Feature: Witchfinder: City of the Dead #4 Reviews 

Mignolaversity: “Witchfinder: City of the Dead” #4

By and | November 30th, 2016
Posted in Reviews | 5 Comments

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This latest issue explores Sir Edward’s limitations at a time when his failure would mean the fall of London itself.

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

When an old enemy emerges as the ringleader of the risen dead, Sir Edward Grey appeals to a higher power of his own to fight back.

Mark Tweedale: You know, I’m just gonna stick a big spoiler warning right here. We’re two issues from the end and everything we need to talk about at this stage is pretty plot focused.

I must admit, I thought an issue like this was coming up. In “Hellboy: Wake the Devil” where the events of Sir Edward’s encounter with Vladimir Giurescu were first introduced, Sir Edward writes to Queen Victoria on the 8th of August, warning her of the threat they face. The matter is dealt with by August 19. So I figured at some point we’re going to have to rush through over a week hunting for Giurescu and that’s exactly what this issue is.

Fortunately, this isn’t jarring at all. Chris Roberson knew this hurdle was coming, so he set up earlier issues to be prepared for it. I think the whole mechanic of Sir Edward writing in his journal and writing letters was created just so that this moment could play smoothly. And I liked that the montage wasn’t just passing time. It’s eroding Sir Edward’s credibility, from the point that he could snap his fingers and have the entire London police service jump to his aide to the point that he has to go alone down into the sewers to face Giurescu and his vampire horde.

Mike Romeo: I agree, the journals are a really great tool. We get to see Grey come to term with the fact that he is indeed chasing a vampire without him having to actually speak the words. This sort of narrative trick is interesting in that way, right? If Grey were to say any of what he’s writing, verbatim, to another person in the story, it’d sound clunky and ham-fisted. But because it’s a journal, because he’s working it out for himself, it all feels much more natural.

I may be misremembering, but is the journaling in this issue the first time we see him actually use the term ‘vampire’?

Mark: Yeah, it is. That’s another detail referenced in “Wake the Devil” was that it took him a while to use that term himself.

Mike: Cool, I hoped I was right on that! And you brought it right where I wanted to go, Grey almost seemed to need to write it out to himself before he could send it to the Queen, which is a letter that the B.P.R.D. has on file. Now, circling back to the waning credibility you touched on, I’m not so sure that this is a letter she’ll receive well.

Mark: Yeah, I don’t know how this is going to play out. I mean, we know that he’s going to continue working for the Queen for another seven years yet, but we don’t know if that relationship was always the best. Is this going to be a case where at that end everyone pats Grey on the back and says, ‘Jolly good show, old man!’ or will it be one that leaves Grey’s reputation in shreds for a while.

I’m inclined to think the latter if only because his ego has been steadily ballooning with each miniseries, and at some point that’s going to change because that’s not the man we meet in “Hellboy in Hell”.

Mike: I’ve thought about that. I mean, it’s possible that dying could provide a bit of humbling, but there’s most likely a path he follows to that point. I guess I always sort of imagined that he’d become some well-composed, zen-like master of the dark arts, and that he’d have left the Queen’s service on his own accord. But now? Now I feel like he’ll be drummed out in an almost shameful termination of duty, seeming like a madman to everyone who knows the name Edward Grey.

Continued below

Mark: You can already see that happening with the way the penny dreadfuls have turned him into a fanciful character.

From “Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever”

And, yeah, I don’t know if Sir Edward is going to leave on the most amicable of terms with Queen Victoria. I mean, he apparently leaves because of her decision to suppress the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel, and what does Sir Edward do when he quits? He finds a place to live in Whitechapel. Clearly there’s a lot more going on there than we’ve been told.

Let’s face it, at this point he’s still a young man—only a month shy of 26—and the main reason he landed his position in the first place was through saving Queen Victoria’s life. Four years down the track, maybe she’s feeling less endeared to the supernatural nonsense he keeps stirring up.

He’s a determined bastard, I’ll give him that. I mean, at the end when he goes down into the sewers, it seems like suicide. He can’t possibly think he can stop this alone, can he?

Mike: It sort of seems that way, doesn’t it? Maybe his fight with the undead earlier in the series emboldened him further, but I think that he sees his folly by the end of the issue.

This is sort of a tangential question, but seeing how much attention Roberson is paying to Grey and his history, do you think that “Witchfinder” is going to become more important to the larger mythos now that he’s involved? As it is now, he’s really only fleshing out Grey’s corner of the world and filling in gaps that exist in our understanding of the character, but is it reasonable to think that he’ll turn that in the other direction soon? That is to say, start creating myth in “Witchfinder” that’ll be picked up in other series, as opposed to the inverse of that, which is pretty much what we’re reading now?

Mark: Mike Mignola’s always had big plans for the character, even before Chris Roberson became involved with this universe, but there was always the matter of finding the right timing. I think we’ll be seeing a real surge of material with Sir Edward now because Roberson has such a wonderful affinity for the character and this time period.

And the thing is, Sir Edward’s got a huge history. He’s an agent for Queen Victoria from 1879 to 1889, then a paranormal investigator with the Silver Lantern Club from 1890 to 1908, then he traveled the world from 1908 to 1913, then settled in New York and later Chicago from 1913 to 1916 before being pulled into Hell by Amdusias. But that’s only half of his story. After he gets sucked into Hell, he begins his immortal life, studying witchcraft, escaping Hell, and befriending the fairies. And later after Hellboy dies, he takes on part of Hellboy’s burden, so we could even see a ‘Sir Edward Grey in Hell’ sort of series.

There’s so much there to explore. Clearly Roberson’s already begun down this road with Sarah Jewell in “Rise of the Black Flame” and another Grey/Jewell story in next year’s “Hellboy Winter Special.” It’s an exciting time to be an Ed Grey fan.

Mike: For sure! The idea of an “In Hell” series for Grey is an enticing one, to say the least. Any other plot stuff you want to hit on before we get to the art?

Mark: No, I think we’ve covered the plot pretty thoroughly.

Mike: I love how animated Stenbeck’s work has become. I’m not trying to imply that he was even a stiff artist, but he always seemed to be able to work a lot of magic into quiet moments. This issue shows a new dimension to his work, though, as he seems to be capturing moments of action a bit differently than I ever recall seeing from him. I’m thinking specifically of the first two panels on the second page.

In the first, Stenbeck chose the millisecond after the bullet cut through the snake in order to show, I’m assuming, the exact moment the snake’s injury would be the most gruesome. Then, in the second panel, notice the zigzag lines in the purse and the snake. I feel like this is a more gestural, cartoonish approach to motion than I’ve seen from the artist before. If it’s something he’s used before, I wonder if it wasn’t as pronounced or exaggerated as it is here. I look at something like this and I see total confidence in what’s being put to paper, and it really becomes electric.

Continued below

Mark: Slightly off topic, but I have to mention how much I like Miss Goad’s fortitude in this scene.

I had a discussion with Ben Stenbeck a while back, and I mentioned a specific issue of “Baltimore” in which his art seemed to suddenly have an energy to it that it didn’t have before. He told me that as of that particular issue, he’d begun skipping a step in his process, trusting that he knew what he was doing. Ever since then, I’ve seen the energy in his work grow with every project. It’s a real measure of his confidence as an artist.

Actually, there’s another moment I liked on the fourth page, where the panel frames started to get more wibbly as the tunnel collapses. I’ve seen a lot of comics rely on characters crying out, ‘It’s an earthquake!’ or having lettered sound effects across the page, to sell the shudder. I don’t recall seeing this particular device before, but it’s an effective one and I rather like it. I especially liked that there’s a build to the shakiness too, starting off as a single shaking line, and ending with a crash that splits the frame into multiple lines.

When combined with Clem Robins’s lettering, it reads on a very instinctive level.

Mike: Yeah, that was a pretty neat thing to see used. I like these two examples a lot, as I feel that they show a real range for Stenbeck’s art and cartooning. In my example, he’s adapting a tried and true approach to conveying motion, while in yours he’s thinking (pun alert!) outside the box to illustrate a different type of motion. Both are incredibly subtle, I think, but their impact is huge.

And all of that’s indicative of Stenbeck’s art, right? He lives in the subtlety. While yes, we’ve covered his growth in the area of kinetic storytelling, he’s long thrived in the quiet moments. Whether it’s a stern look from Grey, or a little extra squiggle to a line, he’s able to use his strengths in an almost subliminal way. I think it’s storytelling that you more often feel than read, right?

Mark: It’s true that he thrives on the subtle stuff. On page eight, there’s a very simple moment, three vertical panels of police officers going down into the sewers. In the first panel, they’re at the top of the page, in the middle panel they’re at the middle, in the last panel they’re at the bottom. You can draw a diagonal line from the top left corner to the bottom right to follow their path. It’s that sort of stuff that makes feel the storytelling as you say.

But I’m also seeing a lot of growth in his more bombastic moments. This is why he’s the right artist for this book; it’s going to have big moments with battles against zombie and serpents, but most of the time it’s about what’s going on in Sir Edward’s head, and if that doesn’t play properly, the story won’t work.

I think something I enjoy about Stenbeck’s action scenes in this and in “Frankenstein Underground” is the grandiose quality they have. I think this is why he’s suited to characters that have a kind of legendary or mythic quality to them. It’s why he works so well with Lord Baltimore, Frankenstein’s monster, and Sir Edward.

Mike: Couldn’t agree more. What do you say we put a number on this one?

Mark: Yeah, let’s do it.

Mike: The storytelling covered a lot of ground and firmly ties into the broader mythos of the universe without ever stumbling of feeling bogged down. Pair that with Stenbeck’s stellar art and we’ve got ourselves a winner. It’ll be an 8 from me.

Mark: Part of me kind of expected the space of time the story needs to cover to be a bit of a stumbling block, but it never faltered. I’m with you. This is an 8.

Final verdict: 8. Roberson and Stenbeck have crafted another excellent issue.

//TAGS | Mignolaversity

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.


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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