Writer’s Commentary: Christopher Priest Discusses ‘Vampirella’ #15 As Well As The Legacy Of Denny O’Neil

by Olly MacNamee

[+++ WARNING: Possible spoilers for Vampirella #15! Buy and read the book, then come back here for the commentary.+++]

If you’re a new comics fan, you may not be familiar with some of the seminal influences on today’s writers, giants of the industry like Gerry Conway, Steve Englehart, Elliot S! Maggin, Cary Bates, Bill Mantlo, Roger Stern, Jo Duffy and a lot of others I’ve insulted by omitting them. These were my guys (and gal), people whose work I anxiously looked forward to on my weekly trips to the newsstand (what’s a “newsstand”?).

Luminaries – Alan Moore, Chris Claremont, Peter A. David, Frank Miller – evolved out of that generation, which in turn created platforms for Dan Slott, Brian Michael Bendis, Scott Snyder and others who make way more money than me, and brilliant innovators like G. Willow Wilson, Jason Aaron, Brian K. Vaughan and the embarrassment of riches the industry enjoys today.

Simply put: comics are better written today than they once were. “Once” is a term I’ll leave to you to define, but it’s true. The main reason why comics are better written is we are writing for better readers. For better or worse, comics fans have grown up and aged out of the days where we could get away with lame or simple plot lines.

TV is more complex, films are a LOT more complex. Both The Dark Knight and Avengers: Endgame felt so grounded, so not-schlocky, that they earned the highest compliment you could pay comic book franchises: both were real movies. “Real” by which I mean, take away the costumes (as Endgame did for much of its run time), and the movie still works. To me that meant we, collectively as fans and professionals, had finally arrived at a place where we were being taken seriously.

Now, connect the dots of all of the above, follow those dots back several decades, and you will end up at Denny O’Neil’s desk. If you are unfamiliar with that name, I implore you to look it up, there’s way too much ground to cover. Denny’s sensibility, his approach to drawing the fantastic into realism and engaging the “real” world with comics’ fantastic characters, was not always appreciated in the 60’s and 70’s when he evolved Batman from a punchline to a Dark Knight. But his contribution is the inevitable destination of any journey through the evolution of superhero realism from Endgame to Adam West.

Denny was, in many ways, like a father to me, a guy who never had a dad and therefore adopted a bunch of them. We lost Denny last year but the cliché is also the truth: his work lives with us forever. ‘There Is No Hope In Crime Alley’, just another Batman story among hundreds O’Neil was churning out in those days, became, unexpectedly to him, his signature; a cleverly constructed done-in-one (as most O’Neil stories were) which defined the Dark Night forever.

Vampirella #15 has nothing to do with ‘…Crime Alley’ or Denny for that matter other than Denny was very much on my mind when editor Matt Idelson and I began work on a done-in-one issue intended as a break between the overlong Seduction of The Innocent and the new Interstellar Vampirella storylines.

Seduction ran way longer than I’d planned, mainly because I am stupid. We fit a two-part fill-in in the middle of it which extended the arc from twelve to fourteen issues. Twelve was already too long, fourteen was excruciating. As a reader, I hate when comics companies hold a gun to my head and force me to read 134-part stories. Seduction coulda shoulda woulda been broken into two 6-story arcs, the second being about Lilith. I really love Lilith; she is just a blast to write and a great foil for poor beleaguered Vampi who loves a mother who treats her like crap. Many of us have experienced this “mommy loves sister more than me” syndrome, whether or not it is actually true.

So, before jettisoning Vampi into outer space, I thought we needed to catch our breath for an issue. I was also trying to sync up Vampirella with its sister title, sacredsixalllowercase, which was experiencing production challenges. I’ve since given up that particular ghost and leave it to posterity (and you fine readers) to assemble the proper reading order once these books have landed.

So, for the done-in-one, I figured to do a Halloween story in the Denny template. There’s a teaser, something unusual or unexpected, there’s a mystery behind it, and we follow a procedure as the protagonist seeks to solve the problem. There’s a plot twist, there’s an escalation leading to a confrontation. And, most notably, the words “The End” appear at the end and not, “…To Be Continued!”

So, now that I’ve exhausted your attention with things that have nothing to do with the comic itself, here’s some very brief observations: 

Madibek Musabekov. Well, there’s a mouthful for you. I do not know this artist but I definitely owe him a beer. ‘Hypnagogia’ requires three unique storytelling approaches: standard (scenes at Vampi’s hotel), black-and-white line art (scenes taking place inside the astral plane) and two different flashbacks (requiring grayscale or other creative approach). Madibek and colorist Francesca Cittarelli were given an extremely complex set of instructions as the story weaves in and out of these disparate creative environments. I can only imagine the cursing (in several languages!) the task invited.

But, wow, they pulled it off.

Vampirella #15, page 1

Pages 1 through 3

The plot is very simple, something my plots rarely are: a pair of ghosts engage Vampirella to hunt down their killer. The narrative device is Vampi, trapped inside the astral plane, telling this ghost story to the manager of the Atlanta hotel she’d been staying in, who has come to Vampirella’s room to evict her (due to the Vampirella groupies crowding her lobby).

Of minor note (literally): Madibek made the hotel manager really young. First, I wouldn’t imagine so young a woman, who appears to be barely of legal age and not quite out of her teens, would be given such a responsibility. Second, Vampi seduces this woman at the end of the story, a scene which has unexpected power due to how young this person looks. Now, I don’t know what the age of consent is on Drakulon (I’ll have to look it up), but Vampi stealing a kiss – which Madibek handled masterfully – comes across a little creepy and not in a horror comic creepy way.

I am frequently heard to complain, “We’re not publishing novels, here,” by which I am emphasizing how vital the visual storytelling is in comic books. I tend to write extremely detailed scripts, but writing scripts is all I can do. I am not, after all, telling the story. I am telling the story to the artist and the editor, and THEY are telling YOU this story. They are on the set shooting the movie and, at the end of the day, it is the poor, beleaguered, underpaid editor – alone and under enormous deadline pressure – who is sitting by him or herself assembling the jigsaw puzzle. In every way that really counts, it is the editor who actually produces the finished work, and the editor is often the referee between several creative opinions.

‘Hypnagogia’ is a solid win, with editor Idelson guiding this mess from a script that reads like a Hubble telescope repair manual to what is available at your comic shop: a fun, relatively light done-in-one echoing some of the best Silver Age story construction of a writer whose typewriter ribbon I am unworthy to change.

Vampirella #15, page 4

Page 4

Here we see Katie, in case you missed it, the runaway vampire groupie who has followed Vampirella from L.A. to ATL. I didn’t want to lose sight of her (we saw her last issue and Katie begins an important transition from this series into sacredsix next issue). Vampirella artist Ergün Gunduz’s art style is extremely idiosyncratic, so readers may not recognize Katie here in her mock-up vampire costume.

Madibek handles Vampirella’s despair and isolation extremely well here, where I am slipping a bit into Brian K. Vaughan and Tom King stylistic pacing. Both of those guys do so much more with so much less than I do, wielding clean, open, simple scenes like emotional blunt force instruments.

Vampirella #15, Page 5

Pages 5 through 8

Our ghosts make their pitch. I’m still doing a little Vaughan/King here as the ghosties play on Vampirella’s own loneliness and isolation, conning her into reliving theirs. Bottom of page eight: into the astral plane we go.

I was introduced to the concept of the astral plane by the wonderful Alex de Campi who brilliantly developed a concept for The Lion Forge’s Astonisher, an extremely underrated book by de Campi and the brilliant Pop Mhan which I took over and drove into a cliff (long story there). Here Madibek switches from a very slick, open contemporary style and becomes Alfredo Alcala, the legendary classic illustrator of many Savage Sword of Conan epics. I used to think perhaps Alcala was getting paid by the line stroke, so detailed and awesome was every single page. Alcala was also super-creepy on the phone, typically pausing between his first and last name in Bela Lugosi style, “This is Alfredo… Alcala,” as if “Alfredo” wasn’t enough for me. He had a very distinctive voice and he was the only “Alfredo” I knew.

I had requested, in my Hubble manual script, Madibek take this approach to the astral plane: draw this more like the original Warren horror comics, which did not employ washes for gray tones but had brilliant artists like the legendary Jose Gonzalez creating “shades” of gray with dense areas of line strokes. That was gorgeous, amazing art, and Madibek pulls it off here.

Vampirella #15, page 9

Page 9

I have no idea who Habersham is – I’d actually meant to use a name from Denny-lore, like maybe O’Shaunessy or something, but forgot to update this in the rewrite. I had intended Simone to be black, to avoid the white-cop-shoots-blacks scenario, but I may have left that detail out of the Hubble doc.

Pages 10 through 13

Okay: anytime a story bothers to drag your through another story (say, two characters going over their plan to rob a bank), you can count on being misled. There is obviously something wrong with this story simply because we’re spending so much time telling it. The Shaggy Dog is scratching himself.

Like a good joke, a good story needs to build to a climax, a punch line (or exit line) that nicely caps the scene. Here we have our inmate delivering the line before the page turn, flipping the story over on its back.

Page 14

Wonderful shot of infuriated Vampi and Madibek takes us through the darkened city into the well-lit hotel room into Warren Magazines circa 1970 as the plot spools out of control and everyone is confused…

Vampirella #15, page 14

Page 15

…which brings us to Flashback #2. Now, the second story is almost always the correct one, or a story that corrects the mislead presented in the first one. The second story is, therefore, worth paying more attention to.

Pages 16 and 17

This hopefully clears up the mystery, which I won’t spoil here, and wraps up the ghost story. However, I was running out of pages because I am not Denny O’Neil and always tend to write way more plot than there is room for. So some of this business of how Vampirella breaks the ghosts’ spell, is just me pulling the rip cord as I plummet fifteen thousand feet.

Pages 18 through 20

Which leaves us only with the frame: Vampirella stuck in the astral plane and asking the hotel manager to help her out. This is a wonderful scene by Madibek. It really had to be. The artist needed to sell this or it just would not work. So, here we are, our plane approaching LaGuardia, and all I can do is hope this kid knows how to fly. Can he land it?

Yeah. He really can. Madibek delivers the goods here, with Vampirella sexually harassing the hotel manager and trying to get her to allow Vampirella to stay. This is classic Vampirella: playful, a bit naughty. She ain’t Supergirl, folks. But she is a blast to write and I adore her.

Thank you most especially to Matt for going well above and beyond on this one, and I hope to pair up with Madibek again soon– awesome job.

Thanks for hanging out. Stay safe, wear masks, wash your hands!

Vampirella #15 is out now from Dynamite

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