Writer Mike Mignola moves away from the Hellboy universe he created to introduce readers to a new hero, Lord Henry Baltimore. Joined by co-writer and novelist Christopher Golden and artist Ben Stenbeck, Mignola presents a great addition to the canon of Victorian-inspired action/horror fiction.
Set during the years of the influenza plague following the end of World War I, the story follows vampires who have begun preying on the sick. Hunting those vampires is Lord Baltimore, an injured veteran of the war who first learned of the existence of vampires on the blood-soaked battlefields of Germany. Nearly killed there, he scarred one named Haigus and lost his leg to a gangrenous bullet wound. His confrontation with Haigus ignites a personal war between the two, and armed with a bevy of blades and guns, Baltimore stalks the quarantined streets of an old French village in search of retribution.
As a writer, Mignola is constantly inspired by gothic horror, and his work successfully captures the earlier romantic era of horror fiction. BALTIMORE: THE PLAGUE SHIPS marries its gothic sensibilities to a post-war setting that works really well and provides some innovative settings in which the story can unfold.
While Mignola and Golden aren't exactly reinventing the vampire genre, the trusty old warhorse of horror fiction if ever there were one, they at least populate it with interesting ideas and intriguing concepts. Setting their tale amidst a plague is a particular bit of genius that allows them to explore the vampiric infestation, as is their haunting submarine graveyard that sets up the book's finale.
Lord Baltimore himself is an intriguing character, and readers will likely be rooting for him quickly. His fall from grace and his struggles against Haigus pack a strong emotional wallop, which makes the revenge-driven narrative easily relatable. From a design standpoint, like Hellboy's giant stone fist, Baltimore is made instantly iconic by his wood-and-leather-jointed peg leg, studded by a series of nails. It's a great twist and speaks of the trials and agony he has suffered during and after the war.
Stenbeck's art is serviceable, but too often lacks clarity and detail. It's a nitty-gritty affair, which serves the book's atmosphere well, but unfortunately lends it an inconsistent appearance. The characters surrounding Baltimore, and of course Baltimore himself, are usually afforded a few close-up portraits that are nicely detailed, but when they are subsequently drawn, they quickly lose facial details and are often relegated to just being blob-like bipedal shapes. These moments of rushed and muddied artwork are a shame because Stenbeck proves to be quite a capable draftsman, as the supplemental sketchbook and pinups indicate. Taken as a whole, the artwork isn't bad and, in fact, has some truly amazing and wicked moments, but it suffers from a lack of attention to detail. Dave Stewart's coloring saves it from being a total loss, and gives the book a subdued, dark atmosphere that serves the writing's tone suitably.
THE PLAGUE SHIPS moves along at a rapid clip and presents some great, original ideas to a well-worn segment of the horror genre. Stenbeck is able to translate Mignola and Golden's script adequately, and creates several powerful, pinup-worthy images. One in particular, of the undead submarine crew reanimating, some clad in armored dive suits, is stunning and awesome.
In the end, Baltimore is a strange but imminently enjoyable ongoing horror comic that's inspired by equal parts DRACULA and MOBY-DICK. It introduces a terrific new vampire-hunting hero and establishes a strong plague-filled playground for the book's creators to run wild with.
Reviewed by Michael Hicks on October 18, 2011
Baltimore, Volume 1: The Plague Ships