New To You Comics #119: A Sweet Little Bit Of Cosmic Horror In ‘Hellboy: Midnight Circus’

by Tony Thornley

A little more than two years into the column, and there’s a change in the air! Today, we’re seeing a shuffle as Brendan Allen steps away from the column and Tom Smithyman steps in to take up the reins. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Tom enjoys the darker corners of the world, horror and more that we’ll learn as we get to know him. Today we’re diving into a side story of Hellboy’s formative years.

Being an otherworldly being, Hellboy has lived a supernaturally long life. That’s lead to a lot of potential for the Right Hand of Doom to have stories set all throughout his life. One of the most notable is Hellboy: The Midnight Circus from Mike Mignola, Dunman Fegredo, Dave Stewart and Clem Robbins.

One particularly difficult evening, four year-old Hellboy runs away from the BPRD in a display of defiant independence. He soon finds himself in a strange circus full of odd characters. The young boy now has to rely on luck to survive to the next morning.

Tony Thornley: Well Tom, I didn’t mean for it to pan out like this, but this is a very short book to welcome you to the column. I could pretend that I meant to do this because you’re on the road wrapping up our New York Comic Con coverage for the site. But no, I just didn’t notice that this was a prestige format one-shot rather than a full-size graphic novel.

Man it was a good one though, wasn’t it?

Tom Smithyman:Tony, first of all, thanks for welcoming me to the column – and for taking pity on me after an exhausting – but super – NYCC. Interestingly enough, I got to meet Mignola and the cast of the Hellboy reboot at NYCC 18 as they were promoting the movie.

This one-shot was a short tale, but it was  a pretty interesting backstory for the young Hellboy. 

Tony: I haven’t read tons of Hellboy, but I always enjoy when I do. At face value, this was a bit of a trifle, but it was fun, had some cute moments, and Mignola slipped in just enough cosmic horror to make it incredibly unsettling. What level of familiarity do you have with Hellboy?

Tom: Not all that much to be honest. I read The Wild Hunt, which the rebooted movie was loosely based upon. Other than that, though, my experience with the Mignolaverse is pretty limited. 

Tony: I have only a little more experience- the first couple original arcs and a handful of short stories here and there. Plus the Del Toro/Perlman movies. This was great to see those early years that I wasn’t familiar with.

One of the things I liked the best about this story was the surreal nature of it. Thinking back to the things that were most scary to me as a young child, it wasn’t boogeymen or monsters. It was stuff I didn’t understand.

Even though this story is filled with monsters, it’s more scary that Hellboy is overwhelmed and disoriented by them. Why are these animals talking? What do these hobos want with him? He doesn’t know and really we don’t fully understand it either. There are hints of cosmic horror and obviously, the circus is a supernatural place, but the threat is the fear of the unknown, not the creeping cosmic horror behind it.

Tom: I mean, it’s exactly how a kid sees the world. Animals can talk, and they can be in the presence of great evil, but it’s the dark – that great unknown that gives them pause. Children have tremendous courage given there’s so much they don’t understand about the world. 

The thing that I found interesting is that no one – from the BPRD to the circus freaks to the hicks that are chasing – registers anything abnormal about Hellboy. Sure this red demon from Hell is running around, but it’s completely normal. What a world!

Tony: That’s one thing I like about the Hellboy comics universe over the movies- Hellboy is just a part of the universe, and that’s all right. There are monsters and superheroes and stuff like that, and people just get they’re around.

And man oh man, how great did it look?

Tom: It looks incredible. Fegredo’s artwork makes the book for me. It’s a thing of beauty. He mixes styles throughout the story. The flashbacks have one look. The current times have another. The main story has a gorgeous painted look to it. Clearly I need to look into more of his art, including Judge Dredd and MPH

What did you think of the art? Were you as taken with it as I was?

Tony: Oh definitely! Fegredo has this great balance of the dark angular style that Mignola is famous for with a lot of a smooth painted or inkwash style that you’d see more with an Alex Ross type of artist.  It really makes for a fantastic looking book.

Just like you said the story treats the macabre as mundane, the art sells that too. Hellboy always has a look of wonder or fear. He seldom looks shocked by what he’s seeing. That little touch makes the fear lean back towards the unknown and the surreal more than the specifics again.

And Stewart’s colors? Man, that guy knows how to set a mood. It’s dark, there’s a level of grime and shadow that he adds, but he doesn’t ever make the page murky. It’s just plain gorgeous. What did you think?

Tom: Yeah, you’re exactly right. The colors make a huge difference. They perfectly set the tone for the story as well as the flashbacks. He changed the hues to suit the situation in a masterful way. And he chose to let Hellboy’s red pop only in certain panels. But when they do pop, you can’t take your eyes off of him.

Tony: Yeah, you nailed it.

 So what did you think overall? I would say this story means you and I will have to make sure Hellboy is in a semi-regular rotation for us!

Tom: Yeah an interesting story made even better by great art. For me it’s the art that sold it. I don’t know the overall Hellboy story well enough, but I suspect that, if I did, the story would resonate more with me.

Tony: Yeah, good point. I totally agree. What book have you picked for us next week?

Tom: A DC classic – Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. Grant Morrison and Dave McKean at their best!

Hellboy: The Midnight Circus is collected in Hellboy: The Short Stories available now from Dark Horse Comics.

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