August 5, 2011

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Witchfinder Vol 1 In the Service of Angels

Written by Mike Mignola
Illustrated by Ben Stenbeck
Dark Horse

Sir Edward Grey, newly minted as a special investigator for Her Majesty, inherits a case that's as gory as it is mysterious. An archaeological expedition goes after that which man may not have been meant to know, and the next thing you know, every member of the exploring body is dead. But the death doesn't stop there, and if Grey and his unlikely (and a bit distasteful) allies don't put a stop to the madness unleashed by the explorers, all London will pay the price!

I don't know how Mike Mignola keeps coming up with so many great horror stories, but I truly hope he never stops writing within the Hellboy universe to take a gig doing something else. His vision stretches across so many concepts and eras now, but manages to keep them together in a way that makes sense both for a long-time reader and also for someone new. While I can appreciate that Grey fights against the same kinds of supernatural oddities and evils that Hellboy and the BPRD will later do (to say nothing of Lobster Johnson), anyone can pick up Witchfinder and appreciate that this is a guy who battles the occult for the soul of London (and perhaps the wider world).

The story itself is vintage Mignola. We start with a dynamic character who in this case reminds me quite a bit of Solomon Kane, with his religious bent and puritanical mind. (Grey is seriously offended by having to deal with those who cater to the lowest common denominator of London for example, and he often uses religious themes in his attempts to take down the foes he faces here.) Grey is not at all comfortable in this world, and that's what makes him interesting, because despite this distrust and disgust and fear, Grey won't rest until he's vanquished the foe--or dies in the process. I love the fact that he's reminded of what it means to be a warrior of God, with lots of nifty and ominous hints of what might be to come for Grey.

But those are stories for another day, as Grey races against the clock to stop our undead, vampire-like demon from taking over. He can't think of his own safety or future, because there is too much at stake in the here and now--a theme in Mignola's comics, I've noticed. We're almost never given a chance to catch our breath, because as soon as there's a momentary lull, we're right back into the thick of the action. Each piece of exposition is mollified by having a battle or a threat of some kind, which keeps them from feeling like infodumping. We learn everything piece by piece, just like Grey does. Mignola does an excellent job of taking advantage of his main character's investigative nature to provide both the Witchfinder and his audience with clues as we go along.

That's part of the charm of this series. Mignola is writing a horror story, true, but he's doing it via a detective story. Grey has to explore London, going from the houses of the explorers to a house of ill repute to back alleys and fallen churches in order to get his "man." In some ways, Grey is more like Sherlock Holmes than many of the modern takes on Doyle's character. He is a man of action, certainly, but Grey must also do some serious investigation in order to solve the case. There are certainly suspense elements in Mignola's other books, but this one has more the feel of an actual mystery.

There are so many great little touches in this book that it would be impossible to cover all of them. I like the progression of the creature from basically an evil imp to a powerful demon, for instance, which is done so subtly it's easy to miss at first. Then there's the fact that the ordinary police don't care much for Grey, giving a strong level of tension that I expect will be exploited more as time goes on. Best of all, however, is that Grey's victory may seem complete on the surface, but in the end, he must make certain compromises, not to mention accept losses that certainly gall him down to his soul. Beware getting cast into a Mignola comic, because it's an easy way to lose just as much as you gain from it. I wouldn't have it any other way.

As with Baltimore that I read a few months ago, Mignola is partnered here with Ben Stenbeck, who captures the feel of the Hellboy Universe quite well but again has an annoying knack for failing to fully illustrate his characters's expressions. Perhaps it's because I read so much manga, where eyes and mouths do so much to drive the comic, but I really wish Stenbeck would take more time to give us more feeling on his faces. Other than that issue, Stenbeck knocks it out of the park here, once again doing a great job putting together a period piece for Mignola's characters to inhabit. I also love the way he changes the makeup of the monster as we go along. He's definitely a good person to use for these stories, and I'm sure he'll be hard at work again with Mignola sometime soon.

This first Witchfinder trade is a great way to continue (or even start) your adventure into the world of Mike Mignola's Hellboy universe. It's essentially free of continuity but strong on story. Anyone who likes gothic horror really needs to jump on this one right away. I can't imagine anyone who likes everything from Poe to Hawthorne to Stoker not loving this comic.

NOTE! If you are digitally inclined, from August 5th to 7th, Dark Horse Digital will have this series on sale for 99 cents an issue. That's a great deal! You can try out this series for only $5!