Is this a good volume of “B.P.R.D.?” Ask me again after a few more have materialized and I may have a solid answer for you. As it is, this one feels like it was designed more to set up future stories than tell good ones right now.
“The Pickens County Horror” involves backwoods vampires, mushrooms, a ship called the Madelyn Rose, and two agents by the names of Vaughan and Peters. The latter two have been called out to the titular county to figure out what’s going on with this fog that’s been plaguing the rural mountains at night. You’d think that the vampires living up there would be the biggest issue, but you’d be wrong as Vaughan and Peters find out firsthand.
The story has the creepiest art in the volume thanks to Jason Latour as he gives the characters and the forest setting a stylized look to them that heightens the unnatural nature of everything. There is a good “Evil Dead”/”Night of the Living Dead” vibe to the majority of the story, as it centers around survival in a shack in the woods, but it ultimately goes nowhere. I did like the bit about the Madelyn Rose and its place in the vampire mythology of the series, yet it ends in a way that makes us wonder just what the hell the whole purpose of it all was. Just like Vaughan does at the end, I might add.
Moving on, I had been looking forward to the second story here, “The Transformation of J.H. O’Donnell,” for a while now as it promised to explain just what was up with the character. If you don’t know his name, you’d probably recognize him as the mad researcher with the crazy hair who is wheeled out every so often to rant about whatever threat the B.P.R.D. is facing at the time. Turns out that he was driven partly mad after going with Hellboy to secure an occult library and -- after getting separated, of course -- winds up encountering a group of dead occultists with a few things to say to him. It says a lot about this series that I can read something like this and go, “Oh, is that it?” The bar for compelling weirdness has been set rather high, you see. Still, we get a real sense of the tragedy behind his origin on the last page and see Hellboy punching a bull demon. So that’s a plus.
Max Fiumara provides the art, and while he’s certainly got the sensibilities and style to be a “B.P.R.D.” artist, he’s not the best to grace its pages. That’s mainly because his human characters look as strange as the monsters they face, diminishing the effect when the supernatural rears its head.
James Harren doesn’t have that problem and after impressing with “The Long Death” in the previous volume and an arc on Brian Wood’s “Conan,” he knocks it out of the park again here. “The Abyss of Time” involves a B.P.R.D. field team investigating a stash of supernatural artifacts in London, and one of their team winds up coming into contact with a sword that will look veeeerrrrry familiar to longtime readers of this title. He is then thrust back in time to prehistory and into the body of a chieftain's son who is leading the warriors of his tribe against the unnatural menace of the Cold People.
Thanks to Harren, the Cold People come off as distinctively strange while the monster the summon near the end of the story looks suitably disturbing. He also manages a great battle towards the end, giving the combat both scope and speed that allow it to feel larger than it does on the page. The prehistoric bits are the most interesting while the present day sections offer up -- wait for it -- more setup for future stories with the sword and what looks to be the reintroduction of the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra from “Hellboy.”
What does it all mean? It means, “Keep watching this space,” as most will likely be explained in due time. As it stands right now, this volume feels wanting compared to the other installments in the “Hell on Earth Saga” as while all of these stories have their merits they don’t feel wholly satisfying in their own rights. Were I a betting man, I’d put it down to the fact that regular “B.P.R.D.” co-writer John Arcudi is absent here and Scott Allie is filling in for him at this juncture. Mike Mignola is still present, but Arcudi provided the spark to get me fully onboard this series way back in “The Dead” and his absence is certainly felt here.