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 Mignolaâ€™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 wasnâ€™t. Baltimore: The Infernal Train #1 is intended for readers already familiar with the characters, both seen and unseen. And because itâ€™s so spare, thereâ€™s little else to grab your interest. Unless youâ€™ve been chomping at the bit for more stories about vampires. (I havenâ€™t).
I guess Iâ€™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 itâ€™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 itâ€™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 Iâ€™d pick up Thor #379, and although I hadnâ€™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 thereâ€™s no indication of World War I. Too bad. Because if nothing else, that wouldâ€™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, itâ€™s justâ€¦there. Nothing spectacular. And overall very even in tone. Itâ€™s missing tension and a sense of dynamics.
Itâ€™s also an example of the â€œless is moreâ€ philosophy (except when it isnâ€™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. Iâ€™ll pick an artist at random: Jim Aparo, a real craftsman, though not a superstar. Jim Aparo wouldâ€™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 â€” 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, thatâ€™s not very long at all. Fifteen minutes is fifteen minutes. With some panel creativity, at least two issues worth of storyline wouldâ€™ve fit into this one single issue. Seriously.
Iâ€™m not saying we need a return to Chris Claremont or Marv Wolfman levels of overwrought explicatory dialogue, but perhaps thereâ€™s a happy medium somewhere. What might be worth exploring, is the return of the narrator â€” that omniscient unseen voice that fills in blanks, that guides the story. Seems like thatâ€™s become a disregarded trope, viewed with disdain by sophisticated adults, as if we wish to forget weâ€™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.