Crooked appalachia: The laughter of the melungeon witches in mike mignola's hellboy: The crooked man

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Abstract

To accurately discuss the Melungeons, a group once identified by Library of Congress researchers as the largest "little race" of miscegenated1 people in the 1960s (Pollitzer 722), or even to discuss the accuracy of Mike Mignola's representations of them in his 2008 comic book mini-series Hellboy: The Crooked Man, is a daunting task. The Melungeons are a people somewhat shrouded in mystery, mythology, and, until recently, a history composed more of reportage and conjecture than of rigorous anthropological or ethnographic investigation. Wayne Winkler offers the most succinct and generally agreed-upon definition of the Melungeon people as a group whose cultural and ethnic makeup is composed of a complicated and indeed contested constellation of races and ethnicities, including whites, African Americans, and local indigenous tribes who lived along a geographic and cultural partitioning of the Virginia and Tennessee borders near the Cumberland Gap ("About"). But to describe them so neatly forecloses discussion of the vexed nature of the historical treatment and scholarship concerning the Melungeon people that Mignola's work, the focus of this investigation, participates in. As such, a brief examination of the historical record is in order. In a piece composed for the Geographical Review in 1952, Edward T. Price assessed the state of the Melungeons and their public reception from the perspective of his day, age, and location: "To some people [Melungeon] is only a general derogatory term to be bestowed on anyone who momentarily arouses their antagonism. [For others], the Melungeons have had to fill the place of the bogeyman in holding children in the straight and narrow path" (256). Toward this last point, Price then quotes from what he tells us are remarks in S. M. Burnett's 1889 American Anthropologist account, remarks that stand as an ominous warning to those same children Price indicates were likely scurrying under their bed linens as he, at that very moment, typed the word "Melungeon." That lengthy quotation Price attributed to Burnett: "The Melungeons will get you!" Winkler, in the 2004 piece cited earlier, even recapitulates the quotation in his narrative. Interestingly enough, Burnett never wrote these words. However, this misattribution was not due, necessarily, to any inflammatory journalistic malfeasance on Price's part-that is to say, unless one considers dramatic understatement a form of journalistic malfeasance. Burnett's actual nineteenth-century reflection on the Melungeon people reads as follows: I first heard at my father's knee as a child in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, and the name had such a ponderous and inhuman sound2 as to associate them in my mind with the giants and ogres of the wonder tales I listened to in the winter evenings before the crackling logs in the wide-mouth fireplace. And when I chanced to waken in the night and the fire had died down on the hearth, and the wind swept with a demoniac shriek and terrifying roar around and through the house, rattling the windows and the loose clapboards on the roof, I shrank under the bedclothes trembling with a fear that was almost an expectation that one of these huge creatures would come down the chimney with a rush, seize me with his dragon-like arms, and carry me off to his cave in the mountains, there to devour me piecemeal. (347) Rather than accuse Price of filtering his journalism through derisive remarks such as Burnett's or of even attacking these Appalachian people as mythological monsters haunting the mountains, I note that Price simply chose to represent the group somewhat metonymically as a bogeyman of legend as opposed to accusing the over 15,0003 people who identified themselves as Melungeon in the 1950s of human dismemberment and cannibalism. A kinder representation, by comparison, yet a representation still deeply troubled. Fifty years later, it would appear that Mignola does not afford the Melungeons the same courtesy. In the second issue of The Crooked Man, a threeissue mini-series set in Virginia's Appalachia in 1958, Hellboy has a short discussion with Tom Ferrell, a local man who shares his adventure, about the Melungeons-specifically, about the supposed Melungeon witches and the history of their relationship to the locals-as they pass near a coal mine en route to burying Tom's recently deceased father.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationComics and the U.S. South
PublisherUniversity Press of Mississippi
Pages214-241
Number of pages28
Volume9781617030192
ISBN (Electronic)9781617030192
ISBN (Print)9781617030185
StatePublished - 2012

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