There is a scene early in the first issue of B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Russia where two of the main characters–Kate Corrigan and Johann Kraus–are being confronted by their Russian counterparts with a laundry list of the B.P.R.D.’s “failures.” The Russians snipe and snark, smugly describing in curt sentences the scenarios that took creators John Arcudi, Mike Mignola, and Guy Davis the last decade to tell. It’s a necessary sequence, a bit of expository business to remind the reader what has gotten them to the current status quo. Sequences like it abound in television (a classic example is this one from Twin Peaks, in which Agent Cooper’s “Tibetan” investigation technique served as a way for the show to remind the viewers of all of the series’s major characters and their relationship to the initial plot), but in comics, today’s more common choice is the infamous recap page: paragraphs of bone-dry recitation, ignored by all. (The B.P.R.D. Hell On Earth series isn’t innocent on that front, although their recap page has taken on a delightful Coetzee-ian level of brevity when describing the apocalypse in recent pages. “After incinerating the frogs–and nearly half the planet–Liz Sherman has gone into hiding.” Ah, but which half of the planet?)
The real beat of the sequence though is in the subtle, tossed off line that comes near the end, right before the re-introduction of a scene-stealing character not seen since 2010’s Abyssal Plain mini-series. One of the Russian characters apologizes for the perceived rudeness of his colleagues, claiming that their “small English vocabulary limits them to direct language. That’s all.” It’s a minor note, an idea that would never have crossed my mind, but it’s so gorgeously simple that I can immediately tell I’m going to treat it as a fact about those learning English for the rest of my life. Of course that’s why foreigners are always so rude: they haven’t gotten to the point in class where they learn all the nice words!
That’s the B.P.R.D. in a nutshell, actually: stuff you already know about, done with efficiency. It’s stories that seem to have been gone over more than once, with scripts that don’t read like first drafts. And of course, it’s a team book about monster fighting, and when it’s doing its job well–which is most of the time–the only better example of serialized genre fiction to be found is going to be on television.
I’m not sure when television took what genre comics used to be able to do and started doing it so much better, although I guess the staple answer people always pull out is that show Wiseguy. But that kind of thing–the 13- to 20-hour movie, packed to the gills with cliffhangers–is all that television dramas do nowadays, it seems like. Comics, the kind published by DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse, haven’t been able to compete, and there are no signs it will be capable of doing so anytime soon. One of the best examples available is Dynamite’s Game of Thrones adaptation–there, you’ll find a series that’s taken six horribly drawn monthly issues to reach the same moment that HBO’s hugely successful (and from the little I saw, gorgeously rendered) television version reached by the conclusion of the first episode. Six months of ugly comics for twenty-four dollars? Or one hour with Sean Bean? Don’t worry: this is a rhetorical question, one that the entire country has already answered for you.
The Mignola-verse, on the other hand, has seemed bulletproof. Over and over, Dark Horse has published comics that are as consistently good-looking as they are compelling, and they’ve basically been out there without any direct competition. Never straight fantasy or science fiction, and only intermittent in their embrace of horror, these comics are resolutely uncool, set amongst the dusty libraries of monster dictionaries and Lovecraft references, yet aiming away from that audience entirely. (I couldn’t prove it, but I would bet you that, like me, the majority of the people who love these comics know next to nothing about “Cthulhu,” a failing we are unlikely to rectify anytime soon.)
It would be foolish not to attribute a hearty share of the B.P.R.D. portion of that regard to former artist Guy Davis. Taking over the books from a revolving door of creators back in 2003 and branding them with an elastic visual style that could see the book through all manner of stories without skipping a beat, Davis’s near decade of work on the title stands as one of the few great artistic runs of the last twenty years. His departure from the series–which has been treated with an unbelievably irritating ambivalence in the editorial notes that clog up the back of the single issues–should, by rights, have sounded the death knell for the series, and based off the first attempt by his replacement, the two-issue Monsters mini-series, that conclusion was one that didn’t seem far off. A meager, disappointing story, Monsters wasn’t poorly drawn–in fact, new artist Tyler Crook acquitted himself well, delivering one of the most upsetting images of the year–but the story itself was the absolute opposite of what writers Arcudi and Mignola seemed to have long prided themselves on doing. It wasn’t just bad, it was even worse: it was unnecessary. A one-note bit of horror that read like it had been constructed off of a voice mail, it was the B.P.R.D. equivalent of that two-hour 24 movie Fox made to fill the gap after the 2007 writers’ strike. It not only failed to introduce readers to their new artist, it stained the franchise with a sense of the same cash-in exploitation that has always been DC and Marvel’s stock-in-trade. The frustration was only compounded by the fact that it so quickly followed another dire B.P.R.D. mini-series, that one written by Scott Allie, the series’s long-time editor.
It’s tempting to proclaim that, following the recent conclusion of Russia, everything is back in its proper place again, and that things look to be on track for another decade of monster-hunting, apocalypse-staving pleasures. For the most part, that does seem to be the case–the seeds of weirdness and terror set up back in the end-of-world predictions of the wonderful King of Fear story seem to have begun to flower, Arcudi and Mignola have yet to lose their flair for mixing the soldier porn of old war comics with bizarre supernatural adversaries, and Tyler Crook’s successes (a panel of a point blank execution, a fantastic car chase, and the delightfully flustered brow of the ever put-upon Kate Corrigan) outnumber his misses. The only fly in the ointment seems to be, again, those pesky letter columns. Issue after issue, Scott Allie promises more–more comics, more artists, more cover options. Want it or not, there’s stuff on the way.
Thanks, but no thanks. “Stuff” is something that comics already has plenty of. What we need is a lot more meat.