Baltimore: The Curse Bells (Dark Horse, $24.99)
Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden (w), Ben Stenbeck (a) and Dave Stewart (c)
This is just good comics.
You've got your anniversary issues, your big crossovers, your event comics, your "Brand New Days" and "Flashpoints." But something like Baltimore: The Curse Bells is just good comics in its purest form: A well-done story with its own vibe, its own standalone history, its complete lack of any reason to exist ... except that some great creators wanted to tell a good, creepy tale around the campfire.
This is the third story to star Lord Henry Baltimore, who is a monster killer in a world where World War I -- well, the "Great War," since they didn't have a second one -- was prematurely ended by a plague. That plague is what on our world we'd call supernatural; it's as much a mental malaise as a physical infection, and if it doesn't kill its victims, it turns them into something ... other. The plague -- and vampires, shapeshifters, and monsters of all stripes -- was awakened by the great hate, fear and bloodletting of the Great War, and now a depressed, depopulated and dispirited world barely out of the 19th century is being eaten away, bit by bit, by evil. The only one fighting back is Baltimore, who is doing it for revenge, but seems to bit more than human himself and may be divinely appointed -- or not.
This premise was introduced in Baltimore: Or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, a novel written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden (who have collaborated on numerous Hellboy novels), with occasional illustrations by Mignola. (I reviewed it HERE.) A 2010 miniseries, Baltimore: The Plague Ships, was written by Mignola and Golden, drawn by Ben Stenbeck (Witchfinder) and collected in 2011. Now comes The Curse Bells by the same creative team, released as a miniseries in 2011 and collected in 2012.
But you don't have to read the previous books to enjoy The Curse Bells -- all you need to know is apparent at the outset, and all you need to do is go with the flow. You're in the hands of storytellers of great skill, so just enjoy the ride.
And what a ride it is. Baltimore's world is a nightmarish one, where every peaceful Alpine village or innocent monastery is chock-full of horrible monsters that follow no known pattern. Not for Baltimore are the safe "rules" that govern so many of "our" monsters -- in fact, many of them seem original to this book, and are born of some dark wellspring in their creators' heads. Whatever that inspiration is, it seems unending, as Baltimore faces one ghastly battle after another.
Like with superhero books, I wasn't terribly worried about Baltimore himself; he's the star of the series and isn't likely to die any time soon. So when he's on stage my chief interest is in how he's going to get out of a given jam, and in what creative ways he'll find to off his opponents. Armed as he is with every weapon available to the time period -- including a harpoon strapped to his back -- he gets quite creative, indeed.
But I am always concerned about whatever innocents or companions Baltimore attracts; they are fair game and this is a world where there are precious few happy endings. People who befriend Baltimore have a terrible track record. And, of course, some of the innocents whom he encounters aren't innocent at all.
In summary, it's a delightful book. You'd think it would be depressing, but the story's relentless forward motion, the quick twists that surprise but are then put behind, and Baltimore's manic fixation on his goal -- the vampire who killed his family -- keep the reader moving forward so fast there's barely time to digest one scene before another begins. Stenbeck's art and storytelling skill has to be credited here as well; his style is almost Franco-Belgian in its clarity, so the reader can easily discern what's going on in even the most shadow-cloaked dungeon or darkest forest.
And just when you think Golden and Mignola can't get any creepier, they do. I mean, this is a book with vampire nuns, and even they are afraid of something else.
I'm looking forward to this. I enjoyed Baltimore: The Plague Ships, and it sounds like the team is still firing on all cylinders on this one. I heard Mignola speak this weekend at HeroesCon several times, and it's too bad this project was barely mentioned. There's so much focus on Hellboy and the BPRD that his other work tends to get overlooked.
I see Baltimore being in the same universe as Hellboy and BPRD. I agree that The Plague Ships was excellent, and look greatly forward to reading The Curse Bells.