Comic Books to Know About: Vampirella
I’m not sure what to make of my own love for the classic comic Vampirella, that ran from 1969 to 1983. As you can probably tell by the name, the protagonist, Vampirella, is a vampy vampire who spends most of her time vamping all over the place. The primary purpose of her character is to be a mostly-naked woman, clothed only in a red singlet that makes it look like an amateur student of sex highlighted her main areas of interest: breasts, crotch, butt.
Vampirella stars in her own comics that are terrible but more often she is a cheesy sexy hostess for cheesy sexy horror comics, like her contemporary in the B-movie biz, Elvira. For example, after a story about a man who thinks he is marrying a beautiful space alien queen only to find out on his wedding night that she is a monstrous blob (to which he reacts: “BLECH!”), Vampirella pops up in the last panel to deliver this little zinger:
Vampirella is not good, but that’s fine. It’s a textbook guilty pleasure that lets you indulge in things you’re not really supposed to indulge in. The stories are rotten, the jokes are rotten, the horror is not horrifying and the attempts at sexiness are undermined by the silliness of it all.
Vampirella is as low brow as it comes, but, like many comic books, it has garnered serious attention. In 1975, Angela Carter published an essay called “The Art of Horrorzines” in New Society. She wrote that “the subculture of the comic buff has about it an air of parody academe, with its bibliographies, collectors’ items, annual conferences, encyclopaedic knowledge of artists, writers, styles“ and concern “with technical minutiae.”*
Carter parodied the parody by giving Vampirella genuine academic treatment. In addition to her Roland Barthes-esque analysis of the genre in the essay quoted above, Carter produced a radio play inspired by the comic. The play is a retelling of traditional vampire stories only this time the parasitic vampire protagonist is a female instead of male. The story is a juxtaposition of humanity’s primordial irrationality and our struggle to be rational in the modern, scientific world. The play is replete with brainy words like chiaroscuro, Walpurgisnacht, and liebestod.** Unlike the original Vampirella, it is very good. But do you know what happens at the end of Carter’s Vampirella? [spoiler alert!] Vampirella dies.
The original Vampirella, however, lives on. Not only did her comic run for fourteen years, but it was relaunched four times thereafter, made into a movie that co-starred Roger Daltrey (!) in 1996, and continues to inspire fans, not least those who mock up Vampirella/Buffy the Vampire Slayer mashups. I guess that may be what I like about the original Vampirella so much. There’s something about not trying so hard that keeps you alive.
*You can find this essay in Angela Carter, Shaking A Leg: Collected Writings (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 447-451.
**For an academic treatment of Carter’s academic treatment read this.
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