Sunday, 20 October 2013
The Bureau for Paranormal Research and a Development began life as the employer of and base of operations for Hellboy in the startlingly named Hellboy comic. After a few miniseries it became clear to writer-artist Mild Mignola that it was a strong enough concept to support a title of its own. Just as importantly Hellboy was deemed interesting enough to separate him from his supporting cast and move him off on his own, away from a supporting cast.
So Hellboy tendered his resignation and went off adventuring alone while the BPRD were siphoned off into their own new title. That the name of the comic was chosen as BPRD was a surprise to no one.
What's strange is that after the split both the original Hellboy book and the new BPRD feel slightly like spin offs while also feeling like the original thing. Hellboy obviously feels like the original because the title had existed for a while by the time the central character headed out on his own. But doing away with the BPRD staff changes the feel of the book. It's no longer about a team, it's about Hellboy and Hellboy alone.
BPRD begins life feeling familiar because readers are already aware of most of the cast. Where it begins to feel new is in its weird war on frogs storyline. Presumably in favour of keeping the folklore and fairy tales approach for Hellboy's title BPRD fights this war against frogs that live under the Earth for its first several volumes. They’d shown up in Hellboy before, but not to the extent they were used in early BPRD.
It's a bold and understandable change. The war on frogs idea is the sort of thing that could easily have been elaborated on in Hellboy. The trouble is that it goes on too long in BPRD. It's the central focus of too many early arcs and provides the series with a far less flexible style than it had enjoyed when a part of the original book. It becomes boring very quickly, largely because not enough effort is made to do new things with the idea. Basically each volume sees the man-sized frogs appear and the BPRD dispatched to best them. It's like a kids' TV show, the same bad guys turning up with a wacky new plan every week and being beaten handily by the end of the episode.
But to read all of this makes BPRD sound bad. And it's not. Nothing bad would have had the success and double figure volume count that BPRD had enjoyed. It’s an engaging book that keeps that, once it’s found its feet, presents new ideas without comprising the spirit of the title it originated from.
I think the reason the title’s enjoyed the success it had is its cast. A lot of time has clearly gone into fleshing out the characters we were familiar with and making the new ones layered and interesting. Amongst the BPRD’s numbers are a werecat, a ghost, a pyromancer, a mummy and a psychic. They all fit with the feel of the world they feature in but aren’t simple caricatures. They’re given distinct personalities, which makes reading all the more enjoyable.
Mignola stayed on writing duties for the first volume or two but has always left the art of the spin-off book to a trusted cabal of artists, originally led by Guy Davis. He seemed content to provide nothing more than a general overview of proposed storylines. Aside from bringing us the war on frogs the arrangement's worked well. BPRD is a consistently written book with engaging characters and a steady stream of nice ideas. You can’t go far wrong with it.