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Review: Ghouls, Gore, and Grave Robbing Under London Town

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[All images courtesy Dark Horse Comics]

witchfinder coverWitchfinder: City of the Dead, Issue 1 of 5
Written by Mike Mignola & Chris Roberson
Illustrated by Ben Stenbeck, colored by Michelle Madsen
Published by Dark Horse Comics
32 pages. Copyright 2016

Sir Edward Grey is a mysterious man in covert service to Queen Victoria and the British Empire. As occult advisor to the Queen, he lives in the shadows of London fighting evils beyond even the worst terrors found in the latest penny dreadful. Yet this shadowy man is haunted by demons of his own.

As horror comic reading geek, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit to never picking up a copy of the previous Witchfinder adventures. Since there are now three trade paperbacks available (starting with 2010’s In the Service of the Angels), I really have no excuse.

Well, better late than never!  In the new miniseries Witchfinder: The City of the Dead, Sir Edward Grey is summoned by the Powers that Be of Her Majesty’s Government to observe the autopsy of a grave robber who died of mysterious wound shortly after his arrest. Initially, Grey doesn’t see what why the death of a common criminal warrants his notice. After said corpse rises from the autopsy table and attacks anyone in reach, Sir Grey changes his mind, then quickly decapitates the undead thief with a handy surgical saw.

An investigation commences, beginning at the cemetery targeted by the unfortunate thief. Gravediggers at the Lamb Street Cemetery confess complete ignorance of any robberies, and the mysterious “Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra” expresses an level of interest in the matter that seems (based on a previous encounter with the pseudo-scientific society) to infuriate Grey. The first issue ends with our hero and his trusted companions in a dire predicament which would make Hammer Studios proud and any fan of 1966’s Plague of the Zombies squee with delight.

Sir Edward Grey's paranormal adventures began in the pages of Hellboy
Sir Edward Grey’s paranormal adventures began in the pages of Hellboy before earning his own series.

My reaction to Witchfinder: City of the Dead depends if you’re asking me as a longtime horror comic fan OR as a newbie to the Hellboy universe. As a horror comic fan, I love the way the story created by Mignola and Roberson combines with Ben Stenbeck’s art and Michelle Madsen’s coloring to create a classic Gothic Victorian penny dreadful tale. Foggy streets, dark conspiracies, criminal characters meeting gruesome ends, and a mysterious hero — Witchfinder blends these elements skillfully in a tale that drew me in, then left me eagerly awaiting the next installment.

But … I do wish that I’d read Sir Edward Grey’s previous adventures before starting on City of the Dead. The brief mentions of lost companions and nefarious enemies weren’t quite enough to make me care about the main character. I didn’t quite understand why Grey hates the Brotherhood so much. I know that too much backstory would  act as a drag on the the current narrative. At certain points in the story, I wished for those Marvel/DC asterisk notes letting me know which previous Witchfinder adventure was being referenced in the current story.

Since my graphic novel “To Be Read” stack hasn’t toppled over yet, based on the first issue of City of the Dead, I’ll be adding the previous Witchfinder trade paperbacks to the pile. Now that Penny Dreadful is no more, Witchfinder and the adventures of Sir Edward Grey may fill that Victorian Gothic shaped hole in my heart.

Witchfinder: City of the Dead will be available to purchase on August 31.

For more information about the series, visit their official website.

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