’s something rather critical happening here. Different encounters are being connected; the massive monsters in some of the Hellboy stories like Conqueror Worm are not isolated occurrences, and the B.P.R.D. is going to have a lot more of them on its plate soon. The promise of an incoming swarm of lycanthropic frog monsters is the least of their concerns. And, weirdly, they’re kind of in a good position to get ahead of it. Abe’s team has accidentally stumbled onto a much bigger conflict that has been going on for millennia. They were bound to get swept into it sooner or later since some of them are associated with it as indicated in Abe’s dream, but the bureau has also been collecting artifacts and documents on paranormal goings-on for decades now. They have resources at their disposal unavailable to most, including a new character introduced for this explicit purpose.

While the team members are deliberating about how the different frog encounters fit together, a crazy old man named Professor O’Donnell just shows up out of absolutely nowhere to yell at them about the Ogdru Hem. He repeats parts of prophecies that tell of the end of the world and the nature of Sadu-Hem, then is guided back to his room by the staff.

I love this for two reasons. One, apparently the bureau just has a crazy professor wandering the grounds. Excellent. I approve. Two, they wheeled him away just as he was starting to give specifics, prompting me to go, “Wait, I’d like to hear the man out.”

Presumably the protagonists have had their run-ins with Professor O’Donnell before. He’s definitely not all there, and his obsession with the Ogdru Hem makes it easy to see why the others would dismiss him as an unreliable source of information. However, the way his interjection is positioned in the story is brilliant because the audience is now working with more information than the protagonists. We know that whatever this is, it’s a lot bigger than any of the main characters are anticipating, and it’s going to propagate something even worse. The characters are focused on finding the infected researcher by tracking him down to a cult he appeared to be part of, but the audience knows they’re making a big mistake by not digging into the background on this lore further. They’re treating this mission like they would any other, presuming if they can track down the mushroom creature, they can destroy it and stop it turning people into frogs. As far as they’re concerned, that’s the main danger they’re up against.

With Johann guiding them, they locate the mushroom creature and its unfortunate host in a small church in Michigan. Their arrival is anticipated; the helicopter carrying Kate, Roger, Abe, Liz, Johann, and two pilots crashes due to some unseen supernatural force. The characters are separated, with Roger on his own and Kate with a dead pilot in the crashed chopper. The others are carried to the temple.

Roger is the first to run into danger. He wanders the seemingly abandoned town and runs into a young girl. The girl turns into a frog monster and attacks him, hanging him by some chains in a boathouse. (It’s very upsetting, but he’s fine in the end – homunculi are hard to kill.)

Abe, Liz, Johann, and the surviving pilot wake up from the crash to find themselves in a cult congregation at the local church. The researcher who freed Sadu-Hem has turned into a humanoid mushroom, and at the direction of the priest who appears to be in charge, the new Sadu-Hem freezes the B.P.R.D. team members in place as it transforms their pilot into a frog. Johann is unaffected by the spell that binds Liz and Abe, so he rises up to confront the priest, telling him his church is evil. This goes down about as well as one would expect; the congregation transform to reveal they are all frogs as well, then pile on Johann, tearing apart the containment suit that keeps him from evaporating.

By this point, Kate has made her way to the church and is trying to find a way in. She sees the events within from a crack in the slats, but is powerless to save her teammates as the doors are sealed shut and she has no tools to break in.

Both Abe and Liz recognize that the only way they have a fighting chance to get out of this situation is if Liz uses her powers – a tricky thing to do when you’re paralyzed. At this point in the story, the comics introduce a chant that she learned at the monastery, and normally I would find the words of the chant to be a bit on the nose and silly, but the scene absolutely sells it. She concentrates on the candles while repeating the mantra in her head, and the flames of the candles burst up to catch the robe of Sadu-Hem alight. As the monster catches on fire, Liz fuels the flames with her mind until the burning creature explodes and destroys half of the interior of the church. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Liz use her powers, but it’s a stark contrast to the mood lighting and quick bursts of flame we’ve gotten before. We’ve been told that her powers are terrifying and consumptive to the point that they have caused her years of torment. Now we can see why.

Sadu-Hem is not fully dead, however. It flees the fire by burrowing into the ground, raising the bodies in the nearby graveyard to slow its pursuers. Kate, who up until this point has been sitting outside waiting for something to do, is suddenly swarmed by zombies and regretting that Hellboy talked her into joining field operations.

While Kate tries to fend off hordes of the undead outside, Liz sends Abe to chase down the priest and runs out to help her. The congregation of frogs surrounds her, which is very unfortunate for them. As it turns out, a magically-sealed door is only effective as long as the building it belongs to remains standing. The same is true of magic used to raise corpses.

While Liz is off burning things, Abe wanders through the priest’s house and comes across books and newspaper clippings denoting the start of the cult. He also finds Rasputin’s sigil and pieces together that the events at Cavendish Hall are related to the current crisis by more than coincidence. This cult shares similar goals and beliefs to Rasputin, to kickstart the apocalypse through the Ogdru Jahad and its offspring. While working this out, the priest ambushes Abe and spears him through the chest with a harpoon. He confirms Abe’s suspicions, informing him that he’s too late, the frogs have dispersed and they will carry on Sadu-Hem’s work, awakening the other Ogdru Hem. Abe is incredulous about the man’s plot, given half of the town is on fire and the B.P.R.D. backup starting to arrive, but he’s also not in a great position to do much about it either way.

The priest leaves him dying and Johann finds him, having possessed the body of a dog in lieu of his containment suit. He tries to keep Abe alive while they wait for help, but Abe slips into unconsciousness and dies.

That’s not quite the end of things, though. After the breakneck speed of the last chapter, things slow down for the final entry of this book. Dying or perhaps already dead, Abe dreams that he is underwater. He finds himself in a temple, like something out of Atlantis. A glowing light that beckons to him turns out to be a strange jellyfish-like creature, and when he approaches the jellyfish, it wraps itself up and turns into something that resembles a stone. The light goes out and the temple appears to have jumped forward by some time, its walls crumbling. Another light appears, this one fastened to an antique diving suit. The diver picks up the stone and transports it to a steampunk-looking submersible.

Abe is then transported to a house in the middle of a city that looks to be set in the 1800s. A storm outside spills frogs onto the pavement to the horror of the townsfolk. Abe is once again drawn by the dream in a particular direction, this time to the bookshelf of a study. He finds he is like a ghost in this place, able to pass through walls. When he walks through the bookshelf, he discovers hidden chambers on the other side. The chambers are filled with tubes and machines, and a room full of men involved in some sort of ritual.

Four of the five men are seated at a table around the stone from before. A fifth is standing in front of it. He begins to chant in a strange language we’ve heard before, usually in association with the Ogdru Hem, and the stone glows when he picks it up. However, something appears to go wrong with the ritual; the light from the stone fades in the man’s hands, and then it begins to crack. The jellyfish creature from before hatches out, but then crumbles to dust, much to the frustration of the men in the circle. The man who was holding the stone turns to Abe in fear and talks to him, able to see him where none of the others can. Abe is drawn closer to the man, compelled to walk through him as he did the bookshelf earlier. When he does, everything goes black but he can hear the voices of the other men around him. They talk about their compatriot like he’s transforming, and mention putting him in water. They confirm that the date is April 15th, 1865, the date Lincoln was shot, and the date written on the tube Abe was found in. The men flee the country, leaving the man who would become Abe in their laboratory to be discovered over a century later by the B.P.R.D.

Abe wakes up in the present day, miraculously alive after his fatal injury. All of the team members have survived and the bureau is mopping up the rest of the frogs. All seems well. The mission, while not fully successful, has been resolved. Abe has learned crucial information about his past, but there is a lot left to sort through, for him and the bureau at large, leaving the story wide open for continuation.

I love Plague of Frogs. It’s a tight five chapters, giving each main character at least one memorable moment without feeling rushed. Even before Abe’s dream vision at the end, the story feels complete, like it knows what it is now. Davis’ art plays a big part in that, capturing the intensity of Liz’s big scene while also allowing time for the quieter moments. It is similar to what I like about the Hellboy books in that the art manages to balance high and low energy very well between pages, making the most of what is happening in the story without ever feeling like it is dumping excess on you. Comics are notorious for over-expositing and getting lost in the fight scenes, but this series is consistent about not wasting the audience’s time. You can get all you need to understand the story with a casual skim, but you can just as easily slow down and pour over the serene composition or rich background textures and notice subtle details that might otherwise go unnoticed. The pace of the story is such that it draws you along at whatever pace you choose, which is hard to accomplish in any medium.

And then that ending ramps everything up so quietly that you don’t notice until Abe wakes up that you’ve been holding your breath the whole time.

Abe’s origin chapter has almost no dialogue until the very end, giving the experience a particularly dramatic quality befitting the emotions of the character witnessing it. The enigmatic jellyfish creature and the secret ocean cult raise more questions than they answer, opening up a world of uncertainty about who and what Abe really is. He didn’t really need a backstory more complicated than “abandoned experiment with amnesia,” but the one he got affords the series and character a lot to explore moving forward.

It’s a powerful ending to a rock-solid arc, and collectively, Plague of Frogs cements B.P.R.D. as a worthy companion to the Hellboy series. The next few books will continue the trend set out by these last few chapters, and while this arc will always hold a special place in my heart, there are heavy-hitters on the horizon that will meet and exceed the expectations this one lays out.

___________________________

*Lobster Johnson is a lobster-themed retro superhero who served as a sort of precursor to the B.P.R.D. paranormal team during World War 2. He appears occasionally throughout this and the Hellboy series, including in another short issue in this collection that I failed to mention earlier. He is Hellboy’s favorite superhero.

Series Breakdown Rating:

Characters and Character Development: 9
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Pacing: 8
Overall Plot: 7
Depth: 8
Sum: 40/50

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