Thursday, May 31, 2012

Vampires 101: Vampirella

In the wake of the recent announcement from Dynamite Comics, some of you might have been asking yourself: Jut who the hell is Vampirella?

Vampirella is a comicbook character who has been around, in one format or another, since the late 1960s. I remember seeing ads for the books in the back of various Warren publications as a child, and the character's appeal seems to target, with laser precision, a particular moment in male adolescence. Most people are either too young or too old to appreciate this kind of character.

But, because I love horrible books, I decided to pick up Bloodstalk, the first in a series of Vampirella novels published in the 1970s. Now, it's not entirely fair to judge this character based on a pulp adventure novel that was probably written over a long weekend. It would be like judging Dark Shadows on the books written by Marilyn Ross. Still, someone, somewhere thought Bloodstalk was an appropriate way to present their character, so I thought I'd share my experiences with this gloriously putrid book.

Before I go any further, let me tell you about a scene in Bloodstalk where a bound woman is groped by a "midget."

It's important to get that moment in the book out of the way, if for no other reason than because I will never write anything that could upstage it. This scene happens relatively late in the book (do I need to provide spoiler warnings for a book published almost 40 years ago?) and has little impact on the novel's "plot."  There’s a full 92 pages of prose leading up to The Groping, and I feel like I have no choice but to discuss them. So let's go.

Bloodstalk does next to nothing to acquaint you with Vampirella, introducing her to the reader in the moments after a plane crash. We don’t know where she was going (besides the vague destination of “California”) or where she was coming from. After killing the only other survivor of the plane crash in order to drink his blood, she blacks out, giving us a few short paragraphs that reveal minor, though significant, details:

Vampirella is an alien.
From a planet of vampires.
And that planet is named Drakulon.

The man she kills in the wake of the plane crash has the unfortunate last name of Van Helsing, which immediately puts the dead man’s brother and nephew on her trail. But first, she’s got to survive an encounter with the first in a series of sex offenders that populate Bloodstalk.Vampirella awakens in a secluded asylum and finds herself the prisoner of a cult leader with unsavory plans for our heroine.

A bunch of shit happens that has little to no impact on the rest of the story. In short, she escapes the asylum, kills her captors and burns the place to the ground. The Van Helsings arrive in time to catch a glimpse of her, plans for revenges still fresh in their minds. The younger of the two, Adam Van Helsing, has second thoughts about their mission when he sees how hot his uncle’s murderer is.
Vampirella flees the scene and, because he has absolutely nothing else to do, begins to hunt other members of the Cult of Chaos™, which has set up franchises around the world. It’s never explained why Vampirella cares why the satellite chapters of the Cult of Chaos™ live or die. It’s one of the most passionless revenge tales I’ve ever read. 

She quickly stumbles onto a more sedate group of baddies in a nearby, unnamed town. This chapter of the Cult of Chaos™ is lead by an elderly woman and her simple-minded zombie son. People are captured, Vampirella begins to show off her increasingly uneven array of powers (which only work when the story demands it) and the zombie stooge bites the dust before he gets the chance to touch Vampirella in her bikini zone.  Which brings us to Act III.

The first few pages of Bloodstalk take place in a “hall of mirrors” at a sleazy carnival, and features characters and locations not references again until the book is almost over. A young woman named Eve Middleton is looking for her father, who might have disappeared while visiting the carnival at a previous stop. Warned to keep away from the carnival by an illusionist named The Great Pendragon (a drunk who speaks fluent Pretentious Grad School Student,) Eve nevertheless falls into the clutches of the carny sideshow. And OH what clutches they have.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Major Archie.

We are told the carnival leader as cut one of the shittiest deals with the devil since Nicolas Cage. In order to maintain a standard of living below the poverty line, they have to feed carnival visitors to a demon who lives on the other side of the funhouse mirrors. That’s not an exaggeration, either … the carnival is a dump, and the deal they cut was to maintain its dubious status quo.

Among the carnival performers is Major Archive, referred to throughout as a “midget.” If watching a bound woman get fingered by a man with dwarfism isn’t offensive enough, the scene ends with a man picking him up and tossing him.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with the A story, the answer is “not much.” Vampirella arrives and discovers the carny leader is working with Azmodeus, one of the mascots of the Cult of Chaos™. She reads a magic spell, breaks a few mirrors and things go back to “normal.” She hits the road Bill Bixby style with the Van Helsings in hot pursuit.

So, what happens to the evil sideshow? Nothing. There are no arrests, no deaths … nobody even files a civil suit against them. One of them talks about going home to Detroit (which might be the greatest punishment of all, haw haw) while Major Archie exits with this classy goodbye.

My rating: Vampirella #1: Bloodstalk is slightly better than a meal at Taco Bell.


Sandi McBride said...

I'll have a super burrito and a crunchy taco, with a coke side.

Anonymous said...

Oh, please. First of all, you say it's unfair to judge Vampirella by the novel (which I have no doubt really is putrid), and then you do it anyway.

Second, it's unfair to judge Vampirella based on an origin that was retconned away 15 years ago.

Third, it's not as silly as it sounds even back when it was her origin, because it was explained that Dracula comes from this planet; the fact that it sounds like Dracula and is inhabited by vampires is not one of those unlikely comic book coincidences.

I recently got the trade paperback Vampirella: Crimson Chronicles Maximum. The series is far better (at least in the 1970s B&W stories reprinted in this volume) than you'd think from seeing a near naked character on the cover, and it was played utterly straight even in ridiculous situations, same as Dark Shadows was.

AngantyrTheKing said...

Major Archie sounds like a fun guy when you get passed the groping. It takes style to part with pretensions magicians with a simple ''go screw yourself''. I am not that interested in Vampirella nor hateful to her. She is just the usual semi-naked superhero, male or female, who populate comic books, who just so happens to have a vampire theme. Never really been a pick fan of trying to mix horror and superheroes to be honest, unless we count 70s Batman (under O'Neil and co. it was actually good) who I guess is vaguely horror.

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