Abe Sapien: The Drowning

Writer: Mike Mignola
Artist: Jason Shawn Alexander
Genre: occult adventure
Context: published in 2002 by Dark Horse; part of the Hellboy/BPRD line

I’ve had multiple friends who say they don’t read comics because they don’t know how. They don’t know whether to look at the pictures first or the words. They worry that they won’t know how to read the art or miss which parts are important.

I bring this up because Mignola starts The Drowning with a poem stretched across an opening fight scene. How much weight should the poem have in relation to the larger story? I think that, in my younger days, I would have read the poem as something akin to an opening voiceover monologue in a movie, reading carefully in order to extrapolate its relation to the book as a whole.

This time around, though, I treated it more like a soundtrack. The words, individually, just that important. What’s important about the poem in relation to the story are the broad images. Think of the music in Wes Anderson movies — how all that pop music, cultured and structured but with the earliest rumblings of cultural revolution reflects the purposeful dollhouse sets and repressed characters.

With “You Gentlemen of England” in The Drowning, it’s obviously about the tension between the dangers “out there” in context of the safety at home, but more than anything, it’s about the rhythm.

(Just now, looking up the full poem, I found out that it’s actually a song, so my “awesome” analysis of a poem as a song in a comic becomes less cool. But continuing…)

I’m not sure if Mignola lays out the pages before Alexander draws them, but there’s a rhythm to the pages that matches the books that Mignola draws himself, and the song matches that rhythm so well that you can almost here the record scratch as a line repeats itself three times, unfinished, before the final words fall at the end of the flashback. This effect is helped immensely by Clem Robins’s sound effects. Their clean, almost-hand-lettered style normally meshes quietly with Mignola’s art in Hellboy, but when juxtaposed with Alexander’s inky, murky art, it’s like a rock beat with an orchestra of strings. That’s a compliment.

An attempt to capture the rhythm of the book with my webcam. It would help if the captions were legible.

The art is great. Lots of ink brushed and dripped all over the place. It’s perfect for an aquatic character on an island adventure. The story works well. It’s Abe’s first mission without Hellboy, and things go pretty terrible for him. He learns lessons. You know how it goes.

The thing that I like most about the narrative is that there aren’t really any bad guys and no one really does anything right and the possible antagonists end up dealing with each other. While the story superficially breaks the rules I learned in high school about having the protagonist struggling and overcoming on his own, it ends up working for me.

Abe, despite being a fishman, is a pretty regular guy who ends up thinking a lot about things regular guys think: What do I want from my job? How will I handle failure? Is failure inevitable? What do I do about all the forces beyond my control? It’s blue collar existentialism by way of that fairy tale process where things happen according to an internal logic that remains forever just out of logical grasp.

Mignola’s ability to capture that dream-like sensibility, contrast it with the everyday bureaucracy and everyman sensibility, and craft it all into a cohesive whole is always pretty neat to me. The two attitudes interact, but the supernatural is never properly filed, numbered, and exposed. For every piece of information the bureau collects, more questions are raised (or more agents are lost). It’s a messy job.

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