Amongst the many memorable characters populating Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe, Lobster Johnson is an unlikely choice as a breakout franchise, so this first-ever prose adventure of the enigmatic vigilante in The Satan Factory comes as both a surprise and an unexpected treat.
Much like classic pulp heroes The Shadow, The Spider and Doc Savage, Lobster Johnson is presented in Hellboy adventures as a fictional hero of movie serials, magazine adventures and comics who is in fact an actual person about whom scant little is known. Backed by a team of trusted sidekicks, Lobster Johnson battles gangsters, monsters and paranormal threats from a secret base of operations in New York City.
Although he apparently meets an untimely end battling the Nazi threat in the late 1930’s, his modern-day appearances as a ghost in issues of Hellboy and BPRD (both published by Dark Horse) have made him a fan favorite. His reputation for violence and habit of burning a lobster claw symbol into the foreheads of his victims with the palm of his gloved hand may have something to do with it.
Written by Thomas E Sniegoski, best known for his Buffy The Vampire Slayer-related novels and comic writing, The Satan Factory does an admirable job of conjuring up a gritty and dark Manhattan circa 1930 and the sad case of Jonas Chapel. A once-respected physician, Chapel flees New York City’s underworld and finds himself in Mexico face to face with a powerful witch and a cursed skeleton that gives him the power to transform men into monsters. Armed with this unholy power he returns to New York City hoping to create a savage army to do his bidding. Lobster Johnson rises to the occasion to bring an end to the mayhem before Manhattan itself is consumed.
Sniegoski has a natural flair for the pulpy crime-noir flavor that is integral to the Lobster Johnson character and his briskly paced writing style makes the story a pleasure to read. Scenes of carnage and wanton destruction are handled vividly and when things really get going, one can almost taste the blood of the unfortunate victims spilled by the savage squad of monsters unleashed on Manhattan. In classic pulp tradition, the outcome of the story is both satisfying and predictable.
So what about the monsters then? Evidently capable of doing murderous damage, the army of monsters in The Satan Factory are equipped with little more than razor sharp claws and teeth. Obviously simian in nature, the monsters benefit from Sniegoski’s vague descriptions as they are otherwise not particularly scary or unique, merely dangerous. Far more effective is the early appearance of The Human Brain, a misshapen carnival attraction with telepathic powers who steals the show in his one chapter appearance early in the book.
With no clear origin and only a handful of comic book appearances to his credit, Lobster Johnson is virtually a blank slate awaiting attention and Sniegoski crafts a worthy adventure for him, though he adds little to the character.
For die-hard fans of Lobster Johnson, The Satan Factory will be satisfying as Sniegoski ensures that the enigmatic qualities that make this character so compelling are present throughout the novel. The Satan Factory does underscore the formidable challenge for any writer trying to bring Lobster Johnson to life as he is essentially a one-dimensional character. For newer converts the recent graphic novel, The Iron Prometheus, with excellent artwork by Jason Armstrong, is recommended as an introduction to Lobster Johnson.
Overall the Satan Factory rates a solid 7.5 of 10 but the monster aspect is a bit disappointing with the beasts being little more than man-sized simians, so The Satan Factory earns a monster rating of a mere 3 of 10. Bring back The Human Brain!