• Feature: Witchfinder: City of the Dead #2 Reviews 

    Mignolaversity: “Witchfinder: City of the Dead” #2

    By and | September 28th, 2016
    Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments

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    The creative team continue to impress in the latest issue, plunging into the deep end of the Hellboy Universe’s mythology…

    Cover by Julián Totino Tedesco
    Written by Mike Mignola and Chris Roberson
    Illustrated by Ben Stenbeck
    Colored by Michelle Madsen
    Lettered by Clem Robins

    After narrowly surviving an attack by risen corpses in a London cemetery, Sir Edward Grey follows his only lead to a dead end, but the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra may be able to reveal what is behind the undead.

    Mike Romeo: Oh man, I think I like this issue better than the last. It hit so many sweet spots for me: English sass, ties to the greater mythology and, of course, spectacular art. Stenbeck and Madsen are doing some really stellar work on these pages, the sort of collaboration where you can’t see where one begins and the other picks up. It’s big shoes to fill when you’re helping someone like Dave Stewart carry the load of these books, and Madsen seems to have easily stepped into the role.

    I’m sure there’s a lot you want to get to in this one, so where do you want to start?

    Mark Tweedale: With Stenbeck. As you say, the work he’s doing with Madsen is stellar—I particularly like the fire he draws in Sir Edward’s eyes—but there’s more to his work than just what’s in the pages of this story. Stenbeck’s worked on “Witchfinder” before; he’s worked with the Victorian London streets and the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra. He went on to develop the latter significantly in “Frankenstein Underground.” My point is, this is a story that delves deep into the mythology of Mignola’s Hellboy Universe, and Stenbeck’s waded into those depths in the past, so just by being on the book he brings that sense of occasion.

    There’s a lot of different artists on Mignola’s books, and that’s great, but I’ve got to admit, I miss the continuity a single artist brings to a series. In my mind, Stenbeck’s the Heliopic Brotherhood guy. You put him on a story like this, and you can tell he knows this stuff. His work is confident in the way a new artist on the series couldn’t be. He’s developed his visual language for the Heliopic Brotherhood, and he’s already figured out what works and what doesn’t.

    Mike: I’m glad you pulled that panel of Grey. There were a couple of moments like that through the issue, and it’s something that really adds to the character. I know we touched on this last time, but I’m really impressed by how both Stenbeck and Roberson are able to accentuate the character, deepening him without ever straying from what’s come before. He’s always been prickly, but I feel like these last two issues have done a great job of conveying what it must actually be like to have to interact with the guy. Of course this comes from what Roberson is doing in dialogue, but I think it’s Stenbeck who really drives it home.

    It’s an interesting point you made about artists indicating the type of story readers are in for. Do you have a couple of examples beyond Stenbeck? Were you speaking broadly, like Davis on “B.P.R.D.” and Fegredo on “Hellboy,” or was there something more nuanced than that?

    Mark: A little of both. I really love that we got a big chunk of Guy Davis drawing “B.P.R.D.” and Duncan Fegredo drawing “Hellboy.” After Davis left, “B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth” was divided between several artists, most notably Tyler Crook, James Harren, and Laurence Campbell—three artists that are very different from each other, not just in terms of art style, but in terms of their approach to story. Even the types of panels they use are very different. In a Crook comic, you’re going to get closer to the characters’ faces at peak points of emotion, whereas in a Campbell comic he’ll get further away, even going so far as to shift the characters into silhouettes. And Campbell’s action is often very still, punctuated by a sudden sharp change in movement, whereas Harren does frenetic action, pushing perspective uncomfortably at times, while Crook does a lot of reaction panels in his action. Hell, even look at the Fiumara brothers on “Abe Sapien.” Almost without fail, if there was a high-intensity emotional scene with Grace, Max was always the artist. Sebastián had almost all the big ‘hordes of attacking monsters’ scenes.

    Continued below

    The thing is, you can’t pigeonhole these artists either. Look at what Stenbeck’s doing on this story with his tone work; he’s never done anything like that before, and it’s opened up a whole new range of scene atmosphere for him to explore, especially in scenes with very little light—they’re satisfyingly murky.

    But, yeah, for a story that’s drawing on familiarity of various plot elements, it really helps to have an artist that has drawn most of these things before. It gives things an immediate air of authenticity. And in one case in which Stenbeck wasn’t drawing something he’d drawn before, he carefully mimicked Mignola for the panel to effectively sell the moment.

    Mike: OK, speaking of plot elements, let’s get down to spoilers!

    So, we’ve got a shaman popping up and a familiar brotherhood kidnapping Grey, so I know you want to get into some stuff, right?

    Mark: Our advance review for “City of the Dead” #1 had to be spoiler free, so there was a lot I wanted to talk about that I couldn’t. This story is a major part of Sir Edward’s life. It’s 1982, after all, and that date is important.

    In “Hellboy: Wake the Devil,” readers got to meet Sir Edward for the first time, as a black and white photograph in the background of a panel.

    Later, at the end of that same story, readers saw Sir Edward again, though they wouldn’t know that it was him until years later.

    If you remember, “Wake the Devil” was about a vampire, Vladimir Giurescu, and his ‘mother,’ Hecate, the Black Goddess. Hecate has her own history with Sir Edward, which has remained largely a mystery to readers (see Mignola’s epilogue for “Hellboy: Darkness Calls” to see what I mean).

    So when issue #1 opened with a caption stating that it was “August 1882” I was pretty damn excited. And I was even more excited a few pages later when a temple-like cavern with snake carvings was found beneath London; Hecate has had secret underground temples in cities throughout history, so there was no mistaking what this was.

    “City of the Dead” is the origin story of one of Sir Edward’s most defining relationships, and could even be his first step from being witchfinder to using witchcraft himself.

    This issue certainly these references to “Wake the Devil” clearer. Sir Edward gets to talk to Giurescu (though he calls himself “Friedhof”), and later the same portrait of Guirescu that was shown to Hellboy is shown to Sir Edward. And throughout the story we’ve been privy to Sir Edward’s journal entries. I expect the ones he writes for the 8th and the 19th will be somewhat familiar…

    It’s amazing the way this story was seeded in 1996’s “Wake the Devil” and twenty years later it’s coming to fruition.

    Mike: Yeah it is. I’ll admit that I hadn’t made any of the “Wake the Devil” connections, but your recounting of events has certainly pushed this from simply being a character redefining story into something so much more. Plus, it explains why Stenbeck went into Mignola mode for that portrait. This is the type of “Witchfinder” story a lot of people have been waiting for, I think.

    For me, a lot of the character’s appeal has always been in the fact that his greatest adventures have always been off in the distance. Obviously, he’s a historical figure in this world, so everything is on the record, but we haven’t seen it yet. We haven’t seen first hand the end of his service to the queen, or the events leading to his departure for the US, so to be moving in that direction is intriguing. I know that we’re still decades away from that stuff (in terms of Grey’s life,) but it’s still exciting to look ahead.

    Can you talk a little about the shaman? I know there’s a significance to his appearance, but can you connect the dots for me?

    Mark: Ah, Mohlomi! He was the element that surprised me. I knew sooner or later Sir Edward would meet up with him, but with so much in this story already, I wasn’t expecting to see him. I don’t know how I feel about him being in there. Maybe he’s a character that will gradually be revealed to Sir Edward over several arcs, like the way Memnan Saa was with Liz, except not evil.

    Continued below

    Mohlomi made his first appearance in “Hellboy: The Third Wish” as a guide for Hellboy. (He gave him a bell for protection, and I still think of it as the most fascinating artifact in Mignola’s books.) He appeared again in “The Island,” which ended with he and Sir Edward having a chat about the future. They seemed to be old friends.

    So, yeah, I did a double take when he popped up in issue #1. This story seems so full I’m almost worried it’s overstuffed. But that’s just me overthinking things. So far I’ve found the story to be very well balanced.

    Now you mentioned earlier that this issue hit many sweet spots for you. Would you care to elaborate on what they might be?

    Mike: Well, for one I’m loving the way Roberson dialogues Grey when he’s in conflict. It started with his contentious attitude at the hospital last issue, and really bloomed during the fight scene in this one. Grey seems to be sitting in this constant state of agitation that may be trying for those around him, but I find to be great reading. I get the sense that at this point in his life he’s already seen a lot, but it’s making him brash. Almost like his experience has left him with no patience for those who aren’t in the know with him. It seems that later in life and into his death, Grey becomes a wizened figure, right? So it seems to me that Roberson is setting us up to see that journey, especially when you consider the significance of this particular case.

    Another sweet spot for me is simply how populated this story feels. Weird art, old books, trinkets, guys in armored suits with face hoses, this issue just gave me the feeling like we’re only following one of many concurrent, equally fascinating stories that are unfolding. When Grey is taken by the Brotherhood, everyone in the background is doing something, which read like his arrival wasn’t the only item on the agenda today. I dunno, it was a nice departure from the old-guys-at-a-round-table I’d have expected.

    But after hearing your thoughts, I feel like my surface-level take aways actually have some depth now!

    So what do you say? Time to grade? Do you have anything else you want to get to?

    Mark: No, nothing more to add except my agreement. Roberson and Stenbeck have made this a fully realized world. And yeah, Roberson has tuned into Grey’s voice perfectly. This is a dialogue heavy story, but I didn’t find that a detraction in slightest. In fact, it’s a big part of its charm.

    But there’s a lot of stuff in here and it’s a lot to juggle. This issue feels busy while maintaining a steady simmer. Nothing really has come to boil yet. I’m giving it a 7.5.

    Mike: A solid issue for sure, but I can’t help but also wonder if things are starting to become, to use your word, overstuffed. This is a dense story so far, and my hope is that we can have just a little breathing room in the future. I’ll say this is a 7.5 for me.

    Final verdict: 7.5. Roberson and Stenbeck revel in the unique character of Sir Edward’s world.


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    Mark Tweedale

    Mark writes Haunted Trails, The Harrow County Observer, The Damned Speakeasy, and a bunch of stuff for Mignolaversity. An animator and an eternal Tintin fan, he spends his free time reading comics, listening to film scores, watching far too many video essays, and consuming the finest dark chocolates. You can find him on Twitter @MarkTweedale.

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    Mike Romeo

    Mike Romeo started reading comics when splash pages were king and the proper proportions of a human being meant nothing. Part of him will always feel that way. Now he is one of the voices on Robots From Tomorrow. He lives in Philadelphia with two cats. Follow him on Instagram at @YeahMikeRomeo!

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