Writer’s Commentary: Bill Willingham On ‘Vampirella: Trial Of Souls’ One-Shot From Dynamite
by Olly MacNamee
(++WARNING: this writer’s commentary contains spoilers for Vampirella: Trials of the Soul, out now from Dynamite++)
It seems the purpose of these commentaries, in which the writer of a given comic issue will blab on about that comic, providing page-by-page behind-the-scenes details of the comic, will all too easily lend itself to bragging – to the vulgar tooting of one’s horn – about what a wonderful story it is, and therefore what a wonderful writer I am. But, since it’s in bad form to brag, and always will be, I think I’ll try not to do too much celebrating here on what a terrific writer I am. Shall we just take that as a given and move on?
And yet, simply refusing to do this commentary on the grounds of humility, means saying no to those harried and overworked agents and operatives of my publisher, who are under constant pressure to find new and effective ways to promote their wares. These commentaries seem to help call attention to our stories, therefore the commentaries will be done.
So then, if we start with the premise that no writerly bragging can take place, what’s left to us? Instead we’ll use this as a venue for two things: First, when it applies, I intend to use these pages to pass along what I’ve managed to learn over the years about the particular tricks and challenges of writing comic books. Second, it seems as good a place as any to pass along my theories of writing vampires in particular.
With those two conditions firmly in place, let’s begin.
Establishing shots! Establishing shots! Establishing shots! It was drummed into me early on, by comic-creating veterans who really know their stuff, that one should always begin a scene with an establishing shot, which simply means: start out by showing us where we are. There are exceptions. Sometimes you want desperately to begin the story En Media Res, which is a fancy way of saying: Start in the middle of the action. The advantage (or possibly handicap) here is that the reader is immediately confused and off balance. Sometimes you want your readers off balance so that they’re more completely dependent on you.
My belief is that such beginnings are better when used sparingly. Also, doing it En Media Res doesn’t let you off the hook. Even when starting in the middle of the action, you should establish the scene / location / environment as soon as you can. Get that establishing shot in there, no matter what.
Establishing shots are not wasted panels. You can make them do lots of work, above and beyond just showing us when and where a particular scene is taking place. In this case, I asked the artist for a full three panels of establishing shots, slowly zooming in on our specific location, taking up all of the first page. But that didn’t mean we had to waste that vital space. We also start with dialogue essential to the story. In a way, the dialogue is En Media Res while the art isn’t. Sure, you know where you are, but you’re off-balance, in the midst of a conversation spoken by characters you don’t yet know. But you’ll see them soon enough, so the confusion is short-lived.
What can we say about these pages? First, Giuseppe Cafaro is a terrific comics artist. I hope to work with him again – maybe many times again. Yeah, I promised I wouldn’t be bragging about my own contribution to the story, but that doesn’t count where other members of the storytelling team are concerned. I will share my delight and satisfaction unhindered. They deserve it.
Above all else, Vampirella is a character that needs to be sexy, and Giuseppe delivers that in spades. Well done, pal.
Let me tell you my ongoing problem with the character of Vampirella. She’s been around for a long time, which is fine. But in that time her character, background, and even her abilities have been rewritten so often that no one really knows the character at all anymore. Sure, you can recognize her on sight. She has a unique look that can hardly be improved upon. But what is she? Is she a true vampire? The answer is: it depends on who’s writing her this week and what her origins are this week. Sometimes she’s an alien being from the planet Draculon, who only resembles our legendary monster in several key ways. Sometimes she’s a real vampire. Sometimes she’s basically a superhero. Sometimes she’s something of a villain, fighting the good or evil (take your pick) forces of the Pope and his minions. And many other things she either is or isn’t, depending on which story and origin we’re going with today.
Vampirella is basically a big, hot mess.
When I agreed to write a Vampirella one-shot, I decided I would only do so if I could find a story that didn’t contradict anything that had gone before. The whole mess was made because some new writer would come along and contradict all that had gone before, because he had a much better idea for the character. Unfortunately, the previous writer had a much better idea than the preceding writer, and so on.
So then, this is a tale wherein we ask the questions, who and what is she really? And which of the many stories of her background/origin are true?
Pages 5 through 9:
The character asking those questions is a new one. He wants to know all of the same things I wouldn’t mind knowing. But that’s where our similarities end. He’s not an author-substitute (whom I guess we call a Mary Sue now). He’s got a specific reason for asking and a specific task, depending on the answers he gets.
One thing that has remained constant through pretty much every iteration of Vampi is that she has a temper. Get on her bad side and you find yourselves in trouble. Maybe it would be fun to do a story someday in which she’s always calm and reasonable, and maybe even shy and demure. But what causes the change? That’s the tough part to pull off.
Pages 10 through 12:
We’ve introduced her adversary for this issue, though he’s still a mystery. What’s his deal? We see that, even after his abrupt defenestration, he continues investigating Vampi, but now from a more discrete distance.
Another one of the reasons I agreed to take on this story is to add to the canon. Specifically, since her villains tend to die almost as rapidly as they pop up, I wanted to add a recurring adversary (though not a villain) who can more completely flesh out her cast of characters.
Pages 13 through 15:
His name is Prester John and he’s a character from out of myth and legend. It seems he serves a magical circle of advisors / bosses who call themselves the Irin Wi Qadishin, which has a specific meaning that I’ll force you kind readers to look up, if you really need to know. Take a look in the banned Book of Enoch for some additional background.
Note there’s no particular establishing shot for this scene, because it takes place in a mysterious place you can’t get to, and we don’t get to know too much about. But there is a definite setting, which Giuseppe shows us with gusto.
Establishing shot! Every important scene needs one, with damn few exceptions. Now that we know where we are, we can move along with our tale.
Pages 17 through 21:
My personal philosophy of vampire stories? It’s mostly simple. If you’re going to have vampires in your story, do all of their weaknesses as well as their powers. In fact, one should wallow in their weaknesses, because that’s what makes them interesting. Vampires who can survive in the daylight are boring. They’re just badly conceived superheroes (or villains, depending on the story). If they don’t go out in the daytime because they sparkle even more beautifully than at night, or if they can survive just fine, as long as they have an umbrella, then they actually lose power in my mind. They become a big Yawn.
This is one of the reasons, if pressed, I’d have to argue that Vampi isn’t at all a real vampire.
Vampires are us, but a damned version of us who’ve taken the devil’s bargain. We’ve taken a really crappy version of immortality up front, where we’re dead of spirit, condemned to a diet of blood (and nothing else will do), soulless, and able to die the absolute death. We chose that over the more perfect immortality waiting for us, if we don’t surrender our soul.
But that’s just me. Prester John doesn’t get a definitive answer to his questions in this story, because, to do so, I’d have to do what all of those other writers did, which is to re-do the character yet again and overwrite all of their work. I don’t own the character, so it’s not my place to change her to suit my preferences, even though it’s already been done too many times.
By the way, take a look at page 19, panel 4. Has she ever been drawn better? I could mount quite an argument that she hasn’t. And yes, the squirrel in the following panel is pretty fetching too.
Pages 22 through to the end:
Fight! Fight! Fight!
So then, what have we learned? Can Vampirella enter a church? I think she has in the past, which argues that she isn’t a real vampire by my compass. Does she have a soul? Well, that’s a story for another day. I’m sure there are other writers to come who might make an argument that the answer is no, but only because souls don’t exist. But here’s a free vampire story idea for anyone who wants to use it: The story of a vampire who is evangelized by a Christian and eventually accepts the salvation of Jesus. I’ll bet that’s a story that would get some attention (and many readers’ panties in a bunch). I came close to doing that as a story arc during my run on DC’s Shadowpact series (using a demon, rather than a vampire). I came as close to resolving it as DC would let me come. Maybe I’ll revisit it someday.