It's been a quiet week around here, one of those weeks where writing gets in the way of reviewing things so it's a good time to dig into the archives with a look back at Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo's Hellboy: The Midnight Circus, a stand-alone graphic novel that came out sometime during Hellboy in Hell (I think) and called back to to the adventures of Hellboy when he was... well, a boy.
This book originally came out in 2013 and this piece was written for Newsarama.
There are many ways that Mike Mignola's young Hellboy is just a normal kid in Hellboy: The Midnight Circus. Set in 1948, when Hellboy hears someone warning the closest thing he has to a father that the boy is dangerous and should be dealt with, he does what any kid would do: he runs away to join the circus. This being a Hellboy story, it’s no normal circus as a Pied-Piper-like clown and his dog lead Hellboy down the road to the circus which runs “from the clock strikes midnight… to the fearful crack of dawn.” The clown recites incantations to summon the rest of the circus folk into a magical center ring and of course even back in 1948, Hellboy is the inquisitive sort and can’t look away from the wonders in front of him. If Mike Mignola’s shadowy art hides the world around Hellboy in most stories, Fegredo and Stewart’s shadows part ways to reveal more and more mysteries to Hellboy in this circus.
When Hellboy leaves the normal world and steps into the big top tent of the midnight circus, Fegredo and Stewart open up their bag of tricks, welcoming us and young Hellboy into a brand new world of muted and graduated watercolors that make the darkness in Hellboy: The Midnight Circus more mysterious than we’ve seen before. For portions of the story, he colors the book more softer and deeper than he usually does, creating a veil over the world of the midnight circus. Returning artist Duncan Fegredo and Dave Stewart follows the standard look and feel of a Hellboy story that Mignola and Stewart defined 20 years ago and have followed faithfully since but when the world that Hellboy steps into becomes more unreal, the art and coloring transform into a world where the shadows reveal only what they want. Fegredo and Stewart make the world beyond those shadows more familiar as a fog hangs over the circus, allowing the artists to barely suggest what we can’t see through the night’s mist.
As Professor Bruttenholm searches among empty fields and old train wrecks, Hellboy is led through this midnight world by the Ringmaster and his sultry red-skinned niece Gamori. The Ringmaster’s motives are never really clear but what he shows Hellboy is dangerous. An old and wasting away Bruttenholm trapped in the belly of a whale; a hall of mirrors reflection of Hellboy as the conquering demon; a burning and destroyed world. “You can light a fire with a word,” he whispers into the young boy's ear. The Ringmaster and Gamori offer him temptations and when he flees them, she has the animals and the spirits of the circus try to kill him. Invoking the story of Pinocchio, Hellboy: The Midnight Circus is about Hellboy just wanting to be a real boy but the world around him has other plans for him. And really, hasn’t the whole Hellboy series been about that?
Hellboy: The Midnight Circus feels like a proper Halloween story, one told late at night around a blazing campfire. Mignola, Fegredo, and Stewart keep building up the mystery of the circus as well as the creepiness of it. Like some of the best Hellboy stories, Mignola explores myths while tying them into Hellboy’s story and even here you can see him adding elements that could play into future stories now that the character is dead and in Hell. The Ringmaster and his niece are more than just simple throwaway characters as the hints are there that they’re related somehow to Hellboy. As circuses are full of things that shouldn’t exist in the natural world, Mignola, Fegredo, and Stewart show us just how Hellboy’s life is a struggle between the world that we can see and the world which we can’t.