Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Fantagraphics: Katie Skelly's My Pretty Vampire

With My Pretty Vampire, rising star Katie Skelly has a book that matches up her exquisite color sense, delightfully lurid sense of humor, eye for style and aesthetics and acidly satirical, feminist take on gothic/horror tropes. Skelly's eye for page design and layout have always had a lot more in common with French fantasy comics and manga as well as a number of delightfully trashy horror & exploitation films than any American comics. While dialogue is important, it's her arrangement of images (and in this book, colors) that are essential to the narrative. The opening pages, which turn out to be a dream sequence, wind up establishing and foreshadowing much of the action in the rest of the book. It starts with a bouquet of flowers, then zooms in a rose bloom that's dripping blood. A beautiful, half-naked girl licks up the blood, briefly revealing the teeth of a vampire. When she comes upon a half-naked corpse, she finds that it's her own body, dripping blood, prompting her to wake up from the dream.

The rest of the first chapter serves two purposes, narrative and aesthetic: establishing who she is, why she's there and her intent of escape; and long, lingering shots of her bathing, swimming and generally serving as an erotically-charged object of the gaze of her brother, who acts as a stand-in for the reader in that sense. We learn that she's a vampire who's been held captive in her brother's house for her own "protection", even going to school. Whatever noble intentions he may have are undermined by a shot of him watching her bathe through a peephole, establishing that no one in this book has the moral high ground. Clover, the titular vampire, is hungry from years of drinking ox blood but manages to escape. Switching from day to night, Skelly immediately embraces the night, with Clover's shining golden hair drawing the reader's eye into every panel where she's scurrying around at night.

In a horror-exploitation story like this, nudity is certainly expected, but so is violence and gore. Skelly does not skimp in the latter department either, beginning with her biting a trucker who is actually worried about her being underage. Skelly uses an interesting narrative device here, as she shifts to first person narrative captions that are so specific to her memories of what it was like to be a vampire that she barely acknowledged the personhood of the driver. Skelly adds a few more layers to the narrative as we meet a vampire hunter tasked to find her as well as a vampire cult who helped to create her. Skelly is careful not to overwhelm the story's imagery with too much plot, however--just enough to add some shade and structure to the story. Instead, both story and imagery intensify as the story goes on, as Clover hits the big city.

There's a great scene, after she's dodged sunlight and recharged herself with a new victim, where she stares into the window of a restaurant. Instead of starving for the food they were eating, she was starving for the blood they possessed--a clever image, as her hands dripped with blood. She allows herself to get picked up at a bar and then goes to a house party that quickly turns both erotically charged and bloody. We then get a flashback which reveals that her brother deliberately had her turned into a vampire by a vampiric order in order that "the one you love will never die". It's a creepy, incestuous gesture, made more so by the fact that she was underage. The same is true of the man who picked her up, as she was even wearing a school uniform when he started to hit on her. Even in a scene where she's actually having fun with a woman who's seducing her, her actual lusts come to the fore. Echoing the beginning of the book's dream, a half-naked Clover dripping blood from her mouth slowly and blankly eyes the other guests at the party as the objects they are for her.

The book's climax finds Clover, the vampire hunter and the order all converging at once. While her threat to society at large is neutralized, the ending has a tantalizing bit of karmic payback for her brother. It's a classic morally muddled ending to this kind of story, where there may be protagonists but there are no heroes. There are only competing urges, and Skelly's ending finds Clover with the kind of agency that she had been denied by her wholly unpleasant brother. Indeed, words like "love" and concepts like empathy have little meaning given the way her brother tried to control her and instead helped to create an amoral monster. The way Skelly slowly unveils increasing moral ambiguity in her characters escalates at the same time that style, fashion, sex and violence also become increasingly important to the story. Striking that note between lurid and stylish feels like what Skelly's career has been leading up to, and she was greatly aided in the undertaking by Keeli McCarthy's striking cover design. From the logo design meant to invoke 60s psychedelia (complete with a drop of blood bulging down from one of the letters, the color shifting from yellow-orange to red) and the ecstatic, half-naked Clover on the cover, blood dripping from her lips, it's a perfect composition that finds the eye bouncing from the title to the figure and back again.

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