B.P.R.D. The Warning #4
What can one say about a comic book that blends elements of detective fiction with classic sci-fi, horror and even German Expressionist cinema and adds a touch of Art Deco design; all without lapsing into the self-conscious intellectuality of a Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon? Not only does issue #4 of The Warning do all of these things, but it does so wrapped in a narrative that is so tightly constructed, so economically conveyed that it could almost serve as an object lesson in how illustrated stories can and should be told.
The issue opens with an amazing full page illustration of the destruction being wrought upon Munich by the weird Art Deco radio robot monsters that were introduced at the end of issue 3. We also learned in that issue that the proto-humans which built these robots had apparently evolved since the Bureau's first encounter with them. This is an important detail, because it gives the threat posed by these creatures an element of the pathological, echoing the struggle between advances in medical science and the constant evolution of disease causing pathogens. The more we learn about the world around us, the clearer the tenuousness of our existence becomes and this is a major cause of fear and anxiety in our post-industrial age.
The confluence of nature and artifice is a major theme in The Warning and it is reflected masterfully in the illustrations. There is a panel in issue 4 in which the team led by Abe Sapien and Johann Kraus is exploring the underground cavern from which the robot machines originated. The differentiation between the stone and earth walls and the fabricated machinery is nebulous. It is fitting that the events take place in Germany as the emergence of a catastrophic war machine from the bowels of Mother Earth recalls the emergence of the Nazi ideology from the nature ethos of German Romanticism. Moreover, the images of the underground factory and the strangely beautiful robots constructed therein also call to mind Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Mignola's skill as an illustrator is pretty well undisputed, but its amazing how much he has developed as a writer over recent series. The Warning is typical in Mignola's universe in that after several issues in which little happens outside of a broad outlining of setting and incident, things begin to happen and happen very quickly in the fourth issue. It is a testament to the quality of Mignola's writing that information is conveyed with minimal dialogue. When the underground team confronts the proto-human army with their oversized komodo dragons, Abe suggests to Johann that he can take control of one of the dragons by by projecting his consciousness into it simply by shouting his name. In a less well written comic like Walking Dead, the writer might say in twenty words what Mignola did with one and the effect would be a less exciting read.
If Hellboy forms the basis of Mike Mignola's grand 21st Century American mythic cycle, B.P.R.D. is this great genre-smashing vehicle through which many of the tales of this cycle are fleshed out. Mignola's comics work so well as horror stories in part because even as one monster is vanquished, the reader is left with the unmistakable sense of larger threats looming in its wake. Perhaps more importantly, Mignola shows that comics can and should be intellectual and literary, without being Intellectual and Literary.