Abe Sapien: The Drowning

One of the many things that makes Mike Mignola's constatly-growing Hellboy universe so great is how everything matters. Nothing feels tossed-off or less significant than something else. Certain series aren't "events"--events are of course, the current bane of comics' existence--and certain series aren't more fun or unimportant (except for "Weird Tales" and "Hellboy Junior"). Every "Hellboy" sub-series fills in some chronological holes, answers some questions or poses new ones, and still gives you plenty of cool monsters and usually finds time to sneak up emotionally devastate you somewhere along the way too.

Abe Sapien: The Drowning is probably the best sub-series yet and it comes out today as a trade. A five-issue series that started earlier this year, written by Mignola and drawn by Jason Shawn Alexander, The Drowning tells the story of Abe Sapien's first mission without Hellboy and the mission's absolute failure. Everything about the mission is presented as second-rate, from it taking place on Saint-Sebastien in France (not the famous city in Spain), to constant references from B.P.R.D agents that it's Hellboy that gets all the exciting jobs, to of course, it being placed in the hands of the rather inexperienced Abraham Sapien.

The "hook" of this series, the relating point of it all--if you stripped it off its connection to the Hellboy universe and the mythology of Saint Sebastian, and a bunch of bad-ass water monsters--is the first day of your first big job where everything's gone wrong. Of course, it's not some office job or something, so the consequences are every ounce of Abe's self-confidence in the shadow of Hellboy, and a whole lot of guilt about his perceived responsibility for the death of some B.P.R.D agents. Abe's a really nice and sensitive guy, he doesn't hide his emotions in jokes or hard-ass quotables like Hellboy, he just sort of scrunches up and gets really upset, which makes this series more of a psychological portrait of guilt and learning that the world's fucked, than your typical Hellboy story.

Usually, Mignola buries the emotions behind adventure and Lovecraft-like atmospherics, but here, the most memorable stuff is the moments of Abe freaking out. The plot about the island and the forces that protect a century-dead Warlock are there, but they're muddled even by Mignola's standards--although I think it's supposed to be as confusing for the reader as it is for Abe--and are really, just a vehicle in which we enter into Abe's guilts and fears.

This is some of Mignola's most direct and emotional writing and it's matched quite well by the more realistic art of Jason Shawn Alexander. We're mainly used to seeing Mignola's own art or the significantly more cartoony work of Guy Davis, but here, Alexander's work, a mix of Scott Hampton's wisely sloppy lines and Jae Lee's realism (but none of the rigidity of Lee's art), takes a more sober and overtly serious take on the Hellboy universe, which fits the "it's really, really fucked but it'll be okay in the end, I promise" tone of the story.

In issue #2, there's a particularly affecting dream sequence in which Abe, struggling to get someone, anyone from B.P.R.D on the phone, imagines Hellboy appearing and yelling at him for the failed mission. "What the Hell were you thinking?", a Hellboy-shaped shadow asks, and for a moment we think it's Hellboy to save the day, and on the next page, out of the shadow, he asks "What made you think you were ready for this?". It's followed by a page of others similarly chastising Abe until he finally explodes at the imagined versions of his friends. We're totally in Abe's head for this sequence as it's drawn and presented as realistically as the rest of the issue and it's disturbing to see Abe's friends being so cruel, which only serves to highlight just how overwhelmed and guilt-ridden Abe is at this point; he's paranoid, out of his head, imagining his best friends losing all their sympathy.

The final issue of the series ends with the real-life version of the events Abe imagined in #2. It begins with a solitary image of Abe, sadly perched on a boat looking out at the ocean--actually, quite similar to the Herzog image from Nosferatu I blabbed on about here--and is followed by a reverse angle of Abe apologizing to Bruttenholm, who of course, tells him it wasn't his fault and means it: "It was a bad situation...No one could have foreseen what would happen." The rest of the scene is intercut between Abe and the Professor talking and strangely affecting images back at Saint Sebastien (B.P.R.D clean-up crew, the townspeople, a dead boy), illustrating the aftermath, both happy and sad, of the mission.

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