11/07/2008

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.

10 comments:

Karen Peltier said...

its particularly gruesome how the blood is applied to the ribs, like in this more realistic, less opaque coloring than the rest of mignola's stuff, or even just on her arm a panel before. yuckers.

Joshua said...

David, this is some of the best critical writing that has ever been applied to anything I've been a part of. Extremely well written, and a pleasure to read.

- Joshua Dysart

david e. ford, jr said...

karen-

in re colors, i actually think that the coloration decisions in those panels are really interesting, particularly in the sense of how the color of the blood, while being distinctly more vivid than any of the surrounding colors, is still somewhat muted and sort of part of the overall pallet. having said that, this isn't always the case throughout the comic. there are definitely panels in which a different choice is made--when blood is more the color of actual blood. in most cases, these are panels which depict flashbacks or something outside the normal chronology of the narrative, but not always. the effect of this coloration choice in the "bloodied arm" panel is to sort of add to the creepy, ominous ambiguity. like if the blood had been colored in a more realistic blood red, the suggestion would have been more overtly physically violent and therefore somehow less effective.

david e. ford, jr said...

Joshua-

wow, what can i say? your comment means an awful lot (as does the fact that you read our blog!). i think it should be clear from the post that i am a fan of the book and look forward to seeing what you have on the horizon.

THANKS!

-david

Paul Azaceta said...

Great read! I just wish I was a talented and smart as you make me seem. Thanks!

P.

david e. ford, jr said...

paul-

thanks for the comment and for reading our blog!

as i mention in the post, i definitely think that 1946 is the most fully realized, well rounded of the bprd series, which is a reflection of the writing as well as the art. clearly you got a lot of things right and i am definitely glad to get the opportunity to share some of my thoughts about it.

-david

Joshua said...

I'll say this, though... In regards to this line...

"Her facial expression is relaxed, but with a knowing look indicative of experience--suggesting the immediate aftermath of sexual release."

I encourage you to find the psycho-sexual tendencies in all my work. I'm hoping you'll unearth
the Oedipal undercurrent in Violent Messiahs, the Dyspareunia subtext of the Demon Driven out, the necrolagnia obsessions behind the motivations in my Swamp Thing run, and the Castration Anxiety of
my Conan mini!

It's so nice to finally be understood.

And if you're interested, check out my new Unknown Soldier. #1 is on stands now.

Notice how I turned that into a pimp parade? Cha!

david e. ford, jr said...

Joshua-

geez, thanks for including words in your comment that i had to look up . . . seriously, though, don't be shy about pushing your other stuff--this is how most of us here navigate the comics world: we read something we like and then track down more stuff by the writer and/or artist.

with the exception of unknown soldier, i havent read any of the books you mentioned. i did want to make a comment in regards to your editorial at the back of unknown soldier (" . . . it is inevitable that over the course of this book i'll end up misrepresenting both the smallest and most important things . . . it's a problem with writers . . . we inevitably end up fictionalizing the world"). you are invariably right about that, but i don't think it is necessarily a bad thing. gustave flaubert travelled again and again to egypt and reportedly read 200 source books to research his novel about ancient carthage, 'salammbo.' invariably he got a lot of things wrong and some irrelevant critics went to pains to point these out. a. j. krailsheimer writes in his introduction to his translation of the novel, "Thibaudet, in his day one of the best critics of Flaubert (1922), sums up the balance sheet of 'salammbo' in two admirably succinct phrases: 'the archaeological value of the work is nil . . . It gives a sound idea of carthage.'"

clearly writing about the carthage of hamilcar and northern uganda in 2002 are two very different things, but the point still holds--facts are not the same thing as truth.

in any event, i am actually pretty excited about this series and look forward to seeing where you take it.

-david

Joshua said...

"facts are not the same thing as truth."

Couldn't agree more.

There are only two things I want to do with Unknown Soldier that could be perceived in any way as didactic.

One, I want readers to stop looking at Africa as one big, confusing place. I've heard the most seasoned travelers say, "I've been to Paris, New York, Tokyo, Africa..." That pisses me off. If I can just get people to see that the continent is as diversified, culturally eclectic and important as Asia or Europe, then I'm gold.

Secondly, I want to awaken in my readers an awareness of the systemic global racism that is focussed on Africa.

If those two things can be done, and the book is still entertaining and fun and exciting to read. Then all is not in vain.

david e. ford, jr said...

no shit, even saying "i have traveled to uganda" is like, hyper-generalizing some major complexities. with the exception of a handful of tiny, relatively homogeneous states, the nations of africa are themselves hardly unitary. of course, i don't have to tell you any of this--you've been there and i just took a couple of courses in african politics. i guess lwanga (or you, rather) put it best when he said, "it's a hard topic to discuss in passing without being overly reductive."

it's interesting, though, because i think what you are trying to do sort of nails why comics, in my opinion, are so much better at dealing with politics than, say, films or novels or whatever. as you say, your primary goal is to make the book fun and exciting to read (though you are right to grit your teeth at the bourne identity meets blood diamond bit). it seems like for whatever reason the didacticism takes center stage in a political film and they have a tendency therefore to come off as arrogant or preachy or whatever. it's like somehow these really intelligent filmmakers are unable to account for actual moral complexity--like the struggle with pacifism that is going on in the book. this general tendency is something i hope to explore somewhat in this forum, though for the moment school and work take so much of my time that i find it difficult to begin anything really systematic.

a comic that i think is doing some really exciting things with contemporary politics and doing it in a really novel way is kyle baker's special forces. you compare this book to the rash of iraq war movies that came out over the last several years and you are like why can't movie dudes with all of the resources they have at their disposal do anything that is even a tenth as affecting and intellectually challenging and entertaining as this one dude making this comic book (well, certainly with help, but you get my point).

in any event, as i say i am genuinely excited about the book. i am going to assume that ponticelli and celestini have their background in european comics because the art and coloration remind of some of my very favorite european books and this is a very good thing.

-david