Abe Sapien, Volume 3 follows BPRD, Hell on Earth Vol 7: A Cold Day in Hell, but if you can’t be bothered to read that book (and I don’t blame you) all you need to know is 1) Abe’s woken up from his coma and has escaped BPRD HQ, 2) he’s mutated so he looks even less human than before, and 3) weird Lovecraftian monsters have woken up from beneath the ground and are wreaking havoc on the world.
The first of the two stories is Dark and Terrible which follows Abe’s exodus (remember that odd game?) into the new world and takes him to a church in a small town. He tries to figure out the meaning behind his physical transformation and sees the way things have changed peoples’ minds - is this a biblical event? Is he an angel or the next step in evolution?
The second story, The New Race of Man, has Abe visit the Salton Sea to find answers to his new mutation and whether he’s somehow tied into everything that’s happening. Some people have taken to worshipping the monster embryos, believing they’re here to save humanity from itself and turn the planet back into a paradise.
The problem with BPRD is that it’s this massive, Roland Emmerich-style disaster movie and it’s just as shallow. Big monsters tearing down cities with “characters” running around firing weapons - it’s dull as hell. Why Abe Sapien’s solo series works much better is that it zeroes in on the people amidst the monsters/chaos and looks at their stories.
The best parts of the book are when Abe’s interacting with ordinary people: the bums on the train carriage sharing horror stories as Abe sits in the shadows, listening quietly or the young backpacking couple and their misfit friend, the three of them trying to find their place in this strange new world. The worst parts of the book are when things become BPRD-esque, when giant monsters start laying waste to towns, etc. I take strong characters over mindless action any day of the week.
And Abe is one of the strongest characters in the Hellboy universe. Why BPRD doesn’t work as well is that it’s filled with dispensable nobodies; Abe’s series works because it’s about Abe Sapien, a brilliant and fully-formed character who changes, whose new appearance as an even less human looking creature only further emphasises how more human he can be compared to some of the human characters he encounters. He’s compassionate and understanding in the face of prejudice, fear and hatred, and that’s why readers love and admire this guy - the character has character.
So why only a lukewarm reaction to this book? Well, I think Mignola and co. have hit upon the best method for writing Abe but haven’t chosen to discard the stuff that doesn’t work: the parts where Abe’s laying low, figuring things out, finding clues and talking to people - that’s what I’d like the series to be. Unfortunately Mignola’s storytelling is still wired into the Hellboy method where he figures the reader won’t be entertained unless their hero is seen punching monsters, etc. so we have to endure tedious action scenes where we see Abe do just that. It doesn’t add to the book and Abe really isn’t like Hellboy so its a bit awkward and if these parts were removed entirely, Abe Sapien would be a really tremendous series.
But they’re getting there. There are some brilliant parts and some much less brilliant parts alongside one another, but the ground-level approach to the apocalypse in Abe Sapien Vol 3 is a much more interesting and effective way of telling that story than in other titles. And hey, if you’re an Abe fan, there’s plenty enough here for you to enjoy.