Bad Girls 4ever!!

*Culture Clash Dept: A trip to a large chain bookstore with a 1/4 off coupon today led me to make a purchase I’d been planning on for a while - Robot Vol. 1 from Digital Manga Publishing, a lavish, full-color manga anthology edited by Range Murata (of Studio Gonzo anime fame) and featuring some pretty great visual designers, like Yoshitoshi ABe (of animated productions like the great Serial Experiments Lain, and Haibane Renmei, which was based on his comics). The second volume is due out in English next week, actually, so I was eager to get caught up.

I can’t say I was all that eager to head for the cash registers, though. You see, the front cover art for the book doesn’t quite give the full effect; once you’re holding the book in your hands, you notice that the sleepy/drugged, very young-looking woman on the cover is wearing nothing but a pair of gloves, a pair of boots, and a strategically positioned list of contributors. Coupled with the shrinkwrap and the big black “EXPLICIT CONTENT” sticker affixed to the package, well, the whole thing sort of exudes the aura of high-end stroke fuel. And rather questionable fuel at that. But I held my head high as I purchased the book, dear readers; it’ll take more than a few wary glances from a teenage cashier to turn me away from my holy mission of buying comics, no matter how some of this cover art happens to look.

Vampirella: The Morrison/Millar Collection

Hey, I’ll give this book one thing - at least it’s really straightforward about why people might be interested in it. There’s nothing frilly like ‘storyline titles’ or ‘plot suggestion’ on the cover of this trade; it’s just ‘yeah, here are comics that Grant and Mark wrote together - enjoy.’ And sure enough, here we’ve got issues #1-6 of Vampirella Monthly (1997-98), plus Morrison’s nine-page story from the Vampirella: 25th Anniversary Special (1996), and the Millar-written Vampirella Strikes #6 (1996, not his only solo writing work on the character). There’s also a smattering of variant cover art pin-ups, some of them featuring contributions by Jae Lee and Joe Quesada, plus a pair of one-page interviews with artist Amanda Conner and the M&M team. Pleasant, but there are problems. Quite a few.

It’s not a cheap book; the $24.95 toll on this tome is roughly what you’d pay if collecting this stuff in pamphlet form at full cover price (the pamphlets would be a few dollars more, but you’d also get a few non-Morrison/Millar stories thrown in with that 25th Anniversary thing). It’s not a technically immaculate book; I picked up one instance where a word balloon has simply been left blank (third-to-last page of the second chapter), and there’s an oddly fuzzy quality to the lettering, as if it’s being displayed in a somewhat lower resolution than everything else. And it’s certainly not a complete book; the final three issues of the Morrison and Millar run on the character, Vampirella Monthly #7-9, are totally unaccounted for (rights issues regarding guest star Shi, perhaps?).

Actually, even the title doesn’t tell the whole story - Steven Grant of Permanent Damage fame co-wrote two of the issues compiled here, at the tail end of the Vampirella Monthly stuff. If my sources are correct, he also worked on those three missing issues and continued on after Morrison and Millar departed. You might be wondering why exactly the exploits of Vampirella should happen to require three writers working all at once to bring them to sequential fruition. Me too. I’m also wondering why Morrison curiously declines to list in his website bibliography any of the Vampirella Monthly issues past #4. Hell, even the circumstances that led to Morrison and Millar working on this project to begin with seem to be shrouded in mystery; this Alex Bernstein review from the heyday of PopImage suggests that the whole affair began as a favor done for an editor at publisher Harris. Certainly Morrison and Millar didn’t appear to be taking things all that seriously if that aforementioned one-page interview is to be believed; they talk about scribbling notes down on beer napkins, ping-ponging twists and events back and forth whilst intoxicated. But to say that this sort of attitude is obvious from the completed work is to give it too much credit; you’d expect more fun from a drunken bash.

Basically, this stuff puts us squarely back in Skrull Kill Krew territory (that series having been completed in early 1996); once more, we have a driven group of lead characters, crazy about extinguishing a certain monster element from the world, the resultant death and mayhem made presumably guilt-free through the inhuman status of the prey. The big problem with Skrull Kill Krew was that the Marvel Edge banner the book was plopped under didn’t really offer it very much freedom; clearly Morrison and Millar wanted to indulge in an over-the-top festival of fast-‘n-crazy carnage, but they were always held back, strapped down to their superhero safety seats when they’d probably rather stand up and stomp on the gas. Less restrictions are present in this material, but what prohibitions there are manage to make the work all the more puzzling.

There’s lots of violence in this book. Gory shootings and bitings, immolations, literal swimming pools full of blood. It’s really rather mean-spirited at times; there’s plenty of torture, physical and emotional, on full display. Vampirella, that sorta-vampire bad girl from planet Drakulon, is introduced as having recently risen from the dead, newly driven to extinguish all vampires; she’s crazy about the task, at one point spotted gleefully licking vampiric blood off of her fingers while sitting atop a heap of fallen bodies. Soon she gains a teenage sidekick named Dixie after a vile fiend forces the young girl to shoot her father to death, only after having listened to Dad order her own death in exchange for the life of her sister (the game is called Sophie’s Choice). Before the close of issue #2 the intrepid vampire-hunting duo are interrogating baddies by burning their testicles off, but Dixie proves remarkably susceptible to capture, leading to a little non-consensual incestuous lesbian tongue-wrestling for her, plus a spot of bondage for Vampi. Actually, Vampirella manages to get chained down or tied up or otherwise restrained at least once in every story in this book, her dental floss-clad form writhing in chop-licking detail.

But a little something’s missing - any actual sex or nudity, of course! Indeed, these stories will often go to laughable lengths (not just carefully positioned arms or shadows, but women walking around at an orgy wearing pasties) to avoid showing so much as a single nipple, despite their overwhelming desire to appeal to the most low-down needs of the readership. After all, this is a work where a sixteen-year old girl responds to the death of her father by squeezing her body into a skintight catsuit with the front zipper down to just above her navel, and where the title heroine at one point struts around in a revealing new costume just for the sheer hell of playing dress-up - she never actually uses it. The result is a book that I’d hardly consider showing a younger kid, but which nevertheless appears to be horrified at the prospect of being dubbed an ‘adult’ work. It’s the most puritanical work of sequential prurience I can readily think of at the moment, and that attitude even extends to the very suggestion of sexual activity. In the interview, Morrison makes mention of the “weird sex in the 90s” he’s been getting into, which attracted him to the book; funny then that the only characters in this book that enjoy any (carefully obscured) sex are the villains, who are then summarily massacred. An early scene with Vampirella shooing a pair of frisky teens out of a cemetery so she can get down to some skin melting and decapitation really says it all.

My hazy memories of actively reading comics in the 1990's inform me that there was a trend of ‘bad girl’ comics going on at the time, with the contemporaneous Vampirella titles often cited as exemplars of the style; these particular stories came a few years later, but maybe they’re beholden to a certain set of subgenre tropes that lead to such a vehemently contradictory, virginally ‘outrageous,’ blood-soaked ‘n shackled half-naked women = good/nipples and affectionate touching = bad type of atmosphere. If so, it’s the kind of thing I’d expect Morrison at least (only in the sense that I’m a lot more familiar with his work than Millar’s and Grant’s) to try and toy with; however, in the back of the book Morrison can also be found saying “Vampirella is so cool... [a]s a kid I got into Vampirella because if you were scared to buy skin books, you would go and buy [her comics]... it was a serious education for me going out and buying it.” Which suggests that maybe the whole point was to recreate that atmosphere for today’s kids, somehow not really a Mature Readers book but naughtily forbidden stuff regardless. I really can’t look at the result in any sort of positive sense, though.

Oh, right - there’s plots in here too. In the first three-issue arc of Vampirella Monthly, Vampi and Dixie kill vampires, and then they get captured and Vampi is chained up, but then they kill the vampires that captured them in the end. The next three issues see Grant come onboard, and they’re a little bit better; Vampi and Dixie team up with a bunch of heavily-armed nuns in tight clothing to kill vampires in Rome, who at one point bind Vampi to a wall with knives. It’s notable mainly for a half-considered time-travel subplot, large chunks of which remain entirely unexplained (maybe they get to it in the three issues missing from here?), and a closing plot twist that later surfaced in the film Dracula 2000 (in other movie connections, the comic sports a nice homage to the poster art for Werner Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht). As far as the art goes, Conner (inked by Jimmy Palmiotti) is superior on storyline 1 to Louis Small Jr.’s work (inked by Rob Stull and Gary Martin) on storyline 2, which leans a bit too much on the pretty girl postures to the detriment of other elements of the page. The Millar-solo issue (also penciled by Small, with inks by ‘Caesar’) sees Vampi invade a vampire orgy in light-deprived Alaska, predating the high concept 30 Days of Night by several years. Vampi gets caught and shackled, but then she kills all the vampires. In the Morrison-solo short (breakdowns by Michael Bair, finishes by Kevin Nowlan), a villainess in pasties and thong panties captures Vampi and puts her on a leash; Our Heroine gets away, but so does the villainess, since she’s presumably needed in a future storyline. And that is all.

Hey, I guess you can say it’s all just a silly toss-off. Nothing to take too seriously. I just wish there’d been a little more... entertainment? I mean, some of the creative means of working in classic vampire weaknesses were sort of keen, like having a priest bless a rainstorm, converting the whole downpour to holy water. But these moments just aren't enough on their own. And I like genuinely down ‘n dirty genre comics; I’m not buying The Punisher MAX every month out of habit, after all. But this is low-grade exploitation, plenty of sizzle and very little steak, duly grimy but recalcitrant in handing out certain kicks, which muddles the tone of the whole affair and leaves a bad taste in your mouth. The hardcore fans of these creators will want it anyway, but try and find it hiding in dollar bins somewhere; this book isn’t worth the asking fee.