Abe Sapien: The Drowning
Written by Mike Mignola; Illustrated by Jason Shawn Alexander
Dark Horse; $17.95
One of the things I love most about Hellboy comics is their consistent ability to creep me out. I don’t know that I’ve ever been genuinely frightened by a comic, but there’ve been a handful of times when one has given me the chills and most of those were written by Mike Mignola. Abe Sapien: The Drowning joins them.
It’s the story of Abe’s first solo adventure, so it’s already got a lot going for it. Abe is one of the most interesting characters in Hellboy’s cast. His mysterious background, Civil War connection, aquatic powers, and genial nature all make him an attractive curiosity and a story focused entirely on him has been a long time coming.
In The Drowning, Hellboy is on a leave of absence from the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, so when the journal of a famous English occultist turns up claiming to reveal the location of an ancient, powerful dagger, the BPRD sends Abe and a team of back-up agents to retrieve it. It’s supposedly a routine mission, but Abe isn’t confident in his ability to handle it. He reluctantly accepts the assignment, assured by his colleagues and superiors that he’s ready.
Of course, the routine assignment quickly turns deadly and Abe’s aptitude as a field agent is tested. In outline form, it’s a standard journey-into-manhood story. Will Abe succeed in the BPRD’s version of a vision quest? But Mignola and Alexander elevate it past that in a couple of important ways.
First is the creep factor I was talking about before. Mignola’s ability to surprise and thrill me with a page-turn isn’t new, but I’m pleased that Alexander was more than up to the task of delivering on Mignola’s script. As with the comics that Mignola draws himself, The Drowning doesn’t rely on disgust to shock readers, it just knows what you’re expecting to see and then does something completely different. These jolts are perfectly fair in context of the story, but they juice it up enough to make every flip of the page an exciting endeavor.
Alexander has a very different style from Mignola’s, but he complements the material beautifully. He’s much looser with his inks than Mignola is, but his designs and layouts are so similar to Mignola’s that you can’t help wonder how much input Mignola had on character creation and thumb-nailing pages. The back-matter in the collection reveals that Mignola did do some initial character-sketches, but doesn’t say more than that. If Mignola didn’t do thumbnails, Alexander does a brilliant job of capturing the feel of a Mignola page.
The other thing Mignola (and Alexander, but mostly Mignola this time) does to lift the story above its core concept is to question whether or not Abe actually succeeds in his mission. If this is the mission that proves his readiness as a full agent, what are the parameters for determining achievement? I won’t tell you the answer to that; it’s fascinating enough that The Drowning chooses to play with that idea. I have a very clear answer in my head about whether or not Abe succeeds and I expect you will too. I’m just not sure we’ll all arrive at the same answer. It’s not that The Drowning is vague; it’s just that it’s complex enough to invite discussion about its outcome.
Five out of five giant squid (and giant eel, and sharks, and piranha, and a big ass manta ray, and oh yeah, a dragon) attacks
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