February 7, 2014

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Baltimore Chapel of Bones 1-2

Written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Illustrated by Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Lord Baltimore gathers his friends--or at least, as close as he gets to friends--together, but for what purpose? Meanwhile, the object of Baltimore's quest maneuvers his own chess pieces in a confrontation that leads to startling revelations across all sides in this two-part mini-series that answers some questions while raising new threats.

I've read most of the Baltimore stories at this point and I've found them to be a bit uneven overall. While the plots are strong, Baltimore himself is a bit hard to care about. He's kind of a Hellboy Universe Punisher type, only instead of criminals he's after any creatures who prey on humanity. So the interest depends strongly on what is happening in the story, not the character itself. (This is vastly different from Hellboy itself. I really don't care what he's doing, because the character is so engaging, he can be in a weak plot and I'll still enjoy his antics.)

I'm also not a big fan of Ben Stenbeck's art, which thrives in action scenes and creating horrifying creatures but suffers greatly when drawing talking scenes and sometimes doesn't fill in the details completely, such as leaving faces blank. He's good at evoking a mood, but for me, that only carries things so far.

In Chapel of Bones, the creative team has put together a very complete picture, mostly due to the second half of the story, which allows Stenbeck to shine, keeps the pace moving quickly, and provides some genuine shocks that reverberate across the past stories and into the potential future.

One of the problems with the modern Mignola stories is that they tend to start off entirely too slowly. Gothic styling combines with the maddening modern monthly comics trend towards "reads better in trade" pacing to give us pages upon pages of introduction that probably could have been cut in half. Mignola and Golden take their time putting the actors on the stage, which is fine, except that their extensive discussion boils down to "Baltimore is a mysterious guy who we all know" and doesn't really tread any new ground. Between this and the discussion of the things that have happened to Baltimore, it felt like there was too much recapping going on for anyone who is familiar with the series. Mignola should consider recap pages in the future, one of the best things to come out of modern comics--a quick update for those who don't know, and move on.

Once things get going, however, the story is filled with tension as the proxy war between Baltimore and Haigus comes to an end and the two foes meet head to head. Their dramatic speeches are well done, filled with passion and hatred. Best of all, the vampire's words, while total exposition for future mini-series, never feel like they only exist to do so. His curses on Baltimore's head come naturally and make sense within the context of the story. Similarly, when Baltimore's emotions explode, only to realize just how large the scale of his quest actually is, the words given to him by the two writers flows like the end speeches at the climax of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Making those words come to life is Stenbeck, who turns in some of the best pages of his work on the Baltimore series. As with the overall narrative, once Baltimore's friends are trapped by Haigus, the art kicks into high gear, with skeletal creatures attacking from all sides. Showing the figures always in motion, whether it's falling or fighting, Stenbeck makes things feel like the very souls of the characters are at risk. Aided by Stewart's use of stark blacks contrasted by the bright orange of flames or the blood red of the mysterious painting that has hidden meaning, the layouts build to the issue one cliffhanger of Baltimore's appearance. Lit by flame and wearing a determined look that Stenbeck thankfully creates in great detail, the action is held in a frozen moment of time before its release in the second issue.

The battle across the second issue is no less frenzied, with characters drawn at odd angles and visuals created that move the reader's eyes across invisible straight lines where the primary action occurs. There's a bit more posing than I think is best for the story, as Baltimore and Haigus strike at each other with words, seemingly pausing to taunt before attacking again. However, while in past issue this might have been problematic, Stenbeck has improved significantly in making his characters show emotion. When Baltimore has finished his fight, the look he gives his friends is wide-eyed and crazed, suggesting he might just kill them next in a fit of bloodlust. Similarly, the reactions of his partners when Baltimore reveals a key secret help sell the scene for the reader, something I didn't see in prior storylines. Stenbeck will never be at his best with ordinary scenes, but this is a major progression from issues past.

Baltimore Chapel of Bones is a capstone on a project that Mignola, Golden, Stenbeck, and Stewart have seen through across the past several years. If it were the ending, it would be a damn good one. As it stands, it's merely a character arc finish, setting up more tales of Baltimore's fight against the larger evil he must now confront. If the new stories can match the quality here, they'll be worth the wait.