Mike Mignola, you clever bastard you. This wasn’t what I was expecting, but it wound up being the best kind of surprise.
If the “B.P.R.D.” series has any real fault it’s that the series is planned out too well. What I mean by that is that after reading over twenty volumes of it and its spinoffs (not to mention “Hellboy” proper) it’s clear that Mignola and his many collaborators have a plan for it and are carrying things out to the letter. While this is a very good thing for a title that likes to play the long game, it has occasionally resulted in stories that seem to function only as setup for future events rather than being entertaining in and of themselves. The “B.P.R.D.: 1940’s” series was an example of this and after my experience with the most recent of them, “1948,” I was hoping that would be last we’d see of those for a while.
In a surprising turn of events, even though it doesn’t have a date in its title “B.P.R.D.: Vampire” is the direct follow up to that story. All I knew about it was that Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon would be joining Mignola on the story and providing the art for the title, and that it would obviously be dealing with the title’s take on the vampire mythos. I’d have been less excited about this series if I had known it’d be following up on “1948,” but it manages to pull off something very special here. Not only does “Vampire” prove to be the most immediately entertaining of these “flashback” stories it also casts new light on what Mignola and company were planning when they introduced us to Simon Anders.
Anders was introduced in “B.P.R.D. vol. 13: 1947” as a merchant marine who survived for nearly a month in the Pacific after his ship sank during WWII. Recruited by the B.P.R.D., he wound up becoming possessed by the spirits of two vampire sisters on his first mission. Though they were locked away inside his soul, Anders never really recovered from the experience. As we saw in “1948” the man was on a self-destructive streak, getting in fights with other officers, interfering during combat, that culminated in the deaths of two other members of the organization in New Mexico. Realizing that it’s not safe for anyone to be around him anymore, Anders asks for Prof. Bruttenholm’s help in tracking down the remaining vampires in this world.
What follows is the man’s final descent into the realm of the supernatural as he leaves the last vestiges of his humanity behind. Though none of the threats he faces are new to constant readers of this title, his struggles against vampires, witches, and more are given weight by his personal vendetta against the forces of the night and his willingness to succumb to the forces around him. This is something we haven’t seen before in “B.P.R.D.” as the series is made up of supernatural characters like Liz Sherman, Abe and Johann who try to do the right thing, or people like Ben Daimio who are turned against their comrades through outside forces. A more direct comparison lies with Hellboy himself as he represents Bruttenholm’s greatest triumph in soul saving. But what happens when the man fails in this respect? The later chapters in this story show Anders’ unnerving descent as he plans to take the fight to the vampires at the cost of his soul.
Though seeing Anders’ struggle reach a critical turning point in this volume is compelling enough, the real treat here was in how “Vampire” finally got me to go back and re-read the “1947” and “1948” volumes of this title. Now, while I view re-reading an entire series as mandatory research for any title I talk about on the podcast, I generally don’t go back and do any of that stuff for a title that I read normally or review. In addition to the ever-growing “to read” pile I have at home, it’s just too time-consuming to go back and re-read twenty-odd volume of “B.P.R.D.” whenever a new one comes out. However, in the case of “Vampire,” going back to re-consider those two volumes became a necessity.
To what should be no-one’s surprise, “1947” and “1948” are a lot more compelling now that I know what Mignola and company were originally going for. In fact, Mignola even spells it out in his afterword to “1947” as he talks about wanting to do a story where an ordinary man fell into the realm of the supernatural. With that understanding, it’s easy to see these books and “Vampire” forming an indiscreet trilogy about “The Fall of Simon Anders.” It provides a framework that elevates their stories and makes the authors’ original intentions clear. Re-reading these volumes also helped immensely because I had simply forgotten a lot of stuff that had happened in the three-plus-years that came between my initial read of “1947” and the release of “1948.”
All this said, I’m fairly certain that this volume wouldn’t have been as entertaining without the involvement of Ba and Moon. The team of twin brothers has produced some consistently excellent comics together and apart, and while I’m still waiting for more creator-owned work from them along the lines of “Daytripper,” they do excellent work here. Though they have similar styles -- Ba is defined by a solid lines in his artwork while Moon’s work is sketchier, more reflective of brushwork -- the way they mix and match them on “B.P.R.D.” represents a perfect division of labor. Ba handles the scenes grounded in the real world while Moon takes on the ones focused on the supernatural. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that works very well when you see Anders go from exploring underground ruins in Ba’s style to an vampire crypt rendered in Moon’s. They even collaborate on the panels themselves, as seen in the supernatural conflict that erupts near the end of the fourth chapter. It’s beautiful work by the brothers from the haunting beginning to the resigned end and I can only hope that they’ll be continuing to work with Mignola in showing us where Anders’ story goes from here.
Back in my review of “1948” I said that I couldn’t imagine going back to read the comic unless its creators pulled off an amazing, “So that’s what they were going for!” kind of moment. In short, that’s what “Vampire” wound up being. Though my experience with these “1940’s” flashbacks had led me to write them off as unsatisfying diversions from the main story, that’s not the case anymore. For the first time ever, I’m actually eager to find out what happens next in this time period and Mignola, Ba and Moon should be commended for that. It may seem opaque and hard to follow at times, but “B.P.R.D.” shows that having a plan and following it through will pay great dividends in the long run.
Now I’ll just get back to wondering how the “Pickens County Horror” contributes to said plan…