Advance Review: Witchfinder: City of the Dead #1
By Mike Mignola, Chris Roberson, Ben Stenbeck & Dave Stewart
The greatest thing about Mignola and squad (is squad the right word? We’re going to call them a squad…) is always knowing what story fits which character. It sounds obvious, but a lot of comics miss this mark. You can read Spider-Man stories that feel like they’d be better Thor stories, or Batman stories that should have been Superman stories. Whilst these comics may still be enjoyable reads, a simple changing of characters could elevate them to something more. Mignola always expertly matches up the tale he wishes to tell with the best of his universe’s characters. And this is probably because he comes at writing the right way round: a.k.a. character over concept. This is a story built entirely around servicing its core character, Sir Edward Grey – the Witchfinder himself, the best it can. Sir Grey is a classy character with Sherlock Holmes a clear inspiration on his conception, so it fits that this story is slow and simmering. This is about tension over action. This is in stark contrast to the recent Mignolaverse mini Lobster Johnson: Metal Monsters of Midtown, which was wall to wall bonkers, B-Movie action. It is this precise contrast that explains why the Mignolaverse is still so steeped in quality after so many years. Other shared universes (not naming any names, *awkward look*) can have story lines that feel interchangeable. Why does that story NEED to be THAT character? But with Mignola and squad (it’s definitely a squad) everything is about character first. So the 1930’s pulp serial fashioned character The Lobster gets a big, bombastic tale of metal monsters and now the Sherlock Holmes fashioned investigator gets a slow burning tale of zombies that go munch in the night. Everything in this book germinates from the catalyst of making sure they get the best out of Sir Edward Grey, which is exactly how all stories regardless of medium should be built, and is the core of what makes this an unquestionably 5-star book.
We’ve made allusions to the pace, and it is slow. In other books that can be a criticism, but Mignola & co-writer Chris Roberson (with whom Mignola first worked with on the equally excellent Hellboy & the B.P.R.D 1953, currently available in trade) are masterful crafters of horror. This isn’t slow because it’s dawdling, it’s slow because it’s simmering. This book expertly builds tension like the best of classic horror cinema. It drip feeds us information as we glide through. And this is wonderfully offset by the playfully overblown dialogue. Everything is just a little on the silly side, a playful take on over-the-top Britishness, yet stays on the right side of the line so instead of collapsing into grating parody there is a rich vein of B-Movie comedy. “Golly gosh” indeed. This is brilliant stuff that functions fantastically as both an entertaining ride for twenty-ish pages in-and-of-itself and as a set up for bigger things to come.
The visuals continue the expert work of the story and then some. Ben Stenbeck’s art is old-fashioned in the best of ways. His lines are complex, but masked with simplicity. This is to say, he achieves an incredible amount with such simple lines. He’s good enough to not cloud a character with too many details, trusting his work. He doesn’t need to swamp Sir Grey’s face with wrought panic to suggest inner turmoil. A subtle craning of his spine is enough. Stenbeck is to character drawing the opposite of hammy acting. It is restrained, driven by the tinier details. In this sense he invokes the likes of Ditko & Kirby – trusting his character to work for him. What’s great about this approach is it embraces comics for being comics. Too many other titles use glossy art and flashy panel structure to try to be more like a movie. Almost as if they are ashamed to be the medium they are. But by keeping it nuanced and traditional, Stenbeck embraces a comic for what a comic is and the book is all the better for it – reading like a pulpy old newspaper strip that would later be collected in an IDW hard-back. If that’s misleading you to think this series may be a little ‘down the middle’ on the art front, don’t be mistaken. The art is still fresh and inventive, but in more subtle and nuanced ways. Most prominent is Stenbeck’s interesting use of snapping between close-ups and wides. We remain tight on Grey and his companions for the sake of conversation, but routinely pull out to re-establish setting, more frequently than most other books. This is a routine reminder of the atmosphere of the environment. A way of saying “don’t get too caught up in this charming conversation, let me quickly remind you, we are still in a bloody graveyard.” This may seem like a perfectly average device: “masters” and “close-ups” a stock device of visual storytelling since cave paintings, but its use here is particularly clever in that he helps the squad (we’re sticking to calling them a squad…) drip feed horror into proceedings without just chucking gore at the reader. Though little happens in terms of actual monsters just yet, there’s a certain something, a simmering atmosphere, dragging you along, keeping you turning those pages. And it’s this ‘pull back reveal’ method that’s doing it. This technique keeps us locked into reading. It’s the comic book equivalent of a horror film using music to draw us in. It’s more sophisticated than chucking shocking imagery at us for the sake of it and all the better for it.
Equally of note is Stenbeck’s use of eyes. In 90% of his panels (not actual math, so don’t quote us) the details of the eyes are lost to darkness,heavy shadows clouding their detail. Only when experiencing extreme emotions such as shock, fear or anger do the eyes of his character’s escape the wash of black and become exposed. This is another way he prevents his characters from being the sequential art version of hammy acting but is also a clever tactic for selecting what it is we emotionally react to. We know, due to how infrequently it happens, that when we can see the full details of Edward’s eyes: hypothetical excrement is hitting the hypothetical fan. Stenbeck uses his eyes as story guides or punctuation points, making sure you read in the rhythm he intended.
Stenbeck’s clean lines and detailed penciling means that a story which is mostly static, a series of conversations with a few bursts of action, has life brilliantly breathed into each tableaux so they sing without the cheap trick of unnecessary action or attention grabbing twists. Mignola & Roberson can trust Stenbeck to sell scenes much how a film writer working with incredible actor can trust said actor to sell a dialogue heavy scene to an audience hungry for CGI monster’s scrapping.
Color-wise it is business as usual for the Mignolaverse with Dave Stewart once again succeeding on such a high tier it’s worth wondering if he even knows how to do a bad job. Stewart colors everything beneath a certain murky brown/smoggy grey lens. It’s like looking at the book through the thick fog of old London. With Hellboy we get sharp, in your face reds & rich oranges, but with Witchfinder we get long coat browns & candle wax greys. This further extends the idea that the squad are using each element of comic book production to sell their characters. Hellboy gets the coloring it does to reflect the character’s more abrasive, gun-totting approach to brawling with monsters. Hellboy is in your face. So he has a color scheme to match. However, Sir Edward Grey is more about slinking in the shadows and asking questions, hence his more muted palette. This all adds up to clear evidence that there’s not a spec across these twenty or so pages that hasn’t been thought about.
This book is fun, atmospheric, slow building and tense; in contrast to the more bombastic Monsters of Midtown. There is such an expert grasp of its tone you can almost smell the dusty old paper of forgotten libraries and hear the sharp whistle of London wind.
This comic is a clear home run.
Witchfinder: City of the Dead #1 is available on August 31st from Dark Horse Comics