Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Vampirella Retrospective

Yes, that's Frank Frazetta art.
    Vampirella is a character with an interesting backstory both in-universe and behind-the-scenes. Arguably, her behind-the-scenes story is more interesting than the majority of her comic book adventures. She was created for a black and white horror magazine in 1969 as a way to get around the Comic Book Code Authority (because it's a MAGAZINE not a comic).

The stories were really good in the magazine.
    Her iconic and physics-defying red costume was created by noted feminist Trina Robbins who wanted to illustrate to the world uninhibited female sexuality not constrained by male prudishness. The magazine ran until Harris Comics acquired the rights to her in the Nineties then Dynamite Entertainment. The character has often been an inspiration for many horror fans but who has often been dismissed as shameless cheesecake. A fair cop sometimes and a mistake at others (as is the representation of many female characters in the comics industry).

    So who is Vampirella? She's an alien from the planet Drakulon who has all the powers of a vampire but fights supernatural vampires among other monsters. She's also been the daughter of Lilith but it's infinitely less cool/cheesy than this origin. Sometimes she's the host of horror books and other times she's actively hunting everything from the Lord of the Undead to Cthulhuean abominations. Like all good comic book origins, it has the benefit of being memorable and able to be explained on a postcard.

    The origins of the Vampirella character actually date back to the creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. Prior to the creation of that artistic urge suppressing "comics are for kids" body, the American comics industry had a thriving collection of genres ranging from horror to Westerns to romance. For those artists who wanted to create something other than safe and friendly superhero comics, it was a stifling set of restrictions.

Vampirella's mother.
    James Warren, founder of Warren Publishing, was clever enough to note a loophole in the law. Comic books were covered by the Comics Code Authority but a more expensive black and white magazine.

    "The Comics Code saved the industry from turmoil, but at the same time, it had a cleansing kind of effect on comics, making them "clean, proper and family-oriented" ... We would overcome this by saying to the Code Authority, the industry, the printers, and the distributors: 'We are not a comic book; we are a magazine. Creepy is magazine-sized and will be sold on magazine racks, not comic book racks". Creepy's manifesto was brief and direct: First, it was to be a magazine format, 8½" × 11", going to an older audience not subject to the Code Authority."
    -James Warren, The Warren Companion (2001)

    Forrest J. Ackerman, working with Trina Robbins, created Vampirella in 1969 as the host of her titular magazine. The Vampirella created there was one part Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (decades before her appearance) and one part Cryptkeeper. While Vampirella would have an adventure in her stories, her initial role was to be the flirtacious and funny host of a series of horror shorts which would usually end on some horrific but ironic note. Basically, if Rod Sterling could really fill out a swimsuit.

     Eventually, Vampirella evolved into a serious horror-themed superheroine. As silly as her origins of being an alien vampire were, it's not really that worse than Superman's or Green Lantern's. Arriving on planet Earth, she teamed up with vampire hunter Adam Van Helsing and had numerous adventures against the forces of Chaos. Her period as horror hostess actually lasted only until Issue 8# of the series and her period as a vampire hunting vampiress lasted until issue #112 when the magazine was cancelled.

    Vampirella, notably, created many of the stereotypes which would later become commonplace among vampire antiheroes. While good vampires existed before Vampirella, they were still comparatively rare in fiction in 1969. Hannibal King, the first vampire detective who inspired ones like Nick Knight or Mick Saint John, wouldn't appear until 1974. Vampirella also was the first vampire to not subsist on human blood but lived on a chemically created blood substitute (which Blade would use an equivalent to in his movie trilogy).

    I really liked the old Vampirella magazine stories because they're actually reasonably well-done Tales from the Crypt and Outer Limits-esque tales. The stories are cheesy but effective B-movie horror tales involving Dracula (who is an alien AND a supernatural vampire), the demon god Chaos (Michael Moorcock is owed some royalties), and an entertaining supporting cast which would do well on the silver screen or small one. There was Pendragon the alcoholic stage magician, the aforementioned Adam Van Helsing, and Pantha the werepanther.

Shockingly, 70s Vampirella art tended to be metal.
    Yes, they're often ridiculous but that's part of the charm as they understand the best comic book stories are ridiculous but treated completely serious. You can pick up many of these from Dynamite's reprints of the original magazine or just purchase their Essential Warren years Omnibus. I'm not going to say they're must-reading in terms of comic book history but they remind me of the old Tomb of Dracula comics out around the same time and that's never a bad thing.

    Warren Publishing's bankruptcy allowed the character to be acquired at auction by Harris Comics who had their own distinctive ideas about where to take the character. Nonplussed by the concept of an alien vampire who fought supernatural ones, Kurt Busiek retconned Vampirella as actually being the daughter of Lilith who was sent to destroy the monsters of the world with Drakulon being just a brainwashing technique used by her evil siblings. As much as I love Astro City, I think Kurt made a serious error here as it removes a lot of the whimsy which makes the character's stories work.

    Harris' handling of the character had mixed results with Vampirella slowly becoming less about telling funny or dramatic horror stories and more about the cheesecake. Given the character was always meant to have a funny B-movie tongue-in-cheek vibe, the shamelessness required to manage this was considerable. Attempts to restore the comic character's flagging sales with a large number of crossovers (Chaos Comics, Shadowhawk, Witchblade) didn't work and many thought Vampirella's story was over.

For some reason, people didn't take Harris' Vampirella seriously.
    Dynamite Entertainment, looking to expand their portfolio of recognizable characters, acquired the rights to Vampirella in 2010. Characterization of the revived character varied dramatically with Eric Trautmann treating her as an angry vengeful hunter of the night (like a buxom Batman crossed with Blade) while Nancy Collins (Sonja Blue author) wrote her as a much more fun-loving character.

    Dynamite's initial handling of the character was torn between the original Warren Publishing character and Harris' interpretation. Vampirella ended up working with the Vatican and a sidekick named Sofia Murray but struggled with the death of her lover Adam Van Helsing. She also was angry all the time and seemed to have one setting: Grrr.

    Honestly, it was an effort I had difficulty with as it confused angry with strong. I also felt if they were going to do the character, they should have stuck with the original cheesy-funny classic origin.  On the plus side, it didn't have Vampirella fight a giant tentacle worm monster with the aid of a spunky Goth girl so there's that. I also liked the books interpretation of fellow Drakulon native, Dracula, who took several levels in badass as well as snark.

    Eric Trautmann's run would end after only twenty issues and then switch to Brandon Jerwa. Jerwa would attempt to revive many of the previous Vampirella characters and homage the stories, leading to her being banished from her own universe in the final issue of her original continuity in issue 38#. I tend to favor Trautmann over Jerwa because I liked the character of Sofia Murray and felt they were easier for new fans to get into.

    Vampirella's new continuity would begin with a new issue 1# under horror author Nancy Collins.  This version of Vampirella was an agent of the Vatican, an alien from Drakulon, and associated with an all-monster organization called the Kabal. It attempted to reintroduce numerous classic characters while avoiding being bogged down in the continuity of the past.

    Recently, Dynamite rebooted the character yet again in 2016 with the aforementioned Hollywood Horror story arc by Kate Leth. Among other things, they changed her outfit from the iconic (but questionable) slingshot bikini to something someone might actually wear in public. The book also placed Vampirella in a stable relationship as well as made fun of the general craziness of fanboy reactions to the slightest things.

   So what do I think of it?

    I really like it. Iconic or not, Vampirella's outfit has often convinced many readers who might otherwise enjoy her work that she's just a cheesecake character with no personality. Much like Red Sonja under the hands of Gail Simone, Vampirella has benefited from a woman's touch. I also don't see how you can think Vampirella's roller-derby-esque outfit isn't sexy.

    As an aside, I very much like the character of Vampirella. I love horror stories, action stories, and humor which the new Dynamite series is providing in spades. It's one of my personal bugbears that people try to make comic books all about one single thing. Too many comic book writers confuse angry for strong and the character of Vampirella has always been at her best when treated as someone more akin to Buffy than Blade. Even under Trautman, who very much wrote the angry Vampirella, I felt there was a strong respect for the character and her mythology.

    Kate Leth's isn't always the crispest but her return to being a scream queen horror movie hostess while also regaining her sense of humor helps the book tremendously. Personally, I recommend this as a comic you can actually read on the bus. Who knows, we'll maybe actually get a Vampirella movie which doesn't destroy Hammer Horror.

    Oh, you haven't heard that story? Maybe next time.

2 comments:

  1. Yeah, the thing with really skimpy outfits is that modern culture doesn't see them as overly feminist. Which is kind of ironic.

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    1. Which is an argument that characters do need to be updated with the times to stay relevant. A fact which many a fanboy would be HORRIFIED by.

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