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‘Baltimore: The Witch of Harju #1’ – Advance Comic Book Review

Dark Horse Comics’ Baltimore: The Witch of Harju #1 of 3 begins with an exciting encounter along a dark road in early nineteenth-century Estonia. A young woman is pursued by a relentless, mysterious figure across a desolate landscape. Exhausted, she falls at the knees of a band of passing men, begging to be saved from the ever-encroaching, shambolic horror. A solid, well-paced narrative follows, with enough gore and action to keep you turning the pages all the way to the end.

The story succeeds for a number of reasons. First, the storytellers do an excellent job of telling the tragedy of Sofia Valk, the young woman with the creeping pursuer. Her breathless tale of woe is recounted quickly and efficiently, so that the dire circumstances of her present situation are never allowed to fade from the reader’s mind. Moreover, even when the story develops and begins to introduce new characters and circumstances, Sofia is never far from center stage, and is an ever-present reminder that she — and we — are unsafe in the mysterious woods.

To the credit of the authors, the dialogue is sparse, and while it is generally unremarkable, it never gets in the way of the action — and this is a noteworthy accomplishment. Nearly every panel has a sense of immediate motion and direction, conveyed through the mingling of shadows, blood, and weak candlelight. General exposition is present, but it is delivered so economically that our attention is never diverted from the action at hand.

While the circumstances of Sofia’s misfortune are the stuff of well-worn fairy tales, they are nevertheless quite intriguing, largely because the story moves along at such a rapid pace. Consequently, the reader never has a moment to become bored with what are sometimes all-too-predictable tropes. Indeed, the reader feels the opposite — quite comfortable relaxing into the tale, and this is precisely because the storytellers are able to establish their exceptional craft from the beginning.

At the same time, it is also true that there are moments when I found myself wishing that some of the washed-out landscapes were not so washed out, and that some of the physical characteristics of the secondary characters were not so generalized. This is particularly relevant in the final third of the story, when a number of new venues and personalities are worked into the mix. These portions, unlike the earlier scenes, take place in the weak or otherwise strange light of day; however, this complaint only speaks to how successful the storytellers are in seducing the reader into their world, and the fact that I want to see more of it, rather than less, as the pages come to their eventual conclusion is yet another reason why I like this book.

However, I would point out that, for all of the title’s strengths, it is also the case that the story of the titular character feels somewhat tacked on to the otherwise sleek and efficient narrative of Sofia Valk. You get the sense that this series will proceed by introducing one set of strange circumstances after another in order to keep the reader’s attention, in a way that might be somewhat similar to American Horror Story: Asylum. While American Horror Story: Asylum was brilliant, I hope that Baltimore: The Witch of Harju takes a different track, as its demonstrated strengths all indicate narrative restraint, not narrative excess. Yet, I would be very happy to be wrong, if the storytellers handle such potential developments with the same level of expertise they demonstrate in this exciting opening chapter.




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