Robot 6

Six Seven by 6 | Seven great moments from Guy Davis’ B.P.R.D. run

It’s the end of an era. B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth: Gods #3 hits stores today, the final issue of the long-running Hellboy spinoff’s latest miniseries — and with it, the tenure of Guy Davis as the series’ regular artist draws to a close. Davis will be returning for the occasional project in Mike Mignola’s unique horror-adventure universe, and everyone involved gives his replacement, near-overnight success story Tyler Crook, their vote of confidence; given Mignola and company’s track record in selecting artists, from Davis to Duncan Fegredo to Richard Corben, I’m inclined to take them at their word. Even so, as I wrote at length the other day, Davis’ work on B.P.R.D with Mignola, lead writer John Arcudi, and colorist Dave Stewart (not to mention letterer Clem Robins and editor Scott Allie) has been one of the past decade’s absolute high-water marks for superhero (or supernatural action, if you prefer) comics. From sadness to spectacle, horror to humor, stunning creature designs to quiet character moments, there was pretty much nothing the guy couldn’t do.

In honor of Davis, Arcudi, Mignola, and Stewart’s remarkable achievement, I’ve selected a suite of my favorite moments from the Guy Davis era of B.P.R.D.. And in honor of the Ogdru Jahad, the Seven-Who-Are-One dark gods whose rise the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is battling (perhaps in vain) to stop, I’ve expanded the list past our usual “Six by 6″ format to include seven stunning scenes. My hope is that they showcase the range, subtlety, sophistication, and power of one of the best artists working in genre comics — arguably in all of comics — today, and highlight just how well he and his collaborators worked together. Just be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD.

1. Sadu-Hem Reborn (B.P.R.D. Vol. 3: Plague of Frogs)

Demons, vampires, Nazi occult experiments run amok, Lovecraftian entities bent on destruction: Horror has always been the heart of the Hellboy universe. But while many comics display the trappings and markings of horror — after all, it’s as easy as drawing some rickety mansions and creepy creatures — it takes a real mastery of the form, of pacing and tone and knowing just what to show and how to show it to us, to make an image that genuinely unnerves, disturbs, frightens. That’s what Davis pulled off in his first full B.P.R.D. arc, with Mignola on scripting duties. When the mad priest the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development had been tracking finally rips the shroud off the hulking, shambling monstrosity he’s been shepherding, the resulting vision — the evil cosmic entity Sadu-Hem in quasi-human form, or an “elephant-man fungus” as Mignola’s direction to Davis put it — is as horrifying to us as it is to Agent Kate Corrigan as she watches through the window. It’s the eyes that do it, the beady eyes in that massive fleshy head, staring right at us, recognizing us, knowing that we’re there. I feel exposed when looking at this page.

2. The Caverns of Num-Yabisc (B.P.R.D. Vol. 3: Plague of Frogs)

So we know Davis can draw awful things; turns out he can draw awe-inspiring things as well. During an out-of-body experience, the “anthro-amphibian” Abe Sapien has a vision of an underwater temple where dwells a giant jellyfish-like entity — one whose gills and markings bear a striking resemblance to his own. We soon find out that it was an attempt to harness the powers of this being that transformed an antebellum occultist named Langdon Caul into the fish-man we know and love today. But this initial revelation really needed to impress, since Abe’s secret origin was so very different from what most readers likely expected. (I assumed he was from some underwater race, not a one-off mystical mutation.) With Dave Stewart’s luscious blue-greens riding shotgun, Davis created a vista of vast yet simple splendor, and a deity of strange, sinister alien beauty.

3. In the Boardroom of the Black Flame (B.P.R.D. Vol. 5: The Black Flame)

When writer John Arcudi joined the B.P.R.D. team to take on lead writing duties, with Mignola as co-plotter, overseer, and impresario, the black humor always present in Hellboy and its spinoffs started burning darker and hotter than ever. No other sequence illustrates just how weirdly, creepily funny the book could be than this one from The Black Flame, in which the titular villain — a corporate C.E.O. with what eventually proves to be a very unfortunate fixation on Nazi occult programs — calmly strolls into a board meeting in full flaming-skull regalia and sacks his entire slack-jawed staff. Mignola says in the collection’s afterword that the sequence was his idea, but only because he thought it was the kind of thing Arcudi might write himself, showing just how fluid a collaboration the team’s work really is. The idea itself is a beaut, but it’s Davis’s masterful character design for the Black Flame and expertly calibrated body language and facial expressions for the man beneath the mask and his underlings that sell the sequence on the page. Simply put, these are two of my favorite pages from any comic ever: Bizarre, hilarious, perfectly paced, and utterly unforgettable.

4. The Death of Roger the Homunculus (B.P.R.D. Vol. 5: The Black Flame)

In an explosion that seemed to hit me nearly as hard as it hit the doomed members of the Bureau, Roger the Homunclus — a seemingly throwaway character born of a medieval alchemical experiment, revived and rescued by Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. centuries later, and until these three pages a surprisingly charismatic man of action in the team’s adventures — died. With him died the sense that B.P.R.D. would stick with a status quo: A motley crew of scientists, soldiers, and supernatural beings shutting down hotspots of evil activity around the world. No, in this book, our friends and heroes can die, and even the fact that they’re made out of mystically animated inanimate matter can’t put them back together again. It would take several more issues before the team truly gave up on the idea that Roger could be revived, but it was clear to me that all hope had vanished the moment I saw Davis’s menacing rendition of the Black Flame, small and silent and glowing with malice, standing in the corner, waiting to snuff out a hero’s life.

5. Katha-Hem Triumphant (B.P.R.D. Vol. 5: The Black Flame)

Talk about overturning the status quo. In this spectacular spread, Davis and company did more than kill off a character we believed untouchable — they tore up everything we thought we knew about how the world of Hellboy would work. Until the colossal entity called Katha-Hem appeared, towering over the fields and cities of Nebraska, the incidents faced by Hellboy and the Bureau were mostly localized in nature, to the extent that the team’s existence and activities could be kept, if not quite secret, than at least somewhat subdued in terms of public profile. But when the Black Flame and his plague of frogs summoned Katha-Hem, the world as we knew it changed. There’s no denying the existence, presence, and menace of the supernatural once it’s left a Godzilla-style trail of destruction through the American Midwest, killing untold thousands of people and thwarting the mightiest military the world has ever known. No longer was the B.P.R.D.’s mission a matter of small towns overrun by frog monsters or haunted by ghosts, or of abandoned castles occupied by vampire monarchs or relict Nazi scientists. Now it was a matter of stopping the destruction of life on Earth, on a scale no one could possibly miss. Davis’s gargantuan whale/slug/insect creature, bearing down on a town it dwarfed it size, brought this home in a way words could never do; leading up to it by showing us a chastened Black Flame, sitting with his arms on his knees like an exhausted commuter and barely able to articulate the magnitude of his transgression (“I…I think I made a mistake.”), simply proved that for Arcudi and Davis, character beats and world-changing two-page spreads were inextricably linked.

6. Abe Betrayed (B.P.R.D. Vol. 7: Garden of Souls)

Meet the men who drank champagne while their friend became a freak. “Are you the same men making rather merry as I changed from man to fish-creature?” Abe Sapien’s later words to his former colleagues in the Oannes Society — a Victorian cult dedicated to harnessing mystical oceanic energies in order to preserve humankind (well, some of it) in the face of the coming apocalypse, to which Sapien, in his former incarnation as the fully human Langdon Caul, once belonged — were quietly vicious, or as vicious as he dared to get when chatting with nearly 200-year-old cyborgs and übermenschen. But their response to him is even more vicious, in its way: They tell him that back before he transformed, he’d been 100% down with their “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” approach. Abe’s discovery of the story behind his creation in Garden of Souls was as shocking to him as it was to us. We’d known since his communion with the jellyfish god how he’d become an Icthys sapien, but neither he nor we had imagined that he’d originally set out on the journey that led him to his watery preservation tank for reasons as coldly, murderously utilitarian as those of the Oannes Society. The beauty of the sequence above lies in how Davis’s cross-cutting, figurework, and facial expressions reveal just how callous the Society could be — and how Abe’s glass-smashing rage at their betrayal of the man he once was comes with the knowledge that that man would have been just as cruel had their positions been reversed.

7. Daimio and Daryl (B.P.R.D Vol. 8: Killing Ground)

Here’s another desert-island page for me. Killing Ground was still another overturn-the-apple-cart arc for B.P.R.D., in which their field commander Ben Daimio’s terrible secret — that within him lurked a bloodthirsty god of the jungle, held back only by great effort — was revealed at terrible cost. It was also another case where seeds planted long ago — in this case Daryl, a hapless family man who’d been possessed by the rampaging spirit of the Northern wilderness called the Wendigo — blossomed and bore horrible fruit. As these two creatures ran amok in the B.P.R.D.’s mountain headquarters in a story as tense, claustrophobic, and sometimes explosively violent as Alien or The Thing, we wondered how the shattering of the Bureau by Daimio’s transformation would ever be resolved. In the end … it wasn’t. Escaping from the base and wandering into the snowy wastes, a devastated Daimio, the blood of countless friends and colleagues on his hands, sits and waits for what he knows must be coming. Then it’s there, an implacable spirit of vengeance, featuring one of Guy Davis’s strangest and scariest and most unique designs. And that’s how the team leaves us at the end of the arc: With a moonlit image of a guilty man, naked and alone, silently standing before a thing that should not be. There’s so more mystery and melancholy in this one eerily beautiful image by Davis than in many entire runs. As such, it’s a fitting symbol for a truly wonderful body of work.

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Comments

19 Comments

Billy McEnery

March 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Davis really did draw the creepiest creatures. To me is just as synonymous to the Hellboy Universe as Mignola. One of a kind.

Good on you for the “Abe Betrayed” sequence. I was blown away when I realized why that sequence is so effective–Davis moves the viewer’s p.o.v. below the eyeline for one panel (out of the whole comic) to accentuate the anger and violence when Abe punches the mirror. That comic confirmed for me that Davis is one of the best panel-to-panel, page-to-page storytellers in comics today.

A wonderful piece, Sean.

“The Black Flame” may be one of the best comic series I’ve ever read — it’s both funny and scary (often in the same panel). The final shot of Roger was a real kick to the stomach.

Almost forgot — that BPRD group photo would make a great desktop — is there a higher res version?

As much as I love Guy’s work on B.P.R.D., his work on SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE is still some of my favorite art in a comic series I’ve ever seen. So moody and tonally perfect with Wagner & Seagle’s words. One of my favorite artists of all time.

Nice choices. Only the underwater-vessel is missing. That was one stunning sight. Great article. Man, I’m going to miss him on BPRD …

I’d also like to see a a higher res version.

Never been a fan.

I had only read a couple of Hellboy comics when Guy Davis first started drawing BPRD. When I picked up the first issue of Plague of Frogs, I was really only getting it for Guy’s art. As I’m sure everyone can imagine, I’ve been hooked on everything Hellboy and BPRD ever since.

For anyone who hasn’t read this stuff already, you’re really missing out. It seems downright tragic that anyone would spend money on Marvel or DC’s overinflated crossover events where the same things happen over and over again and death and resurrections are as common as going to the grocery store when something as good as BPRD exists.

In BPRD, actions have consequences, characters grow and change, and death is painfully permanent. If you’re tired of reading superhero books where the only creative goal is to get you to buy the next huge crossover, BPRD will make you very happy. And the art in Mignola’s stuff is always top notch.

Thanks for the years of BPRD, Mr. Davis. You’ll be missed on the book but I look forward to more Marquis. They say that great art raises the spirit, and that is exactly what you’ve done with this book and all the others you’ve worked on over the years.

Nathan Fairbairn

March 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Trey, sorry to hear about the brain damage. That sucks. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a fan of comics who can’t recognize and appreciate great comics art. Like being a tone-deaf opera buff or something.

Such a sad, sad story.

Davis is such a unique force in comics. It is hard to say Davis draws like or is influenced by such and such an artist, or conversely,that this or that artist looks an awful lot like Guy Davis. The artistic vision Davis brought to B.P.R.D, was utterly his own. Page after page of singular and brilliant stuff. Not a panel a knock-off, not a page of same old, same old. How often can we claim that with an artist in the world of comic books today? Thank you Guy Davis!

lol Nathan

Thanks, Nick.

I can’t tell you how much I will miss Guy Davis on B.P.R.D. In my mind he is that book. Will I continue to buy it? Yes. Will it be anywhere near as good? No. You can’t replace a super-star artist that easily.

On the other hand, I met Guy Davis at C2E2 last year. The man was phenomenally nice, did a drawing in my sketchbook and answered a load of questions about B.P.R.D. and my fav’s Sandman Mystery Theater and The Marquis. I can’t wait for more Marquis!

Sir Manley Johnson

March 13, 2011 at 11:51 am

I will truly miss Guy Davis on B.P.R.D. In my mind he has created that world as much as the writers. His style is unique so it is difficult to imagine a replacement. Even my wife a non-comic reader, grew to love his art although she didn’t ‘get it’ at first. I guess I’m just grateful that he stayed with the book as long as he did. Time to go back and reread some of the best comics ever made.

One of the only books I buy as a monthly is the BPRD stuff because of his work. Just can’t wait for the trades to see what he’s doing, and he’ll definitely be missed on this book.

Tom Fitzpatrick

March 14, 2011 at 8:18 am

I remember enjoying Guy Davis’ art when he became the regular artist on Sandman Mystery Theatre (DC/Vertigo) back in the ’90′s.

It’s sad to see him leaving BPRD, but an artist must grow exponently creatively. Good luck, Mr. Davis, wherever you end up.

It took me a while to “get” Guy Davis’ work (as some others have said here) but in the last few months of obsessively hounding my local library for BPRD trade paperbacks he has become one of my favourite comic artists ever.

I blogged only recently about Abe’s out-of-body-experience sequence myself as one of the most moving and magical moments in comics.

Good luck Mr Davis with your future projects and thank you for your wonderful work on BPRD! I only hope I am able to find The Marquis somewhere in a bookstore here in Australia.

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