Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
The first two volumes of Vampire Hunter D mix elements of science-fiction dystopia, horror and Western, although the comic seems most successful when it emphasizes its traditional horror-roots.
Vampire Hunter D, based on the Japanese novels of the same name by Hideyuki Kikuchi and adapted into comic book form by Saiko Takaki, takes place in one those “futures” that looks more like a social and technological regression to the frontier past. In the very distant future (we’re talking thousands of years here) there are two species fighting for domination of the earth — the “nobles,” or vampires who once had superior scientific knowledge and human beings who are currently making a comeback, although these two volumes don’t make it clear yet why humans are apparently triumphing over the nobles. The “hero” of the title is a half-human half-noble hunter for hire who goes only by the initial “D.” Thanks to his mixed heritage he’s powerful, attractive in an Byronic-hero kind of way, and only has mild versions of the weaknesses that plague the nobles, i.e. weakness to sunlight and water. However, very little information is revealed about him and the comic’s tone is generally determined by the type of people who inhabit the different towns he visits in each volume.
The first volume of reads like a traditional Western with more than a little bit of campy exaggeration thrown in for good measure. A bad man, i.e. a vampire, is terrorizing a buxom young woman, and the cool and monosyllabic D rides into town to her and her brother. In other words, in this volume men are men and women are women. Meaning, men are either dangerous sexual predators or cold heroes and women are vampire-bait or betrayers. Doris, the damsel in question, spends a ridiculous amount of time in the first volume undressed in a variety of compromising situations and as a result it is a little hard to take this rescue mission very seriously.
The second volume, in contrast, offers a genuinely creepy mystery at the heart of the story, and therefore, shucks off some of the unintentionally humorous aspects of the first volume. While this volume mines some familiar horror territory — D visits a town where four children disappeared for a month and only three were returned — the reveal of what happened to them manages to make much better use of the vampire-theme. Unlike the previous volume, the central female figure isn’t just standing around waiting to be rescued, although she is sexualized to a similar degree. The usual subtextual implication of a vampire’s bite as equivalent to a sexual assault is further emphasized since in this world vampires can reproduce sexually with humans. It also helped that this character’s status as sexual object wasn’t quite as off-putting, probably thanks to the fact her crafty wit was often even more frequently than her body.
In general, the art looks incredibly Western with its frontier-like settings and cowboy-hero culture. The Western-ness of the art also seems rather appropriate considering the heavy use of horror and Western tropes situate the book more firmly in Western myths and legends than Japanese ones (there are also hints that D himself has a famous vampire lineage that will probably be more fully explored in future volumes). There’s a heaviness to the line work that completely overwhelms panels in the actions scenes, which made it difficult for me to parse what exactly was happening there. However, as a whole the second volume was much better constructed — in both its art and its story — than the first.
Returning to D, the mysterious figure who doesn’t quite hold the book together, his role as the strong silent type can be rather frustrating. He comes to town, sizes things up, eventually fights with some decrepit looking “noble” and leaves once the threat to the town is neutralized. Without a strong central character my enjoyment of each volume depended upon whether the plight of the townspeople could interest or move me in any way. While the first volume’s emphasis on the damsel-in-distress model was frustrating, the second volume actually managed to complicate the formula in much more enjoyable ways. Although the title really isn’t to my taste, the primary reason I might pick up the next volume in the series is because I am curious about D’s origins and the vampire dynasty that he sprung from.
Review copies provided by DMP.
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