Tuesday, April 26, 2011

'Vampirella: The Dracula War' is weak, despite the strong foundation

Vampirella: The Dracula War (1993)
Writers: Kurt Busiek and Tom Sniegoski
Artists: Louis Small Jr., Jim Balent, and Matt Banning
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When Harris Comics relaunched "Vampirella" in the early 1990s, they did so with a four issue black-and-white deluxe format series "Morning in America". The series featured carefully and beautifully rendered art by Louis La Chance and John Nyberg, and a multi-layered storyline that brought a darkness and sense of horror to the Vampirella strip that had never been present before. The story by Kurt Busiek used the ever reliable Cult of Chaos as villains and deployed the supporting cast from the old series with an effectiveness that hadn't been seen since Archie Goodwin was writing the stories.

But once that mini-series was over, things started to go wrong. Immediately.

"Vampirella: The Dracula War" collects the first four issues of Harris' monthly "Vampirella" color comics title. The story picks up after the end of "Morning in America" with United States Senator Adam Van Helsing using his political power to wage war against the world-wide forces of the Cult of Chaos and Vampirella and her friend Pendragon serving as his foremost shock-troops. Vampirella and Pendragon travel to Europe where they discover that Chaos's tendrils reach to the highest level of the European Union's leadership, and that their old foe Dracula is poised to seize control of the Continent on behalf of the Mad God he serves.

In concept, it seems like a worthy Vampirella story, one that continues the threads of "Morning in America", but adding back in some of the high adventure and genre-bending action that marked many of the tales of Warren era--in this case, vampires meet international intrigue ala Hammer's "The Satanic Rites of Dracula".

In execution, things are a little less appealing. The story never feels like it quite finds its direction, meandering from encounter to encounter, none of which feel like their building toward anything in particular. Instead of growing excitement, I felt growing boredom as I progressed through the book; I became less interested in how things were going to turn out rather than more with each turn of the page. Worse, the few interesting moments in the book--such as vampires relying on hi-tech to overcome the fact that sunlight is lethal to them--are undone by efforts to strip Vampirella of the things that made her and the series in general such a fun and unique property and reduce her to a run-of-the-mill, ass-kicking, monster-fighting one-note Bad Girl character. Where the post Goodwin and Englehart Vampirella started very quickly to rely too much on camp, the Harris Vampirella started running too far in other direction. While Busiek continues to stay more true to the original Vampirella stories than those who followed him--the return of Vampirella's bat-wings in an example of this--the goal for these references is primarily to expand the notion that much of what we thought we knew from the old series was a Chaos-created lie and that Vampirella's past was so much fantasy. (This approach reached its height with the final gasps of the Harris Vampirella with "Vampirella: Revelations" and "Vampirella: Second Coming", a mini-series that not only wiped out most of the original Warren continuity but most of what Harris had established as well.)

But watching Vampirella be turned from a fun, genre-striding babe to a generic mid-1990s Bad Girl comic book character isn't the worst aspect of "Vampirella: The Dracula War". The biggest disappointment is the artwork, particularly after the great stuff featured in the "Morning in America" series. The layouts are messy and hard to follow, the panels are flat and devoid of any sense of movement even during action scenes, and the coloring is amatuerish to say the least; all three major artists on this book went onto do far better work than what is on display here. (In fact, whoever took Balent's brush away from him and made him the penciller on DC's Catwoman did him a tremendous favor, career-wise.)

Perhaps a new decade and a new publisher will restore her to the glory she once knew (or at least to the level of fun found in the Balent-penciled crossover with Catwoman from 1997)--especially since the early issues have been written by the very talented Eric Trautmann--but as far as the past is concerned, "Vampirella: The Dracula War" should be consigned to the dustbin of comics history.

For more on Vampirella, click here to read reviews of some of the classic stories from the Warren Era at Shades of Gray; or here to view some great Vampirella artwork, as well as her Saturday Scream Queen profile, at Terror Titans.