ADVANCE REVIEW! Baltimore: The Curse Bells #4 will come out on Wendesday, November 9, 2011.
Issue Four of Baltimore: The Curse Bells opens with one of the most disturbing scenes I have seen in a comic book. In previous issues, we have already been shown that inquisitor Duvik is not a nice man — and indeed, inquisitors on the whole are not famed for their gentleness — but here the extent of his cruelty is laid bare. In the first few pages we see the results of his efforts to purify the "sins" of the two village children. It isn't just the blood. I have seen more gruesome scenes in various horror comics. But it is the reality of Duvik and men like him, who have existed in time and continue to exist in the modern day. Self-righteous men like Duvik see sin and evil everywhere, and they think the best way to get rid of corruption is to cut it out.
These first few pages is a reminder that the world of Baltimore is not the world of Hellboy. Because they come from the same mind, and are both folklore-related, there is a temptation to think that Baltimore and Hellboy might inhabit the same universe. Maybe Baltimore exists in some past version of the world of the B.P.R.D. But those similarities are soon overshadowed by the differences. Hellboy's world is full of evil, but it is clever evil, literary and even sometimes funny. Baltimore's horrors are dark and cold, and there is nothing funny about an extended torture sequence on innocent children.
It is exactly this darkness that attracts me to Baltimore. The series is much more Poe than Lovecraft. And it is actually a disturbing, if not downright scary, comic. Even though there are vampires running around, there is also a sense of reality and its cruelty. Baltimore is also a comic without heroes. As the vampire Haigus comments "My Dear Lord Baltimore, what a monster you've become."
Issue Four has Baltimore and Simon Hodge locked in a dungeon. They need to escape before the cursed bells can ring turning everyone who can hear them into a giant slave army. Meanwhile, Haigus tries to forge an alliance with the despicable little troglodyte Madame Blavatsky. Things are coming to a head soon, with this being the second-to-the-last issue in this latest Baltimore miniseries. Mignola and Golden have done an exemplary job of keeping the story moving with every issue. Most miniseries have a bridging issue, where nothing really happens other than setting up the story for the big finish. Baltimore never succumbs to that. Every issue has something new and interesting.
Artist Ben Stenbeck really shows off his darker side in this issue. He handles the human monsters with the same aplomb as the mythologicals. His realistic style suits the tone of the series, and he seems to have studied his Universal Horror films. The scene of Duvik carrying the body of the girl through town could have been ripped straight from Frankenstein. I confess I am still not thrilled with his interpretation of Baltimore himself, which is the only thing that keeps this series from getting top marks.
Dave Stewart, as always makes everything perfect. His coloring of Madame Blavatsky gives her more horror than the pencil work alone could produce. This series would not be a tenth as good if it were in black and white.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack's reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.