Witchfinder vol. 1: Victorian-era Mignola fun
Mike Mignola's Hellboy universe is one of my very favorites in comics, sprinkling in just a taste of superhero tropes combined with a whole mass of world mythology, several dollops of Lovecraftian supernatural pulp, and finishing it off with clever writing and interesting characters (except for "Hellboy Jr." Fuck that bullshit). However, with some of the series ("BPRD" in particular) I'm so far behind that it's exhausting to even think of how I'm going to catch up. So it was fun to catch a series which only started up a while ago, expanding on characters seen in the main two series, although unlike "Abe Sapien" and "Lobster Johnson," this is supposed to be the launching off point for an entire new series.
The series revolves around a minor character from the backstory of the Hellboy-verse, Sir Edward Grey, a youngish man in 1879 London who gained fame for saving Queen Victoria from an occult attack by witches, a feat which gained him his knighthood and the nickname of "Witchfinder." As this first story, "In the Service of Angels," opens, Edward is called to a murder scene where the victim has been killed with very little blood having been spilled. This is the third such murder, and all three men had been a part of a mysterious expedition to the desert. Talking to another member of the expedition, Lord Wellington, Grey learned that there were three more deaths either in the desert or on the trip back home, and that the expedition had discovered a city which predated any known human civilization, as well as finding the bones of a mysterious creature that was humanoid but most certainly not human. The surviving members of the expedition attempted to dispose of the bones, but it did no good. As he speaks to Grey, Wellington suddenly is himself attacked by the monster, a demonic ape-like creature which sucks the life out of him. Grey is able to drive off the creature, which appears to be able to switch at will from physical to ethereal forms, but not before Wellington is killed.
The rest of the story has Edward, accompanied by a mysterious man named the Captain who claims to be 200 years old and a young medium named Mary Wolf, attempting to find and destroy the bones of the creature so that it may be banished. In their way stands both the creature, which gets stronger with each person it kills, as well as the occult organization the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra, which wants the bones and the creature for their own dangerous purposes.
I really liked this story, particularly the character of Edward Grey, who seems more reluctant than Helloby or the other BPRD members to fight occult forces. He is clearly uncomfortable with his responsibilities and even more uncomfortable with his cruel nickname of "Witchfinder." But still, he feels a sense of duty and responsibility to do what he does, and even when given an out he still perseveres. I also liked the character of the Captain, who combines mystery and a sense of being in slightly the wrong era (his clothes look at least a century out of date for the Victorian era, if I'm any judge) with a fun and entertaining personality, sort of if the Doctor was Batman's sidekick or something. I also liked the tone of the story, with Mignola's trademark ancient secret societies and secrets lost to the ages rearing up again.
Unfortunately, this can make it seem like you're only getting part of the story. This is not helped by the fact that Mignola has a tendency to reference (complete with footnotes) rather than explain things, some of which was briefly mentioned in "Hellboy" or "BPRD," some of which Mignola makes up on the spot as part of the backstory. This can get frustrating and seem a bit alienating to readers unfamiliar with Mignola's world or storytelling style.
Another gripe is how the story is mostly resolved, only for bad things to suddenly come out of nowhere to make the story have a sudden downer ending. I wouldn't have minded as much except that these plot developments come after the plot itself has been resolved, which seemed needlessly mean and petty. While I get that they allow "Witchfinder" to more easily become an ongoing series, I feel that they were unnecessary, as well as shortchanging a couple of characters that I really liked and wanted to see more of.
Ben Stenbeck's art is great, occasionally referencing Mignola's but distinct on its own and not as stylized as Mignola's could often be. The color palette is a tad drab and grey, but it's Victorian London, what are you going to do? It also helps the creature stand out more, as it generally is colored bright red when it's not in shadow.
As well as a short essay by Mignola on the genre of the Victorian occult detective (a genre Mignola was intentionally trying to pastiche here), there were two short stories included. One, which was supposed to be an introduction to Edward Grey and which was published online, shows us the incident where Edward stops the witches from cursing Queen Victoria , and isn't strictly necessary (we get the basic gist of what happened from references in "In The Service of Angels"), but is nice enough. The other, "The Burial of Katherine Baker," revolves around another minor Hellboy character nicknamed "Witchfinder," a 17th-century witch hunter named Henry Hood who was corrupted by his quest to hang the witches of England. This story, however, depicts his softer side, as he allows the family of a hanged witch to bury her with her family. However, when they get to the burial site, things are not as easy as all that. This story I quite liked, as it gave a new dimension to a minor character, as well as telling a nice short but satisfying story.
All in all, I liked this series, and I hope that there will indeed be a second volume. It does have some minor issues (like the downer ending that came out of nowhere), but I'd still recommend it. If you love Mike Mignola's work, or like a good occult story, definitely try to check it out.