Hellboy: The Midnight Circus
23 October, 2013
Read at your own risk if you want to avoid spoilers!
The story is simple enough. Hellboy runs away from the B.P.R.D. headquarters, only to find a circus from Hell before being found by Professor Bruttenholm. Not much is added to understanding of characters or events, even if the rich mythology of Hellboy is expanded just that little bit further.
Hellboy is known for successfully incorporating different mythologies into a single mythos, so it’s great to see this trend extend to fairy tales and children’s stories with the inclusion of Carlo Collodi‘s Pinocchio (while also incorporating a circus akin to that of Something Wicked This Way Comes). Far from the pure tale of whimsy presented to most children (mostly via the Disney film), the original story is rather dark in some respects, featuring, amongst others, Pinocchio being hanged and changed back from being a donkey by having fish eat away at his body after being thrown into the sea to drown. Astaroth himself confirms that he not only knows Pinocchio, but that he actually used it for inspiration.
The story does, of course, parallel Pinocchio thematically as well. Hellboy goes through a similar journey of discovering himself after running away from home and gaining a new appreciation of his father after having through an ordeal without his protection. This is acknowledged in-story as well, when Hellboy asks to see the wooden boy, Pinocchio, and is told by Astaroth he ran away, obviously leaving himself as the replacement.
As an aside, I was quite amused by the moment Astaroth asks Hellboy if he saw the moving picture and tells him what a “clever boy” he is when he replies he read the book. It’s as if Mignola not only acknowledges the raw form of the story and uses it, but also seems to acknowledge our appreciation for it, and I loved every minute of it.
Thankfully Mignola has managed to create a universe so rich that he has managed to tell a story of Hellboy’s youth while in the ‘present’, Hellboy is dead and in Hell, without losing our interest. However, as with all things Hellboy-related, there is a connection somewhere within the vast mosaic of stories. Astaroth’s protectiveness of Hellboy stops Gamori from killing him, and he declares Hellboy will not be touched while he lives (which Gamori takes to heart). With the death of Astaroth in Hellboy in Hell #4, does this mean that Hellboy is now fair game for Gamori in Hell? I hope so, and knowing how the expanded Mignolaverse works, I expect her to return in some capacity. [This has since been confirmed by Mike Mignola in an interview.]
The story would immediately make it clear to newcomer to the Hellboy universe just who the titular character is at his core: an orphaned child trying to find acceptance and do the right thing in a world determined to impose its version of his ‘destiny’ upon him. Still in his early years, here we see Hellboy become frustrated at being treated as a child, and, like most of us, does something daring to prove everyone wrong. His first intention is to emulate the adults and smoke, before becoming entranced by the circus and unwittingly straying away from home (and there again, he is invited by Gamori to come into a gentlemen-only booth). Of course, far from being the Hellboy we’re all familiar with, he has the curiosity of a child and is still naive and practically innocent, so he cannot deal with his situation alone. By the end of the story, he realises that he is a boy after all, not ready to confront the harsh world of adulthood (and his destiny), and that he does not want to go through the experience of being without the Professor again.
While not featured as much, we also get to see Professor Bruttenholm’s attitude towards his adoptive son, Hellboy. Early on in the story he is reminded of a text which foretells Hellboy’s part in the fall of man by Malcolm Frost, a colleague who was there when they first found him and who remains sceptical of raising the demon with the key to the apocalypse as a normal child. We see the Professor go through the text indicating this prophecy and seemingly have his own renewed doubts. However, by the end of the story we are treated to a tearful reunion and the beautiful image of Bruttenholm lovingly cradling the young Hellboy and assuring him, “Everything will be all right.” It’s amazing how much the relationship between Hellboy and Bruttomholm was explored with so little.
With Hellboy and Bruttenholm at the emotional core of the story and the brevity of the story itself, admittedly, not much is left for other characters. However, we do get to see both new and returning characters featured in Midnight Circus, mainly Astaroth and Gamori, respectively. Astaroth seeks to guide Hellboy towards what he perceives to be his destiny, intentionally taking an idea or two from Pinocchio and tugging at Hellboy’s heartstrings. He tries to appeal to Hellboy’s child-like nature, having him confront the possibility of saving his father figure through his abilities and his future to decide for himself. It all makes Astaroth appear to still have, in his own twisted way, Hellboy’s best interests at heart, and protects him even if he could be a lost cause. Gamori (Astaroth’s niece and thus, perhaps, Hellboy’s sister), on the other hand, is presented as more a more deceptive individual, trying to allure Hellboy with pleasure at first, only to then do her utmost to outright kill him. Both play well off each other, as Gamori realises Hellboy will be the end of them unless turned to their side and should thus be snuffed out early, while Astaroth assures her he will “come around”, given enough time. The two finally clash when Gamori persists and Astaroth puts her in her place, but it is obvious the event will have its repercussions in future.
The art is just extraordinary and easily the strongest aspect of the book. Fergado manages to incorporate three main different styles of artwork effectively into a cohesive whole: thw normal Mignola-like art with rougher lines and shadows, the stylised Pinocchio illustrations and the artwork related to the circus. The designs of the circus scenes can only be compared to paintings, featuring unfinished lines combined with complete ones to give an otherworldly sensation. The expressions are all spot-on and so full of liveliness, with a great balance of surprise, sadness and wonder all shown at appropriate times.
I love how the art lends to the Pinocchio imagery as well not only in the obvious examples necessitated by the story and script itself, but through subtler means. One particular scene which stuck in my mind was when Hellboy meets the ghosts of the two child killers. They’re still talking nonchalantly when their shadows are turned into those of a fox and a cat, immediately tipping us off to their intentions and method of execution before the noose is brought out.
While the story itself is not that impressive as previous Hellboy outings, it is nonetheless effective as a tool to enrich the series’s mythology, while also adding some possible hints at the future. The imagery and themes of Pinocchio are incorporated well, and lend to the mixture of horror, action and emotion the Hellboy series is known so well for. The feeling of such similarities being forced is nonetheless avoided by acknowledging in-story that the parallels are intentional. While not much time is devoted to characters and character development, seeing a young Hellboy and his child-like wonder is a pleasure to see and a lot is said about his relationship with the Professor in the small space given. The art is simply amazing and definitely the highlight of the book. I look forward to seeing more tales from Hellboy’s childhood which can show us more adventures, while perhaps showing us how he developed into the the man he is today.
All in all, it’s a good and simple story with some minor world-building and a lot of heart, but still easily one of the best visual representations released this year in graphic novel form. Definitely recommended for Hellboy fans, Hellboy newcomers who want an accessible jumping-on point and anyone with a taste for beautiful sequential art.
- Hellboy: The Midnight Circus – Review (weeklycomicbookreview.com)
- Mignolaversity: Hellboy: The Midnight Circus [Review] (multiversitycomics.com)
- Comic Review: Hellboy: The Midnight Circus (geeksofdoom.com)
- Review: Hellboy – The Midnight Circus (OGN) (comicbastards.com)
- Review: HELLBOY: THE MIDNIGHT CIRCUS HC (comicosity.com)