B.P.R.D.: The Universal Machine trade paperback
Writers: Mike Mignola & John Arcudi
Artist: Guy Davis
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Clem Robins
Cover artist: Mignola
Editor: Scott Allie
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Price: $17.95 US
Mike Mignola’s decision some time ago to shift the Hellboy property to a series of limited series about his colleagues in the B.P.R.D. was a wise choice. He’s managed to avoid telling repetitive stories featuring Hellboy and how his toughness and grounded nature ultimately enable him to come out of supernatural scrapes intact, and the shift has also provided Mignola and co-writer John Arcudi to explore more character-based stories by fleshing out the supporting characters and adding to the cast. The writers take a split approach to the storytelling here, as they offer up a plotline about an intellectual quest that turns dangerous as well as a number of shorter stories that delve into the past and personalities of the members of the core team. It makes for a well-balanced and accessible read. And if ever there was an artist whose style was as well suited to the surreal and gothic, supernatural world that the B.P.R.D. patrols as Mike Mignola’s, it’s Guy Davis’s.
One of the core members of the investigative/enforcement team of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense — Roger, a homunculus — has been struck down and apparently killed on a previous mission, but his friends are determined to find a way to regrow his supernatural form to give his artificial spirit life once again. While psychic Johann Kraus looks for an answer on the ethereal plane, Dr. Kate Corrigan learns of the existence of an ancient occult book that could contain information that might resurrect Roger. As Corrigan finds herself the victim of a fraud perpetrated in the past, the other B.P.R.D. agents get to know one another better by sharing stories from their pasts.
Guy Davis does an excellent job of depicting the oddball array of misfit heroes that make up the core cast of this series of limited series. He incorporates a Mignola-esque approach in some of his work — notably in Johann’s flashbacks — but for the most part, his own style is intact and shines through. His twisted, organic style suits the bizarre creatures with which the B.P.R.D. agents do battle, from the demons in the Marquis hidden lair to the Wendigo that appears in Abe’s flashback. The artist also captures a sense of European history and architecture incredibly well in those scenes focusing on Corrigan’s adventure. Dave Stewart employs a muted color palette that’s appropriate, given the depressed, saddened tone that dominates the book. Still, he knows when to use a splash of bright color to great effect (such as the one that represents a fresh bloodstain on a supernatural monster’s furry coat).
As I was assembling the credits and bits of minutiae that appear at the top of this review, I was struck by the price of this trade-paperback collection. This book collects a five-issue limited series by the same name. That means that the total price of the comics themselves would have been $14.95 US ($2.99 by 5), but for some reason, this collection is priced two bucks above that. That’s not much of an incentive to wait for the trade. Perhaps that’s Dark Horse’s intent — to spur sales of the individual issues when they’re originally released — but it seems that a reprint edition of the material (without bells and whistles such as a hardcover) should cost more than the first run of the story itself.
The various flashbacks for the other B.P.R.D. agents make for an accessible introduction to the team as a whole. The script already emphasizes accessibility, and the list of dramatis personae that appears before the first chapter further reinforces that trait. It’s not just the premise and past of the B.P.R.D. that are accessible though, but the personalities of the characters as well. I really like that not all of the agents are typical comic-book heroes. Johann may be alien in appearance now, but he’s an old man at heart. And Roger proves to be a child, not the warrior he was forced to become.
What drew me into the book the most was the plotline of an academic quest transforming into a tense showdown involving kidnapping and extortion. Kate Corrigan is definitely the heroine of The Universal Machine, and Mignola and Arcudi’s script emphasizes her intellect above all else. She’s a tough customer, but physical confrontation isn’t something upon which she has to rely. Her colleague — the far more Andrew Devon — is someone to which it is easy to relate, as his fear almost overwhelms him. Still, I like the character, as he never considers abandoning Corrigan despite the monstrous circumstances in which he finds himself. 8/10