By Devin T. Quin
Depending on your point of view this could be the golden age of vampires in popular culture OR, as many “old school” horror fans feel, a time of a great and calamitous darkness. They feel like the elf queen Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings, that the once fun and fertile world of vampires as sexy, horrible undead monsters is slowly dying, transforming into a new age of emotional vampires with guilt and girlfriends, fueled less by hatred and more by teen angst. “I can feel it in the water,” they cry. “ I can feel it in the air.”
To this I and Dracula, say “Bleah!”
Vampires have been with us for one-hundred plus years, and while they go through many changes they always turn in a riveting performance. They’re the simplest narrative device to illustrate that power comes with strings, that immortality has its downsides and the oldest of adages yet: be careful what you wish for.
An important aspect to the evolution of our blood sucking buddies has been the comic book. While this column could be viewed as a veritable Top 10 Vampires in Comic Books list, it’s also a handy look at the subtle, chronological changes our night-crawling friends have gone through to suit our imaginations.
Let’s start with the granddaddy vampire of them all:
This guy is the Patrick Henry of vampires, which is funny since historians all agree that Patrick Henry was probably a vampire, himself. Since his stellar debut on the London stage and subsequent blockbuster publishing ventures in 1897 Dracula began an unprecedented Hollywood take over with his first feature film in 1931. Soon, like so many eager blonde waifs in diaphanous robes there wasn’t a media outlet that wasn’t waiting for Drac with open arms. Forget Howard Stern, Dracula is the REAL “King of all Media,” AND “King of the Monsters,” too!
After the initial comic book horror wave of the 50’s and 60’s, Dracula came to comic book prominence in several eponymous Marvel titles throughout the 70’s. Marvel knew that horror comics sold well, but that comics with celebrities sold better!
This was Dracula at his best: suave, sophisticated and deadly, a master tactician cutting a bloody path through the necks of Europe and beyond! Dracula was powerful, cunning and evil, everything we used to love in our vampires, and many of us still do!
Every King needs a Queen, and in the 70’s and 80’s the Yin to Dracula’s Yang was Vampirella.
Designed by comic’s legend Frank Frazetta, Vampirella was the epitome of comic book cool. She was a vampire from outer space, a pale skinned, revealing red thong toting fan-boy wet dream that was an instant icon to thousands of young readers turning her pages every month.
A throw back to sixties horror comics from EC, Vampirella was a comics magazine host. Think Elvira, only (and pardon the unavoidable double entendre) “Vampier” than her television offspring, as she presented original horror stories while struggling with her own blood-lust in her own back-up stories.
You see, the 60’s brought a shift to the vampire, one that is still felt today. Shows like Dark Shadows, Hammer horror movies staring Christopher Lee and comics like Vampirella began the trend towards the vampire afraid of their own monstrous nature. Whether this was a reaction to confusion over Vietnam or just a desire to get some extra mileage out of the undead is hard to say, but the changes were both marketable and permanent.
Vampirella is still a comic book staple, though few readers under the age of 40 could tell you anything about her besides her costume. She’s been revamped (again, sorry) and turned into a pale, manga version of herself in the form of Vampi, but remains the first lady of comic book horror.
Never willing to let a good trend pass, Marvel changed with the times. Soon their horror comics featured characters like Blade, the African-American half vampire on a quest for revenge! Blade cursed his vampire blood, but found it came in handy when hunting down the very vamps that changed and killed his mother while he was still in the womb.
Even the jocular Spider-Man was getting in on the act with his supporting character Morbius, the Living Vampire! Debuting BEFORE Vampirella and Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula, Morbius was a scientist who, trying to cure a rare blood disease, accidentally turns himself into a blood drinking ghoul.
Tortured and powerful, and with many new angles to explore, Blade and Morbius are the post modern vampires that set the tone for years to come. Just like the X-men they were freaks that couldn’t fit in, strong enough to smite their foes but unable to find any peace.
The WHO? Hellcow was a one-off Howard the Duck villain who remains a favorite amongst us dusty ole’ comic book wise-guys! Who can argue with a cow with fangs in a red and black cowled Opera cape?
The Hellcow was the next step in comic book vampires, the post-post modern fiend lampooning the cheesier aspects of the vampires before her/it while celebrating what we value about the vamp.
The mid to late 80’s was a bad time for the children of Dracula. They became the straw men of super-villains, opponents touted out to be visually scary but easily defeated. Dracula fought the X-men in a memorable John Byrne/ Chris Clairmont nostalgia trip, though his next appearance in issues of Dr. Strange from the late 80’s had the good Doctor use a spell to banish all vampires from the Earth. Oh, how times change.
Supporting roles for our fanged foes are fun from time to time, but the bat like wings of change had another chapter to write for the hordes of blood suckers from beyond the grave!
Interview With a Vampire publishes in 1976, but didn’t really come into pop-culture prominence until the 90’s. In it, sensitive and stunningly attractive vampires recount their super-heroic adventures of survival and betrayal, at odds against the world of mortals they pray on for food and the destructive politics and vices of their own kind.
Vampires had changed again into figures of extreme power and emotional depth. No character in comics better exemplifies this change than the DC/Vertigo supporting vampire character of Cassidy from the comic book Preacher.
Cassidy was an Irish drunken rake, a fun guy in a bar and a hell of a guy in a fight. Cassidy will become a recurring archetype of his creator, Garth Ennis’ writing career, the tortured vampire with the heart of gold, hard drinking and hard living himself along the road to redemption.
Suddenly, vampires were only interesting if they were self doubting and self-effacing. Their powers and charm were a footnote to the long years of anguish and internal pain they carried along with guilt for their deeds.
7. THE CONFESSOR
After the success of Marvels, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross began a comic called Astro City about the glory of comic’s silver age as seen through the perspective of the man on the street.
In one of the story lines a young boy becomes the caped side-kick, The Altar-Boy, to an established hero with a religious theme called The Confessor. As the story goes on, and be warned these are some major spoilers, the Confessor’s obsession with religion and the trappings of the church stem from him being a self atoning vampire using his powers to find peace.
It was a really great story and very, very 90’s.
Vampires are back in vogue and EVERYBODY wants in on the act.
Artist Kelly Jones and writer Doug Moench bring their incredibly creepy talents to bear on the (inevitable) confrontation of Dracula vs. Batman in the DC Elseworlds series Batman: Red Rain. While Batman ultimately triumphs over Dracky he does come out of the encounter an infected monster with an insatiable apatite for blood!
Vampire Batman has it all! Power, responsibility and self torture, here we see the accumulation of the super-hero and vampire genres melting together into a Reese’s Peanut-Butter Cup of pure awesomeness. It’s no surprise DC has followed this story through three graphic novels and a spin off, direct to DVD animated movie.
8. VLADIMIR GIURESCU
Mike Mignola’s Hellboy was a breath of fresh air for us classic monster fans. The heroes were good, the monsters were both snarling and cruel. Hellboy’s second adventure had him track down a Baltic prince, Vladimir Giurescu, who serves in the Hellboy world as the inspiration for the Dracula myth.
Giurescu, unfortunately, is a return to the straw-man vampire, a cameo to honnor tradition while the big-baddies of the story are Rasputin, Hecate and a slew of mythological nasties.
Hellboy will sporadically fight vampires, such as a gigantic vampire that blocks out the moon called the Varoloc and others across his adventures. Even if it’s only for a fleeting moment, it’s always refreshing to see vampires with simple motivations: killing humans and drinking their blood. Ah, the classics!
And then Buffy the Vampire Slayer happened.
Buffy crystallized vampires even further, and drove a dividing line through the two schools of ghouls. In the Wheedonverse, vampires are either dumb, easily bested killing machines with enhanced strength and blood lust or complex, emotional bad-boys with brooding eyes and peroxide hair you want to date.
Buffy, more than anything, has paved the way towards the Twilight vampire we “old schoolers” so despise.
But Angel, Buffy’s main undead squeeze himself is really the product of all that has gone before him: the power and presence of Dracula with the emotional complexity of Morbius, the fun sexy attitude of a mimbo Vampirella with the motivations of the Confessor and the Irish swagger of Cassidy.
– and don’t get me started on Spike, the Jacob to Angel’s Ed Cullen. Spike, even if he is great TV, is still warmed over Cassidy from Preacher.
Lately Angel has stirred quite the controversy by being the licensed comics lightning rod of inter-company cross-overs.
10. 30 DAYS OF NIGHT
Steve Niles is sitting pretty as the reigning king of contemporary horror comics, and it’s all thanks to his break-out hit 30 Days of Night. In this now classic tale of vampires unleashed, The undead reason that a remote Alaskan town where the sun doesn’t shine for months at a time would be the perfect feeding ground.
Under the pen of illustrator Ben Templesmith we see the first visually post modern vampires. Escewing the pretty-boys of Buffy, Templesmith’s vampires LOOK like monsters more than Mignolas, with gangly arms and rows of teeth protruding from distended jaws.
What Niles and Templesmith brought back to vampires was the monstrous sense of the other, that even if these creatures were once human they are now simply ravenous skin walkers, devious in their desires for human blood and horrible in their truest forms.
It’s no wonder Hollywood jumped on the chance to adapt the story. 30 Days of Night was one of the freshest takes on vampires in years!
Vampires are waging a P.R. war across the silver screen. In one camp are the cutesy vampires you’d want to take home to mother, the Edward Cullens of Twilight and New Moon fame. Conversely are the new breed of disgusting flesh eaters, the classic Dracula revamped with modern horror sensibilities alla 30 Days of Night you can see in the recent horror flick like Daywalkers.
The diversification of audiences for one of horrors most enduring monster types can only mean one thing. Vampires, whether in comic books, novels or whatever media we’ll have in the future, aren’t going anywhere!
“And vith that I shall bid you GOOD EVE-A-NINK! BLEAH!”