Thursday, February 10, 2011

B.P.R.D. Volume 5: The Black Flame (July 2006)

The last B.P.R.D. volume saw some big changes within the group and nothing slows down in this one. In spite of the Bureau’s plan to get ahead of the frogs by taking up a new, western stronghold, the frog invasion continues and continues to ramp up on a greater and greater scale, aided by a new ally.

Roger enters a new phase in this book. Daimio has really imprinted on him. Almost overnight he becomes a cigar chewing hardcase and a leader of men. We’re introduced to the new Roger right away, when he and Daimio lead a Liz and a group of Bureau security operatives (I don’t think I’ve ever seen an official term for their foot soldiers) into a sewer to take out a nest. They discover some frogs who have become little more than giant, swollen egg sacs, filled with tadpoles. This is interesting. Up to this point the only time we’ve seen new frogs is when someone has been transformed. Now we see that the frogs themselves reproduce and, given the size of the egg sacs, it is possible that few of the frog men the Bureau are fighting were ever anything but frogs. A few of the tadpoles survive. They fall through a grate, where they are scooped up by a man in a hazmat suit and put into a medical samples case. The case is labelled ‘Zinco.’

Roderick Zinco may be gone, but his company is back in the game. Once again it is playing Hydra to the Bureau’s S.H.I.E.L.D. (though the Bureau itself seems blissfully unaware of its supplier’s hidden agenda). Zinco is now headed by a man named Pope, who is burning through company resources in an effort to become the leader of the frog men. To that end he has gone to considerable lengths to study them. Capturing and observing live specimens. Working to understand and communicate with them. Reading these pages I was struck by an obvious question: why isn’t the Bureau doing this? Perhaps its an organizational culture inherited from Bruttenholm, one of dusty libraries and séances. Or maybe they have so many humanized ‘monsters’ working with them that they feel that fighting and killing is one thing, but treating them like lab rats is just too inhumane. Interestingly, the head of Zinco’s research is named Marsten. I don’t know why they’d name a character after Wonder Woman’s creator. It could be a coincidence, or there could be a backstory we haven’t heard yet.

Another backstory we haven’t heard is the Black Flame’s. In the previous trade, Johann is seen flipping through a photo album of World War Two era occult villains. One is labelled ‘The Black Flame.’ Maybe Pope has some connection. Maybe the frogs do. Whatever the case is, Pope re-creates this persona in his plan to take over the leadership of the frogs. In the meantime, he isn’t ignoring the Bureau. One of his first acts as the Black Flame is to lead the frogs in a battle against Roger and a group of security men. Its a trap with no survivors. Even Roger is left looking like a piece of broken statuary.

If Roger’s storyline is ending, Liz is beginning a new one. It begins in Montana, where an old woman hands her a lotus blossum. She passes out. Swoons, really. And for the first time enters a waking dream state where she meets a, as yet unidentified, man dressed as a Chinese Mandarin. At least as imagined by Sax Rohmer. These visions become increasingly important. In this trade alone she learns several important things during them. After one she wakes in a coughing fit and brings up a scroll one which is written the name of a huge beast ravaging the American west. So huge is dwarfs traditional giant monsters like Godzilla or King Kong. Katha-Hem. The scroll isn’t in English and the name is recognized by Professor O’Donnell. O’Donnell seems to know a lot more than he’s ever given the opportunity to tell us. He needs to be sedated and questioned thoroughly. The doctor’s response to the coughed up scroll? “That’s unusual.” That’s unusual?! Another vision shows Liz the tool needed to destroy Katha-Hem. Its something Roger picked up in a previous story, but was never remarked on. Roger was always picking things up. A little Palaeolithic tool that Liz sees used in a vision. Using it she unleashes a force that saves the day, and destroys the dreams of the Black Flame.

Whatever Pope thought would happen once he became the Black Flame, he soon understands that he is only a pawn. He thought the power of Katha-Hem would be his to wield, but really his flame was meant to be a beacon for Katha-Hem. He thought he was using the frogs, but the frogs were using him. Once this revelation hits him, he is reduced to a pathetic child and carried off by the frogs.

Despite their great victory, things at the Bureau aren’t any happier. A lot of people blame themselves for Roger’s death. Abe thinks the funk he’s been in since learning of his wife put Roger out in the field more often than he was ready for. Daimio thinks his example was the problem. Johann is incensed at what he sees as the lack of respect given Roger’s remains by the lab boys. Johann refuses to see his friend as dead. Unfortunately, that says more of his ectoplasmic state than it does Roger’s.

The Black Flame is an interesting book, and so much happens so quickly you have to wonder if Mignola and Arcudi are trying to see just how far they push things with each issue. Will the pace continue? How far can they push it? The Bureau isn’t a secretive organization, as it is in the movies, but it had operated in the shadows until now. It was the thing that bumped back at the things that bumped in the night. With the scope taken in this volume, that’s not really going to be possible any more and I think there’s going to be a steep learning curve ahead. As this book closes, however, I think everyone is just trying to catch their breath.

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