Thursday, July 28, 2011

REVIEW: Baltimore: The Plague Ships

Above: A page from Baltimore: The Plague Ships by Ben Stenbeck. Copyright Mike Mignola/Dark Horse Comics.

Lord Baltimore is the latest victorian horror hero to emerge from the mind of comics master Mike Mignola and his collaborators Christopher Golden and New Zealand artist Ben Stenbeck.

The first installment in what will no doubt be an ongoing adventure, The Plague Ships introduces us to World War 1 veteran Lord Henry Baltimore, a soldier turned peg-legged vampire hunter cutting a bloody path across plague infested Europe in pursuit of a vampire leader known as Haigus.

After exterminating a nest of vampires on the coast of France, Baltimore finds temporary sanctuary with an elderly witch and her granddaughter Vanessa. They assist him in escaping the village locals, who are less than grateful for the presence of this suspicious looking stranger. The only catch is, Vanessa insists on accompanying Baltimore on his voyage to Livorno, so she can leave her death ridden village behind her.

During the voyage, Baltimore recounts to Venessa his harrowing encounter with vampire bats amongst the corpses of the dead on the battlefields of World War 1, which may have provided the catalyst for the original plague outbreak. Soon their trip takes a treacherous turn, as a vicious storm sinks their ship leaving them stranded on a deserted island, inhabited only by the wreckage of plague ships, victorian submarines and the corpses of the infected. Whether they'll stay dead long enough for Baltimore and his companion to survive the night is another matter entirely...

This is another solid entry into Mignola's growing library of victorian styled horror comics. The writing takes its cue from the likes of classic horror novelists like Bram Stoker, opting for slow-burn reveals and atmosphere rather than shock images, and is all the better for it.

Above: A page from Baltimore: The Plague Ships by Ben Stenbeck. Copyright Mike Mignola/Dark Horse Comics.

An equal amount of credit has to go to Stenbeck, who's carefully paced artwork expertly tells the story, keeping it atmospheric and grounded at all times. At first glance it would be easy to call Ben's artwork here a close approximation of Mignola's own, as they share a very similar stylistic approach (and it certainly doesn't hurt); but a careful study reveals Ben is bringing just as much of his own great touches to the series.

Stenbeck's artwork has a layer of vintage detail and texture that brings a lived in reality to the story and it's historical setting. It's subtile, but an essential element necessary to reinforces this story, one which I think would have been lost in the abstraction if Mignola had illustrated it himself. Ben's artwork doesn't contradict the visual language of Mignola's world, but expertly adds to it when called for, the sign of a true collaborator. The hardback also contains a bonus sketchbook of Ben's development drawings and sketches as well as brand new pin-ups!

Above: Baltimore: The Plague Ships cover by Mike Mignola. Copyright Mike Mignola/Dark Horse Comics.

This hardback collection has already landed on the prestigious New York Time Bestseller List, with a sequel mini-series Baltimore: The Curse Bells, beginning with issue #1 shipping August 10th from Dark Horse Comics.

If you're a fan of classic suspenseful horror from when vampires were vampires (and not socially awkward tweens) then this is essential reading! It's available from Dark Horse Comics and your local book store now, for $24.99US.

For more of Ben's artwork, check out his website HERE, and you may want to revisit this Studio Visit I conducted with Ben a few years ago for a look inside his working process HERE.


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