One thing that’s always intrigued me about the works of Mike Mignola is that while Hellboy and the BPRD are entrenched in the supernatural realm of of otherworldly horrors, the majority of stories don’t play out with the trappings of the horror genre. Rather they adapt the aesthetics and apply it to the action-adventure story to deliver a thoughtful and atmospheric tale loaded with suspense, but not often a genuinely scary or frightening one. I think Abe Sapien #1 , penned by Mignola and Scott Allie with artwork from Sebastián Fiumari is definitely one of the comics that takes a large step in the horror direction.
The opening scene is one familiar to any fan of fiction delving into the occult as an abandoned house becomes home to a demonic summoning. Disturbingly though the focus of the scene is not the candles, the blood, the pentagrams or the cryptic tome of ritualistic spells, but the folding of a young girl’s clothes as her lifeless body is sacrificed in the background of the panels are tastefully not focused on. The gentle treatment of the garments being neatly arranged underscores the frightening and grounded evils of the world presented. Eldritch abominations lurking beneath the Earth fail to compare to the harsh reality of a murdered child with the death presented to us in such an emotionally twisting matter-of-fact manner. The juxtaposition of the teen pop-sensation emblazoning her top and satanic ritual framing the scene underscores the unthinkable loss of innocence in the world and lends a weighing sense of verisimilitude to a series which under lesser writers might lose the reader in a world of baseless fantasy. There’s a degree of dark humor the to Justin Bieber reference, tricking us into laughing at the notion of him co-existing with the likes of twisted monsters in this world, before pulling out and revealing the real context. We’re essentially tricked into a false sense of security before the real punchline sends the tone spiraling into despair.
This tone of despair and frightened human emotion continues as the bulk of the issue deals with displaced vagrants travelling in a dingy freight train car, swapping stories of the ongoing chaos across America. These scenes both serve to inform the audience of the status quo, but also make the smart decision of grounding the horror to it’s effects on humanity and ensuring the impact is seen to be far and wide spreading.
As befits the bleak and horrific tone of the series Abe himself upon first unveiling has mutated into a harsher, more monstrous version of himself. He’s on the run from his friends and colleagues in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense since awakening from his coma where the transformation began. His outward face of monstrosity drives the vagrants he found himself travelling with into vicious throes of violence, reminiscent of humanity turning on Frankenstein’s monster who only seeks solitude. That Abe is sent running through the forests and hunted down by his family of the BPRD further drives the premise that Abe is alone in the world.
Fiumari’s art work is viscerally rendered and with aesthetics falling neatly in line with the styles of Guy Davis and others whose work has come to define this fictional world so strongly while strongly asserting itself as it’s own beast. Combined with the coloring of the ever-present Dave Stewart the comic drips with wonderful textures from Abe’s sheening amphibian skin to the gurgling, haunted-fungus growth on an infected man’s arm.
Similar to BPRD: Vampire #1 last week, this issue felt light on plot and were I not as rooted in enjoying the world and mythos of these comics so much already I can’t say I would have been grabbed with the tenacity to continue. I would argue the sparsity of developments was a fair trade off for the atmosphere, tone and world-building established in the book and that the hunt for Abe and his fleeing journey are an interesting premise to hook one in.
With this issue being labelled “Dark and Terrible Part 1” there’s certainly the promise of more to come and if it remains as dark and terrible as the debut it’s guaranteed to be an interesting foray into a world of gloomy hell on earth.