GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "V" page 2


Vampirella
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Vamps - cover by Brian BollandVamps  1995 (SC TPB) 160 pages

Written by Elaine Lee. Illustrated by William Simpson.
Colours: Stuart Chaifetz. Letters: Clem Robins. Editor: Stuart Moore.

Reprinting the first Vamps mini-series (#1-6) from 1994

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics / Vertigo

Suggested for Mature Readers

Vamps is about vampires, but instead of vampires as bad guys, these are vamps we're supposed to be rooting for. Ah hah, you think, so we're talking TV's "Angel", "Forever Knight" and the long list of repentant vampires that creep through pop culture? Well, no -- these vamps are a bloodthirsty lot, eagerly tearing their way through a slew of unhappy victims. And therein lies the rub.

Vamps follows a pack of female vampires, mainly Southern belles, who've just slain their vampire master, Dave (a cute gag as one remarks: what kinda name is that for a vampire?), and hit the road on a bunch of stolen Harley-Davidson motorcycles. These aren't just vampires, these are biker chick vampires. Most of the pack just wants to roam about, feasting and sometimes fornicating (heterosexually, of course). But their leader, Howler, has a hidden agenda (they all have names like that: Howler, Screech, Skreek, Mink, Whipsnake). Howler wants to track down her son who was taken from her (when she was human) and given away for adoption. Meanwhile, a private eye, Hank Gallagher, hired by the brother of one of their victims, and Howler's human twin sister, Jenn, are pursuing them, as is ol' Dave who gets resurrected.

All of which makes Vamps sound more interesting than it is.

Despite what seem like enough plot threads and characters to make Vamps a '90s version of Marvel's Tomb of Dracula, the main point of Vamps is more just to watch the vamps go from one bloody killing spree to another. The sub-plots involving Hank and Jenn, or Dave, or even Howler's missing son, are thinly developed at best.

Obviously one can't be too judgmental -- entertainment is often cathartic in nature, with the audience vicariously enjoying things we wouldn't necessarily want to do in real life. You can enjoy Conan stories by Robert E. Howard without wanting to pick up a sword. On the other hand, people might have a dim view (well, dimmer view) of Conan if he went around carving up innocent bystanders, which is basically what the vamps do. There are spots where Lee tries to put it almost on a moral retribution level, having the vamps kill sleaze-balls, but often it's not even that, or at least, the punishment seems to outway the crime. Even "Thelma and Louise", the movie heroines Vamps has been compared to, showed considerably more restraint in dealing with the loathsome. When Howler gets all righteous about someone hitting a child you have to wonder if writer Elaine Lee is trying to be funny...'cause it's hard to take Howler's indignation seriously after all the atrocities she's inflicted herself.

Put more controversially, Vamps can be likened to the novel "American Psycho" (which, admittedly, I haven't read), a story of a serial killer told from the killer's point of view. Except that, reportedly, "American Psycho" was meant to be a satire.

So is that fair? After all, vampires, unlike serial killers, are make believe, all-in-fun. Should the story be taken as anything more than escapist entertainment?

Maybe. I mean, it's difficult to believe Vertigo would have published this if the vamps had been males, targeting females, saying the same things about women the vamps say about men, or with the way Lee, with an at times shocking explicitness, likens the vampires feeding to a sex act. Heck, if Vamps, as is, was written by a man, I think Vertigo would've stayed away from it, it raising too many controversial demons. If I'm right, if the above scenarios would've caused Vamps to be taken "seriously" (and be criticized), then can I do any less just 'cause it's by a woman, about women?

But talent, admittedly, can forgive at least some sins. There's no doubt Lee can put words together. Particularly in the early issues her ear for dialogue, the moody narration by Howler, her knack for Dixie ambience, all work well. Not that I'm in a position to judge whether the Southern atmosphere of the early chapters is authentic, merely that it seems authentic. William Simpsons' art is moody (he inks himself) and overall effective, though he seems to be trying for a semi-realist style, even as he kind of seems to be rushing through it, with wobbly lines and mis-jointed limbs.

But the plot boasts few surprises and characterization is minor. The vamps are pretty indistinguishable from each other (Skeeter likes to sing -- badly -- but that's her main defining characteristic). It doesn't help that Simpson has trouble drawing different faces -- even with different hair styles, it was hard to figure out who was who. The relationship between Hank and Jenn goes from perfect strangers to sharing a bed without anything inbetween. For that matter, Hank's gradually evolving realization that he's dealing with honest-to-God vampires isn't well detailed, either.

Still, this mini-series spawned two sequels: Vamps: Hollywood and Vein and Vamps: Pumpkin Time, though neither have been collected in a TPB.

Like a lot of the Vertigo line, this gets a "mature readers" warning -- and you'd better believe it. There's gore a-plenty, sex, cussing, and occasionally even some nudity. But if you want something to tickle your mind, you'd be better off raiding the back issue bins for Marvel's Tomb of Dracula comic from the '70s. Ignoring any moral considerations, there's some good dialogue and moody art, but the plot and characterization is too thin to entirely sustain interest.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the Vamps mini-series.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $9.95 USA.


Viking Glory - The Viking Prince 1991 (HC & SC GN) 124 pages

coverWritten by Lee Marrs. Illustrated and painted by Bo Hampton.
Letters: Tracey Hampton-Munsey.

Additional notes: intro by Will Eisner; sketches

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed Dec. 2015

The Viking Prince was one of those comic book properties that arose before super heroes had such a heavy lock on comic books (a lock that has only significantly been relaxed in the last couple of decades). Created by long time collaborators, writer Robert Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert, it was a historical adventure series about a young Viking, with some magic and fantasy. Not having had much exposure since the character's initial appearances except in occasional reprints and revivals as a back up (a run in the comic Arion) the character was nonetheless dusted off for this lavish, all original epic graphic novel with around 110 pages of story (a collection of the original stories wouldn't be released until a couple of years later).

The revival is courtesy of writer Lee Marrs and artist Bo Hampton -- the latter the brother of Scott Hampton and with a similar, artful, slightly dreamy style. Though unlike other such revivals of old properties common at the time, Marrs and Hampton aren't especially interested in deconstructing, reinventing, or otherwise cannibalizing the property. There is some slightly "gritty" material meant to reflect a historical realism, ranging from a brief scene involving the heroes performing an animal sacrifice to pre-marital sex (though nothing graphic and no nudity). But in other ways it can seem to be adhering to the original, and its 1950/1960s mores. Even to the point where it can seem a bit as though it's maybe aimed at younger readers.

The plot is that Jon, the so-called Viking Prince, is sent by his father to the foreign land of Hedeby for an arranged marriage to the local princess. However once he arrives he is informed that he must perform a perilous quest in order to win the princess' hand by stealing something from a dragon's lair.

Unfortunately -- Viking Glory is a bit dull. Or, if that's too harsh, let's say a bit bland. In some ways they do capture a bit of the flavour of the old Kanigher-Kubert tales...except those tales were often only 12 pages long. The story itself isn't exactly fast-paced or full of adventure. Heck, Jon sets out on his quest only toward the end (perhaps as a nod to historical realism, the characters end up wintering in Hedeby, unable to even leave for many months). There's so little adventure -- or magic -- you can find yourself wondering if they even will meet a dragon, or whether the book is adhering to historical authenticity (but there is a real dragon in the climax).

In lieu of action there is court intrigue and machinations, but most of it's of a pretty straightforward variety, not really offering surprising twists or unexpected motivations. It's all kind of generic. Even then, it's not especially developed. The Hedeby king's advisor is (of course) plotting against the marriage, but even he seems to kind of fade from the story before the end.

For that matter, it's not like the court plotting ends up being more than minor diversions -- not having much impact on the overall flow of the story.

Exacerbating this is the characters themselves who aren't really that interesting. Jon is a cocky, callow, devil-may-care youthful swashbuckler (in the introduction, comcs legend Will Eisner praises the character growth Jon undergoes, but it's not really a significant arc). There are characters, like Jon's avuncular sidekick, or the princess, or the local minstral who is jealous of Jon -- but, again, none entirely gel into compelling, complex people. While other characters are hard to even remember from scene to scene. In the climax some of Jon's colleagues get killed -- and I wasn't even sure who one of them was!

Part of the blame for this lies with Hampton whose style isn't always great at distinguishing and defining characters visually. There were more than a few scenes where Jon and some pals would be in a scene and I wasn't even sure which was Jon! While other characters are hard to recognize from scene to scene (kind of important when machinations and secret plotting is invoved). Like with his brother Scott, Bo Hampton's art is sort of attractive and lush (it's fully painted) but equally can be a bit stiff and, as mentioned, not always clearly distinguishing characters, and where some panels can be a bit muddled. Presenting a fully painted Viking Prince graphic novel might seem sort of cool, but because the original comics were by Joe Kubert -- an artist with a distinctive, atmospheric style -- one can't entirely say it's necessarily visually better than the original.

I'm not sure how this is meant to fit into any Viking Prince lore, given it involves him getting married. Whether it's a retelling of an existing shorter tale (I seem to recall Jon going on a quest with a mute minstral in some old stories -- but a different character than depicted here). Or whether it's meant to occur after his other adventures (though Jon's still quite young). Or whether it's simply meant to be seen as apocryphal.

But though Marr and Hampton seem quite sincere and enthusiastuc about the project, and respectful of the original comics (Hampton later illustrated a Viking Prince related tale reprinted in the Batman: Other Realms TPB) it just never really becomes anything enthralling.

Cover price: __.



 

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