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Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland #1 Review

Written by David Mitchell on Wednesday, June 18 2014 and posted in Reviews

Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland #1 Review

The third arc in Mike Mignola's Witchfinder series- but now without Mignola directly writing, does it hold up?

"Lovecraftian" was part of the pitch I heard regarding Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland #1. As a great fan of H.P. Lovecraft I'm always a bit suspicious of the term, particularly when applied to visual media like comics and films. The greatest success of Lovecraft, besides his outstanding formal prose, is his capacity to convince you of impossible horrors. Lovecraft weaves his words to impress upon the reader that there are colors you've never seen and words you cannot speak, geometries that can't exist in the real world and monstrosities so horrible that a mere glance upon them would instantly drive you insane. Lovecraft leaves these things to the imagination of the reader, creating a sort of unspeakable and sublime sense of fear.
Adapting such things to visual media is dangerous. Often you'll see Cthulu turned into something less like a God and more like Godzilla, and the reverent madness of impossibility is left on the cutting room floor. If there's anyone out there who has ever understood how to adapt such things well, it's Mike Mignola, famous creator of Hellboy & BPRD. Witchfinder is a creation of his, a spin-off of Hellboy, an ongoing series following Sir Edward Grey. Issue 11 total, Mysteries of the Unland is the first of a new five-issue arc concerning the investigation of a bizarre murder in a quiet countryside village. A good enough starting point, but does the series work now that Mike Mignola is not as closely involved?
In short, yes, it does.
The new arc is handled by writers Kim Newman and Maura McHugh, who bring a charming rhythm to the tale. The first issue is essentially all exposition with a brief spike of action towards the end, so while it doesn't necessarily work well as a standalone issue, it works very well as the first chapter in a planned story. The exposition in the issue helps to introduce the characters and set the tone of the world, whether or not you've read the other Witchfinder comics, and enough oddities are introduced so as to bring intrigue. The final spike of action isn't quite a cliff-hanger, but raises the stakes the brings a sort of desperate context to the mysteries at hand. Though oddly balanced in that way, I find it to serve a very specific purpose: I already want to read issue two. All the build up with a burst of energy towards the end left me wanting more.

Artist Tyler Crook brushy vitality to the art, not quite so specific as the work of Craig Thompson, but decidedly with an indie flair. The wobbly panel borders bring an implicit sense of the homespun and hand-wrought, effectively mirrored in the loose but confident brush inking. There's a warm sense of comfort to be found in the cartooning. Eyes are reduced to dots in many instances, and characters become abstract gestures at even a medium distance. I personally find the look quite attractive, and in many regards I think it's quite complementary to the famous stylings of Mike Mignola, however, some may find the look off-putting. If you prefer the hard-wrought detailing of Marvel or DC over the poetic cartooning of Fantagraphics or Drawn+Quarterly, you might find yourself turned off by the decidedly fluid gestures here.

Colorist Dave Stewart is, as always, an absolute treat. Not particularly surprising, considering that the man has won Eisner awards for coloring eight of the past ten years. He keeps his palette simple so as to complement the simplicity of the art, primarily sticking to variations upon a heavily modified primary-color triad: a very cold grey blue, a washed-out goldenrod, and an anemic rust color seem to be the base, all pale to stand in contrast against the heavier black brush lines and implicitly speak to a sort of "faded photograph" effect. The colors are applied effectively and bring depth and detail to the world, with enough subtle variation within themselves so as to create subtle visual interest even in the sparsest passages. 

Mysteries of Unland #1 is a very good book, and the start to what I imagine will be a very good arc. I can't yet say is writers Newman & McHugh will be able to pull off Lovecraftian horror as well as Mignola, but from this first issue alone, I feel as though they're on the right track. 


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