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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Comics Rainbow - Vampires

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Vampires; there’s a trend that really didn’t manage to survive the decade.  I’m not saying we don’t have vampire stories anymore, in fact, the upcoming release of the 5th Underworld film is the entire reason I elected to dedicate this article to the subject.  But in a much more pointed way vampires just aren’t the cultural draw they were in that window of transition from 2007-2010.  

You can probably blame Twilight for that, as it both catalyzed vampires as a popular craze while also poisoning the well for all future vampire stories- hence why most of the Twilight imitators gravitated towards young adult fiction than vampires.  Still, the undead probably won’t be going away entirely given that they’ve been a staple of pop culture since Nosferatu, to the point they’ve thoroughly colonized comics as well as movies, TV, and books.  So let’s get the full spectrum on comic book vampires.

A little bit of back story on the Xarus, the son of Dracula, before we get into why he really doesn’t work.  Firstly Count Dracula does, in fact, exist within the Marvel Universe and believe me, we’ll be getting to him in due course.  He’s been around since the ‘70s and produced at least 3 unique kids, one of which became an angelic powered superhero.  

Xarus only popped up in a more meaningful way in 2010 when Marvel was still floundering around to find a place for the X-Men.  They’d recently had them move to an island off the coast of San Francisco known as Nation X (the details are so incredibly unrewarding), but in an attempt to give the franchise a new shot in the arm they produced “Curse of the X-Men” where they fought Xarus’ vampire hordes.  

Honestly, it’s not a terrible idea, but Xarus ends up one of the least engaging villains I’ve ever seen in one of these things.  He’s meant to be the “new hotness” for the vampire order but comes off a lot more like an annoying bit player in Game of Thrones only there to get killed.  I seem to remember he was later killed by the Incredible Hulk in the equally underwhelming Fear Itself, and nothing of value was lost.

I had to think a lot about whether or not Andrew Bennett actually deserved this spot as my preferred comic book vampire.  The thing is that, in true comic book hipster fashion, I liked Bennett a lot more before he was popular.  However, in this case, “popular” has less to do with people liking him and more to do with the modern version of the character being so fundamentally different from the original.  He’s one of the many casualties of the New 52 that way, mainly because his New 52 incarnation was a pretty basic sexy vampire hero of the modern era.  

I suppose that fits with his origins as a gothic romantic vampire fighting his way through all manner of late ‘70s/early ‘80s style supernatural forces, but I still prefer his more old school class to his new style.  At the very least I liked his Victorian dress and the fact his classic adventures were illustrated by the great Joe Kubert.  He’s basically your standard self-loathing vampire, but his posh dapperness gives him an oddly endearing layer of gentlemen-ness that makes him more than just a tedious Hulk knock-off, speaking of which.

I actually already spoke about my disinterest in Michael Morbius back when I did the Comics Rainbow on the Legion of Monsters, but it bears repeating here.  Morbius is one of the many animal/human hybrid characters of the Spider-Man mythos, which actually makes his claim to vampirism kind of dubious.  

His official title is “the living vampire” as he’s origin is that he created a kind of parallel strain of vampirism through experimenting with the original virus and hybridized DNA.  So while he’s weak to daylight, he’s fine against all the other stuff and doesn’t create more vampires with his bite, making him kind of an inverse Blade.  

His big problem as a character is that his sole motivation is to cure his vampiric nature, thus making him another character like the Hulk where his 1 goal is the opposite of what we, the audience want.  Some books have managed to overcome this by having Morbius accept his nature or get distracted by more interesting stuff, but he keeps coming back to this bland baseline. 

I told you we’d get back to the count before this count down was over.  Dracula, eponymously of the Tomb of Dracula comic in the ‘70s, was pretty much THE breakout Marvel horror character of the decade.  They were throwing pretty much everything against the wall back then and while folks like Blade or Ghost Rider would eventually find broader success Dracula was the real blockbuster hit.  

A lot of that has to do with the framing of his comic; he was the only reoccurring horror character Marvel was putting out that was just straight up evil.  Everyone else like the Living Mummy or the Werewolf by Night basically had to function as a heroic monster, fighting for good either in spite of their nature or raging against a greater evil.  Dracula usually ended up being that greater evil, to the point that he started making villain appearances in real superhero comics like Dr. Strange and The Defenders.  

For comparison this was right in the same decade folks like Dr. Doom and the Joker were getting their own comics, so super villain solo series were seriously in vogue, but more than that the idea really fits what Dracula has become in pop culture.  Dracula may have emerged as a romanticized vision of Slavic myth surrounding a real figure so as to reflect the xenophobia of the Victorian age but, nowadays, his identity is much more grounded in the kind of ruling, lounging super villain styles of Dr. Doom or Red Skull than those origins.  So just making Dracula a super villain with henchmen, secret bases, and master evil schemes was probably the best call. 

So this is a bit of a strange one, the only entry on the list who’s actually a superhero with vampire powers.  Everyone else here either falls into the villain bracket or is more of a horror character than a hero.  Looker, however, not only has a full costume but is a long time member of the superhero team the Outsiders.  

If you don’t know them, the Outsiders were a group of heroes thrown together by Batman in the ‘70s by Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo after their Brave and the Bold comic proved massively successful.  Looker was a later addition to the team but a pretty cool one.  She had flight, super strength, invulnerability, and cool mind control powers from her vampiric origins. 

As far as Outsiders go Looker usually gets forgotten from the line-up.  She’s never been as popular as Black Lightning or Metamorpho or Katana, who’ve all become stables of the team, but is still a really fun character to have show up.  Her origin is actually kind of inverse She-Hulk, where her vampirism ended up making her incredibly beautiful.  

The idea that she had always wanted to look that way, more for herself than anything else, was a pretty clever subversion of the standard “librarian loses glasses and becomes hot” trope.  Of course, she eventually became another victim of the New 52 but let’s not dwell on that now.

For a royal Nazi vampire, this guy has barely appeared in the Marvel universe.  Like a lot of folks on this list Baron Blood is a product of the 1970s, I guess that was just the decade of the vampire.  He’s something of a retcon character, first appearing in Marvel’s Invaders comic.  In that series, about still active WW2 era heroes like Captain America and Namor, Baron Blood was introduced as a vampire, turned by Dracula, who later joined the Germans in WW1 and WW2.  That context, by the way, fighting the Invaders, tends to be the major way in which Baron Blood fits into the Marvel comics universe.  

He’s basically one of the many Nazi super villains both Marvel and DC have produced but who never gets as much face time as Arnim Zola or Red Skull.  Still, he’s kind of a cool character in that his look is super unique and his vampire abilities are shockingly vast.  For instance, he’s one of the only vampire characters to actually maintain weather control abilities, an often forgotten part of the original lore.  Still, he often ends up a henchman or playing lieutenant to a real bad guy. 

Well who else was it going to be, I mean really.  First appearing in a 1973 issue of Tomb of Dracula, Blade eventually became one of Marvel’s hottest properties.  I’m actually kind of hard pressed to say how or why that happened, especially because when he first appeared Blade wasn’t all that popular.  He was an antagonist of Dracula’s with a doofy costume and later, when he joined the Nightstalker group, ended up one of the first to fall.  Blade didn’t actually gain a major following till the ‘90s, a decade obsessed with urban fantasy infused with horror and superhero elements.  That probably has most to do with the success of The Crow as well as Spawn, Blade’s one-time competition for “biggest black male hero in comics.”  

Actually, Blade’s competition in the urban fantasy supernatural avenger subgenre is probably why he ended up the most popular name in the ‘90s boom.  Folks like The Crow and Spawn are defined more by their emo unhappiness and unwillingness to take action, while Ghost Rider was cool but kind of mired in complexity.  With Blade, everything you need to know is right there in front of you- cool guy kills vampires.  That’s kind of the ‘90s aesthetic in a nutshell actually, theme or emotion kind of took a back seat to clarity and “coolness” even when that coolness was really dopey, but I can’t say it wasn’t fun. 

We’re getting into parallel universe stuff with this one, but it’s still worth diving into.  Back in the ‘90s, DC was big into producing comics under its Elseworlds imprint.  The idea was for writers to produce 2-3 prestige graphic novel stories in a unique setting that wouldn’t work with the main universe.  The big push for this imprint came from several early successes that’ve been adopted as canon within the DC multiverse, stuff like Superman: Red Son, Gotham by Gaslight, Justice Riders, and the Batman/Dracula trilogy.  In these books, written by Batman obsessive Doug Moench and illustrated by the severely underappreciated Kelley Jones, Batman, and his entire rogue's gallery are repurposed into a vampire universe with Dracula as the big bad guy.  

That is, at first it’s Dracula, by the third installment, entitled Crimson Mist, Batman had become a vampire himself and was the new villain, opposed by a coalition of Commission Gordon and the inmates of Arkham Asylum.  It’s a really out there but really fun comic without even being the only Elseworlds where Batman was a vampire (see also the German expressionist trilogy middle installment Batman: Nosferatu.)  The visual of vampire Batman has become such an enduring part of the DC mythos and merchandise that, most recently, the vampire world of the trilogy became a permanent fixture in the DC Multiverse.

Yes, that Jubilee, of the X-Men, the one who were that plastic yellow trench coat and big blue gloves in the 1992 animated series and had the odd power of shooting fireworks from her hands.  Remember back at the start of this list when I mentioned how the X-Men fought vampires in the event Curse of the X-Men?  Well, during that particular snafu Jubilee got exposed to the vampire virus and, later, was bitten by Dracula’s son and became a full on vampire.  

I’m not exactly sure why the vampire virus would just turn her into a vampire instead of some kind of mutant/vampire hybrid, but she did keep all her powers so there’s that.  Anyway, she stayed a vampire for awhile though I’m reasonably certain she’s back to normal.  It’s actually really hard to get a handle on X-Men continuity from the late 2000s/early 2010s as this was when the X-Men were kind of slipping in Marvel’s obsession with them.  With the Avengers movie becoming a huge hit, their franchise supplanted X-Men and Spider-Man as Marvel’s biggest moneymaker, so the X-Men books became way more events oriented and a lot harder to keep track of.  

In a way, they became more like Jubilee with how many different hats the editorial board had them wear in trying to find something that fit.  Suffice it to say “vampirism” wasn’t really a big hit and the whole thing ended up forgotten in the midst of stuff like Regenesis and Battle for the Atom, but those are underwhelming event stories for another list. 

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