Friday, June 13, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #163: Hellboy: The Midnight Circus by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo

Prequels are tricky things -- they come with an audience pre-sold, but also an audience with a raft of expectations and preconceptions. But if you have a character with a long enough life -- and particularly one who is dead in current continuity, not that it's slowing him down much -- it can be a very attractive notion, a way to dig into things you didn't get to before or glossed over in a hurry to get somewhere else.

Mike Mignola has been telling stories in his Hellboy universe from a variety of angles for more twenty years now -- the main Hellboy series, the nearly as central B.P.R.D., and such further excursions as Lobster Johnson, Witchfinder, and Abe Sapien -- so calling any particular piece of that mosaic a "prequel" could be a matter for argument. Hellboy: The Midnight Circus might be a standalone story set fifty years earlier than the "current" Hellboy stories, but it slots into a much larger meta-story, whether or not any particular reader notices all of the connections. (I'm not going to claim that I did, for example: I'm sure Midnight Circus is full of nods to other bits of Hellboyiana that I'd didn't quite catch.)

It's 1948. The war is over, and Hellboy is living, still more or less a little kid (given the horns and gigantic red right hand) with Professor Bruttenholm at B.P.R.D.'s headquarters in Connecticut. But, one night, he sneaks out, looking for nothing in particular. And he finds a mysterious, enthralling circus, out in the dark woods, a circus lit up and ready just for him. And, in best Something Wicked This Way Comes fashion, Hellboy is tempted but escapes in the end.

Midnight Circus is a short graphic novel, just 49 pages long. So it has room to be evocative and allusive, to be creepy and surprising, but not much more than that. There's not a whole lot of story here, nor does it tie directly into any other Hellboy story that I can see: it's an anecdote or episode, a retelling of part of Pinocchio with Hellboy in the title role.

So Midnight Circus is entirely about atmosphere. Luckily, Hellboy stories have been amply provided with atmosphere from the beginning -- Mignola is a master at it -- and Duncan Fegredo's art follows in that grand tradition: he uses blacks and concealment much less than Mignola does, putting his mysterious figures into a bit of shade rather than hiding them entirely. With Dave Stewart's brilliant, precisely chosen colors, it looks like a painting in spots. The monsters are lurking rather than battling here, since Hellboy is very much a boy at this age -- and the art plays to that, all mystery and suspicion and strange things just out of sight.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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