"Abe Sapien" #1 kicks off a new ongoing series featuring the popular supporting character from Mike Mignola's "Hellboy" and "B.P.R.D." comics. The first story arc, "Dark and Terrible," sees him going rogue from the B.P.R.D. and traveling an America ravaged by an all-out occult war between the military and various monstrosities and mutations. Abe's past has always been shrouded in mystery, and the implication is that Abe is tracking down some new lead or fragment of memory about his past. Unfortunately, the first issue gets less into Abe's head than that of any other character, in a fragmented book that jumps jarringly between seemingly unrelated plotlines.
Mignola and and Dark Horse editor Scott Allie provide the story for this issue, so it's fairly certain that there's a master plan in place, but it's hard to see where the plot is going at this point. The issue begins with a frustrated occultist failing to summon a demon, continues with an argument at B.P.R.D headquarters, jumps to the site of a recent military-versus-monsters battle, and then hops to some hobos riding the rails and discussing America's recent terrors.
On the one hand, it's an effective method of exposition. It shows plenty about the ongoing battles that the B.P.R.D. is calling the "Frog War," and seeing it from various viewpoints is an effective shorthand for covering a lot of ground in a country at war. There is also a clear theme of misinformation and confusion at work here, which gels as the hobos swap stories of what they've seen and argue about the nature and provenance of the monsters. On the other hand, all this also means confusion for the reader. What plotline should we be focused on here? What's the main story? How do all these pieces relate? Well, as one of the bums says, "Who really knows, am I right?"
Sebastian Fiumara's art is far more certain than the storyline. In a break from the traditional Hellboy style pioneered by Mignola, with its flat, simple figures and coloring, Fiumara works in a pen-heavy, detailed mode. There are still plenty of big black shadows, but Fiumara's inking also shows in the fine lines of careworn faces and the veiny pustules of an infected arm. Perennial Mignola colorist Dave Stewart stretches himself to keep up with this shift in style, but his familiar muted tones keep the look familiar.
Fiumara's people are somewhere between cartoony and realistic, which is occasionally jarring, but his monsters are top notch -- key for a book like this. The added level of realism makes them frightening where Mignola's monsters are usually just cool -- even in death, the creatures of "Abe Sapien" look heavy and solid, with a real sense of skin, bone, and muscle to them. When he finally appears near the end of the issue, Abe himself is a mask of Lovecraftian horror, and for a moment it becomes clear how the rest of the world must view him.
Getting into "Abe Sapien" requires a level of trust. Mignola and Allie are old hands at weaving this kind of story, and they clearly have an end in mind for the disparate threads that make up this first issue. At the same time, it's frustrating watching things happen without context. There's no single point of view to latch onto, and our hero is rare and alien in the debut of a book that bears his name. Luckily, Fiumara's art carries the day, especially his terrifying monster designs, so overall it'll be worth continuing on with "Abe Sapien" and the "Dark and Terrible" storyline.