Continuing my practice of reading Hellboy-related things without Hellboy in them, I was given Witchfinder. Or, to give it its full title, Witchfinder Volume 1: In the service of angels.
Witchfinder concerns Edward Grey, a Victorian paranormal investigator. Called in to help with a series of grisly and inexplicable murders, Grey uncovers a vast supernatural plot, putting himself in conflict with both a secretive cabal of occultists and the undead.
It’s Hellboy-related in that, according to the book itself, Grey is a character who appears in Hellboy at various points. But that’s the extent of the cross-over; no knowledge of the other series is required to understand or enjoy this one.
Narratively, it has a very similar structure to Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. – a supernatural threat appears, and the protagonist(s) must defeat it. Ancient knowledge is revealed, evils and confronted, and humanity is saved. The big difference here is setting.
Witchfinder is set in the Nineteenth Century, in dark and mysterious London. It’s a very similar aesthetic to Hellboy, but Hellboy transports the aesthetic to more modern America, whereas this is the original setting of such things – the gloomy, fog-shrouded streets of Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and innumerable other Gothic texts. Victorian London, with its grime, social structure and (quasi-mythical) technology is the place where paranormal investigators belong.
I approve of that – being the original setting, I think it’s also the best for such subject matter. Nineteenth Century Britain was a society on the cusp of all sorts of advancements and changes, gripped by new and wild ideas. In that setting, there’s less suspension of disbelief required for ancient evils and impossible machines. They stand out less, and don’t break the immersion.
The plot fits the tone and setting. It’s dark, and it borrows ideas from older writers who also write within this genre. You can see the influence of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle coming through, with similar ideas being brought in and discussed.
Overall, it’s a graphic novel set in the Nineteenth Century, that manages to feel like it’s the Nineteenth Century, and that’s a very good thing. Nothing about the setting jars, there’s no anachronistic dialogue or similar. The narration is slow and complex, which is highly unfashionable but also the right choice.
It does drag a little in some places though. At times, Witchfinder loses the thread of narrative, and it becomes something of a gallery of characters, with new actors and elements introduced just so the plot can have someone to go to next. There’s not much of a sense of pace or discovery, just of a sequence of scenes. The plot jerks when it should glide.
My verdict on this one is quite mixed. On the one hand, I like the setting, and I like how carefully constructed the atmosphere is. However, it’s also clumsy in parts – lines that should have been subtle being too obvious, a too-clearly stated plot that is mapped out rather than revealed.
Witchfinder is definitely competent, and it’s entertaining. I’d like more polish, and that will hopefully appear in later volumes, as the writer warms more to the character and setting. But for now, it’s perfectly fine dark fantasy set in Victorian London. If that’s your thing, as it is mine, then Witchfinder is worth a look.