I may have to turn in my Mike Mignola fan card by saying this, but I still haven’t read his and Christopher Golden’s novel “Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire.” It looks rather slick and interesting, but there are only so many hours in the day and something had to give. Still, I figured I’d give “Baltimore: The Plague Ships” a whirl; from what I understand, it’s set somewhere in the middle of the “Baltimore” novel, and was designed so new readers could jump right in.
Reading the first issue, though, I found myself a little nonplussed by it all. The book starts in media res, with Lord Henry Baltimore having come to a little plague-ridden town in France pursuing a vampire. From there it’s a fight scene, a hunk of exposition and prophecy, and an awkward transition to the next issue. I can’t help but feel that Mignola and Golden were hoping that more people had read the “Baltimore” novel, because the titular character here is woefully underdeveloped. Aside from Baltimore being driven to find the vampire he’s been chasing, and also good at fighting the undead, we don’t know anything else about him at the end of the first issue. He’s the proverbial blank slate, but so far without any interesting details sketched onto him.
Then again, it’s also a problem with the one supporting cast member of this book, Vanessa. She’s remarkably two-dimensional, the slightly mysterious young woman who will do anything to get out of her small town. Watching Vanessa and her grandmother verbally spar is about as exciting as a slow-motion game of crazy eights, and by the end of the issue I found myself hoping the inquisitor mentioned might actually make an appearance because then something slightly more exciting would happen.
On the other hand, Ben Stenbeck (who drew Mignola’s “Witchfinder” mini-series last year) is drawing “Baltimore: The Plague Ships” so it looks beautiful. Unlike most artists in the Mignola-verse (Duncan Fegredo, Guy Davis, Mignola himself), Stenbeck’s art has a smooth and rounded edge, but one that packs the details in on the backgrounds. When Stenbeck’s given scenes like shelves packed full of arcane objects, or bins at the marketplace, you know that he’s going to not skimp on drawing everything there. And of course, he’s good with the foregrounds too. Stenbeck draws World War I era vampires in a fantastic style, with military jackets and goggles and hats, and the fight scenes feel fluid and energetic. Dave Stewart helps bring the creepy, too, especially with his deep blood reds over the prophecy scene that feels so like a Mignola panel that you might do a double-take before you remember it was Stenbeck.
“Baltimore: The Plague Ships” #1 looks beautiful, but at least for this new reader, the writing isn’t quite up to par from Mignola and Golden. I’m generally fond enough of Mignola’s comics that I’ll give it another shot next month, but I expected a lot better from this creative team.