Close readers of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and B.P.R.D. will already know the name Sir Edward Grey. His enigmatic appearances thus far place him as an important, powerful figure in world of spirits and faeries but readers have seen very few clues as to who Grey actually is. Set in Victorian London, Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels is a year one-style story, finally giving readers small bits of Grey’s origin within a gripping story full of dark magic, terrible demons and deep conspiracies.
The story opens when some British explorers who discovered a lost city bring a pile of unidentifiable bones back with them to London. Their discovery was meant to bring the men fame and fortune but they instead find the members of their group violently murdered one by one; Grey comes into the story as an expert paranormal detective to help stop the killings.
With some help from a spirit medium and a strange “Captain” claiming to be the real-life inspiration for Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Grey learns the team’s expedition woke the spirit of an ancient demon. Each time the demon kills it increases in strength, meaning Grey has to find the secret to stopping it before it gathers too much power. His investigations also pit Grey against the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra, a secretive occult order hoping to use the demon as a tool to further their own secret agenda.
Ben Stenbeck — who’s also done work for various B.P.R.D. titles — delivers art that fits well with the familiar look of the Hellboy universe while still giving it his own twist. While the general character designs seem heavily inspired by Mignola, Stenbeck’s linework is a touch looser, giving the pages a more active feel. His style works particularly well with facial expressions; while his faces are not accurate in a strict anatomical sense, Stenbeck twists and exaggerates them in cartoony ways to get emotions across. He’s also paid great attention to the historical details. From items in the forefront like clothing and weapons to background details like architecture and dingy streets he delivers a setting that really feels like Victorian London. The gore and violence is likewise handled particularly well. While it certainly exists in this story Stenbeck doesn’t toss the grisly details in your face as an artist with lesser restraint might have.
From the Heliopic Brotherhood to demons from the center of the Earth, the story hosts numbers of references to Hellboy and B.P.R.D. both big and small. That and some recent hints from Mignola that Grey’s importance in the Hellboy universe will grow make this a must-read for Mignola completists. But there’s plenty here for fans of horror and dark fantasy who haven’t yet taken the time to explore Hellboy. Mignola’s story contains thematic links to late 19th and early 20th century horror fiction, particularly pieces like the Lovecraft short stories “The Nameless City” and “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” as well as Stoker’s classic novel Dracula. Grey himself seems based at least in part on Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, a paranormal detective William Hope Hodgson created back in 1910. This is a sign of the real strength of Mignola’s writing craft; although faithfully tied to the traditions of classic Victorian horror through his storytelling skills and use of action he manages to create a macabre tale that still feels fresh, fun and unique.