Baltimore: The Infernal Train
Written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Art by Ben Stenbeck
Cover by Ben Stenbeck with Dave Stewart
Dark Horse Comics
Release Date: September 4, 2013
Cover Price: $3.50
I took on this assignment without knowing that there was an illustrated novel and several comic book series preceding it. Mike Mignola’s name stood out, I like his Hellboy stuff, and have several volumes of that series on my shelf. Plus, it was a #1, so I figured this was a good place to start.
It wasn’t. Baltimore: The Infernal Train #1 is intended for readers already familiar with the characters, both seen and unseen. And because it’s so spare, there’s little else to grab your interest. Unless you’ve been chomping at the bit for more stories about vampires. (I haven’t).
I guess I’m old school. Back in the day, I discovered a lot of reads mid-run. Some had been around for decades. Yet I was able to get a sense of the characters, their abilities, and their goal(s). And finish the story wanting more.
And to this day, I feel one should be able to dive into any comic, whether it’s the first or hundredth issue, and find enough cool stuff to want the next issue, and the previous issues.
However, for the sake of reviews, I prefer to tackle an ongoing title having read previous issues, or a goodly portion of them, just to be as fair as possible. Unless it’s a first issue, because a first issue assumes (or used to) little to no prior knowledge of the characters and their world(s).
Now, back to the olden days when I’d pick up Thor #379, and although I hadn’t read the previous 378 issues, there was enough to hook me, and enough to compel me to seek out the backstory. Sadly, those elements are missing with Baltimore: The Infernal Train.
It takes place in Hungary in 1917, yet there’s no indication of World War I. Too bad. Because if nothing else, that would’ve provided an interesting backdrop. Perhaps, events prior to this comic precluded, or ended, that conflict.
The art is good, if not truly compelling. Kind of Mignola-lite. Some nice shots of the city. But mostly, it’s just…there. Nothing spectacular. And overall very even in tone. It’s missing tension and a sense of dynamics.
It’s also an example of the “less is more” philosophy (except when it isn’t). Somewhere along the line, creators, striving for a cinematic feel, got the notion that comic books should (or could) look like movie storyboards.
They should not.
A storyboard is intended to aid the sell of a movie, to help the director get a stronger sense of the narrative, and to build shots. The storyboard motif, applied to a comic book, usually results in a brisk read.
This is a comic that takes about fifteen minutes to read.
Look at a comic from the ’70s or ’80s. Look at the way the better artists used visual economy to move the story along. Smaller panels for mechanical things like setting up a transition scene. Larger panels for big dramatic scenes. Push/pull. Case in point: Page 7 of Baltimore. Two panels to tell us a train is coming into town. And the whole page is really just that setup. I’ll pick an artist at random: Jim Aparo, a real craftsman, though not a superstar. Jim Aparo would’ve used a narrow, vertical panel to establish that train, and its sound. Done, leaving plenty of room for more STORY.
For $3.50, I want more content — if not pages, then some more words. You can only linger at pictures for so long, and when the pictures are in a minimalist style, that’s not very long at all. Fifteen minutes is fifteen minutes. With some panel creativity, at least two issues worth of storyline would’ve fit into this one single issue. Seriously.
I’m not saying we need a return to Chris Claremont or Marv Wolfman levels of overwrought explicatory dialogue, but perhaps there’s a happy medium somewhere. What might be worth exploring, is the return of the narrator — that omniscient unseen voice that fills in blanks, that guides the story. Seems like that’s become a disregarded trope, viewed with disdain by sophisticated adults, as if we wish to forget we’re reading comic books.
As noted and to be fair, I went into this comic cold, and while it left me cold, I will give it the benefit of the doubt that previous series, and the illustrated novel, were entertaining enough to garner a devoted following, and the fact that the series is continuing, is evidence of that.