Hasslein Blog: Vampirella #38


Hasslein Blog

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Vampirella #38

By Matthew Stephen Sunrich

By the time I started collecting comics, Vampirella had been absent from the racks for about six years.

The original series ended with issue #112 in 1983; its companion magazines Creepy and Eerie held on for another couple years or so before James Warren, owing to health problems and other concerns, decided to close up shop. The property was subsequently acquired by Harris, which handled a variety of periodicals such as Guitar World, when it was auctioned off, but the company didn't begin publishing new Vampirella material until 1991.

Fan reaction to the stories, which were published in color comics rather than black-and-white magazines, was mixed, but the books sold fairly well. Drakulon's favorite daughter reached the peak of her popularity in the late 1990s when "bad girl" comics, oddly, became a thing, and many prominent writers, including Alan Moore and Kurt Busiek, contributed to her adventures. Harris held onto her until 2010, when it surrendered the lovely vampiress to Dynamite.

Admittedly, I had never found the character particularly worth looking into. For one thing, unlike the throngs of quasi-pretentious geeks/community-theater actors who played White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade roleplaying game around that time, I had never thought much of undead blood-suckers. In Bernie Wrightson: A Look Back, I found that the famed horror artist's opinion mirrored my own. "They tend to be snotty," he remarked, "and like being vampires." Other than Marvel's Morbius (who became a vampire as a result of a failed experiment), it didn't seem that vampires were ever looking for a cure. As Wrightson expressed, they didn't appear to have a problem with their condition, and they even possessed a certain "coolness" factor that reminded me of the popular crowd in high school. Remember that Ray-Ban commercial where the vampires are immune to sunlight because they're wearing designer shades? Ugh. (Trivia: The concept of vampires' being killed by the sun originated in F. R. Murnau's 1922 film Nosferatu, not in Dracula, the novel of which it was an unauthorized adaptation. While Dracula was weakened by daylight, it was not fatal to him.)

I knew virtually nothing about Vampirella; my opinion was based on the images I had seen in various magazines such as Wizard and Previews, which, like a lot of the art in 1990s horror comics, tended to be kind of gross (one cover has her lasciviously bathing in a fountain of blood) and over the top. I assumed she was a "standard" vampire, who just happened to be scantily clad and sexy, rather than an altruistic, non-undead superhero devoted to ridding Earth of evil monsters, who came from a planet where blood was akin to water (this version of her origin was later retconned, but the principle's the same). Interestingly enough, Trina Robbins, who designed Vampirella's costume, told Comic Book Artist in 1999 that a teacher with whom she once coffee had grown up enjoying the original magazine but had been "horrified and repulsed" by what she had seen in recent publications.

What I perceived as Harris' mishandling of the character kept me away for a long time, but I became curious when Dynamite released a paperback compilation of her original stories in 2013 (over 500 pages, culled from the first 37 issues, for a very-reasonable $25). Being a fan of Bronze-Age horror magazines, I felt that I needed to at least give the gal a chance. And, man, am I glad I did! I discovered a treasure-trove of fantastic material and became a fan immediately. I picked up the new series by Nancy Collins and Patrick Berkenkotter that started a few months later and found it to be likewise excellent, though in entirely different ways.

Since then, Vampirella has become one of my favorite characters, and I have collected most of the magazines (either in their original form or in reprint compilations such as the excellent Vampirella Archives) and all of the comics Dynamite has released.

For those of you who don't know, Vampirella was originally conceived as nothing more than a horror hostess. During the early 1950s, EC Comics found success with Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, hosted, respectively, by the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, and the Old Witch. When Warren started its line of horror magazines, it borrowed this idea, giving readers Uncle Creepy, Cousin Eerie, and Vampirella (if you find it unfair that the women are outnumbered, you might want to check out DC's oft-overlooked Bronze-Age gem The Witching Hour, in which all of the stories are hosted by females). After a handful of issues, the editor decided that Vampirella was falling short of her potential by merely bookending stories and deserved a feature of her own.

Warren's magazines were anthologies, featuring several stories by several creative teams per issue. By the time Vampirella established itself, every issue included a tale starring the vampiress along with several others, some of which were parts of series but most of which were standalone stories. The themes in Vampirella's stories varied. Sometimes she'd fight monsters. Other times she'd face evil wizards or alien invaders. Her adventures were an interesting mixture of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, which reflected the genres that Warren's magazines made extensive use of (while it's usually associated with horror, many stories were sword & sorcery, science fiction, or weird western). The artwork was consistently spectacular, executed by such greats as Jose "Pepe" Gonzalez, Gonzalo Mayo, Esteban Maroto, Jose Ortiz, Alfredo Alcala, Luis Bermejo, and Rafael Aura Leon (Auraleon).

I selected #38 (November 1974) to discuss both because it's the earliest full issue in my collection and because it contains a mummy story, which is of particular interest to me. The issue comprises six tales, and, like most of Warren's magazines of the period, it's a great-looking package. The cover, by Manuel Sanjulian, is a real beaut; it possesses many of the attributes that made classic horror so compelling, juxtaposed with Vampi's stunning figure. (I was born too late to enjoy Warren's mags during their original run, and I envy readers who were able to get this much awesomeness for a mere dollar at the local newsstand month after month. Granted, a dollar was a lot more money back then, but comics are four bucks these days, and they arguably aren't as good.) There was a major Universal Monsters revival going on at the time, coupled with the fact that the Comics Code Authority had finally relaxed its standards, leading to a resurgence in monster comics (it should be noted that magazines were not forced to adhere to the Code, which is how Warren and its ilk were able to flourish). It's hard to deny that, for a horror magazine, Vampirella had a touch of class.

Vampirella starts things off with "The Mummy's Revenge," by Flaxman Loew and Gonzalez. Vampirella's most prolific illustrator, Gonzalez uses many different techniques in his storytelling. Here, he juxtaposes light and dark (not unlike the Renaissance artist Caravaggio) to create a feeling of endless dread within eerie catacombs. You can almost smell the dust and decay as the undead emerge from their niches. (Am I the only one who likes the smell of old comics?)

Touring Italy's Museum of Antiquities, Vampirella encounters a young antiquarian named Bruno Verdi. She accepts his invitation to dinner, and after the meal he takes her on a tour of the catacombs beneath the city, where untold thousands of souls were lain to rest. The vampiress soon realizes, however, that Verdi has left her to be torn apart by the undead, including the mummy of Ptolemy, who, strangely enough, is a vampire. With the help of Amun-Ra, Vampirella escapes and heads to Verdi's apartment, where she gets her revenge by feeding on his blood. He and the mummy, which is still back in the tomb, simultaneously crumble to dust, and Vampirella, when questioned about her evening, humorously remarks that her date "went all to pieces." (This may seem corny, but horror and humor have gone hand in hand for decades. The EC stories almost always ended with the host's dropping a pun or two, a tradition which has been picked up by the new quarterly Warren pastiche The Creeps, which I will no doubt write about eventually.)

Mummies have been popular fixtures in horror fiction since the 1800s. The discovery of the strangely intact tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter in 1922 brought immense public attention to the discipline of Egyptology, and the mystique of perfectly-preserved corpses from millennia ago compelled even more writers to pen horrific tales of the risen dead. (H. P. Lovecraft even ghost-wrote a story for Harry Houdini called "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs," which is definitely worth checking out.) The new medium of film made the prospect of such tales even more promising. Universal and Hammer each produced their own versions of the mummy story, and there have been numerous others since then. Marvel published The Living Mummy in the pages of Supernatural Thrillers in the early 1970s, and all of the horror magazines featured bandaged abominations at one time or another. For Vampirella, mummies are just another kind of monster, nothing to write home about, although the revelation that she was, in fact, Cleopatra in a previous life adds more weight to the story. Exactly how she was supposed to have been born on alien planet and also undergone reincarnations on Earth is a question better left unasked.

Five more excellent tales follow.

Gerry Boudreau, Carl Wessler, and Maroto give us "Gypsy Curse," in which a rich count marries a gypsy maiden but succumbs to a terrible curse when he chooses to mistreat her. Maroto is another of Warren's most skilled artists. His airy ink work, combined with his phantasmagoric layouts, imbues his stories with an almost dreamlike aspect. It is interesting that the "gypsy" is a stock character in fiction (as a fortune teller and/or dabbler in magic of questionable ethics), but to the Romani, to whom the term refers, it is often considered a slur. Because of this, it is used far less frequently these days, but it's hard to deny the appeal of the image of an old, cloaked woman residing in a tenebrous wagon parked in the forest, ominously prognosticating with her tarot deck.

"Lucky Stiff," by Boudreau, Wessler, and Ramon Torrents, is the curious story of a mild-mannered office worker who becomes bewitched by the gorgeous new file clerk. Readers are given a glimpse into the possible, horrific outcome of their rendezvous, but he never reaches her house because fate has other plans. The archetype of the "crazy cat lady," which has become so popular these days, is flipped on its head in this yarn, and we are given just a hint of the twisted world of the girl in the office who seizes the attention of every man who crosses her path. Not unlike the hapless sailors enchanted by the sirens' song, they are bound to be undone by their own appetites.

Next, John Jacobson and Felix Mas offer up "Out of the Nameless City." Fans of H. P. Lovecraft will immediately recognize his fingerprints in this tale, and there are several things taken directly from his work. Set in 1926, the year Lovecraft's groundbreaking "The Call of Cthulhu" was written, this story concerns an actor believed to be the key to the resurrection of ancient gods and the man who tries to stop it from happening. This story's execution, viewed both as a pastiche and a story unto itself, is practically flawless.

"On Little Cat Feet," by Jacobson and Auraleon, is a tale of bizarre witchcraft. When an elderly landlady kicks a witch out of her boarding house, the sorceress, having transformed herself into a cat, returns to seek revenge. But she finds that her former roommate, a sculptor, has a bizarre way of creating her statues. There is quite a bit of humor in this story, but there are also moments that are bound to make readers chuckle in "self-defense" because it's hard to know what to make of them. Warren's magazines often feature particularly weird stories, and this is definitely one. It makes you wonder how on earth the writer came up with it.

The issue concludes with "Trick of the Tide," Jack Butterworth and Isidro Mones' short-but-sweet yarn of a treacherous man named Gabriel Greaves who earns money fishing corpses out of the Thames and the waterlogged corpse of a woman he murders for her husband's money. Not surprisingly, things do not turn out terribly well for him. Let's just say that he learns the hard way that being an opportunist can have dire consequences.

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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