Just when I think Baltimore can't get much better, Mignola and Golden prove me wrong. Awesome.
While ostensibly a one-shot, this is issue #13 in the ongoing Baltimore "series of mini-series," and Mignola, Golden, Stenbeck and Stewart have served up a treat to celebrate that unlucky number. It's an oddity to be sure — this is the first Baltimore comic I can think of that doesn't actually star Lord Baltimore. Instead there is the shadow-haunted backstage of a theater, a dark patron drawn uncontrollably to the leading lady, and the aforementioned Poe head floating in a jar.
There so many allusions in this single issue that I rapidly lost count. The most obvious is to Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, in the guise of the vampire lord Haigus. Normally the main villain of the series, in The Play Haigus has fallen in love (or at least fallen in desire) which a woman who commands emotions in him he cannot understand, and long thought dead. There are some sinister scenes of Haigus, still every inch the monster, yet fully under the spell of the ingénue.
Continuing the theme is a production of Masque of the Red Death, one of Poe's short stories, being performed in the middle of a plague-ridden town to entertain the dying as they cough out their last breath. But if you look closely at the performers of Masque of the Red Death there is something wrong — their costumes look a little too real. Mignola and Golden dabble with the language, having the lead actor spout lines from another Poe poem The Conqueror Worm.
And then there is the identity of the woman herself, Isabelle. I don't want to give away any surprises, but Mignola and Golden expand the mythology of their Baltimore universe considerably with this issue, moving away from the plague and the vampires and giving a glimpse of… something potentially greater.
The art team of Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart are incredible. It seems repetitive to say with every single review of Baltimore that these guys are awesome, but pick up an issue and see for yourself. There are some gorgeous images in this comic, like the scene of the Red Death doing a monologue standing in front of a painting depicting the depths of Hell. And Dave Stewart — man, if you ever want to see what a difference a colorist can make to a comic, just pick up an issue of Baltimore. This is the King of Colors at his most effective, using palate shifts that jump out of the page and smack you in the face.
The only problem with Baltimore: The Play is its length — as a one-shot, it is too short to explore everything going on here. I would have liked three-issues or so to truly give depth to all of the ideas and characters introduced here. I hope some of them — particularly the Red Death himself, make further appearances. Oh, and Poe's head in a jar. I think I could handle him showing up again as well, just so long as he isn't overused.
And hey Dark Horse! I am saving up my money for a Baltimore: Library Edition! I want to see that on my shelf!
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.