Filed under: Exquisite Reviews | Tags: Ben Stenbeck, Christopher Golden, Clem Robins, Dave Stewart, Lord Henry Baltimore, Sarajevo, Szeged
Story by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Art by Ben Stenbeck
Colours by Dave Stewart
Letters by Clem Robins
Cover by Ben Stenbeck with Dave Stewart
On October 11th 1917, in Sarajevo, Lord Henry Baltimore, destroyer of monsters, receives a letter.
On September 29th 1917, in Szeged (I don’t know how to pronounce it either), Judge Duvic sits down with Hodge and has a conversation. The letter is the result.
This is my first exposure to Baltimore and, whilst it tells new readers almost nothing about the character, it gives you a wealth of information about the world. Hodge has some nice moments, he’s a two-fisted scholar instead of a helpless victim, but this is very much Judge Duvic’s story. In fact, it’s Judge Duvic’s origin story as he recounts his childhood, how he came to the church and the forming of the new Inquisition.
These are choppy waters for any writer, even ones of the calibre of Mignola and Golden. Horror as a genre is infamous for resting on its rotting, fecund (Or at times sparkly and passive aggressively beautiful) laurels and the thought of being subjected to yet another ‘Catholic priest understands nothing and is morally bankrupt’ story didn’t fill me with hope. I’ve seen that plot over and over and it’s only interesting when a new take surfaces on it. The short-lived BBC TV show Apparitions is a good example, as is the original Vampire$ novel, as opposed to the hugely enthusiastic John Carpenter’s Vampires move adaptation. That’s fun but covers entirely different ground.
Done right, the idea of the misguided warrior priest can add real meat and strength to a story like this. Done wrong, it looks like taking a cheap shot at an easy target and lowers the impact of every other element of the piece. Here, it works pretty well. Duvic is a traumatised young man certainly, but that trauma is passed on to him by Father Corin, the priest who takes him as an apprentice. Within three pages, the young Duvic is walking through a terrifying butcher’s shop filled with human remains, engaging in an exorcism, purification rituals that would make Dan Brown wince and, ultimately, killing his mentor when Corin falls victim to the infection that’s spreading evil across Europe. It’s a smartly handled scene, equal parts brutal and sad as we see the experiences that have shaped Duvic into the monster he is today. They’re tragic, certainly, and also very subtly weighted to play to what the reader brings to the scene. If you want to believe that Duvic was sexually as well as psychologically abused by Corin you can read that in. If you want to believe he was Robin to Corin’s clerical Batman, you can read that in. It’s a difficult, elegant piece of plotting that neatly sidesteps the single greatest hurdle in modern ‘warrior priest’ stories.
Mignola and Golden set up Corin’s ending as Duvic’s new beginning. Recruited into the Inquisition, he proves an extraordinary soldier, killing evil everywhere he goes with no fear for his own safety. Again, there’s a certain ambiguity here; whether Duvic is so effective because he’s numbed by grief, is chosen by God or is himself tainted by evil. It’s clear which one he believes and it’s also clear by the end of the book that that may very well not be the truth. A sudden moment of offhand brutality brings him face to face with just what he is and shows both Duvic, and the reader, just how much he needs to change. It’s a great scene, the violence presented in a resolutely unflashy way and finishing with an image so subtle you may miss it the first time. If so, go back and read it again because there’s a single panel, with Duvic saying a single word in it, which looks to be a turning point for him, as well as a chance for Hodge to make his escape.
The Inquisitor reads like a pause in the overall story of Baltimore, and it’s a welcome one. You won’t have all your questions answered by any means but Mignola and Golden are masters of character and Duvic is a memorably monstrous, tragic, figure who deserves the spotlight. Stenbeck’s artwork picks up on the nuances of character in the script and really helps put Duvic across as a character. He’s an imposing figure, wearing a cassock, combat webbing and a sword but the robes are a little too big, the collar a little too starched. Dave Stewart’s, as ever, amazing colour work plays up the mortality of the characters and paints Europe in shades of bruise, blood and darkness. Finally, Clem Robins’ lettering manages to deal with three languages and multiple styles of speech, all with ease. The end result is a classy, disturbing one-shot that tells a story and sets up major events for the future. As I say, your questions won’t all be answered but your attention will be held by a high class slice of horror that’s led me to the rest of the series. I suspect I won’t be the only one.
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