Friday, June 3, 2011

Witchfinder - Lost and gone forever

This week has seen the conclusion of Dark Horse's second "Witchfinder" mini-series. Published under the banner "from the pages of Hellboy", editorially it primarily serves the purpose of being one of the projects that vie for the spot of being the third ongoing series set in Mike Mignola's supernatural universe, behind Hellboy and BPRD. But more importantly, the real question is whether it has any value aside from being another peripheral addition to an already complex mythology, two decades in the making. And while the first Witchinder project, "In the service of angels" (illustrated by Ben Stenback) certainly felt engaging on it's own, it is this second outing that has proven much more wholesome.

Perhaps this is because it actually started development first, with Mike Mignola and his co-writer John ("BPRD") Arcudi itching to do a weird western serial with their Victorian detective protagonist. As all of the Hellboy verse books are art-centered, the series seems actively developed so as to spotlight the artwork of industry legend John ("Two-fisted tales", "Mad magazine") Severin. The fact that the veteran penciller is currently 89 years old, and still producing detailed inked artwork cannot be overstated. And while Severin had previously pencilled a memorable oneshot for the BPRD "War on frogs" anthology mini-series, his talent is utilized to the full extent in the new Witchinder series.

As for the character himself, Sir Edward Grey is a curious case. Conceived to be a pastiche of the Victorian supernatural detectives in the vein of Carnacki the Ghost-finder, yet the co-writers maintain that there is more to him than that. On one hand, the character exists to be Mike Mignola's proxy in working with the period-related material, much like the role Lobster Johnson is designated to play when it comes to publishing the material taking place in the pre-World War 2 pulpy setting. Again, the twist is that Witchfinder is a more complex character, whose adventures leave their mark on him, a man of secrets and a devout Christian.

In several ways, Witchfinder was already a part of the mythos, due to the cameos and oblique mentions Mignola kept making in his Hellboy stories. And judging from what the creator has said in interviews, the character is posed to renter the main title for what may yet be his definite role in the series. But moreover, what's interesting is the way that Mignola uses the character in context. Every time Sir Edward Grey gets a mention, it was in a milieu that he felt a natural part of, and hasn't drawn attention to himself. And this is not only because of the large tapestry the writer/artist has woven, where he keeps making mentions of curios sighted, or inspired by his research. A reader committed enough to re-read the Hellboy material will no doubt appreciate the foreshadowing that Mignola has seeded his saga with, but he or she won't be left clueless if they discover Witchfinder with these minis. This is no because each time they are approaching a Hellboy related project, the editorial makes sure that it stands on it's own as a compelling action horror book.

This kind of commitment to the material is key to the success each of these projects have, and is primarily the reason why a (so far) very minor player in the Hellboy universe continues having his adventures told in a market notoriously resistant to new titles. The tightly knit mythology that editor Scott Alley has assisted Mignola with developing has simply won enough of the fans' trust that they will continue to support it, seemingly no matter how tangential the link to the main book. It must be said that this is fairly unique in the industry, considering that Mike Mignola himself has a reasonably decreased role with the development of that much spin-off material. In fact, Hellboy's creator and primary writer/artist is listed as only a co-writer on this second Witchfinder mini, which is historically a very loose enumeration that many fans have justified reason to be suspicious of.

Yet, even despite Mignola admitting that some of his and John Arcudi's scripts have little of his own input, the strength of the brand is such that it continues, simply because of the underlying quality running through the franchise. "Lost and gone forever" is a perfect example of the care that goes into making a Hellboy verse story stand on it's own. This is done simply by everyone involved never forgetting the underlying principle that inspired the story arc being simply the desire to a Weird Western. Everything else is subjected to this notion, nuanced and having a very good reason to be in it.

And while the original mini-series starring Sir Grey had several direct links to Hellboy mythos, this time around they are pretty much non-existent. Formally, Witchfinder's reason for coming to Utah had to do with chasing down a henchmen of a secret society that has robbed him of his chance of happiness, but even this much is not directly stated in this second mini-series. The co-writers are primarily interested in Sir Grey's current emotional state, and are treating his whole western adventure as an escape from a tragic event into a new series of circumstances designed to reinstate the confidence in the character. Thus the chase he is on ends up being a classic McGuffin, as he stumbles upon a completely different local scenario, that sure enough eventually links somewhat to his quest, but makes it clear that the new threat is much bigger and more immediate than carrying over the revenge from the previous series.

Considering the number of western genre tropes introduced in it's pages, in many ways, "Lost and gone forever" could have ended up an arbitrary western series, primarily notable for John Severin's presence on art duties. Being tenuously related to the main books could have created a number of problems, despite avoiding the contrivances that come with working with prefigured continuity. Again, being a fairly generic Weird Western pencilled by Severin would be at least a tolerable book in it's own right, Mignola and Arcudi achieve something more. They manage to transform the Hellboy formula using his detective predecessor into an interesting genre piece.

This is notable considering that so far the material featuring Lobster Johnson, and even the two BPRD flashback minis featuring Hellboy's own surrogate father, professor Trevor Bruttenholm, and covering the Cold War years of Mignola's mythology, have yet to transform into narratives that carry somewhat more of an emotional impact beyond the era specific monster hunts. Perhaps it's due to the air of doom and mystery around Sir Edward Grey that his adventures ask questions that are somewhat lacking in the other two outings, considering that the reader is already familiar with the life, and especially the demise of the two aforementioned characters.

In any event, Witchfinder' emotional arc revolves around a very deliberate plot, which revolves around the western town, and a mystical curse that is working against it. At this stage in his work, it should come as no surprise that a witch is at the heart of the strange events befalling the mining town of Reidlynne. Yet, most of the action takes place around in the desert around it, under the unforgiving sun, or after it's setting, which is where some of the most disturbing parts take place. Admittedly, there is certainly a lot of fight scenes, with some of them somewhat contrived and even superfluous, but it's easy to justify their presence considering that the dual nature of the story's serialization. Simply, there had to be some action in every one of the five issues making up the storyline, for the express purpose of entertaining the reader picking up each of the installments. And although it certainly makes most sense reading the collected edition, Dark Horse was careful to attend to the readers who wanted to actually sample each of the chapters they were buying at the time of publication.

The lack of expository dialogue and some pretty offbeat cliffhanger endings might have made this a short and unwieldy experience, but on returning to the books the reader gets to see how much of the natural storytellers is in each of the creators involved. The expert pace is maintained throughout, and on rereading it's apparent that there are quite a lot of fully scripted pages, with only rarely a silent panel being used for effect. The creators are simply mindful enough to make it all seem natural that it becomes a showcase of how to do genre comics that don't talk down to the reader, or attempt to wrestle with the artist for the control of the atmosphere by inserting the character's inner monologue in a series of never ending captions.

Mignola and Arcudi simply trust their carefully picked artists enough to use the visual aspects of the book for most impact, without trying to second guess them at each point, or trying to make their own contribution apparent at all costs. In doing so, they free up an artist like John Severin to present his visuals in the most powerful way, with his detailed rendering bringing to the fore all of the emotion and background that the tale calls for. The artist excels in every part of the craft, serving up memorable character designs, coupled with detailed backgrounds that really distinguish each of the several locations in which Sir Edward Grey and his guide, Civil War veteran Morgan Kaler ride through. Not only that, but under Dave Stewart's controlled coloring, even the weather becomes shaded and continually slightly altering, while preparing for the climatic final scene. The key characters in several places are "lit" in such a way that further calls attention to the particular Severin figure in a crowded scene, again in a very subdued manner.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the book offers several double page spreads that mostly serve to draw out an action scene by utilizing a dynamic that is gained by having a cascading number of panels in one place. Again, Severin presents a lot of impact even in such familiar set pieces, such as time killing zombie attacks. His work is precise, yet at the same time convincingly emotional due to the slight fuzziness of the inking. The intended effect certainly doesn't betray insecurity or the lack of ability, but an expressive style used to bring a sense of humanity into otherwise fantastical scenarios. The book's key sequence is a trip to the surreal that exemplifies both the protagonist's spirituality, his need of emotional closure, as well as a crucial plot point. Dave Stewart opens these pages up to the richest palette in the book, which again makes them stand out without artificial narrative tricks.

As for the reality of the American turn of the century West, beyond Severin's meticulous detail, the co-writers make it their mission to present a particular piece of folklore, centered around Paiute Indians. Once again, what separates these books from their pulp inspirations is the attention of the detail paid to the real world conditions that were often abbreviated in order to perpetuate the cliche. Alongside the realistic characterization of the protagonist, and the portrayal of ethnicities without the need to ridicule, such a modern day Western can be said to be ultimately better suited to the tastes of modern reader than it's original inspirations. And while nobody will mistake Mignola and Arcudi's effort for the bizarre brilliance of Joe R. Lansdale and Tim Truman's "Jonah Hex" work, and it's unlikely "Lone ranger and Tonto" follow-up.

It seems that Mike Mignola and his collaborators simply didn't aim as high. Stylistically, the goal was to bridge the Hellboy formula with John Severin's genre expertise, and provide just enough diversity to entertain during the course of reading. Perhaps the continual unashamed spin-off status of much of the Hellboy related material does make the regular "BPRD" comic book stand out as much as it does, considering that it also succeeds as a distinct project of it's own, a team book dealing with the supernatural in a modern way, that has already inspired a slew of imitators. So far, "Witchfinder" does not seem to have any loftier aspirations on it's own. Perhaps it's because of the lack of visual continuity, but it certainly remains to be seen how well the series stands on it's own. "Lost and gone forever" is somewhat ill-suited to illustrate that fact, seeing as how it  particularly deals with an oddball scenario before returning it's protagonist to the more typical Victorian setting.

Taken as such, even Sir Edward Grey's emotional journey is to be picked up and developed more directly in the subsequent material, with the western episode acting as a crucial, yet transitional part of his personality make up. In a way, it seems that perhaps the most direct impact of the book will be felt later on, with the creators returning to Morgan Kaler, who is shown to be in a perfect position to act as a proxy to Mignola's interests, if the creator ever has an idea for another Western adventure. or even simply to spotlight a bit of American lore that his 19th century paranormal investigator could have stumbled upon.

Still, as presented, Morg is a very stoic character, hinting at occult happenings in his past, but otherwise a picture of a seasoned veteran with little conflict of his own. He makes for a solid supporting character, but it's difficult to imagine Mignola and Arcudi getting back to him without further developing at least some of the events hinted in his past. It is fair to say that the story revolves around Witchfinder and the mystery he encounters in Utah, with the rest playing a secondary role.

Interestingly, most of the villain scenes take place in their own subplot which collides head on with Sir Grey and Morgan's investigation only in the book's finale. This somewhat renders the threat impersonal and akin to the adversaries in some of the Hellboy short stories, which is somewhat strange considering the amount of exposure the character gets. Despite the complicated plan, inspired in Indian legends, and the obligatory origin sequence, the villain still seems evil for evil's sake, which seldom makes for a memorable adversary.

All in all, "Witchfinder - Lost and gone forever" is an interesting piece of comics work, certainly worth the read if the reader is at all interested in western, work of a skilled illustrator John Severin's, both of which are underrepresented in the North American comics publishing. The Hellboy connection should be taken as merely a means to gather attention to a story that would otherwise have a very hard time today succeeding on it's own.

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