A spoiler-free farewell to my beloved favourite, and a note of regret from an ex-fan of the New 52.
I almost didn’t pick issue one off the shelf. In a year saturated with vampires, the cover suggested that this would be one more silly dark romance yarn but with added naked and fanged women: not always what I look for in a comic. Still, in the spirit of being one of the rare new New 52 readers – previously I had only bought the trade collections – I had a quick peek within and immediately added it to my haul. Settling down at home with my spread of Batmen, ex-Vertigo characters, Morrison-penned heroes, and random picks, I came to I, Vampire last. And was immediately delighted. This was it, this was the comic I’d been waiting on. I foisted it upon my friends, “read this,” I instructed, and begged them to ignore the cover.
DC’s New 52 was, I believed at the time, an experiment in tempting new readers into the comic shop, to rejuvenate a stale stable of titles for a wider audience. I, Vampire was unique, creative and a future classic. It was the jackpot. Despite increasingly low monthly sales, the first trade collection made the top 5 of the New York Times bestseller list for paperback graphic novels, following in the footsteps of many an acclaimed Vertigo series and soothing the fears of fans worried by the number of DC titles being cancelled. After 15 issues though, cancellation was announced.
Until then, I hadn’t quite realised how much leeway I was allowing my erstwhile favourite publisher. Creative teams were seemingly trapped in revolving doorways, as short term performance was increasingly given priority over any thought towards greater legacies. Of course some cancellations were to be expected with such a large number of titles launched at once, but at least I could always point to I, Vampire as an example of a great book that DC was standing behind. When that pillar was smashed, it became impossible to ignore the rubble I’d been standing in, and DC fell off my monthly reading list.
The first issue of I, Vampire had me hooked and immediately moved to the top of my comics pile. In the year and a half since, only Saga has topped it, and it has remained a consistently refreshing and fantastic read. While on first glance I was blown away by Andrea Sorrentino’s stark and dramatic style, and his incredible use of panels to reinforce key moments, Joshua Hale Fialkov’s skill with jumping from character to character in order to add greater depth to the ongoing story was apparent after three issues: each directly narrated by someone with a very different perspective on events, yet maintaining the overall dynamic with ease. Two issues can fly past with characters desperately trying to grasp the complexities of the situation, and our lead confirms or subverts our suspicions when the dust settles.
An early crossover with Justice League Dark is the type of event that usually annoys me, forcing me to buy into another book I’ve not been keeping up with. In this case I was able to ignore that fully as I had no problems keeping up with elements outside of the main title. In later months I went back and read the early JLD issues and was delighted by the writings of Peter Milligan, only to find myself disillusioned with the sudden creator change after only eight issues. (An example there of two creators I like equally, yet still being thrown out of the book by change so early on. It led to the disappearance of characters the first creator was building up, and the introduction of new characters out of nowhere.) Sorrentino was also absent for issues 15-18, coincidentally when cancellation was announced, but the book recovers well after the initial jarring handover with Fernando Blanco (#17-19) in particular driving us back towards that harsh tone.
What appealed to me most about I, Vampire was that it was populated almost entirely by villains, but outside any of the stereotypical costumed over-dramatics. Our hero becomes our villain, our villain our reluctant hero, and our human representative a destructive ball of ignorant impulse. There are no heroes here, and there is plenty of hope, yet the overall tone is far less depressing than your average Batbook. Andrew Bennett, cursed with vampirism and humanity in equal measure is no Edward Cullen or Angelus (much as I love the BtVS world), but a complex man bound by his failings but striving for his demanding morals. Mary Seward is his lover and his nemesis, revelling in her sexual and carnal power, and planning the destruction of all mankind. Cain, the father of all evil is stripped of his might and underestimated, while Tig is so wrapped up in her moral high-ground that she repeatedly causes mass destruction from her selfish actions.
Buffy it ain’t, and the story keeps turning on itself magnificently, flipping the roles of everyone involved, and managing to distance itself from the DCU while still being forced to acknowledge the existence of superheroes and costumed vigilantes: strange bedfellows in the world of DC mysticism. Our key outsider character is of course Constantine, and his earlier appearances in JLD at the hands of Milligan are tellingly classic. I would go so far as to say in fact, that the Constantine that appears in I, Vampire is very much the John of old, rather than the “new and improved” non-Vertigo version.
The Vertigo tone of the book is also key to why it became the DC book I was most passionate about. The New 52 had already snatched the characters it wanted to play with from the Vertigo realm – Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Constantine, Madame Xanadu – leaving the once extraordinary imprint to rot. Creativity, critical acclaim and uniqueness were sacrificed for brand awareness and profit maximisation, a familiar tale for those superheroes that once fought the shackles of capitalist greed. But the seeming security of The Dark family of titles at least allowed titles like Animal Man and I, Vampire to mostly ignore their DCU setting and revel in sheer creative wealth; titles that would not have seemed out of place at Image, currently one of the highest marks of praise.
I had hoped that DC, in its enthusiasm to find new readers and tap into the hundreds of thousands of consumers that had already bought into the superhero and comic movies, was on the brink of something truly new. Comics that would appeal to all readers; diverse output for a diverse audience. That the superwomen were going to be put character first, dress code second. That any kid, no matter their background or dreams would find a hero to believe in. That maybe comics would no longer be missing from the high street, that people could pick up a comic alongside their magazines, groceries, hell even their clothes or cosmetics. That a Batman comic would be as common as a Batman lego set, or a Wonder Woman comic as popular as Wonder Woman converse or mugs.
It became apparent that very little of that was true, yet I kept picking up new books – Sword of Sorcery, Batman Incorporated, Dial H… With the exception of Morrison’s books, DC did little to advertise the titles I liked which often led to the inevitable cancellation or creator switcheroo. Many of my book buying pals, avid fans of China Miéville, had no idea he had a comic. Or where to get it. My friends raised their eyebrows at the covers of busty women and went back to reading Hawkeye and Saga. With the cancellation of I, Vampire I started to join them.
It was never going to be the kind of title that DC would actively push. There was no franchise to be spun out, no demand for action figures (at least of the kind the publisher would deem tasteful), and no opportunity for huge events that would thrust vampires outside of their own book and into the world of the superheroes. Sure Batman shows up at one point, but he looks painfully out of place amidst the magic and mysticism tearing Gotham apart, while the only way of stopping the vampires – killing them – leaves him stuck in a moral quagmire. I, Vampire fits neither the grim and gritty Nolan approach, nor the played for laughs and explosions Marvel movie juggernaut. Even an animated take would be hard pressed to capture the stark ink-work of Sorrentino that gives the book its soul.
In short, I, Vampire could only exist as a comic. It was doomed. While it’s pointless to argue that a corporation should put quality above profits, it’s not without longing that I look back on the Vertigo classics of the past that would surely never be signed off on today: Transmetropolitan, Preacher, Sandman, Hellblazer… would even The Unwritten or Astro City be appearing on our shelves if created today? Before Constantine jumped ship, I wondered whether I, Vampire would have fared better on the Vertigo label, but the low sales of titles there (excluding of course the trade collections) seem to only be pointing in one direction.
Fialkov has moved to Marvel with Alpha, and other titles for IDW and Top Cow, while Sorrentino is killing it on Green Arrow with Lemire. Fialkov plus Sorrentino remains my dream team though, and I can only hope that DC will put out a decent collection of their 19 issues of genius. Preferably with one of Sorrentino’s covers that really illustrates the tone of the book.
As for the ending, Fialkov does a great job of wrapping up things satisfactorily, although it’s clear that this was more the end of an arc rather than the end of the saga. Some miscreants live to fight another day, while many questions do go unanswered – the greater history of Cain and Lilith in particular is sacrificed in the need for speed, while the larger role of the House of Mysteries and a tantalising glimpse of a very non-retired Lucifer are naught but mist. The return of Sorrentino to end the story as it began – and beginnings are indeed the key to these ends – is very pleasing, and I’d like to think perhaps some measure from DC towards acknowledging the fans of this book, whether they be comic shop buyers or book store patrons. (Sorrentino provides art on the flashbacks, Blanco on the present day.)
To describe the plot of I, Vampire to the non-reader is difficult, in much the same way as any art that is a true partnership of images, writing and tone. While I adore many comics for their writing and art, there are few that blend so completely as this. Just as 30 Days of Night is not merely about vampires attacking an Alaskan town but an original and terrifying image of the creeping darkness upon humanity and the chilling hopelessness of terror, or the Let the Right One film is not simply about an ancient young vampire and a lonely boy making friends but where love and blood combine in a beautiful creation of restrained cinematography and quiet darkness, so I, Vampire is not content to be described as simply a vampire love tale with stylish gore.
Instead I can only say that it is a book that is both innovative and extraordinary, and would passionately encourage any comic or book reader to give it a try. Volumes one (Tainted Love: #1-6) and two (Rise of the Vampires: #7-12 + Justice League Dark #7-8) are both available, and volume three (Wave of Mutilation: #0, 13-18) is published in October.
Issue #19 preview:
I, Vampire #1-19
Writer: Joshua Hale Fialkov
Pencillers: Andrea Sorrentino, Fernando Blanco, Dennis Calero, Scott Clark
Inkers: Andrea Sorrentino, Dennis Calero
Colourist: Marcelo Maiolo
Cover Artists: Andrea Sorrentino, Clayton Crain, Jenny Frison
Letters: Pat Brosseau, Dezi Sienty, Taylor Esposito
Editors: Matt Idelson, Wil Moss, Chris D. Conroy
[Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter]