The latest trade collection of Abe Sapien comics takes issues 6, 7, 9, 10 & 11 of the current run (collecting the two story run ‘The Shape of Things’ and the three issue run of ‘To the Last Man’), omitting issue 8. In the grand scheme of things this makes a lot of sense – 6,7, 9-11 have art by Sebastian and Max Fiumara, respectively, whereas issue 8 has art by Michael Avon Oeming so the collection has a uniform look and feel. What’s more, issues 6,7, 9-11 continue the ongoing story of our titular hero and his current bout of existential angst (which itself unravels against the backdrop of some of the most ferocious beasties ever to grace the Hellboy/BPRD world), whereas issue 8 sees an older Abe tale set in 1983, involving Mayan vampires and Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, the former head of the BPRD (although, interestingly, issue 8 does have a cover from Max Fiumara – the Brothers Fiumara seem to own how Abe should look on the newsstands right now). Given the urgency with which Abe’s tale is now being told (after years of scattershot one-offs he now has his own run and new issues are being published month on month), it makes sense to retain that urgency in the trade paperbacks – but at the same time, if you follow the strip issue by issue, you also appreciate the way in which the team occasionally step out of the linear narrative (as they do on issue 8) to let the moments breathe and to give time and pace for one tale to reside alongside another.
‘The Shape of Things to Come’ begins in Yuma, Arizona, with a young Native American woman called Elena chasing a wolf, whose path happens to intersect with Abe, wandering like Bill Bixby across the desert. Invited back to feast on quesadillas with her compadres (who tell Abe he isn’t the worst monster they’ve seen – such is the world BPRD et all inhabit right now), he learns that the young woman’s father (a spiritual sort whose ancestors themselves did battle with demons of various stripes) has either gone missing or loco. (We are also privy to a conversation about Xibalba, the land of the dead, which just so happens to be the name of the missing issue 8 – so, you could posit, issue 8 occurs as Abe recollects it moving from issue 7 to issue 9.) Issue 7 is largely ruminations in the desert – what Abe thinks he’s doing right now (coming to the desert to think, looking for a former colleague, considering his past and his future), Elena and her family’s history, ancient demon battles and, of course, the history of the world, the latest incarnation of which is coming to an end. It isn’t until issue 8, when representatives of the Phoenix Spring Steel Guard, a militia, one of many we are led to surmise that have sprung up in the wake of the main BPRD narrative, clash with a zombie who seems to have wandered in from The Walking Dead that we get a glimpse of the usual ‘hell in a handcart’ kind of action more typical of the Mignolaverse (although, curiously, it is in the moments of stasis, Abe and two others looking at sheep, that the story really breathes). Abe and his buddies, all of the monsters and the militia clash, of course, and we are gifted with one of those startling images that BPRD readers are regularly spoilt with, a whole page of atomised creatures, orange fire, objects caught in blasted silhouettes.
There is also (and I write this knowing how strange it sounds) a lovely moment of kinship between Abe and a ram that goes some way towards marking the real distinction that exists between Abe, animals and his human counterparts, emphasising the distance Abe feels, the loneliness from others that has long defined his character. This same inner turmoil is picked up in a different way in ‘To the Last Man’ where Abe has what might be called the echo of a romance – or is at least caught in a bizarre love triangle. The main thrust of this mini arc centres on Payson, Arizona, a town on its last legs (there are some great frames of Abe passing through roads blocked with abandoned cars, images of the dead and dying flashing across his mind’s eye) – even though a sheriff is trying to keep things ticking along for the few residents left. A group of travellers with malign intent provide the main thrust of the action. We also glimpse more of Gustav Strobl, a 19th century warlock, and a character called Agent Vaughn, in a horse drawn carriage on their way to Seattle throughout this collection. We know that Strobl has long hung about on the periphery of the Mignolaverse (with appearances in both Hellboy and Witchfinder), and we know that he has resurrected Vaughn, who died back in ‘Dark and Terrible’, but we don’t know much else. The carriage trundles on through both ‘The Shape of Things’ and ‘To the Last Man’ and contributes to an air of confusion. Long-time readers will know that scenes are often presented far in advance in Hellboy, BPRD and now Abe and so you are willing to hang on by your fingers in the knowledge that things will resolve themselves at some point but this entire collection strains, nevertheless, in terms of existing at the very edge of what you can follow. The Strobl storyline reaches a climax, of sorts, for now, in issue 11 but it is still not completely clear what this means for the storyline as a whole (although sensitive readers are probably anticipating bad times for Abe in the near future).
Taken together, volume 4 of Abe both satisfies and frustrates but there is a real sense that, increasingly, the team responsible have their eye on a longer game. This is a comic produced for the re-read. There are stories told to their completion and seeds sown for later and recurrences from previous outings (Abe is being given a ruminative character, flashes of previous moments popping into his mind to the extent that he could be an aquatic Reginald Perrin) that are here to give the reader of everything a satisfying sense of how this fits in the larger world of the other comics. It doesn’t entirely work on its own (or rather there are parts that don’t work on their own) but it’s all told and drawn with such pizazz that I imagine new readers who chanced across Abe at this point would want to check out more.
Any Cop?: We remain ardent fans of Abe (and BPRD and Hellboy), even as the Abe strip come to resemble nothing so much as the 70s TV version of The Incredible Hulk (Abe rocks up, deals with an issue and moves on to the next town and the next issue).