I’ve said before that the one thing I dislike about Hellboy is Hellboy. He’s brash, crude, and vulgar; I like my paranormal investigators to have a touch of sophistication about them. Hellboy is an all-American hero in the worst way.
The B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) comics are therefore something I approve of. They keep the dark tone, the Gothic architecture, and the Nazi occultists that make Hellboy interesting, and dispense with Hellboy. This is the story of normal, mortal men fighting powers beyond their comprehension, dealing with horrors that do not belong in their modern world.
It’s a graphic novel – a collection of issues from an earlier comic – and so the whole authorship situation is complicated. This website provides more details. This particular volume isn’t the earliest one published (by a long shot), but it is the one telling the earliest stories within the fictional setting.
Set just after the end of WWII (hence the title), this volume concerns Professor Trevor Bruttenholm’s investigations into various paranormal things, mostly Nazi vampires, though occasional nuclear beasts and spider-brains as well. Hellboy is an (irritating) infant, who only appears in odd scenes.
Overall, I really liked this. It’s got everything you want from books about the occult – strangely advanced machinery, Nazis who have cheated death in all sorts of exciting ways, monstrosities attacking people. The B.P.R.D. has to deal with intelligent gorillas and demons disguised as children. It’s fun, and clichéd, and I love it.
Without Hellboy, more interesting plots are possible. Constantly, the B.P.R.D. is outgunned. They don’t have a huge demon on their side, they don’t have the ability to punch through walls or go toe-to-toe with darkness. A lot of the time, they’re lost and scared. A lot of the time, they die. That makes it interesting – superheroes aren’t really vulnerable, and even if they do die, they always come back. With a group of scared, normal, mortals, the stakes can be higher.
At points, it suffers from the curse of all paranormal-related graphic novels. It loses focus and becomes flower-child-y for a bit. Constantine went from cheating devils to being nice to hippy children, the B.P.R.D. occasionally falls into a similar mire.
I’m not against hippy children in principle, I hasten to add. It’s just that it doesn’t match the tone – you can’t mix sub-genres that easily. The B.P.R.D. is part of a tradition, one that comes with established conventions, and those conventions are dark. There aren’t always happy endings. People die. People go insane or get disfigured. Lighter, more whimsical elements are out of place there, just as a chainsaw wielding orc wouldn’t fit well into Alice in Wonderland.
The book uses colour as expected – shades of grey, with flashes of red blood and sickly green. The whole thing is very atmospheric, very gloomy and oppressive. At times, it’s a little trippy, and requires a second or two to work out what’s actually going on in a scene. However, the overall arcs are clear.
I’d recommend it to anyone who likes paranormal investigators, to anyone who wants to read a more modern take on a Van Helsing-type character. It’s well-constructed, and it’s fun, and it has a Nazi brain in a tank.