I've been spoiled by Baltimore. With series like The Plague Ships and one-shots like The Play — one of the best single issues of 2012 — I have come to expect every issue to be amazing. So when an issue like this comes around, one that is merely great, it's a slight let-down. It seems a bit unfair to complain about that, but that only speaks to the insane high-quality that Mignola, Golden, Stenbeck and Stewart manage to put out with every issue.
Baltimore: The Widow and The Tank genuflects to one of Mike Mignola's greatest accomplishments, the two-part one-shot Hellboy: The Corpse and the Iron Shoes. There are two complete and unrelated stories in the one-shot. I like this style of writing; it reminds me of the old folktales that Mignola draws from, most of which are only two or three pages long. The story gets to focus on a single idea instead of being dragged out in subplots and filler, and that makes the single idea all the more poignant.
Of the two stories, The Widow is the more successful. It is a nice, touching scenario of the idea of marriage, and how far the bonds of love and duty can take you. The Tank's idea is visually cool, but not as emotionally evocative. A cool, fun story with a weird ending, but that's about it.
If there is a theme between the two stories, it is about humanizing the monsters. We got a taste of this in The Play, where the brutal Haigus found himself unwillingly in love. In The Widow and The Tank, vampires are again shown to have emotion. Well, some of them. The vampire husband home from the war is just using his wife, but there is a returned tenderness there on her part. Meanwhile in The Tank, we see that vampires can know fear and desperation as pungent as any humans.
The art in The Widow and The Tank is good, but also not as impressive as previous issues. Dave Stewart doesn't have impressive characters like the Red Death and Madame Blavatsky to wow us with. Ben Stenbeck — who always produces wonderful art — is also limited in his subject matter. There are one or two panels that stick out, and both Stenbeck and Stewart get strong emotional punch out of those panels to remind us what they are capable of.
I think The Widow and The Tank will work great as short interludes in a collected edition (Still crossing my fingers for Baltimore Library Editions). I love this kind of work in Mignola's Hellboy collections, where short pieces punctuate longer story arcs. But as a stand-alone issue… just great, not amazing.
And a small rant: I am ready to call bullshit on Lord Baltimore's hardass-ness. He swears up and down that he isn't a hero on a crusade but is just focused on Haigus, but then every chance he gets he gets swept up in helping some small town and battling all sorts of non-Haigus menaces.
After reading this issue I realized that Baltimore is like the anti-hero from the Japanese samurai series The Sleepy Eyes of Death. Both purport to be cold-hearted killers, but they both seem to end up helping the good guys and fighting the bad guys. One of these days I'd like to see Baltimore keep his threat, and just walk on by as monsters chomp down on a small village. Now that would be a really short story!
Baltimore: The Widow and the Tank will be in stores February 20, 2013.
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.