Every culture on Earth seems to have its own vampire myth:
- The Lilitu of Ancient Mesopotamia
- The Mandurug of the Philippine Islands
- The Cihuateteo of the Aztecs
- The Asanbosam of the Ashanti people of Africa
- The Strega of Italy
Heck, the most recent creation of a vampire myth comes as late as post-Civil War America! In 1892, Mercy Brown was blamed posthumously for the outbreak of “consumption” in Rhode Island. The family exhumed her body. A doctor examined her lack of decay. And then her heart was removed and burnt to ash on church grounds.
Roughly ten years later, the Wright brothers were in Kitty Hawk and the modern age began. Vampirism is that close.
And this is the power of myth. Nosferatu are classic yet infinitely adaptable. In this way, vampires feel both ancient and hyper-modern at the same time. All of this makes them powerful. And so it’s no wonder comics succumb to the allure of this monster, from vampire killing manuals that predate the printing press all the way up to today.
But with so much to read, how do you find the right book to bite you? We’re here to help… with a little musical accompaniment.
Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Archie Goodin, Don Heck, et al
In the 1950s, The Comics Code Authority did away with all of the old world monsters. Frankenstein, zombies, and the wolfman were all victims of the CCA’s ongoing culture war. But no one more than Dracula. Ol’ Vlad was bad enough with his violence. Add to that his history of seducing and corrupting women, which only made things worse (that he occasionally did the same to men was truly horrifying to 1950s America.) But what was truly unacceptable in the eys of the CCA was the fact that Dracula was from the part of Europe which was simply too scary for a Cold War audience.
So Dracula was permanently off the table.
Then, in the 1970s, Marvel said: “screw it.” Marv Wolfman and the rest of Marvel’s misfits decided to push back against the CCA and began putting out monster magazines again. And I think their entire strategy was “make these things so good that no one would dare stop us.” They picked up Archie Goodwin and Don Heck, both of whom had their own enormous problems with the Comics Code, and set them to work making a smart, moody horror book for the ages.
This book was an act of bravery when it came out. The CCA tried to drown them in censorship, and yet this fantastic book prevails. And personally, I think it reignited the horror craze of the late 70s / Early 80s.
J.M. Dematteis and Thomas Sutton
This is DC’s answer to Tomb of Dracula. Studied the fun, sometimes campy formula of Marvel’s horror line, and went completely in the opposite direction.
If Tomb of Dracula is Universal Monsters, all safe and familiar, then I… Dracula is a Hammer film, all violence, and unflinching nihilism.
The book follows Lord Andrew Bennett, who has become cursed with vampirism. Unable to live an eternity without the love of his life, Mary Seward, he turns her. But when she’s corrupted by this new immortality and power, Bennett is forced to hunt her down and end her un-life.
I… Vampire is arresting and tragic; a tale of doomed love that spans 24-issues and 400 years.
Howard Mackie, Len Kaminski, Andy & Adam Kubert, et al.
This book is a fantastic example of how adaptable the vampire myth can be.
Blade came out of Wolfman’s Tomb of Dracula. And while the plots to some of those comics are good, the character himself can’t quite shake the awkwardness of Marvel’s 1970s diversity push. Meaning, 1970s Blade can feel a lot like a white dude saying “jive turkey.”
And Morbius was even worse. Whereas Blade existed off in the horror universe, Morbius was meant to take that winning formula and apply it Spider-Man. And his weird, disco-Vampire sorta shambled around for two issues of Spider-Man before being downgraded to two issues of Marvel Team-Up. After that, Morbius rode the pine in the horror mags. Aside from a few John Byrne Fantastic Four books, he was cursed to be a c-rate “guest appearance.”
Then the 90s came along, and somebody over there got real into Ministry and Nine Inch Nails real bad. Suddenly, in this new dark age of grunge, industrial, and rap, vampires just made sense. A team was pulled together with all of Marvel’s goth-iest heroes, starting with both Ghost Riders and following up with a revamped version of Blade and Morbius. Blade got an awesome punk-modded leather jacket. Morbius had this sorta Blackie Lawless meets Nivek Ogre thing going on.
Even with all these 1970s throwbacks, the book feels perfectly of its time. It’s both tense and fun. Moody, but energetic.
Howard Chaykin, David Tischman
I disagree with Chaykin on a great many things. But when he’s good, there’s nobody like him.
And in Bite Club, he’s real good.
At it’s staked heart, Bite Club is a crime drama and a clever and brilliant one at that. Chaykin has a deep history of working on genre titles, and that familiarity with structure allows him to do some really clever things here. By using vampires as a lense, Chaykin delivers a fresh take on classic crime drama subjects like racial injustice and police harassment. This isn’t a crime drama hoping to cash in on True Blood, but a book that becomes smarter for its use of vampires.
Best of all, Chaykin uses these characters — and his famous love of pulp noir — to deliver a story with no true heroes and no clear villains. Everyone feels desperate, hungry, and trapped in a cycle of violence. One that’s as garish as the Tischman’s masterful backdrop of Miami nightlife. Tischman has sense of mixing all these different definitions of “sexy,” ranging from the comedic pinup of classic pulp to the power that female characters were beginning to find in the comics of 2004. Which only makes sense when dealing with an immortal, Latina vampire and fearless heir to a criminal empire.
Joss Whedon, Brian K. Vaughan, Georges Jeanty, et al.
It’s not often that a television series gets as popular as Buffy. And it’s even more peculiar to see that tv series end in comics.
But series creator Joss Whedon teamed to create this canonical closer to the fan-favorite. And by using comics, the two push the limits well beyond what television censors would ever allow. In a way, this makes it something of an homage to Tomb of Dracula. And, on those merits alone, the series should be praised.
Unfortunately, I was never a huge fan of Whedon, so I’m taking a lot of this on faith. This is clearly one for the fans. However many are left after Whedon’s enormous 2017 flameout.
Grant Morrison, et al.
It’s easy to roll your eyes at Vampirella. She began life as the last sex-symbol of Planet Drakulon. And, for much of her publication history, she was nothing more than a dangerous woman in the world’s most impractical red swimsuit.
But there’s another side to that coin. One that’s strange and wonderful.
Because of Vampirella’s, uh, obvious marketing potential, the book was virtually guaranteed a certain amount of sales. This made it possible to use the book as a testbed for young talent. This means that virtually any creator you or I can think of has probably, unbeknownst to us, had a run on this “shlock” mag. Before Warren Ellis wrote Planetary, he wrote for her. Jeph Loeb turned in a script before creating Hush. Same for Mark Milar. Frank Frazetta, Mike Mignola, Jae Lee, and David Mack all drew her.
The ongoing Vampirella Master Series collects some of the best from these contributors, demonstrating that maybe we’ve got this character all wrong. However, you’ll probably have to get them on Comixology, as the print versions sell out fast.
Doug Moench, Kelley Jones, et al.
Batman was spun out of vampire lore. His costume and motif. The fact he works at night. How every terrified criminal describes him as a giant bat or a vampire, spreading myths that he is supernatural, that he bites people.
This series suggests that Batman fears becoming some monster of the night as well. The classic fear we all have that whispers “what if I am what other people say I am?” This fear has kept Batman on the straight and narrow. The trilogy of Batman/Dracula: Red Rain, Batman: Bloodstorm, and Batman: Crimson Mist transform the metaphor into reality by bringing the forces of darkness to Gotham City. First, Batman is hunted by his own dark reflection, a vampire. Then Batman finally succumbs to the night and becomes the monster.
Doug Moench (Knightfall) turns in a perfectly paced gothic horror. Kelley Jones (Swamp Thing) turns it into a perfectly staged horror play filled with Edwardian gravitas. Together, these two created perhaps the best Elseworlds story ever. One that uses the looser setting to create something revelatory about the character.
Steve Niles, Ben Templesmith
This was the vampire book that restarted the craze. A clever tale about a town above the article circle that experiences total darkness for 30 days each winter. An endless night that’s just perfect for a vampire story.
So I’m including this book because it is important. And, I suppose, because it can be an easy read for some (I have a few friends who cite this book as their introduction to the comic book medium.) And I genuinely, whole-heartedly believe that it deserves our respect base on these merits.
That said, I don’t think has aged well. Niles’ writing is good with hints of greatness (especially the finale) But at other points, the script feels unrefined. For me, Savage Membrane remains the better work by him. One that I strongly suggest you check out in the original novelization with occasional art by Ashley Wood.
Speaking of Ashley Wood… Ben Templesmith. Ben’s mixed media work gave this book an iconic feel and it built a lot of excitement for it. But I personally think that now, on sober reflection, Templesmith is the weakest part of this book. Speaking not as a member of Comic Book Herald, I think the Templesmith of this era is trying to be a poor imitation of Ashley Wood.
I have always felt that Ben used digital mixed media to cover for the fact that he wasn’t a very good artist. I think that if you strip away the splattery, digital artifice of the book and look at just Ben’s illustrations, you’ll find an awkward, inconsistent mess. One with indistinct characters, ragdoll action, and bad fundamentals. In time, Templesmith cultivated his crude renderings into a sort of outsider art style which, I think, can work for him. I was genuinely happy to see that. But I think the Ben Templesmith of 30 Days of Night tried to use Photoshop and photography to cover for sub-indie comic level illustrations.
That’s me. Others may like the book. But all I can see is a title that needed an art editor.
Scott Snyder, Stephen King, Rafael Albuquerque, et al.
I love Batman New 52. It is a creative achievement and a sales juggernaut. Maybe even a genre-defining work.
But for my money, American Vampire is Scott Snyder’s masterpiece. Up above, I mentioned how the latest vampire incarnation was in 19th century America. But the truth is, it’s everywhere in this country. Synder’s tale tracks that bloody trail all across American history and geography and creates a new mythology for the nation. Characters like the old west outlaw Skinner Sweet and fame-hungry Pearl Jones will convince you of the stories of vampire’s hypnotic charms. And when America goes global, we meet the vampires of other myths… and suddenly, an entire cultural dynamic opens. And we learn what, if any, connection there is between the vampires we learn about and any country of origin.
Amazingly, Stephen King is in this book (along with Jason Aaron and a number of other people). If you like King’s work post-Dark Tower, then rest assured that this is more of the same. His Skinner Sweet has that Old West, swaggering brutality that King loves so dearly. And as ever, the man knows how to grind to characters together until they make sparks on the page. I wouldn’t say his contributions are a revolution, but they’re solid and good.
Last but certainly not least, illustrator Rafael Albuquerque and colorist Dave McCaig turn in some truly stunning pages. Their work together feels rich with atmosphere, filled characters that truly feel alive at times, and all of it hit with broad, hard lighting that pulls these monsters out of that shadows and into center stage.
Mike Mignola, Fábio Moon, Gabriel Bá
Mignola is the modern master of supernatural horror. A fact he’s proved time an again as he built out the unique Hellboy mythos. But, interestingly enough, the series had little if any vampires in it until this book. A curious absence… until you read this story.
Moon and Bá do an incredible job throughout this book by taking Mignola’s iconic style and pushing it to feel dreamy and almost insubstantial (in a good way). The colors feel rich to the point of hypnotic and their shadow work is utterly masterful.
Mignola uses this to their skills to full advantage by delivering on a story that works on those feelings. The tale unveils tantalizing glimpses of the full, deep history of the B.P.R.D.’s interactions with vampires. The way it flirts between “classified intel” and “unspeakable mythology” is interesting. The whole thing feels tantalizing yet somehow unreliable. That said, I genuinely think B.P.R.D. 1947 borrows… something… from the next book on this list. Some ineffable quality. And if that’s true, it’s not remotely a bad thing. (Inspiration is almost always good!) And yet the borrowing haunts me, somehow. Likely because I am weird. But hopefully, you’re now all cursed to read both books.
J.M. DeMatteis, Kent Williams
Hands down, my favorite book on this list. Blood A Tale is a wild fever dream. A challenging, story that switches between pannels and prose as it spins in epicycles. Kent William’s watercolors are beautiful and horrifying, and truly make this book unique. Even as he’s delivering NSFW work, it feels arresting.
But the story by J.M. DeMatteis (his second appearance on the list) is almost indescribable. To explain it strips it of the surreal dream-logic of it. And it’s simply impossible to express its takes on love and lust. For these reasons, I truly suggest you go in blind and simply experience it.
But, if you want mild spoilers
The best that I can say is that it’s a story of a woman, a man, and their child. A tale about what “hunger” means, what “need” means. And what the mere existence of these emotions turns us into. How they change the meaning of personal, romantic, and sexual identity. Above all, Blood makes the reader question themselves and their ability to interpret this story that can feel as urgent and confused as first lust. And like all good horror stories, I found it both frightening… and comforting.
This book is challenging. But in that challenge, I found something rewarding. It’s one of those books I walked away from feeling changed.