Collecting ‘Dark & Terrible’ (issues 1-3) and ‘The New Race of Man’ (issues 1-2), Dark & Terrible is the first collection of what is looking to be an ongoing run of Abe Sapien stories (there have been Abe on-shots before, fleshing out the mythology of the character, and of course the graphic novel collections The Drowning and The Devil Does Not Jest – which certainly moved the character on – but Dark & Terrible seems to signal a new ambition for the character). Once upon a time, Abe was a foil to Hellboy, an otherworldly aquatic creature who was on hand to plunge into the deep and offer slightly cerebral exposition (helped, it should be said, by the David Hyde-Pierce voice over in the first Hellboy film). The arc initiated for Abe back in ‘Plague of Frogs’ and ‘Garden of Souls’ (in which we learned Abe was the product of occult experimentation by the Oannes Group and was once a Victorian scientist and businessman called Langdon Everett Caul) has been succeeded by a darker road, in which – as the world of the BPRD strip becomes more stark, diffuse and occupied with Armageddon – Abe searches to find answers to questions of his own role, his own culpability and to a certain extent what freedoms exist to him within these strictures. Which means (of course) now that Hellboy is in Hell, Abe has effectively become Hellboy, wandering the Earth (just as Hellboy did), having (dark) adventures, fighting beasts (which was once Hellboy’s province) and suffering (which again you could say was also Hellboy’s province although Hellboy always had a tendency not to overthink his situation when he could just say ‘oh crap’ and beat something to a pulp instead). There’s a further point worth making before we jump into Dark & Terrible and that is this: there is a certain amount of noise online (over at Aint it Cool News, in the letters pages of Abe and BPRD) that this Abe arc is being viewed by a great many people as a place to jump on board with the BPRD/Hellboy world if for whatever reason you have dropped off or have never ever clambered on.
So what do we get in ‘Dark & Terrible’ and ‘The New Race of Men’? Well, we don’t get stories distinct from the BPRD universe, not entirely (Fenix, the possibly disturbed young woman who shot Abe back in the BPRD strip ‘Gods’ seems to loom large over these early comics in the new Abe run, and their paths almost cross on a couple of occasions if you cross reference these with the ongoing BPRD strip); we do get an additional sense of just how much the world has gone to shit with bizarre cults growing up around monstrous eggs and various perspectives on the strangeness of Abe himself (with various people wondering if Abe is one of the monsters, or whether it takes monsters to put monsters down, or whether Abe is a new kind of God… on and on the puzzlement goes). We do know that Abe wants to get away – from BPRD and any sense of responsibility he might have there – hiding out, at least in the beginning, like a civvy street Ben Grimm; we also see how difficult it is for a gill-necked man to blend in with the crowd, even a crowd of hobos on a freight train. There are some great moments – particularly in a lucid exchange between Abe and Panya before he blows the BPRD gaff (the whole Mignolaverse resists explanation where it can, preferring to pile mystery on mystery, the oblique against the out and out odd) and in the exchanges with the three kids on the beach in ‘New Race of Man’ – but there is also a sense (and a strong sense it should be said) that the strip is feeling its way (fingers outstretched, in the dark, just as the character of Abe is), and it isn’t quite there yet. There are villains circling in the background (villains that have a whiff of Baltimore – Mignola’s unrelated vampire hunt epic) and the obligatory enormous Lovecraftian monsters to contend with, but there is also a terrific aching loneliness (Abe is a deeply troubled character, you can easily imagine him a suicide at some point) that anchors the strip in an unusual place. Max Fiumara’s art is also powerfully distinctive – even within the Mignolaverse, which does seem to draw in some powerfully distinctive artists – rendering Abe as a dark outsider (check out the panels in which Abe wanders around looking like a teenage ET) and allowing flashbacks to run (for instance) amidst a swirl of camp flame, smoke and dream fantasy.
Is it a good jumping on point for any newbie? I don’t really think so. The BPRD world is a complex place and I’m not sure what you’d gain from jumping on here (beyond a slight sense of confusion) when you could jump on at the start and make your way through everything. Is it as good as the initial reviews seem to be saying it is? Not quite. Obviously the diffusion that has been growing in the BPRD world over the last two or three years is present but that is combined in this collection with a slightly wandering sense of the strip finding itself. By the time we get to issues 8 and 9 of the current Abe run (‘Land of the Dead’ and the beginning of ‘To the Last Man’ respectively), the stories have started to take on a sturdiness that throws these earlier comics into harsh relief. I’m sure Arcudi et al knew where they were going but the doubt Abe obviously feels rises off the pages like smoke and makes for an uncertain reading experience. Saying all of this, it was obviously good enough to hook me because I’m still reading. So possibly the best way to view this collection is the same way you would view a new TV show that you’re watching with a vague question of whether to continue or not (knowing that if you continue it gets better and better).
Any Cop?: One that shows potential, and it should also be said ambition – the creators are looking to do more with the character and that is good; in this collection they don’t quite get there but – as we say – it shows potential and it warrants sticking with.