Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Reviews of Classic Vampirella
For over 15 years, Harris Publishing has struggled to restore the classic icon of horror in comics, Vampirella, to the pinnacle of glory she acheived in the late 1960s and 1970s. There have been glimmers of genius in their efforts, but they've mostly been dissapointing. It seems like none of the modern writers have been able to capture what made the original comics so cool and fun. (Nor have any of the modern artists been able to match the glory of the art.)
In this post, I review four graphic novel collections that Harris has produced of the original Vampirella tales. Some of them are still available from the publisher at www.vampirella.com, but they are, sadly, mostly out of print.
Still... all hail the boot-wearing, alien vampiress with the impossibly skimpy costume! Theses books are some of the best Halloween reading you'll ever lay eyes upon, as they are brimming with vampires, witches, zombies, and demons. Even Dracula himself puts in several appearances!
(Among the illustrations are some of my favorite Vampirella portraits over the years, with the Dave Stevens illo at the top being my all-time favorite. It originally appeared on the back cover of "Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos".)
Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos
Writer: Archie Goodwin
Artists: Tom Sutton and Jose Gonzalez
Rating: Nine of Ten of Stars
In the late 1960s, magazine publisher Warren introduced "Vampirella Magazine", an anthology series presenting horror comics with a "mature" flavor that was hosted by a vampire vixen who ware an impossibly skimpy one-piece bathing suit and high-heeled boots.
In fairly short order, however, one of the most talented creators to ever work in comic books--Archie Goodwin--took the character to center stage, developed a supporting cast of friends and foes and put down a foundation that other creators have been building on for nearly 40 years.
"Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos" is a paperback that was produced by Harris Comics in the early 1990s, shortly after they acquired the publishing rights for the Vampirella comics. It contains the early Archie Goodwin stories that chronicle Vampirella's first serious adventures. First, we have her initial encounter with the adherents of the Cult of Chaos and the introduction of her loyal companion Pendragon, as illustrated by Tom Sutton in some of his earliest professional work. The art's a bit rough around the edges, but the future hights his talent will soar to is still evident. Then, as Vampirella's struggles against the Cult continue and she finds herself persued by blind psychic and vampire hunter (and future ally) Conrad Van Helsing, the art chores are taken over by Jose Gonzales, the artist who is most closely associated with the Vampirella character. The art is postively amazing, and the stories also get stronger as Goodwin perfects a forumla that mixes equal parts of humor, horror, and B-movie style sci-fi as Vampirella squares off against angels of death, lycanthropes, zombie-masters, love-sick sea demons, and even the strip's unique take on the vampire of vampire, Count Dracula.
Lovers of B-movies, quality comics, and sexy women in outfits that can't possibly exist outside of comics (or only if the wearer has lots of spirit-gum applied to her breasts and moves very, very carefully) shold seek out a copy of this book. (All joking aside, the tales contained in the pages of "Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos" truly are classic examples of high-quality comic book story telling.)
Vampirella: Transcending Time & Space
Writers: T. Casey Brennan and Steve Engelhart
Artist: Jose Gonzalez (cover by Dave Stevens)
Steve's Rating: Ten of Ten Stars
"Vampirella: Transcending Time & Space" was the second collection of classic Vampirella tales issued by Harris Comics after they revived the character in the early 1990s. It picks up where "Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos" (review here) left off, and writers Brennan and Englehart continued to build an excellent house on the foundation that master storyteller Archie Goodwin put down.
The book reprints seven stories, which not only continues Vampirella's clash with the Cult of Chaos, but also manages to pick up and resolve some left over story-threads from the previous book. A major storyline running through the bulk of the tales relates to the attempt by Dracula (who in the Vampirella mythos is an alien from the same planet as our heroine) to reject the Mad God Chaos, to cleanse his soul, and to atone for the many centuries of evil he has committed. It makes for very interesting reading.
Although solidly rooted in the Goodwin stories, the tales presented in "Transcending Time & Space" have a different, more freewheeling flavor. Where Goodwin tended to anchor most of his tales with horror genre mainstays (vampires, werebeasts, and demons) or references to classic genre fiction, the stories penned by Brennan and Englehart lean more heavily on science fiction and bizarre fantasy elements--servants of Chaos trap Vampi and friends in a Dream Dimenions; they're transported to a distant world inhabited by a thoroughly alien and monstrous creature; and then there's the all-powerful Conjuress who hopes to show Dracula the path to redemption. All of these elements, mixed with the sexy Vampirella, a dash of humor, and healthy number of crazed cultists all add up to some great comic book stories that make up the second half of the greatest run of Vampirella tales in the character's near-40 year history. (The book is made even stronger by the fact that in the book's closing tales, Englehart ties off a plot thread that's been dangling since Goodwin's first Vampirella story, and then spins it off into an unexpected direction.)
As strong as the stories in this book are, they wouldn't be half as effective if not for the gorgeous Jose Gonzalez art. While I'm lukewarm toward his tendency to drop in fine art portrait-style images in the middle of his sequential panel art, the detail and beauty of work on every page of the book is a real joy to behold. His layouts are clear, his characters expressive, and every panel helps move the story forward AND be a work of art unto itself. (Gonzalez's finest moments on the Vampirella series are, arguably, found in this book; the two tales set in turn-of-the-century England are particularly well-rendered.)
Oh... and the Dave Stevens cover on this book is perhaps the finest drawing of Vampi that we've seen in 25 years.
All in all, this book is a must-read if you have any fondness at all for the Vampirella character, or if you like well-done, off-beat horror comics.
Vampirella: Crimson Chronicles Vol. 4
Writers: Flaxman Loew and Archie Goodwin
Artists: Jose Gonzalez, Leopold Sanchez, and Jose Ortiz
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
"Vampirella: Crimson Chronicles Vol. 4" presents 13 Vampirella tales from issues 29 to 41 of the original black-and-white "Vampirella" magazine published during the early 1970s.
The art in this volume is absolutely gorgeous, but the fluxuating quality of the stories show that even at the halfway mark of the magazine's life, Vampirella's best days were behind her.
With the initial Archie Goodwin stories, we had horror tales with a classic feel and touches of humor (collected in "Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos"). With the T. Casey Brennan and Steve Englehart scripted stories, the sci-fi aspect of Vampirella was emphasized more, but there was still an air of classic horror about the strip. With the arrival of Flaxman Loew (whoever he may truly have been, because that has got to be a pen-name!), the series moves in a campy, offbeat direction, with less of an ongoing storyline but instead having Vampirella and Pendragon globe-trotting from booking to booking, and adventure to adventure. (Loew makes more use of the magic act/showbiz angle than any of his predessors did.) It's still a horror strip, but it too often plunges into the depths of pure silliness. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't.
Take, for example, the low points of the book. Each are two-part stories.
First, there is "The God of Blood" and "Betrothed of the Sun-God" where Vampirella becomes the lust-object of a very jealous Aztec god. Here the goofiness of a sun-god wanting to make Vampi his bride--and turning to ash anyone who looks upon her scantily clad body--is balanced by the lecherous evil of the god's priests, and a plotline about a phoney psychic who is murdering her way to a fortune. (Someone out there must really have liked this storyline, because not only did Warren reprint it later in the original Vampirella series, but Harris has already printed that slightly revised version in a previous paperback, "Vampirella: A Crimson Thirst". These stories are beautifully illustrated, but I think the presense of an Aztec sun-god whacking mortals over Vampirella is a bit much.)
Second, at the bottom of the barrel, the book presents "The Vampire of the Nile" and "The Mummy's Revenge". The in this two-part storyline "reveals" that Vampirella is a reincarnation of Cleopatra, and that she first became a vampire due to the actions of her evil brother. The follow-up pits her against occult forces that are bent on bringing back the evil from her previous incarnation. The second story has some decent elements in it--the sequence with Vampi is stranded in the catacombs under Rome and the dead may be coming back to life is very well done--but its too tightly tied to the idiocy of Vampi as the reincarnated Cleopatra to be any good.
On the flipside, the desire of Loew to send Vampirella off in different and unexpected directions work very well in "The Undead of the Deep" (where Vampi confronts a bizarre underwater party that she may never escape), "The Running Red" (where a cruel gambler and an immortal wanderer meet, with Vampirella standing at the crossroad of fate), "The Sultana's Revenge" (where the manipulative wife of a Middle Eastern prince brings danger to Vampi and Pendragon), "The Carnival of Death" (where evil hedonists get their come-uppance after they attempt to ruin a party thrown by the last remaining member of Venice's old upperclass, and "The Blood Gulper" (where Vampi crosses paths with a rock star and his agent who are truly operating on the life-blood of the public). These stories are all fabulous little chillers that pit Vampirella against unexpected foes while providing either chuckles, tragedy, or ironic twists (sometimes all at the same time).
Another two-part adventure--"The Head-hunter of London" and "The Nameless Ravager"--that pits Vampi against an insane killer and his spell-weilding sisters presents some of the most horrific scenes in the whole book, but the stories feel rushed, so their impact on the reader is someone lessened. Still, one has to congratulate Loew and the illustrator (Sanchez) in this case) on putting some naked women in the book who DON'T look hot in swimsuits.
The balance of the stories ("She Who Waits"--the single Archie Goodwin tale in the book, his last work on Vampirella, as far as I know-- and "The Malignant Morticians" are mostly forgettable and they have a sense of filler about them. They're not bad, but they are vapid.
As mentioned at the top of the review, the art in the book is spectacular. Leopold Sanchez's style is a bit more consistently cartoony than those of Jose Gonzalez and Jose Ortiz (in fact, Ortiz' style is so similar to that of Gonzalez that I had to check to credits page to sure I knew who was doing what), so the first impulse is to consider his work lesser. However, as one reads on and gets used to his style, it becomes clear that Sanchez's art is just as solid, spooky, and sexy as Gonzalez... it's not weak, it's just different. The cover galleries presented on the inside makes one long for the day when such gorgeous covers were common-place on comics magazines.
"Vampirella: Crimson Chronicles Vol. 4" may be a book that's erratic on the story-front, but it's still a collection of fun, creepy stories, and we still get to see Vampi when she was at her best. Most of the stories here are still superior to the more "serious", more modern tales that Harris presented during the past ten years. Get yourself a copy... it's great reading!
Vampirella & The Blood Red Queen of Hearts
Writers: Bill DuBay and Rick Margopoulos
Artists: Jose Gonzalez, Gonzalo Mayo, and Esteban Maroto
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
"Vampirella & the Blood Red Queen of Hearts" is a slim paperback reprinting eight stories from the original run of "Vampirella Magazine." About half of them focus on the villain mentioned in the book's title--a devotee of the Cult of Chaos who is quite possibly the craziest foe Vampi ever faced--and the rest capitalize on Vampirella's science fiction roots more-so than perhaps any others published. (Given that Vampirella's current publisher has ret-conned the sci-fi aspects of Vampirella's background into oblivion (except in the manga-esque "Vampi" version), those stories will probably stand as the ones that have taken the MOST advantage of the sci-fi roots of the character.)
The Blood Red Queen of Hearts was a crazed woman who decided she was going to make herself a Bride of the Mad God Chaos, and to prove her worth she was having her imp servant carve out the hearts of Chaos' greatest enemies. Her insane plan was to culminate with her offering up the ultimate dowry to the god-the heart of Vampirella, a woman who once narrowly escaped becoming a Bride of Chaos herself.
As you might expect, the Queen's plans don't go quite as she had planned. Her machinations actually end up leading to her getting the sort of “reward” anyone who disappoints Chaos gets, providing Vampirella with an opportunity to return to Drakulon, and for the reader to learn about the society that once existed there. The trip to Drakulon also brings Vampirella into conflict with perhaps the creepiest bad guy to ever cross fangs with her. In fact, the "Return to Drakulon" stories mark the end of consistently high quality for the series; after that point, the quality and tone of Vampirella's adventures become inconsistent and erratic.
The final two tales in the volume are from the last days of "Vampirella Magazine", and it shows. The art is not up to the standards set by the likes of Jose Gonzalez and Esteban Maroto, or even Tom Sutton, and one of the stories (a sci-fi horror take with Lovecraftian overtones) is simply lame. The closer in the book (“Return of the Blood Red Queen of Hearts”) is a fun read and it does manage to end the book on a high note.
According to the liner notes in "Vampirella & The Blood Red Queen of Hearts", the Queen was a favorite among readers, and she appeared on more covers than any other Vampirella villain. While the fact that the Queen ran around in even less clothes than Vampirella (being the Blood Red Queen of Hearts means you go topless everywhere!), but I think that readers also responded to the fact that she one of the most interesting Vampi foes to come along since the very earliest days when Archie Goodwin and Steve Engelhart were writing the stories.