VISUAL FRIGHTS: The Play’s The Thing
BALTIMORE: THE PLAY (Dark Horse Comics, November 2012 $3.50) Story by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden. Art by Ben Stenbeck. Colors by Dave Stewart. Letters by clem Robins.
A plague is wiping out half the population of Verona, Italy in 1917. Into town rides the vampire hunter Lord Baltimore in search of the ancient Haigus. The legendary vampire has secreted himself away as the financier of a local theatre company presenting an adaptation of Poe’s Masque Of The Red Death. Haigus has infected the majority of the theatre company with vampirism, with the exception of the lead actress (who turns out to be an actual muse with siren like abilities) and the phony director (who takes advice from the disembodied head of the formerly Edgar Allan Poe).
All this, and another recent comic with reference to Poe’s The Conqueror Worm poem as well. What more could you ask of a one-shot story? Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden script, along with mesmerizing art by Ben Stenbeck.
Lord Baltimore is only a secondary character in this story, but serves well as appropriate bookends. His role helps set the stage and background, and then provide a final grim and bloody curtain, which begs an encore. As Baltimore enters the town, the few survivors (wearing masks and gloves to protect themselves) are hurling dead bodies into the river.
He reminds them that they are poisoning the water and a townsman responds that there aren’t enough left to bury the dead and they’ve become afraid of breathing in the smoke from the pyres. They anticipate and hope that the river will carry the bodies to the sea, and take the plague with it. Baltimore explains that he’s seeking Haigus and believes him responsible for the ill turn of events. A true connection is never established, and there is some doubt as to whether or not two separate events are occurring. The townsfolk touched by the plague seem to develop facial pustules while the actors and audience touched by the vampires are either destroyed through blood lust or revived as new vampires with the same sallow pallor as their creator.
There are many layers to this story and much irony. The besieged town becomes boarded up as one hospital after another fails to contain the spread of infection. Instead they seal up their buildings with patients still inside, using whitewash to mark the doors in a coffin shape to warn outsiders. Yet, the play still finds an audience albeit a sparse one, as still healthy civilians (some with traces of the telltale facial growth) dress in their respiratory masks while the masked players on stage relate the story of an earlier plague, the Red Death.
Ever safe from the approach of the lord vampire is lead actress Isabella (the muse), who fascinates and attracts him. He would seemingly prefer to win her affection the old-fashioned way or at least partner with her for control of the townsfolk. This power of hers later causes a bloody climax, as a jealous Haigus confronts his cast and tries to force their allegiance.
Lord Baltimore arrives much later at a boarded up theatre, missing his prey by two weeks. However, some of the undead cast remain – – lurking in the shadows until the moment when “the curtain arises anew, my friends .. . and we have the stage all to ourselves.” BALTIMORE: THE PLAY is disturbing and delightful simultaneously!