Many of us who read the prose novel Baltimore were wondering what Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden were going to do with the character. It was obvious that there was more story to tell, but what format would those stories take? A series of novels? Short stories? Or would Mignola and Golden take the character to the medium that Mignola knew so well.
With The Plague Ships we got our answer. Taking the novel as a launching point — but not slavishly so — Baltimore: The Plague Ships further develops the that the Right Honourable the Lord Henry Richard Baltimore, 13th Baron Baltimore, of Boscastle in County Durham and his rivalry against the vampire Haigus. Baltimore is no longer quite the Steadfast Tin Soldier of the novel, but more of a grim, harpoon-slinging action hero doing battle with zeppelin-flying Kaiser vampires.
The story gives you everything you need to know about Baltimore including his back story, so you don't need to have read the book to enjoy the comic. The series starts with Baltimore landing on a vampire-haunted village, cleaning up the town in classic action-hero style, Then sailing off on a cursed ship to fight mushroom-people and steam punk diving suits on a haunted isle.
This first volume in the Baltimore series has its flaws. The story is a jumble. Mike Mignola has been on record for years in wanting to incorporate some William Hope Hodgins (The Ghost Pirates) influence into his stories as well as a fungus-themed villain. The Hellboy: Library Editions have featured his sketches on this a few times. He finally got the chance to do so, but it just doesn't flow.
Overall, I think there are too many ideas cannibalized from other series and packed into this story. Along with the island and the fungus monsters, he reused the Victorian steampunk diving suits from Abe Sapien which looked cool there but just don't work as well in Baltimore's Gothic style. All of the bit parts are good enough individually, but stitching together the various elements, along with Baltimore's origin story, leads to a less-than-great reading experience.
The art is also uneven. Ben Stenbeck doesn't really have a grip on Baltimore as a character and while there are little flashes of brilliance here and there on a whole the art never rises to an amazing level. Stenbeck's backgrounds and scenery are incredible, but he just doesn't have the same fluency with figures. The King of Colors Dave Stewart does only his usual level of brilliance, which means that even on his worst day he puts every other colorist to shame.
The good news is, everything gets better. Amazingly better. I have read the follow-up series, Baltimore: The Curse Bells, which is a phenomenal piece of comic art and one of the best horror comics I have ever read. So pick up and read Baltimore: The Plague Ships if for no other reason than as preparation for a comic that is going to shiver your bones, churl your stomach, and blow your mind a little.
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.