Mike Mignola Graphic Novels

Mike Mignola is most well known as the creator of the Hellboy series, which I find a little too silly for me. However, I really admire the artist that partners with him on the inside pages (Mignola himself illustrates most of the covers and I like his style, too). So, I was interested in checking out some of his non-Hellboy work. I previously read, hugely enjoyed, and reviewed Baltimore Volume 1: The Plague Ships here, and just recently remembered to track down the now-released sequels.

Book CoverBaltimore Volume 2: The Curse Bells

This volume goes a bit darker than the previous one, exploring how men can become monsters themselves through their obsessions. I found it gripping, but not exactly pleasant to read. What I did enjoy, though, was that the story expands more on the alternate history of this world, confirming that it is set just barely post-WWI, with foreshadowing of WWII. It also has vampire nuns.

Book CoverBaltimore Volume 3: A Passing Stranger and Other Stories

I was a little hesitant over this one because short stories can go either way, but I really liked it. Mignola uses the shorts to really focus on the characters themselves. We get backstory on two main villains from both previous volumes, and quite a nice look at Baltimore’s struggle to stay moral in his own obsessive quest. It made some of the ickiness from volume 2 more palatable.

Book CoverThe Amazing Screw-on Head and Other Curious Objects

This book is very odd. I believe it is really just Mignola playing around with stories and drawings that he knows won’t hold up to a full graphic novel treatment, but he is so successful that the publisher figured fans would probably be entertained. I would agree, too, that this is probably just for the true fans that want a comprehensive collection of Mignola’s works. The titular Amazing Screw-On Head is literally a sentient head that can be screwed onto a variety of mechanical bodies and does sort of vague battle in service of President Lincoln. Even the backpage blurb didn’t seem quite what to make of it: “If you read only one comic about severed robot heads fighting…I dunno, some damn thing or the other at Abraham Lincoln’s behest, that comic should be The Amazing Screw-On Head.” —Comic Book Resources.

I will say that my favorite vignette in the collection was The Magician and the Snake, written by Mignola’s seven-year-old daughter. It was no less cohesive a story than the rest, and had a very charming description of love and friendship that continues even after death. So, I guess what I am saying is I can take or leave Mike Mignola on this book, but I quite recommend Katie Mignola.

Book CoverWitchFinder: In the Service of Angels

Mignola is back to what I like best: supernatural period pieces. WitchFinder features Sir Edward Grey, recently knighted by Queen Victoria for hush-hush deeds done in service of the crown. In this volume, though, he is tracking a demon brought out of the excavation of an ancient Egyptian tomb and made corporeal in London.

It has a similar feel to Baltimore, though a different historical period and Grey is different enough in character (not quite as hardened and still able to be smitten by a comely medium) that it is not simply a retread. The illustrations are lovely, as usual, and the story interesting, but the pacing was a bit slow. It ends a bit abruptly with only partial resolution, and though there is a second volume out, I’m not sure I’m going to follow up with it. (Except, that upon further research, i.e. amazon description, the second volume takes place in the American West and I love a wild west story.)


Baltimore; Or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire

by Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola

Book Cover: Baltimore; Or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the VampireI heard about this “illustrated novel” when I read Baltimore: The Plague Ships during my comic book glut a few weeks ago. I wasn’t quite sure what an illustrated novel was, but figured that since I liked illustrations and novels, it was probably for me. Also, while I enjoy comic books, I actually like novels better, so I figured that if I really liked Baltimore the comic book, I was going to love Baltimore the novel. You’ve probably already figured out from this lead-up that I did not.

There were a couple of issues, and I think the main one is that there is a reason that comic books/graphic novels and novels are two distinct mediums. They have significantly different narrative structures, and it is the rare author who can work in both (even more kudos to Neil Gaiman, then). In graphic novel Baltimore, the art and text worked together seamlessly and each provided content that the other lacked.

In illustrated novel Baltimore, the illustrations were small, simple black-and-white woodcut-style illustrations that kind of floated in the text on every few pages. I had imagined that they would be full color, full page reproductions of paintings, something even more impressive than the art in the graphic novel, something to distinguish it from the graphic novel and justify having a medium called an illustrated novel. (Thinking it over, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children better matches my idea of the definition.)

I can’t be entirely impartial on the written content because it was in a style that I find particularly difficult to read: characters telling stories. The majority of the novel consisted of three friends of Lord Baltimore sitting in a pub, telling stories about themselves and their relationship to Baltimore, while waiting for him to meet them. Sometimes, while telling stories about their past, their past self would then tell a story! It all got very convoluted, and that kind of flashback narrative lacks a sense of action and urgency to me.

It read like almost the opposite of a graphic novel, which has to be mostly action-oriented in order to support engaging illustrations. This came as a bit of a shock to me, but in retrospect, it kind of makes sense. For a dedicating author of comic books and graphic novels to try his hand at writing a full-length novel, the author must want to try something different, to write something that couldn’t be supported in a comic book structure.

Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola’s effort feels like what it probably is: an amateur attempt at an unaccustomed medium. They didn’t know a whole lot about writing novels, but they knew that novels were different than comic books, so they wrote something as different as possible.


Comic Book Glut

In a ridiculously extended simile/metaphor, books are like food—good literature is a hearty meat-and-potatoes kind of meal; fluff novels are something delicious and comforting like baked mac-n-cheese; nonfiction is a nice big salad, healthy and perhaps a little goes a long way.

All of this is to describe how I feel about comic books—they are the candy of my book meal. I love them, but once I start reading them, I always crave more, and finally after hours of reading them, I feel a little off, in a kind of empty and stale way. So, I try to indulge in comic books in moderation.

However, this afternoon, it was a beautiful day, and my work let me out early. I went to the library to check out a nice, healthy salad of a nonfiction book, but for some peculiar reason, my local library organizes the graphic novels in the nonfiction section, so I also walked out with five graphic novels, and then proceeded to glut myself on literary candy.

1) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 1910

Cover: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 1910I loved The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume 1 (I even enjoy the movie in a very guilty-pleasure kind of way). The premise of having characters from famous literature join a crime-fighting group, lead primarily by a strong female character, sold me within the first few pages. That it was a period piece, set in the 1800s was an additional bonus. The character dynamics were engaging and the plotting was clever.

Then, Volume 2 got a little more outlandish in plot, made the female lead weaker and more traditionally “feminine,” and added some jarring sex scenes. I not only began to feel like I wasn’t the target audience, but that perhaps they were actively discouraging female readers. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 1910 goes even further. It is maybe a third of the length of the previous two volumes, and feels more like an introduction of new characters than a complete story, but it still manages to squeeze in seven illustrations of topless women, three illustrations of full frontal female nudity, and two rapes. There’s shock value, and then there’s just being disagreeable.

2) American Vampire, Volumes 1 and 2

Cover: American VampireI really wanted to like these, and I did enjoy parts of them. The premise is interesting and had some good possibilities: a group of traditional European vampires come to America during the expansion of the railroads in the Wild West. One of them unintentionally “converts” a train robber, and the American vampire is a new breed—he draws strength from the sun. The two volumes follow him to the 1920s, where he “converts” a young starlet, and then the story follows them both (in separate plotlines) through the 30s as they battle both the clan of original European vampires and a secret society of vampire hunters.

I love both vampires and historical fiction, and like I said, it had great potential. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what was missing because it wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t as good as I had hoped or thought it could be. The writing was a bit clichéd, the characters were two-dimensional and not very sympathetic, and the plot eventually devolved into little but violence. The art itself had a rough, sketchy quality that I liked on first view, but began to just look increasingly muddy and almost blurred to me. It is clearly an ongoing series, but not one I’ll be continuing with.

3) Baltimore: The Plague Ships

Cover: Baltimore: The Plague ShipsAnother historical vampire comic, but this one was everything and more I was hoping for with American Vampire. The author is the same as for Hellboy, but this one has a darker atmosphere that I really appreciate. The book jumps right into the action with our hero, Lord Baltimore, hunting down vampires in a small village off the coast of France in 1916. His background and the history of this world unfold throughout the story, along with some nicely paced plotting.

The art is a really nice screen-printing style, with minimalist, flat color fields, with a muted palette that gives the illustrations a really nice atmosphere. It is fairly clearly the beginning of a series, though Volume 2 doesn’t come out until June. In the meantime, the introduction mentions that this comic book is a companion piece to the illustrated novel, Baltimore or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire. I’m not entirely sure what an illustrated novel is, but I definitely plan on finding out.

4) Blacksad

Cover: BlacksadThis was the one I was the most excited about (I may have even done a little jump in the library aisle), so I saved it for last. I already knew that I was going to love it because I own it, sort of. First, a quick story: my dad travels a lot for work and he would bring all of us kids souvenirs from everywhere he travelled. He brought us each anime comics from Japan when I was a young teen, and that hooked me (even though after very careful perusal of the illustrations, I finally discovered that my dad had accidentally bought me a schoolboy romance story). Subsequently, I asked for a comic book from every country he went to, so I now have comics from Germany, Sweden, Holland, China, Ireland, Croatia (from my wonderful friend, Hannah), and France.

One of my two French comic books is Blacksad, and it is brilliant! From what I could piece together from the illustrations, it is a gritty noir mystery, which you already know I love, with anthropomorphized animal characters, drawn more beautifully than any other comic I have seen. Blacksad is John Blacksad, a black-and-white cat and private detective. I was so, so excited to actually be able to read it, instead of poring over the pictures and trying to read a word or two of the French with my high school Spanish learning. It turns out the writing is almost as lovely as the pictures, and I can’t recommend the whole package enough.