Guttergeek Review: WITCHFINDER

Posted by on May 23rd, 2010 at 7:04 PM

Mike Mignola and Ben Stenbeck, Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels (Dark Horse, 2010). Trade Paperback, $17.99.

Uncovering the secret history of the world is a daunting, meticulous business. Just ask Warren Ellis and John Cassady, who took ten years to produce only 27 issues of Planetary. With the help of his more prolific colleagues at Dark Horse Comics, Mike Mignola has been building his Hellboy mythology for nearly two decades now. So it’s no surprise that he’s recently taken to branching out, looking back, and filling in the gaps. The core of Mignola’s Hellboy world (Hellboy and B.P.R.D.) is set in the modern day, but several recent series have looked back to significant moments and characters from the past to help readers better understand how the elaborate story of the present fits together. The recent Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels works well on its own as a Victorian occult detective story, but it also provides an interesting new layer in the expanding Hellboy chronology.

The groundwork for this sort of retrospective story began with 2008’s Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus (a pulp story set in the 1930s) and continued through B.P.R.D.: 1946 and the recent B.P.R.D.: 1947. Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels is the first Hellboy story that goes back as far as the Victorian Age for its principal setting. And this story is very Victorian. Mignola admits in the Afterword of the collected volume that he hates drawing the late 1800s, so he enlisted the pencils of Ben Stenbeck to visually narrate his script. Stenbeck’s art works well here—both in capturing the Victorian aesthetic and in translating Mignola’s narrative style. As with any book written but not drawn by Mignola, Witchfinder does feel a bit apart from the Hellboy world. But it’s not by much, and the differences actually work in a story over a century removed from the modern age.

Witchfinder is, to some degree, a fine occult/horror detective story in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it’s also a representative example of what fans love about Hellboy stories: blunt, brute trauma, dark shadows, and monsters eating people. We have a lot of that here too, and it looks spectacular.

A large part of the visual strength of Witchfinder is attributable to Dave Stewart, the guy who provides most of the coloring work on Mignola’s books. The dark mood and atmosphere are especially effective in Victorian London, which (as everyone knows) was perpetually gloomy and ripe for murder. Mignola and Stenbeck also use quirky visual transitions to establish this foreboding mood:

Mignola is good at establishing characterization through strange, unique character quirks, and those are here as well. Every time Edward Grey (the grizzled Witchfinder of the title) starts hacking at some monster, he chants and shouts scriptural incantations that supposedly reinforce his aggression with Biblical power:

It never seems to work, but he does it anyway and it’s wildly hilarious. Witchfinder is not especially profound, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s an entertaining, clever, and well-executed period piece. The way Mignola integrates footnotes that tread the line between fiction and reality (in a Tim O’Brien sort of way) pulls readers deeper into the mystery, and the bonus stories provided in the trade paperback volume further flesh out Edward Grey’s background. Witchfinder is also rewarding for longtime Hellboy readers because it raises questions about exactly what role this character (who appeared previously in brief cameos) will play in the Hellboy mythos. Witchfinder works well as a prequel to Mignola’s paranormal universe books because, in some ways, Sir Edward Grey is a direct ancestor of the B.P.R.D. (the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense). He’s probably not the first paranormal detective, but he’s the first we’ve seen to this extent. If this is a further deepening of the secret history of the universe, it’s further proof that the last two decades have been worth the weird, mysterious journey.

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