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Tue, August 4th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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B.P.R.D.: EISNER AWARD-WINNING FOR A REASON

I have a confession to make: I'm not a Hellboy fan.

I can appreciate and enjoy the artistry of Mike Mignola. Every once in a while, I can get sucked into one of those books. But, as a whole, it's not my thing. Mignola strings together elements of horror and legend and lore just fine, but it's not my thing. (That's probably why Neil Gaiman's work -- working along similar lines -- generally leaves me cold, as well.) Maybe it's because I'm not so familiar with the base material that it all seems like it's coming out of thin air to me at all times. When the writer can make any thing up at the last minute to end the story, there's never either a mystery element at work, nor a Play Along With the Character element.

Again, I want to emphasize: I'm not saying “Hellboy” is bad. It's just not my thing. Different strokes and all.

So why am I so in love with "B.P.R.D." that I breezed through a half dozen trade paperbacks in the last couple of weeks? Mostly, it's the art. But it's also how writer John Arcudi helps to soften some of the issues I have with Mignola's storytelling style.

"B.P.R.D." is a series of mini-series, usually five or six issues apiece, set in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development. This is the home to Liz Sherman (fire-starter), Abe Sapian (fish guy), and Hellboy, amongst others. The big red guy has flown the coop, though, and his absence looms large over the characters as the series begins.

In the first collection, "Plague of Frogs," Mignola does all the writing himself. It's a little dry, and too focused on the mythological elements more than on the people populating the book. It's a solid piece of set-up, though, as the frogs talked about here become something of an overall story arc for the rest of the series. It just wasn't enough to make me care a whole heck of a lot.

When John Arcudi comes on board with "The Dead," the change is noticeable. While the horror and legendary elements are still there, they feel softened somehow. My interest perked up when I got to learn more about the people in the book and how their relationships work.

Granted, some of it is still pretty far out there -- this is a book featuring a gaseous guy trapped in a human-shaped bag, and a "homunculous," which isn't a golem, per se, but some sort of man trapped in a rock body of another kind brought to life by herbs, blood, and fire. Concrete meets The Monolith meets Swamp Thing? Maybe? Again, that's the stuff that doesn't sing to me, so I tend to take the most shallow and surface understanding of it so that I can carry on to the next thing.

Along the way, in the next four volumes, Mignola and Arcudi put the characters through their paces, running up against strangeness and weirdness in many forms including ghosts, frogs, mummies, steampunk armored guys, transplanted minds, black flames, and more. While all the prerequisite exposition is there to clue the reader in as to what’s significant and why, for me it's all an excuse to get Guy Davis to draw more cool things.

My favorite book in the series is probably "Garden of Souls," which has the steampunk elements of old men in metal suits trying to save the world by sucking out its souls while destroying its land. Or something like that. But the beautifully rendered suits of armor inside a classic old mansion on an isolated jungle island are feasts for the eyes.

It's also smart of Arcudi and Mignola to include Abe Sapien's Victorian England origin story into the series, just to give Davis a chance to draw more things of that time period. If you read "The Marquis," you know how stunning he can make that era look.

Volume 8, "Killing Ground," is a close runner-up for a pair of reasons. First, it gives us the origin story of Arcudi's Benjamin Daimio character, who added so much to the book when Arcudi brought him in. Second, it's almost entirely set at B.P.R.D. headquarters. I have a real soft spot for stories like that, where the home base is under attack and everything is up for grabs. Give me a "Star Trek" episode set entirely on the Enterprise, where they have to run around the ship to defend against some invader, and I'm happy. (Hmmm, maybe this is why I liked "Babylon 5" so much?)

In case you're doing the math and the volume numbers don't make sense, here's why: Volumes 1 and 2 are collections of the prior "B.P.R.D." anthology series, featuring the art stylings of John Cassaday, Scott Kollins, Michael Avon Oeming, Ryan Sook, and more. So, the Guy Davis era of the series begins with Volume 3, though Volume 9 becomes the "1946" mini that Josh Dysart and Paul Azaceta did. Don't know why they didn't number that one separately, but there you go.

As I said, the thing that draws me most to the series is Guy Davis' art. The man has got to be the most overlooked artist in comics today. And I say that knowing full well that he deservedly won the Eisner this year for Best Penciller/Inker. This is a guy whose work should give him multiple Eisner Awards and a spot on any magazine or website's Top Ten Artists list every month. It is, as I've taken to saying lately, the closest to the Eurocomic art style as we get in North America today. His pages are packed with details. No background is spared. You can flip through a book and count the number of backgroundless panels on one hand, and all of them will be for storytelling reasons or due to extreme close-ups, and never laziness.

Davis' characters are slightly cartoony by comparison to most superhero art these days, but that makes them more easily identifiable and more readily expressive. There is true artistry in these pages, from dynamic action shots to mastery of multiple point perspective, and an obvious work ethic that shows across the page. When a character walks into a dusty library that's recently seen a scuffle, you get to see the books laying across the floor, the shelves that survived, and the bookcases that normally line the wall -- all in proper perspective, and all to scale to the characters standing in front of and near the objects. It seems like such an obvious and simple thing to say, but there's a lot of cheating that goes on in comics to make the reader think that's all being done on the page. Davis doesn't cheat. He pours it on.

But it wouldn't look as perfect as it does without the coloring help of Dave Stewart. Stewart knows how to choose colors, and he's very malleable. When the scene calls for it, he can go with one color and differentiate the characters from their backgrounds, as well as each other. But he's also capable of more dynamic coloring, with multiple colors in the same panel. While other colorists knock out colors (turn the black ink line into a color line) with reckless abandon, Stewart only does it when it counts -- to push the background further away or to help give the scene a hazier feeling.

I think the biggest stylistic choice Stewart makes on “B.P.R.D.” is the same thing that made me fall in love with Joe Rosas' coloring over Jim Lee on "Uncanny X-Men" nearly two decades ago. He shades his colors with sculpting the art. He's not here to fake a three-dimensional thing on the page. He can use multiple shades of the same color on an object to give it weight and substance, but without gradients or "realistic" lighting that tries too hard to be too much like real life. He cuts his colors into little slivers and spreads them out across the item to intimate different lighting without actually molding something new out of the black and white line art.

The end result is so pleasing to the eye and yet so "lightweight" that your eyes glides across the page, without getting stuck on anything beside the storytelling and the occasional panel where the detail is so great that you need to stop to soak it all in.

I love this stuff. If you want to see something similar, I'll refer back to Cinebook's "Tales of Green Manor" two-volume series. It's a little more cartoony, but the use of colors and detailed backgrounds works similarly, in my mind.

Just to top it all off, Clem Robins' “B.P.R.D.” lettering is easy to read, appears organic alongside the art, and never crowds a panel. Granted, some of that gratitude should be portioned out to a writer who knows when to step away from the word processor, and an artist who knows how to leave room for lettering, but Robins’ contribution is notable.

While I may be a few years late, "B.P.R.D." is my pick for Favorite New Comic Series of 2009. I know it started in 2004 or 2005, but that's one of the beautiful things about the trade paperback economy. It allows you to come in late and catch right up. Even better, I just got the volume 10, "The Warning."

Just when I thought I was done, I've been pleasantly surprised. This is not such a bad thing.

PIPELINE PODCASTS FOR WEEK OF JULY 26th

Only two shows this week. All the news broke in San Diego, save for the bits being held back for Chicago this weekend.

Yes, the last half of the previous sentence is a joke. Nobody's going to Chicago, so don't hold your breath.

Tuesday: The traditional Top Ten list features Muppets, Iron Man, Batman, "PVP," and the long-awaited final issue of "Ultimatum."

Wednesday: The follow-up podcast goes over everything else that came out last week, and comes complete with a cameo appearance by the local fire department. That's the joy of recording on the road!

I'll have a podcast or two this week, but will be taking next week off while on vacation.

Pipeline is not taking a vacation. I'll be back next week. Stay tuned!

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com is alive and running quite well, thanks. Lots of kid toys get the spotlight this week, but nature also gets its viewings. My Picture A Day blog is successful, so far. . .

The Various and Sundry blog sorta came back to life, then slowed down again. Dangit!

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box.

Unfortunately, my account there is currently under investigation by Twitter Central, knocking me off the platform for a month. So very very annoying.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, some with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

Really, are you still reading this? I'm cutting-and-pasting now.

More than 800 columns -- more than twelve years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  hellboy, b.p.r.d., dark horse comics, guy davis, john arcudi

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