COMIC REVIEW: Hellboy: The Midnight Circus

Think you know Hellboy? Think you know just how Mike Mignola’s creation came to be the well-meaning if slightly anti-hero-ish demon fighting for the BPRD? Think again? In Hellboy: The Midnight Circus, a young Hellboy runs away from his carers and discovers a mystical and magical circus that definitely isn’t all that is seems to be.

Young Hellboy runs away from the B.P.R.D. only to stumble upon a weird and fantastical circus and the few demons from Hell who inhabit it.

The last full collected edition of Hellboy stories was The Storm and the Fury from March 2012, followed by the Hellboy in Hell series. The Midnight Circus is somewhat of a departure from the series as it is wholly set in 1948, with a young Hellboy learning his place in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. This is a 56 page graphic novel, lovingly created by Mignola, with long-time collaborators artist Duncan Fegredo and colourist Dave Stewart.

So. Hellboy, not long in the care of the BPRD overhears Malcom Frost and Trevor Bruttenholm discussing a potential danger and threat in keeping him. Of course, with the impatience of a child, he doesn’t hear the full conversation or understand the context. There has also been an earlier altercation when Hellboy is called a ‘kid’. So off he goes. Escapes. A creepy clown drummer and an evil clown dog appear over the hill and before you can say ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ (the Ray Bradbury book), Hellboy discovers the circus.

This is a proper spooky circus, all lions in cages and creepy clowns. Shadows are clearly hiding secrets. Out of those shadows comes a parade of the most disturbing looking circus performers from all over the world, and Hellboy is still curious. And who is that? Large, bearded, bald…spouting forth a summoning? Or maybe a just a poem? Astaroth and his partner, Gamori, appear. And Hellboy still doesn’t look afraid. And then it seems to be over and there appears to be just a ringmaster guiding Hellboy away from sights not meant for a child, and showing concern about his lack of parents within the vicinity. The ringmaster offers a chance for Hellboy to see one of the sideshow attractions before returning him to his carers; a choice that includes The Missing Link, The Beast-Man, The Wooden Boy and Zora The Bearded Lady (of course). Hellboy relates the Wooden Boy to Pinocchio, and his first experience of reading a book and visiting a library. Meanwhile, Professor Bruttenholm discovers Hellboy is missing and is searching for him. This is where the book gets weird(er) – for the better – as fiction and (comic book) reality become mixed up and there’s a giant whale (we’re talking Jonah here) and a bottomless pit with the fires of hell and then in a circus mirror Hellboy sees himself as he truly is. And then there are wild monkeys, and a cat and a fox.

This a delightful comic book, both dark and uplifting. The narrative is fairly familiar, and the scenes are nothing particularly new, but Mignola writes them in such an imaginative way that you almost don’t notice. The overall parable is of course based around Pinocchio, as Hellboy is shown that he doesn’t have a fixed destiny and he can be ‘a real boy’ if he wants. This is also a key story in the relationship between Hellboy and the Professor, as well as putting in some intrigue surrounding Gamori. There are some nice visual touches too, such as Lobster comics featuring. And speaking of the visuals…

The artwork is simply delicious. It’s almost as good as it gets in the Mignolaverse, although it’s what you’d expect from the team of Fegredo and Stewart. The circus scenes are awesomely creepy, and the detail is outstanding. It reminds me of the TV series Carnivale. The tones throughout are muted greys, blues and greens. In the early sequences and later pages, Hellboy glows his famous red amongst the subdued colours. During the main section set within the circus, he is coloured a dull dark pink, as if the light wasn’t allowed to escape the pages: Fegredo applying very different moods to the different passages. There are couple of welcome flashbacks which provide a break for the bleak colouring as well.

Mignola and team have created a cracking comic book, with a poignant and relevant story from Hellboy’s youth. It speaks to all those who seek to belong (as much of Hellboy does) and who feel different. With expert narrative, important characterisation and superb art, this is one for all comic book fans. Clever, fun and gorgeous.

Title: Hellboy: The Midnight Circus

Publisher: Dark Horse

Rating: 4.5/5

Reviewer: Ian J Simpson

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