Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, it would have been hard to miss all of the appearances of Mike Mignola’s work: from the many Hellboy comics, graphic novel collections, novels, and films, to a growing number of non-Hellboy-related projects, Mignola is a hard guy to avoid. FATHER GAETANO’S PUPPET CATECHISM is Mignola’s latest outing: a stand-alone illustrated novel, and yet another (successful) collaboration between Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden (their previous projects include BALTIMORE and JOE GOLEM AND THE DROWNING CITY).
Some mild plot spoilers follow.
To be clear, this is a much subtler story than those typically told by Mignola; there’s no cinematic action or larger-than-life heroics from a demon-turned-good guy here. This is a much smaller tale set in a Catholic orphanage in Sicily during the Second World War. The protagonists are rather ordinary, to say the least – a priest, a few nuns, some psychologically damaged children who miss their parents – though they are thrust into a genuine encounter with the supernatural. A young parish priest, the eponymous Father Gaetano, has just arrived at the Church of San Domenico in the small Sicilian village of Tringale. There he must find a way to somehow reach the local orphans who have recently lost their parents during the Allied invasion of the island. He eventually decides to use the handcrafted puppet theater and strange set of marionettes left behind by the school’s old caretaker to teach the children their Bible lessons. Not surprisingly, the puppets are, or become, far more than they appear, and despite Father Gaetano’s best efforts, matters soon go awry and get out of control.
Characterization of Gaetano, the nuns, and the orphans is all very well done. As a fairly brief novella, it is tightly plotted, with few wasted words. Many find puppets to be more than a little creepy – there is an entire sub-genre of evil puppet books and films, after all – and the story’s puppets certainly do convey a sense of strangeness, mystery, and eventually, danger throughout. To be clear though, this is obviously more than just a story about strange little puppets. Mignola and Golden wrestle with much deeper philosophical issues, including fundamental questions about the nature of sin and free will, as well as how a loving God can allow such suffering in the world. There really is quite a lot of great material packed into this small book. If there is any weakness here, I’d actually have liked to see a longer epilogue to the novel. The tale wraps up with a quick summary of what happens to the main characters after the events of the novel, but there were surely greater depths to be plumbed here. I wanted more closure than is provided by this terse epilogue.
Also, I should note that though FATHER GAETANO’S PUPPET CATECHISM is billed as an illustrated novel – and that is what this is – it is not a graphic novel by any means; it contains some nicely atmospheric spot illustrations by Mignola, mostly of the puppets, but they are not at all necessary for full enjoyment of the story. If you’re drawn to Mignola’s work solely for his artwork, you might be disappointed here. The illustrations aren’t bad by any means, they just don’t add much. Mignola’s cover, on the other hand, is lovely and conveys a palpable sense of menace that’s entirely appropriate to the story.
FATHER GAETANO’S PUPPET CATECHISM is a quick and engaging read (I read it in a single sitting and didn’t even have to stay up past my bedtime). It’s short but highly entertaining, and perhaps most importantly, thought-provoking. Highly recommended, especially if you are already a fan of Mignola’s work, or only know him through Hellboy.
Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers