Monday, January 14, 2013

Vampirella Lives #1-3

In 1996, Harris comics, then-current owner of the Vampirella licence, commissioned another in a series of mini-series starring the former Warren publishing phenomenon. The publisher was apparently happy to continue working with Amanda Conner, who had become a go to artist for all things Vampirella, sporting a very appealing cartoonish style, that nevertheless succeeded in capturing the darker edge of the property. At that point, she had already collaborated with the up and comer writer Warren Ellis on a short story that ultimately served as a prelude to their "Vampirella Lives" mini-series.

And while Ellis went on to write a couple of other, crossover-related Vampirella stories, it was the three-parter that served as the central attraction of Dynamite's 2010 "Vampirella Masters" series. The property's current owner was wise to market the story on his name (even if it's no excuse for leaving Conner out of the title), as it certainly helps orient the uninitiated reader to an entertaining piece of entertainment starring the character.

In recent years, Vampirella has proved a hard character to update, but what this series proves is that she can work just as well the mainstream publishers' darker titles, if given proper attention. This is not to say that the mini-series is a completely stand alone entry, as it follows up directly from the previous work with the property, but the creative team try their best to limit the number of references and stick to the premise as established in the opening pages.

Following her defeat at the hands of a villainess, and her brief sojourn in the afterlife, Vampirella returns to Earth with a new purpose and outlook on life. In order to ground the story in a semblance of reality, and provide a reader identification figure, the creative team offers Sam Feaveryear, a paranormal investigator of Whitechapel, a US town with a dark secret of its own. The veteran detective serves as Vampirella's guide to her new surroundings, but Ellis and Conner never let his quirks detract from the fact that this is Vampirella's story.

The title character, on the other hand, is far too caught up in the mythological struggles of her own kind to serve as a typical relatable protagonist, but her larger than life persona still serves to effect sympathy from the reader. This is no mean feat when it comes to a property that is defined by her sexuality, sporting a sensuous costume and body language designed to constantly provoke the audience. The mini-series certainly doesn't go as far as subverting the title's main appeal, with Conner continually depicting the voluptulous anti-heroine in a way that emphasizes her physicality, even in scenes where she's overcome with heartbreak and tragedy.

This kind of artificiality has become so traditional with American superhero comics, that it's hard to single out the Warren original as being at fault. The character was always marketed as a seductress and her sexuality is a much firmer part of her appeal than her always shifting origin story. The creators accept this and proceed to make a dark and sexual story of their own, which is the primary draw of the mini-series. Simply put, no matter the excess, and the obscure mid 1990s continuity, Warren Ellis and Amanda Conner make sure that the story is first and foremost.

Their three issues are nothing like the badly paced, aggressive juvenalia that characterized so much of the 1990s superhero output, switching from one subplot to another and generally forming a very unsatisfying whole. "Vampirella Lives" is instead a revenge story, a story of a town beset by vampires, which largely succeeds on the strength of its central mechanism. Ellis and Conner set up a lot of the story in an expertly paced manner and continue to entertain until resolving all of the plot threads in the explosive finish.

Their story is a testament to the best of the genre comics, a complicated narrative which fulfills all of its many requirements, while remaining thoroughly fair to the reader. Ellis doesn't begrudge his audience for their aesthetic choices, he doesn't talk down to them, instead offering a smart and very functional collage that is neither too campy, nor too scary to be actively repulsing. Conner likewise understands that she is illustrating a horror thriller, one that continually fetishizes its protagonist, but she is at least as concerned with panel layouts, clarity of storytelling, and keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing.

These are comics featuring a vampire resurrection, psychokinetic assassins, and above all, a town called Whitechapel. Yet, the storytelling is so strong that it manages to be much more than a sum of its parts, and ultimately ends up making a real story. The protagonist's return is contrasted with her brethern trying to bring another of their own kind back to life, while Vampirella's selfless actions are continually compared to that of Nyx, her self-serving nemesis. This kind of thematic resonance is typically instinctive in the material of this kind, but it is anything but accidental when it comes to Ellis and Conner.

Both of them were at an early stage of their careers when they collaborated on Vampirella, but they still demonstrate a high level of craft in every aspect of the book's production. Ellis' dialogue is highly idiosyncratic and functional, the characters finely chosen genre archetypes serving to accentuate every part of the protagonist's unique nature. Conner  visualizes them in her own animated style, placing them in a seedy, cynical world which she makes sensual and inviting.

Despite both creators' subsequent ventures in the world of mainstream publishing, their early collaboration still remains one of their most potent genre offerings, avoiding the headier concerns of their more ambitious material to provide what Dynamite has rightly recognized as highly commercial material selling on the strength of its creator(s).

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