Review: Baltimore: The Cult of the Red King #1

Baltimore: The Cult of the Red King #1 does exactly what all of the best tales of the macabre strive to do: use mood to enhance, not overwhelm, the story and give readers reason to hold their breath as they absorb the stories.

Baltimore: The Cult of the Red King #1

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writers: Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola
Artists: Peter Bergting and Dave Stewart
Release Date: Wed, May 6, 2015

Mood can make or break a good comic book yarn. The atmosphere in which a tale is entangled has to be appropriate to the story, elicit a response from a reader, yet almost be unnoticeable. That’s why I’m in the minority when I say that the first Tim Burton Batman film just didn’t do it for me. When I was a youngster first watching the movie in a small Kentucky theater in 1989, I knew something was off. I couldn’t put my chubby little finger on it, but something felt amiss. Upon reflection as an adult, I realized that what Burton did wasn’t create a Batman film; he threw a bunch of gothic, dark imagery on the screen and inserted Batman into it. He didn’t start with character; he allowed the atmosphere dictate the story and its inhabitants.

You could see how co-writers Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola might fall into the same trap if they were less able wordsmiths. The world of monster hunter and destroyer of darkness Lord Baltimore, the protagonist of Dark Horse‘s Baltimore: The Cult of the Red King #1, lends itself necessarily to it heroes and rogues muddling about in the dark, and there’s a temptation to let that atmosphere consume the whole tale. And yet, Golden and Mignola realize that a story that starts with mood as its prime mover doesn’t give the reader a reason to give a damn about what happens to its characters, especially if they’re considered secondary of an afterthought.

Striving for an equilibrium between character and narrative and mood is readily apparent in The Red King, with one component never sacrificed for the sake for other two. Which is a feat in and of itself, considering the heaviness of the first issue. Baltimore and his companions seek to put an end to a plague of vampires let loose upon the globe by the evil Red King, an evil that, as it turns out, might have been triggered by the world’s nations during World War I.

Mignola and Golden accomplish with the premise that Dark Horse’s Mignolaverse titles of Hellboy, BPRD, and the like accomplish so well: It holds a cracked mirror up to humanity to show how we create our own monsters in some form or fashion. As Mignola’s Frankenstein Underground highlights that human cruelty emerges from our fears and prejudice, so does The Red King show how the ravages of war can be our undoing, either figuratively or, in the case of this tale, quite literally. Humans plant the seeds to our undoing, and Mignola and Golden play with that idea nicely here.

As much I’ve made about atmosphere, Mignola, Golden, and artists Peter Bergting and Dave Stewart do an excellent job at making that atmosphere truly serve the narrative. The entire issue feels painted in shadows, but that’s out of necessity, not just window dressing, showing how dark the world has turned due to the Red King’s machinations. The effect makes the reader feel ill at ease while barely seeing a single twisted creature of the night. The anticipation, as with any monster movie, does the best job at keeping the viewer locked in anticipation with a lump in his throat. In addition, the Lovecraftian language, the Victorian costumery and language, and the haggard looks of the cast makes the reader believe both that the characters occupy this world and have lived tumultuous lives without relying on mounds of dialogue to drive the point home.

A note about the accessibility: I was aware of the Baltimore miniseries already out there and had a general notion about the character’s stories, but I had never read one until The Red King. That said, I didn’t feel lost in the least, and that’s saying something these days when comics from so many companies are saddled with so much history that the exercise of reading them feels like an impenetrable fog. There was some exposition that paid notice to Lord Baltimore’s past adventures, but none of it felt forced. And the grim spectre of sadness Baltimore wears like a cloak doesn’t feel forced, but earned, even only knowing for a single issue. Much of that is accomplished through the few words he does utter as well as the chatter between his compatriots as to why the monster killer is the way he is.

Baltimore: The Cult of the Red King #1 does exactly what all of the best tales of the macabre strive to do: use mood to enhance, not overwhelm, the story and give readers reason to hold their breath as they absorb the stories.

Baltimore: The Cult of the Red King #1 is in comic shops now. Be sure to check out our interview with issue co-writer Christopher Golden!

Writers who want to use a show, not tell, approach to penning horror should really read this comic and learn from the masters.
9Overall Score
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