BALTIMORE PLAGUE SHIPS #1, the new horror-fantasy book written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden, is an uneven and disappointing opening issue. The biggest problem with this book is that, after reading it, I don't know enough about its main characters or care enough about its creepy world to be interested in picking up the next issue.
The book is set in an alternate universe, where plague and vampires have overtaken World War I Europe. Lord Henry Baltimore, the title character of this five-part miniseries, is hunting down a particularly nasty vampire in a dark French town and, in the process, risks not only his life but also a jail sentence. There is something intrinsically compelling about such a macabre atmosphere and premise. Who doesn’t enjoy a good old-fashioned horror story, filled with foggy streets, dark alleyways, and all the other fun Gothic gimmicks?
Unfortunately, there is nothing behind these gimmicks to give this story any substance. The characters In PLAGUE SHIPS #1 are all cardboard cutouts -- especially the protagonist. We are shown that Lord Baltimore is a highly driven man, who will stop at nothing to kill vampires. But why exactly is he so driven? Who knows? I guess because vampires are bad and Baltimore is one of those really obsessed van Helsing-types who all too often populate horror stories. Rather than provide some explanation or greater character background, Mignola and Golden decide to write an opening chase scene that is mostly wordless and takes up nearly half of the first issue. That’s right: you can flip through the first half of PLAGUE SHIPS in thirty seconds and not miss any plot points.
This type of opening works well in movies and TV shows, where hair-raising stunts can by themselves be entertaining enough to sustain a viewer's interest for several minutes until the exposition catches up to the action. But in the opening issue of a comic that costs over three bucks, no thanks. This is weak storytelling. As long as comics are going to be sold as singles, creators owe it to readers to provide them with over twenty pages of fun that are worthwhile on their own and not simply teaser material that might, eight months down the road, read well once it's part of a larger collection. Yes, a comic doesn’t always need words to tell a rich story. But it helps, especially with an opening issue where the characters are unfamiliar to readers and the world is ill defined.
Because so much of the book is without text, the best part of PLAGUE SHIPS is the art. Ben Stenbeck's illustrations are indeed solid. They evoke the Mignola style of art, without simply being weak imitations of that style. They are reminiscent, in other words, but at the same time original. Stenbeck also does a great job of making France look appropriately sick and dark and trapped in an occult past. Best of all, he makes the vampires in this book look ugly and monstrous. There are no sexy vamps here, just evil-looking bloodsuckers. Yet, as good as the art is, it isn't good enough for me to recommend this book.
OVERALL : 5.25