Powerful Panels: B. P. R. D.: 1946 #2 by Paul Azaceta
B. P. R. D.: 1946, which was released in a trade paperback this week, is one of the scariest things I have ever read. It is also one of the most expertly executed of the B. P. R. D. series in the sense that each of the genre strains represented in the book--horror, science fiction, detective--is equally developed, with none of them taking precedence over the others. Issue #2 is particularly amazing because it centers on the character of Varvara, the head of the Soviet equivalent of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B. P. R. D.), who, while actually more or less fighting on the side of Professor Bruttenholm and the Bureau, is ten times more terrifying than even the series' villains.
This particular panel shows Varvara as she walks out of a barn after "interrogating" Audo, who has escaped from a mental asylum where he was part of a Nazi program to create an army of vampires. The entire sequence of panels depicting this event is particularly effective as it encapsulates the multifarious and paradoxical nature of Varvara's terrifying magnetism. The juxtaposition of the opposing aspects of her nature is reminiscent of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, in which he uses the metaphors of childhood innocence and experience to illustrate the two aspects of the human soul.
As the sequence opens, the manner in which she approaches Audo's mother is perhaps a bit less deferential or shy than one might expect from a young girl dressed as she is, but at most the impression is of perhaps a rather precocious child. This precocity gives way to a fully adult arrogance in the subsequent panels as she stares down Dr. Eaton and then condescendingly orders him to close the doors as she brushes past him and into the dark barn, marching unflinchingly toward those hauntingly glowing eyes. Varvara's fearlessness is underscored in the following panel in which Dr. Eaton, his own fear etched in the lines on his face, apprehensively latches the barn door.
One could almost dedicate an entire piece to the panel depicting the moment of the interrogation. The barn door is framed by the tense figure of Dr. Eaton on one side and a silhouette of Professor Bruttenholm's hand clasping Varvara's baby doll, a symbol of childhood innocence left at the door. Azaceta employs a classic cinematic technique in enhancing the terror of the moment by obscuring our view, leaving us to the suggestions of our imaginations and Audo's shrieking pleas.
The panel depicting her exit from the barn presents an excellent demonstration of the tension between text and images in comics. Her words are business-like: she shares what information she was able to extract and alludes to some nebulous "accident" which has befallen Audo. But Varvara's physical aspect clashes with the text in the panel. Her stance is forward, confident; very adult, very experienced. Her facial expression is relaxed, but with a knowing look indicative of experience--suggesting the immediate aftermath of sexual release. Then there is her arm: the splash of color contrasts highly to everything else in the panels immediately surrounding this moment, with the notable exception of the exclamation point extending from Bruttenholm in the subsequent panel. Clearly her arm is coated in blood, but as discussed above, Varvara's expression reflects sexual satisfaction, making the blood far more transgressive in suggestion than if we were dealing with mere physical violence.
The two panels which complete the sequence round out the cycle of Varvara's spiritual metamorphosis. As Bruttenholm rushes into the barn, he gives back Varvara's baby doll, and with it her innocence. As the perspective flips in the sequence's final panel, we see through the carnage in the foreground that Varvara's re-infantilization is complete. Her expression of easy pleasure, of childish innocence, now matches her stature and accoutrements.
One thing that makes this whole sequence so bafflingly satisfying is that at this point in the narrative, the reader has no idea who or what this Varvara is. It is only later in the issue that Professor Bruttenholm finally asks who she is and she responds by sharing a story of Peter the Great and the three demons who helped him defeat the Swedish, giving Russia access to the sea. The panels accompanying this entire portion are an excellent example of just the sort of cinematic montage Brandon discussed in a recent post. Particularly effective is the moment in which Azaceta visually links Varvara to the poetry witnessing demon.