"B.P.R.D. The Black Flame #1" Is More Plague Of Frogs Than "Plague Of Frogs" Was

By Rob Glenn

 The best stories are the ones that gain a life of their own.  When Mike Mignola first created Hellboy, he was just a demon who investigated extranormal events and, more often than not, beat them up.  The stories were short and simple like the folktales they were based on.  Along the way Hellboy hooked up with a fish-man, a pyrokinetic, a homunculus and a disembodied necromancer.  With an eclectic cast like that, there’s not much else to do but allow for them to spread their wings in their own title.  Instead of going monthly with their series and possibly hitting timing snags and in the process annoying fans, they released the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense books (or B.P.R.D.) in short single digit runs.  The stories were still simple and self-contained, like the Hellboy tales from which they spawned, but as is necessary with a continuing story they became more complicated and grew in scope.  By the time they got to Plague of Frogs, all pretense was cast aside and the audience knew that the stories from here on are building to an event.

Plague of Frogs brought back the frog men first seen in what is possibly the most famous Hellboy story, Seed of Destruction.  The frog men are human beings irretrievably mutated from human beings in a scenario obviously and lovingly borrowed from H.P. Lovecraft stories like Dagon.  Dark green in color, round of head with suction cup riddled tongues sticking out impossibly far like a misplaced prehensile tail, the frog men are not the most pleasant of creatures.  Intersperced with the return of these nasty creatures is the origin of Abe Sapien.  Personally, I always assumed that Sapien, the fish guy, was sort of a sentient version of the frog men.  I was mildly surprised.  If you saw the Hellboy movie and are interested in Sapien’s character, you can pick up Plague of Frogs from your local vendor.  It is very recommended and a good starting off point for newbies.

After Plague of Frogs came The Dead.  We are introduced to Captain Benjamin Daimio, a regular military man who, after a run-in with the paranormal, dies.  For reasons still to be discovered, he rises from the dead and is brought in to lead the B.P.R.D. away team.  Simultaneously, the team is given a new base of operations in the form of a mountainside stronghold.  This castle of sorts has lain dormant since the early 50s after the ex-Nazis who were surreptitiously recruited by the Americans to continue some of their more valuable research had a mysterious accident.  My only complaint with this run was the handling of the character Roger the homunculus.  He had never struck me as particularly child-like before.  In this series he comes across as downright retarded.  This doesn’t seem like the Roger who instinctively understood that to take his own life he could save Liz Sherman’s.  Otherwise, this five issue run has all the elements that make this property great including a famous Biblical artifact and a twist on the Tower of Babel.

Which brings us to The Black Flame #1, on shelves now.  Up until now the B.P.R.D. stories have been primarily about mood and atmosphere.  Forget about that, this book is action!  Think Cameron’s Aliens with frog men replacing the H.R. Giger creatures.  The team’s mission is to clear out an infested sewage treatment plant and there’s more gunfire than any two Rambo films combined.  I’m liking this new direction this property has taken since the inception of Captain Daimio.  As long as we still get time to breathe and to awe at a few earth-shattering paranormal events, these battle scenes are helping to propel the story to an urgent crescendo.

Something must be said for Guy Davis’ art.  When I had first heard that Mike Mignola was giving up the drawing duties to another artist, I was wary.  See, I’m a white American male age 18-35 who owns land.  I fear change.  And change there was.  Davis‘ art is not as blocky as Mignola’s, nor are his shadows as prominent.  Davis draws the characters a slight bit more realistically (very slight), but they are still recognizable.  Davis draws these books similarly enough to keep from jarring readers with the change and at the same time he has his own bent.  The Mignola pock marks remain, the backgrounds became more than looming shadows.  Ultimately, Davis inception to the team is as necessary as the growing scope of the story.  As characters are fleshed out via the story, the art mirrors this.

The Black Flame is not a good place to start if you aren’t very familiar with the Hellboy universe.  Fortunately, you only need to pick up two trade paperbacks to catch up.  If you read Plague of Frogs and The Dead, I estimate you’ll have enough background info to appreciate this new series.  You’ll be glad you did.

FOUR AND A HALF OUT OF FIVE VIKINGS

4.5

Vaughn Keeps Readers and Characters on the Lam in “Runaways”

By Russell Paulette

 If season one of Runaways (ably reviewed the other week by my fellow Viking, Graig, RIGHT HERE) was mostly about establishing the characters and the rules of the world, season two has been about tying those characters and those rules a little closer into the Marvel Universe at large.  The trick, then, of Brian Vaughn’s storytelling has been how to keep the larger complications of sharing a universe with forty-plus years of navel-gazing continuity free and clear of his little soap-opera drama of teenagers with powers trying to live out from under the shadow of their evil parents.  Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

Fret not, then, because the key word of this book is fun, whether you’re steeped in Marvel-geekdom or not. 

Issue #7 introduces the second arc of season two, and also brings in the talents of Takeshi Miyazawa, the regular B-artist from last season and, presumably, this one as well.  The story largely weaves many of the subplots from the first six issues—who’s dating whom, that sort of thing—and remains the focus of the issue.  They fight a lame Spider-villain from the mid-90s, then take on that time-honored X-Men tradition of “shopping” as an excuse for character interaction.  Unlike the Claremont cliché, however, the characters aren’t shopping because “that’s what girls do, right?,” but rather because they’re teenagers on the lam and are quickly running out of supplies.  It works beautifully, and shows Vaughn’s talent for inverting the cliché with such faux-pas as, I don’t know, actual story logic.  He ends the issue with a cliffhanger cluing us into one of the remaining unexplained origins, as a tease for next month’s focus.  The tease—for people with even a passing knowledge of the Marvel universe—is giggle-worthy, if nothing else.

In addition to the plot contortions—which, frankly, aren’t contortions so much as well-reasoned explanations—the other strength to Vaughn’s writing is his character work.  The kids all seem distinct, unique, breathing individuals as well as being, like, y’know, kids.  And since the issue gives each character pair a moment to illuminate each character individually, as well as keeping the twists-and-turns to a minimum, this is the perfect chance for a new reader—or, perhaps, someone who’s only read the first season in hardback because some guy on CHUD said it was good (hint, hint)—to jump on board. 

Artwise, Miyazawa maintains the book’s tone as established by the A-artist, Adrian Alphona, and he does so by keeping the characters distinct and identifiable, but without miming Alphona.  His art is a bit clean-line, Manga-inspired for my taste, but there’s nothing wrong with it in essence, so I’m just stating a bias, there.  His storytelling is clean and spare, with enough flourishes in the action and character dynamics to make me shut my damn mouth and just enjoy the artwork on its own terms. 

This book is just good, fun teen-angst-with-special-effects, and you can’t ask for much else.  Exactly as advertised, with a smart writer on board and a fun artist on the inside, and a snazzy Chris Bachalo cover wrapping it all up, it’s more than worth your three bits. 


FOUR AND A HALF OUT OF FIVE VIKINGS

4.5

“Monkey in a Wagon vs. Lemur on a Big Wheel”… what more needs to be said?

By Graig Kent

 How could I resist?  How could anyone resist? 

As the years go by, society – particularly urban hipster/geek society – seems to become more and more fascinated by monkeys, or at least the concept and imagery of monkeys.  They’re like humans in many traits and characteristics, but way inferior on the intellect scale so that makes them inherently amusing.  Toss in great monkey stuff like King Kong and Planet of the Apes (the original, thank you) and simians have their own enterprise going on.  So, if you give a monkey a wagon, and find him a nemesis – say, a lemur that enjoys riding a big wheel – and pit them together in an old-fashioned funny book, well, that should be a license to print money I tell you.

While I have no delusions that Alias isn’t still struggling to find its place in the market (too many stores aren’t carrying their books), I have a feeling that, at the very least, this book is going to be a favorite in their line and one that people would be willing to hunt down based on its title alone.  Hell, it sold me. 

As for the book itself, beyond just the insanely kitschy title, it’s a fun collection of short stories that pit the Monkey vs. the Lemur in various environments and time periods.  Going into detail on each of the stories is futile at best, since they are so brief in execution and only retain the singular concept of Monkey versus Lemur (sometimes riding their titular modes of transport and sometimes not).  They are funny in an absurd way, having an almost Spy vs. Spy feel, but with costumed animals instead.  I mean, if you get the giggles just thinking about the title of the book, you’re going to enjoy its innards.  Ken Lillie-Paetz, writes three of the four mostly silent shorts in the book, with the bulk of the art chores drawn by Chris Moreno, proving himself a brilliant comedic cartoonist.  The reaction shots of the sinister monkey – menace just seething from his stare – juxtapose nicely to the steely, wide-eyed determination of the heroic lemur.  Moreno instills a ton of character into the two mute primates, as their centuries long battle takes them from pirate ships to the racetrack.

Monkey vs. Lemur is goofy entertainment, and I look forward to more, although I have no idea if or when there will be more.  I get the sense that it’s a “when the mood hits” kind of book, like Milk & Cheese or Fillerbunny.  I’ll keep my eyes peeled.

FOUR OUT OF FIVE VIKINGS

With the Vatican, Jenkins and Ramos Find Lots of Mysteries and “Revelations”

By Russell Paulette

 As a reader, I’ve admittedly been hot and cold with writer Paul Jenkins.  I’ve been turned onto him ever since his stint, years ago and oft-unremembered, on Hellblazer, and since then I’ve always given his work a pass.  Even though I’ve been burned a few times (I’m looking at you, Wolverine: The End), I’m always receptive to his work.  With artist Humberto Ramos in tow, Revelations # 1 brings us the opening act of his Catholic-fueled murder mystery that gave my Jenkins-Sense a tingle. 

I’m happy to say that the first issue doesn’t disappoint—indeed, it even has me excited for more.  Playing as a low-rent Da Vinci Code with a much smarter syntax, Jenkins’ plot concerns the death of a cardinal at the wrought-iron gates to the Vatican.  I’m sorry, that should read “on”—and that alone was enough of a teaser to get me hooked.  A priest horribly impaled on five wrought-iron pikes on a stormy Italian evening?  I’m so there.  Following this, Scotland Yard detective Charlie Northern gets yanked into the investigation by a childhood friend who’s now a man of the cloth, and in Northern we get our sour, surly point-of-view protagonist. With his arrival the story really takes off.

One of Jenkins’ strengths is often his characterization, particularly with voice, and his work on Northern is no exception.  Echoing Constantine a bit, Jenkins plays him as a skeptic fascinated with conspiracies and cults, and, doing so, he telegraphs his plot a bit, but you don’t ultimately mind, because this is that kind of story.  It’s Jenkins playing detective-genre tropes against the backdrop of Catholicism and, largely, that’s what makes it work so well.  Northern’s voice is direct and distinctive, and you get a good sense of the man before the mystery, and so I imagine we’ll start to care about everything to the extent that Northern does.  Since that is key to a good mystery story, I give full points to Jenkins.

On the art front lies Humberto Ramos.  The man is known for his cartoony rendering and exaggerated forms and, here, he shows his predilection for both.  What’s strange is, on paper, that sounds like it shouldn’t work at all—a kind of Disney version of The Exorcist?  Are you kidding me?—but in practice, somehow the two worlds blend together rather well.  Sure, some of it is that Ramos is taking a far different approach than usual—gone are the thick, black outlines, replaced instead by a softer, penciled shading look with a muted color palate—but some of it is how completely Ramos infuses you in his world.  It’s no question that the man can render well and, though his storytelling choices leave something to be desired from time to time—frankly, many of the rain-filled scenes are almost unreadable—there’s some unqualifiable aspect to his artwork that, combined with the subject matter, makes it unmistakably comics.  So, for all its shortcomings, the artwork works on that level alone for me.

Overall, it’s a very good step in a very right direction for two fine craftsmen.  Worth checking out if murdered priests is your cup of tea.  I take my murdered priests with two spoons of sugar, myself. 


FOUR OUT OF FIVE VIKINGS

“Wha…Huh?” lovingly pokes fun at Marvel comics, their creators and their fans

By Graig Kent

 This is most definitely what I’d call a comic geek’s book.  I’m not disparaging anyone with that comment, because I include myself (proudly I might add) into that column.  This is one of those books that is "for the fans".  It’s not meant as a universal book of comedy accessible to every and all, but rather, it’s meant for the boys and girls who regularly read on-line columns like Lying in the Gutters or the Fanboy Rampage.  This is one for the people who enjoy all the goings-on behind the scenes and the Marvel devotees.  This is something that the old Marvel Bullpen would have done on a semi-regular basis not that long ago, before Marvel went public and began taking itself, its characters (aka licensables) and its financial situation so seriously.

Fitting in somewhere between Fred Hembeck Destroys the Marvel Universe and Archie Vs. Punisher, "Wha…Huh?" not an important book, but it’s one of those time capsules that will fondly be looked back upon ten or fifteen years down the road. What was the Marvel Stable like back in the Double Oh’s..? Not so serious that they couldn’t laugh at themselves and their competitors.

The book is comprised of a series of "What If?" segments, often a single panel in length.  That right there should signal that this isn’t a book for everyone.  "What If?" was a geekdom series that ran throughout 80’s that offered bizarre alternate situations for popular (and sometimes unpopular) Marvel storylines, and it’s this set-up that all the humor revolves around.  It’s retro.  It’s nostalgia.  The jokes are primarily one-note but come along so rapid fire that you don’t really have time to reflect on whether the joke(s) truly worked or not.

We’ve got primarily Brian Bendis, Mark Millar, Brian K. Vaughn and a slew of other top writing talents putting their credentials together and setting them on fire.  They are really just finger jabbing one another here.  There’s a lot of friendly ribbing, an elbow and a nudge-nudge wink-wink say-no-more between the authors of this thing and some people just won’t care enough to find it funny, which is perfectly acceptable.  But like the movie the Aristocrats there’s just something pleasurable to many of us about getting a glimpse of the inside and the feeling that you’re in some small way included in part of that world.  That’s kind of what fandom is all about.

The book is occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and it’s nice to see the egos on these creators aren’t above a little tickling.  Jim Mahfood (Grrl Scouts, Stupid Comics) takes on art chores, giving the book a uniform look and feel.  His awkward, Sharpy marker, b-boy cartooning style is actually perfect for a book like this.  Like Fred Hembeck’s works before him, it’d be hard to mistake it for a traditional Marvel book, and that works to its advantage.  Characters are highly exaggerated from their normal state, and Mahfood crams the pages with lots of little humorous details like jotting odd book titles, and giving background characters dialogue.

I liked "Wha…Huh?", but don’t get me wrong, it’s not a glorious piece of work.  It’s just a welcomed gesture of appreciation to fans and a bit of a "let’s hug it out bitch" (i.e., we’re both right and wrong) to the naysayers. A welcomed diversion while we stitch the two cracked halves of the internet back together.

THREE OUT OF FIVE VIKINGS

3

Rucka Explores a Compromise of Values in “Wonder Woman”

By Russell Paulette

 Sometimes with writer Greg Rucka, the joy isn’t found in the events that he plays, but rather the way he follows through.  I’m a Rucka nut so I’m already predisposed to his books and, because of that, I didn’t mind so much the editorial mandate from this past summer of a Super-over that interrupted The Omac Project mini-series.  At the same time, it also impacted Wonder Woman—and with last week’s issue, # 220, Rucka is following through on the shocking ending to the Super-over.  In my mind, it makes sense to deal with the ramifications of a hero—especially one who surrounds herself with facists-with-pacificist-tendencies—who takes it upon herself to kill a villain.  If your protagonist’s moral universe involves a line that doesn’t get crossed—then you make her cross that line—then dealing with the fallout makes for compelling drama.  Sure, I get that.

And Rucka does, too, I think, as Wonder Woman’s decision to dispatch Max Lord last month is causing all sorts of reverberations in her life this month.  The bulk of this issue, then, is basically reiterating facts learned from the other tie-in books—that right after killing Lord, the various League-ers had to go handle countless crises, real and faked, across the globe.  This issue, he keeps the focus in Wonder Woman’s head—surprise—and we get her entire rationalization for the killing, along with how she was dealing with the emotional fallout while tied up with saving-the-world responsibilities.  Then, Rucka carries it through several subplots that have been hanging around the book—including one that reverts back on all this Omac/Checkmate stuff—and concludes the issue with her confessing it all to Batman. 

In a sense, then, this is just a structural cousin to last week’s Adventures of Superman, but deals with the effect on Wonder Woman herself—and it’s here where the issue becomes notable.  Because she crossed this line—which, for her, isn’t much of a line at all—then the drama in the issue’s third act comes into high relief, as she helps an admittedly bad guy get away because a) she has no justifiable reason to keep him, and b) he’s got one up on her for Lord’s death.  So in demonstrating her susceptibility to compromise, Rucka’s not merely giving his heroine feet of clay, but rather showing how she reacts to a series of impossible choices.  Whether or not I think she’s making the right choices is beyond my ken as a reviewer because, ultimately, the fact that she’s being forced into these decisions by her own actions alone makes it compelling, to me, and worth talking about.

On the art side, David Lopez (Fallen Angel) is doing some capable fill-in work, showing the same strong command of storytelling he showed on that doomed-to-fail-at-DC book.  However, some of the rendering looks a little rushed and wonky in places, and I’m not sure if the blame falls on him or his inker, known only as Bit, but I’ve seen much better from Lopez.  I will say, though, that for a fill-in that was obviously rushed and done last-second, I’ve seen much worse work, so it has that going for it.

Sure, it’s super-hero stuff and it’s perhaps relentlessly dark, but the moral implications of what Rucka and company are exploring, particularly in the fallout-issues, are particularly compelling to this reader.  Certainly, it’s not for everyone, but to me it makes for good drama, and that’s all I ask when I pick up a comic. 


THREE OUT OF FIVE VIKINGS

3



 Powers # 12 (Marvel/Icon) – Without renumbering, this issue marks the big Five-O mark for Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Avon Oeming’s magnum-opus.  Strange, yet cool, then, that they mark its passage with a double-sized wrap-up to a relatively quiet storyline about a power-giving artifact falling into the wrong hands.  Most resonant in the story, then, is the sinister, quiet ending Bendis gives the book, holding your attention with signs and portents for later disaster, rather than any impending drama within the book’s pages—though there’s plenty of that, too.  Oeming does a fine job on the artwork, as always, though his work has been striking me as sketchy lately.  If you’re looking for an excuse to check the book out, now wouldn’t be a bad time, as this issue perfectly captures the overall tone.  - Russell

RAID RATING:

 

 Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight #4 (DC) – The interesting thing about Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers project is he’s tried to make every issue stand-alone in some respects while also being a part of the bigger whole of the individual mini-series, which themselves are part of the bigger whole of the entire project.  Sometimes this stand-alone concept has worked very well: The Manhattan Guardian and Klarion have been the most successful of the minis so far, but Shining Knight hasn’t fared so well.  Of all of them, I think this is the one that is the most obtuse on a per-issue basis and requires the larger picture to really understand.  As for the fourth issue itself, it begins in a place I don’t remember it leaving off, and Sir Justin faces his old friend Galahad, now soulless and servant to the Sheeda.  Meanwhile, Don Vincenzo makes his last stand against the Sheeda, which takes up too much of the book methinks.  Oh, and there’s a little something you didn’t know about Sir Justin which gets revealed.  This issue is a little too busy and a little too involved on its own, but I’m sure it pays off a little better in the larger picture.  It’s at least interesting and Simone Bianchi’s art is gorgeous (with colors by the master, Dave Stewart).  – Greg

RAID RATING:

 Daredevil: Father # 2 of 6 (Marvel) – Yeah, yeah, this issue is late enough that you want to check the stick to see if has a blue plus or a red minus.  At this point, Joe Quesada has assured us that his cycle is regular again, so those interested in following the book don’t have to worry about being a parent.  Anyway, aside from the assorted snarkiness about the book’s schedule, the actual contents are compelling—Quesada sets up a two-sided mystery involving a mysogonist serial killer on the DD side, and a fight-the-corporate-baddies on the lawyer side, and he plays the two against each other well enough.  To some degree, it feels like he’s tipping his hand a bit in this issue—and he includes some new street-level vigilantes for questionable reasons—but overall, the writing is solid.  Artwise, he’s experimenting—and kudos to him for it—though, I’m not sure how well I’m responding to his bulkier-looking forms.  Either way, a worthy effort and, provided we see all of it, shows promise. – Russell

RAID RATING:

 Flash # 225 (DC) – Geoff Johns finishes his two-odd year run (ahem) on the title, and to be honest, I’m a little underwhelmed.  Perhaps it’s his focus on the legion of Rogues that plague his title character, perhaps it’s his reliance on time-travel as a plot device.  Normally, I’m a geek for stuff like that; here, it works fine, but still felt a little obvious as it was unfolding.  Though, again, I’m sure subterfuge wasn’t his goal, so I don’t know what I’m complaining about.  Either way, he wraps everything up with a nice little bow, and, like the work of artist Howard Porter, does a good enough job, but it leaves me shrugging my shoulders a bit.  Nothing bad about it, but nothing amazing, either. – Russell

RAID RATING:

 Ex Machina # 14 (DC/Vertigo) – Brian Vaughn and Tony Harris wrap up a nice little two-parter with an interesting premise—the super-powered, mayor protagonist had to serve jury duty, and it, of course, results in a hostage situation that he must defuse.  ‘Cause it’s a bit of an action book, y’know?  Anyway, the book plays out masterfully, with—I’ll be honest—a subplot that was just a smidge more compelling than the a-plot, but with both of them playing off each other strongly.  If our continued attention to this book hasn’t clued you all in, it’s well worth your time, money and effort, and I’ll volunteer for hat-eating for any Vikings who disagree. – Russell

RAID RATING:

 Astro City – Dark Age: Book One #3 (Wildstorm) – Sean reviewed the first issue of the Dark Age maxi-series RIGHT HERE and he tentatively suggests that Busiek has created another brilliant (if ambitious) chapter to his Astro City property.  Now that #3 is on the shelves we can safely give this series the highest compliment imaginable: it fits perfectly in the Astro City continuity.  Set in the late 70s, the backdrop is a controversial war and an administration that represents an untouchable good old boy network scapegoating their improprieties away.  This story couldn’t be any more relevant.  Now more than ever the technique of having superheroes’ deeds seen through ordinary citizen’s eyes proves much more than just a hook.  It’s an adroit technique that serves a complex story.  Those who think that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns signaled the end of superhero comics are missing out on a line that compares favorably to those paramount works.  If you aren’t following this story now I strongly recommend picking up the trade when it hits the shelves.  Although if you’re purchasing these as they are initially published, later down the road you can claim geek clout for your recognition of a classic while it was in progress.  That’s right: I’m telling you now that the Dark Age books are future classics.  Hyperbole is allowed when it is earned. – Rob

RAID RATING:

 New Avengers # 9 (Marvel) – In other Bendis news, he continues plugging away at the Avengers, and doing an able job, picking up threads from the Paul Jenkins/Jae Lee Sentry mini-series from a few years back and weaving them into his conspiracy-laden superheroes-as-spies book.  Steve McNiven’s artwork is the real winner here, as Bendis gives him no shortage of talking heads scenes; scenes with large gatherings of Marvel heroes wompin’ on a gross-looking monster; and a fascinating visual representation of the psychic plane.  If the first arc turned you off, you might find something interesting in the self-reflective pop-psychology on display in this arc.  - Russell

RAID RATING:

 Astonishing X-Men # 12 (Marvel) – There’s been some backlash to the Joss Whedon/John Cassaday run on X-Men and, to be honest, I don’t really see it.  I mean, on the one hand—yeah, it is just classic X-Men done with a tongue-in-cheek, respectful flavor—but it’s done so well it’s a little hard to complain.  Whedon provides the pithy one-liners in all the right moments and on all the right beats, and Cassaday draws the action with such a sumptuous verve that it’s hard to read the book without a bib.  Sure, Whedon’s plotting isn’t the strongest, as there are some admittedly dodgy moments, but for the most part it hangs together rather well, and if you’re looking for that X-opera fix, this is an injection straight to the heart.  - Russell

RAID RATING:


So ends this accounting of valiant warriors and high adventure! Return next week to honor still more comics. Praise Odin.

HAVE A COMIC YOU WANT TO SUBMIT FOR REVIEW? Contact Sean at scfahey@yahoo.com.

To discuss this column and all things Nordic, you may contact Sean at scfahey@yahoo.com , Devon at thedevonsanders@yahoo.com , Dave at dave@chud.com , Russell at inadvertent@mail.com , Rob at poprob@gmail.com and Graig at graig@geekent.com.