Writer’s Commentary: Christopher Priest On ‘Vampirella’ #18 from Dynamite
by Olly MacNamee
[+++ NOTE: Possible spoilers! Buy & read the book and then return here for some haunting commentary! +++]
Another great writer’s commentary from current Vampirella scribe and comic book veteran, Christopher Priest. A creator who needs no introduction, and who always delivers a warts-and-all commentary on his writing. This time round he ponders on Vampirella and Forest J. Ackerman’s original vision her. And Priest’s own plans to infuse his version with the best of her past legacy with her return to Drakulon in this issue. That, and so much more, including his thoughts on the fragility of world building in an industry addicted to reboots! So, without further ado, let’s dive in and read up on his thoughts for Vampirella #18, out now from Dynamite:
I am, clearly, no Christopher Nolan. But, like most film lovers on planet Earth, I was awed and amazed by Nolan’s mind-blowing science fiction epic Interstellar. Our new Vampirella arc, which returns our favorite space vampire to her homeworld, borrows that name while obviously being something very different.
With Vampirella, Forrest J. Ackerman created a satirical novelty verging on farce; a kind of “Barbarella With Fangs“ cheeky space-romp combining the genres of horror and science fiction. Over time, publishers have drifted away – too far away in my opinion – from what Ackerman had intended, grounding Vampirella too deeply in the occult and even embedding the premise in literal biblical memes.
For her 50th Anniversary, Dynamite has graciously allowed me to “J.J. Abrams” the Vampirella premise, creating my own “Kelvin” universe version of the character and her history while leaving everything Vampi fans know and presumably love intact. I prefer this kind of nondestructive approach. I know what it feels like to have five or six years of world-building wiped out by some stunt an editor or publisher pulls.
Here, with issue #18, we turn to more fully engage the Ackerman premise, visiting a new vision of Drakulon that is more fleshed out than the barely-defined wasteland of the character’s debut while steering away from what the place had evolved into over time: a literal substitute for the biblical Hell. Vampirella is not from Hell. Due respect to much better writers than me, I strongly disagree that any of that was in Ackerman’s head.
So, what then IS Drakulon? Well, in order to pull back the curtain on “Kelvinverse” Drakulon, we need to start with Ackerman Drakulon, the desert of Gosi-Bram. Named for Dracula scribe Stoker? Your guess is as good as mine.
Pages Two and Three
From the page turn, we are now firmly in the Kelvinverse. Is this canon? Come back in ten years. If any of this is still intact, drop me a line at the Old Comic Book Writers Villa del Boca where I’ll be competing in shuffleboard against Peter David and Fabian Nicieza.
Ackerman had Vampirella effortlessly operate a NASA spacecraft and fly it back to Earth – which was ridiculous on too many levels for column space here to allow me to deconstruct. However, the Ackerman story suggests, in fact insists, Drakulon was a place of advanced technology and knowledge. Later history also indicated the planet suffered terrible drought. My extrapolation was climate change would have a severe impact on society, including economic collapse leading to war.
So, that’s the portrait of Drakulon artist Ergün Gunduz and I have painted: Ackerman Plus. We attempted to honor the intent of the original concept while extrapolating forward from it. Thus we see an advanced society but one ruined by economic collapse, social unrest and war, all of that brought on by climate change.
Ergün paints a grim picture of urban despair, a city long dead and baking beneath not one but two suns, and in the shadow of a dead planet orbiting perilously close by (more on that soon and, yes, there is a point to it).
Pages Three through Five
Here we have a little fun with The Fifth Element, with Vampi doing a bit of turnstile-jumping on the metro (where would she keep tokens in that outfit?!) as she tunnels to where I imagine an advanced society like Drakulon would, in light of the drought, be forced to go.
Here we stop by the present day, reminding readers that it is Christmas in now-time and Vampirella had just left her therapist’s office only to return, minutes later, and claim to have been gone a year.
I am not a fan of first-person narrative. It is grossly over-used in this business thanks largely to Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Mark Waid having used it so effectively and done it so well. But, seriously, enough already. Also, the worst implementation of 1PN is the kind where it is not clear to whom the character is speaking.
Real people, at least sane people, do not usually walk around narrating their lives to themselves for no reason. I can stomach 1PN if it is well written. But, for me, I think Frank was one of precious few who could sell me on the stream of consciousness headspace of Matt Murdock or Bruce Wayne. I bought most of that, it was a very effective use of this tool. I aped Miller in Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, where I used the Miller approach.
By and large, I much prefer to establish to whom the narrator is speaking and why they are chronicling the adventure in the first place.
I don’t know that there is ever a “jumping on” point in comics anymore, no matter how loudly we hype “Beginning This Issue!” for a new story arc. Comic book writers are trained to write every issue as though it were someone’s first time reading the book, but that’s a real stretch with increasingly diminishing returns. It is a lot of effort and risk boring existing fans while we reach for what might be a very small number of newcomers. Not enough to move the needle sales-wise, but we’ve exerted a ton of effort and bored people at the same time.
I hope, by page six, everybody was on board and understood the shot, here: Vampirella has a therapist who does not believe a word she tells him. And now, back to our show…
Ergün’s underground city spins us toward Blade Runner. It is amazing and breathtaking. I actually had no idea this guy could go there — into Kirby nee Moebius territory. I haven’t asked him – and I should – but this story, in fact the entire arc, which I have just completed writing, looks like Ergün was really enjoying himself. Freed from the more restrictive demands of reality, Ergün was now free to run wild. And run he did.
Pages Eight and Nine
Here is “Ergün Unleashed”, leveraging two pages of borrrrring exposition with incredible eye candy. I would not classify Ergün as a conventional superhero artist. He is a brilliant illustrator, creating startlingly vivid animation-style cells. He has outstanding craft for color rendering in a genre I feel is more often harmed by color than not. Horror, for me, always looks creepier in black and white.
We met Vampirella’s uncle, Senator Hilal, before in an alien-induced fantasy sequence of issue #8, but here Ergün has built his own model of a salty, nosey relative trying to run your life. All of which is in service to the Lilith character, the drumroll before the curtain rises on page ten.
I try hard to pace stories for the page turns. Odd-numbered pages need to end with something compelling the reader to turn the page and keep reading; ideally a drum roll of some sort. The page turn onto an even-numbered page should, most especially, be a punch in the face. POW.
Here’s Lilith, suffering the indignity of imprisonment inside a Gravat. What’s a Gravat? At the time I wrote this, I had no idea whatsoever.
I’m not a huge fan of gratuitous female bondage imagery but in this case it was necessary and serves a purpose. New readers may not know this but, besides being a space vampire, Lilith – Vampirella’s mother – is also a Dr. Strange-level sorceress.
In my Kelvinverse I blur the distinction between technology and sorcery, mainly because Ackerman and other early writers played around with those definitions quite a bit, as does the Star Wars universe which strongly features both mysticism and high tech coequally existent.
Lilith’s magic (or technology, take your pick) is gesture-based. She has to throw up gang signs and rotate her hands and so forth the way you might on a touchscreen, therefore her limbs must be bound. I imagine she has a litany of pre-packaged spells loaded in RAM and ready to go, with specific gestures acting like user-definable softkeys such that, with a simple gesture she can open a dimensional portal and move between point A and point B.
Point of clarity: Lilith cannot move between worlds and cannot move across time. She’s pulling a kind of Nightcrawler, albeit with her range of distance undefined. To move across worlds, she employs ancient Gateways like the one used to drag her here to Drakulon in sacredsix #6.
Pages Eleven and Twelve
More exposition as we meet Elder Bryce, the Good Man who deposed Lilith and took her place as planetary leader (Lilith was a horrible and incompetent leader who crashed the economy and inflicted climate change and disease on the people). Suleyman is the conniving senate leader, the space vampire version of Mitch McConnell.
It’s important to note that Editor Matt Idelson and I planned most of this a long, long time ago, long before the 2020 elections or the capitol riot. We will now be accused of satirizing both but, in terms of production time, we’d have had to have planned and approved this plotline months before any of that.
Never in my imagination did it occur that my story, about the deposed Queen’s loyalists storming Drakulon’s capitol, would be too close to reality. I mean, it just never occurred to any of us, and why would it have? Nobody from Dynamite’s Black Tower handed down notes like, “Cut the insurrection scene because that might actually happen in the U.S.” It would have been an absurdly over-protective note.
And yet, come back next issue…
Pages Thirteen through Fifteen
Now, meet Kauldryn (as in “flock of bats”), pre-teen space vampires custom-made for an animated series (stay tuned!). These kids, who serve as pages to the Drakulon Senate, were a kind of flight of fancy on my part, just an idea tossed out there, which Ergün brought so vividly to life that it tickled Matt and I to death. What a fun group of kids! Bora, the curly-haired Turkish boy, is modeled after Ergün’s actual son.
My point in creating them was to give Vampirella a special costume for this outer space adventure (she will don one of their maglev breastplates next issue to help her fly through subterranean caverns without having to deploy her wings; her wingspan being much too wide to effectively fly down there). But Ergün breathed so much life into these little people that they end up joining Vampi’s cast for awhile.
Pages Sixteen and Seventeen
Here we meet our new heavy– SHANE THE FIRST MAN. Once again, Ergün slammed this one home. I am sooo in love with Shane. I’m actually pushing for a Shane 1-shot to test the waters for a Shane project. Who is he? What’s he “first” of? More important, what does he want from Vampirella? Stay tuned.
Pages Eighteen through Twenty
No sense trying to hide the fact I ran out of pages. Sometimes a story isn’t working and you’re crawling toward Page Twenty. Others, Page Twenty slams into you like a freight train. Here we find the latter: I needed a break-point and so we pause at the discovery of a secret farm wherein fresh human blood is being collected.
Which suggests the Vampiri have cracked the code to operating the stargates (called “Gateways”) to Earth, which could doom all of Earth if Vampirella doesn’t destroy the Gateways — and doom Drakulon if she does.
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