World War I is a conflict that is especially suited for horror yet it’s weirdly underrepresented in the genre. As psychologically scarring as it was physically, the first “great war” unleashed any number of modern terrors on the world, from chemical warfare to the death from above represented by airplanes and airships, both of which resulted in their fair share of intense mutilation and crippling of soldiers and civilians alike. Thankfully Mike Mignola and Christopher are looking to fix that with Baltimore: The Plague Ships, the first miniseries to expand on the world they created with their illustrated novel Baltimore, or the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, featuring their own intensely mutilated and crippled creation, soldier of the damned Lord Baltimore.
Joined by the dynamic duo art team of Ben Stenbeck and colorist Dave Stewart, Baltimore is one of Mignola’s darkest works in terms of tone and setting. Following the adventures of Lord Baltimore, this first volume of Baltimore is drenched in despair- shadowy, rusted colors from Stewart over decrepit, decaying figures from Stenbeck over a story that positions the “hero” as the kind of symbol of doom and death that readers of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend or Garth Ennis’ Just a Pilgrim will immediately recognize.
Blaming himself for the seemingly global plague of death that he has been forced to treat, Lord Baltimore’s plight isn’t meant to be sympathetic but instead symptomatic of the experience veterans of horrifying wars endure. A survivor of WWI, Baltimore can’t help but see death everywhere he goes and feel as though he’s the cause (granted, he has an especially good reason for this that is revealed in this first volume). Returning home from the conflict with the nightmares of the battlefield, Baltimore sees himself as contagion, a cancer on the lives of those around him. That this physically manifests in the form of freakish vampires that are especially bat-like and other monsters is a small detail- the real threat is and will always be Baltimore’s damaged mind and the the vengeance he seeks.
You can see it in Stenbeck’s art, which treats Baltimore himself as a kind of monster, his horrifying violence as unsettling as the threats he faces and his visage itself even a kind of terror. Missing a leg, scarred beyond recognition and stoic to the point of inhumanity, Baltimore instills fear in everyone he encounters, human or monster. It’s like a flip of the Hellboy universe, where Mignola and his collaborators shook up the status quo by making monsters the sympathetic heroes. But Hellboy and his co-cast had heart, a humor and a whimsy that granted even their darkest adventures some levity- Baltimore is as brutal as it comes, shocking and dark and single-mindedly devoted to its mood.
The brutality at play in Baltimore: The Plague Ships luckily doesn’t interfere with the readability of the work. Between Mignola and Golden’s well-structured and paced script and Stenbeck’s dark but fun designs (the climactic battle between Lord Baltimore and an apparently unending horde of walking corpses clad in WWI-era diving suits alone would be worth the cost of the book), Baltimore: The Plague Ships is an addicting experience, full of detail and bright ideas. Of course, as anyone familiar with Mignola’s work knows, that’s not shocking in the least. As always, Mignola knows how to pick his collaborators and settings, utilizing the backdrop of WWI as a character unto itself. The novelty of the period dressings and Stenbeck’s invigorating visual take on a classic horror threat, though, are just the icing on the cake of what is hopefully just the beginning of what looks to be a masterful epic from Mignola and Golden.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash Dinovic's Panel Panopticon.
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