Abe Sapien: The Drowning
Mike Mignola, writer
Jason Shawn Alexander, artist
Dark Horse, 2008
Maybe the most interesting thing about Mike Mignola’s Hellboy/B.P.R.D. franchise is how at this point in its history, when Mignola and his collaborators are producing enough miniseries set in this world to give the impression that it’s actually one big ongoing monthly (if not two!), the material is actually at its bleakest. What was once a rollicking Jack Kirby vs. H.P. Lovecraft mash-up—albeit one that wedded the former artist’s bombast and visual joie de vivre with the at times oppressive horror of the latter—is now almost a tone poem about three-time loserdom. Pretty much every Hellboy-related miniseries over the past extremely productive year or so has left me feeling really sad about the characters, who regularly confront evidence that they’re just not up to snuff, and that there are things in the world so horrible that even a demon, a fishman, a ghost, a firestarter, a resurrected black-ops officer, and a small army of experts and soldiers look like pikers compared to it.
That’s certainly the theme of Abe Sapien: The Drowning, the first solo series dedicated to Hellboy’s gilled second banana. Set during one of Hellboy’s earlier hiatuses from the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, it shares with the current series of Mignola/John Arcudi/Guy Davis minis a sense that without the Big Red One around, without his guiding force, his colleagues and friends can barely keep their head above water. Some people are different and special because of it, the message seems to be, but some people are just different, and that makes life a long, difficult struggle indeed.
In this case, Abe is sent on what’s supposed to be an easy mission in order to break him in as a solo operative: Swim around off the coast of a former leper colony to retrieve a magic dagger once used to kill a warlock, now resting on the ocean floor somewhere. It doesn’t go so well. One thing that struck me is just how much Mignola uses certain tropes that obviously scare him on some level in nearly all of his books: little unassuming guys transforming into big giant horrible monsters; groups of creepy servant people; mouths opening and extruding something huge and terrible. Nearly all of this is reflected in the plot, which starts out small and seemingly clear and soon balloons into a morass of shifting and expanding alliances and motives. Poor Abe is out of his depth in more ways than one.
Besides being one of Mignola’s more emotionally affecting stories of late, it’s also one of his most effective as horror. That’s largely down to the art of Jason Shawn Alexander, who owes less to Mignola’s high-contrast cartooning or Guy Davis’s neurotic line and more to the ’80s and ’90s horror and dark fantasy of artists like the Hampton Brothers, Pratt, and John Van Fleet (all of whom are amusingly name-checked as B.P.R.D. agents). There are a great many striking panels (the burning ghost priest, the statue of Saint Sebastian, the moray eel) and a few genuinely frightening, tough-to-look-at ones (the old woman in the window, the face of the warlock, the converted church). I know there’s a knee-jerk reaction to a writer-artist farming out part of his workload to other creators, but Mignola’s choices in that regard, from Arcudi and Davis to Richard Corben to Alexander) have been consistently terrific. The same is true of their comics.