Comic Picks By The Glick

Baltimore vol. 2: The Curse Bells

July 29, 2013

If he were a lucky man Lord Henry Baltimore would’ve spent the rest of his life trying to live down the trauma of his active duty in World War I.  However, upon encountering a very old vampire named Haigus on the field of battle and scarring the monster for life, Baltimore doomed not only his family but himself to a lifetime in vengeful chase.  That’s the status quo which was established in first volume of “Baltimore,” subtitled “The Plague Ships,” a new series co-created and written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden with Ben Stenbeck providing the art.  Surprisingly, it doesn’t have any direct ties (not yet at least) to the larger “Mignolaverse” established in “Hellboy” and “B.P.R.D.”  The good thing is that’s not an issue as the first volume was a satisfyingly dark supernatural adventure and this second one manages to be even better.

In tracking Haigus across Europe, Baltimore’s task is distressingly easy as he merely has to follow the trail of dead bodies and monsters left in his wake.  His path leads him to Lucerne, Switzerland, to a convent that has suffered many deaths because of the plague.  The only difference here, as Baltimore is informed by Simon Hodge -- a former war correspondent now researching the supernatural -- is that the nuns have been rising up after they’ve died.  Now they have a former Bavarian soldier in residence who has promised them a cure from their curse.  Making matters even more interesting is that Haigus himself was last seen going into the convent.  It’s Baltimore’s turn now, and he has his own cure for the evils that plague the former holy grounds, “Death.”

What really makes this series so compelling and entertaining is its presentation of the title character.  Put simply, Lord Henry Baltimore is a stone-cold badass who attacks the servants of darkness with a singleminded fury and determination not seen in other characters created by Mignola.  We see his ruthless skill firsthand early on as he takes out a den of vampires, including some “comfort” ones left by Haigus, and a group of forest demons lying in wait for him.  Subsequent scenes, such as his torture of a vampire in a bar for information, casual killing of a local demon, and willingness to take on a host of vampire nuns only reinforce the feeling that we are in the presence of a supremely capable individual who is the best there is at what he does.  That Stenbeck gives him the look of a young Patrick Stewart, well... that’s just the gravy.

He’s not all righteous anger and badassery as the main conflict in the story comes from whether or not his dedication to vengeance against Haigus will trump saving the village from the Bavarian’s plans for them.  The former soldier now turned magician’s scheme is creepy even by previous Mignola standards.  Not only does he succeed in resurrecting a great witch as a blood-formed dwarf, but his history is filled with sacrifices of his family, baby-stealing, and demon-heart-eating.  His ultimate plan to curse the convent’s bells and have their tolling also leads to a great bloody final battle.  I would say “climax,” but the manner of his undoing is a bit of the “anti” variety even if his final comeuppance is not.

This volume also deepens the series’ mythos and gives us hints of a wider story beyond Baltimore’s quest for vengeance that drives the plot.  Haigus has a monologue which explains the history of vampires, their subsequent fall and slumber, and rise with the carnage of WWI which also stirred their master, the “Red King” as well.  While the personal battle between the vampire and Baltimore is enough to hold my interest, this section implies a much grander scope than we’ve seen for the series thus far.  That’s certainly a good thing because I can imagine that having Baltimore catch up to Haigus only to have the vampire slip through his grasp is going to get old as a plot device if they keep it up.

We’re also treated to some interesting shades of gray in the supporting cast as well.  While I mentioned the personal struggle that drives Baltimore, there’s also some interesting back-and-forth between the resurrected witch and Haigus which was something I was not expecting to see.  As was the genuine desire for redemption expressed by the nuns, which makes them surprisingly sympathetic in the end.  There’s also a scene between Baltimore and one of their number about 4/5ths of the way in which was surprisingly tended and shows the man capable of expressing mercy to those who might not seem like they deserve it.

A discussion of the book’s supporting cast wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Judge Duvic of the Inquisition.  Introduced at the very end of the first volume, he’s the kind of devout believer that believes salvation can only be attained through a purification with some very rough tools he keeps in his possession.  Though he is clearly positioned as an antagonist to Baltimore with his fanatical devotion to the Church, there’s a moment here which reveals him to be “deeply misguided” rather than outright evil.  After an individual survives his “purification” Duvic counts it as an honest-to-God miracle and a sign that this person is now born again in the eyes of the Lord.  He even smiles for the first time in the series at this event.  It shows him to be a genuine believer in that what he is doing is the right thing, as opposed to a madman who is using a pretence of faith to mask his unnatural appetites.  Seeing Duvic here really makes you wonder how the inevitable confrontation between him and Baltimore is going to play out.

All of this is rendered with impeccable style from Stenbeck.  Mignola is a clear influence on the man, but Stenbeck’s style eschews a minimalist approach for characters with more depth with shadows that lurk in their very appearance.  He also has a great eye for monster designs, from one-offs like the forest demons, the church snake and the vouivre, and can pull off a big action sequence like Baltimore and Hodge’s battle against the nuns.  It’s fantastic stuff, expertly colored by Dave Stewart who knows that color in “horror” comics doesn’t just mean lots of blacks and greys, but sharp contrasts between the hues on the page to highlight the unnaturalness of what the reader is seeing.

I wasn’t expecting to like this second volume of “Baltimore” more than the first, but that’s exactly what wound up happening.  Its protagonist became truly compelling as he plowed through this fantastically creepy story that showed us there’s more to the series than the chase at its heart.  My quibbles about the anticlimax of the conflict, the sustainability of the “Almost got ‘im!” nature of the relationship between Baltimore and Haigus, and the final image which taints what was basically a pyrrhic victory, feel relatively minor in the scope of the overall quality of this series.  To put it simply, even though vol. 3 is set to arrive in hardcover later this year, I won’t be waiting to pick it up at a deep discount at Comic-Con.  I think it’ll be worth it to buy as-is when it comes out.

Jason Glick

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