One of the original vampires of fiction gets a new lease on life through the medium of comics in Carmilla: The First Vampire from Berger Books. At the height of the Lunar New Year in 1990s New York City, an idealistic social worker turns detective when she discovers young, homeless LGBTQ+ women are being murdered and no one, especially the police, seems to care. A series of clues points her to Carmilla’s, a mysterious nightclub in the heart of her neighbourhood, Chinatown. There she falls for the next likely target, landing her at the centre of a real-life horror story – and face-to-face with illusions about herself, her life, and her hidden past.
Amy Chu has done great things with some of comics’ top female characters including Red Sonja, Wonder Woman and Poison Ivy. This time, she presents a unique take on the legendary vampire Carmilla. There are elements of the original novel that Chu delves into, but by and large, this is a new take on the character rather than a straightforward retelling – with the key difference being the moving of the setting from 19th century Austria to 1990s New York.
This setting allows Chu to explore several different themes including gentrification, racism and – most key – homophobia. Life for LGBTQ+ people during that period was quite different from today. Acceptance was far less widespread, gay marriage was still illegal and the AIDs epidemic was still fresh in people’s minds. The protagonist Athena allows these themes to be explored in an authentic way, with her orientation being a key driver of the story. The idea of her roommate being her girlfriend is too much for some people to comprehend and she is frequently met with confusion and hostility.
But beyond exploring difficult topics in a compelling fashion, the comic itself excels as a dark steamy thriller. Athena’s strong principles and sense of duty are compromised when Violet comes into her life, which leads to a rift between her and her girlfriend. The gothic horror elements that you’d expect from a vampire story are paired off perfectly with a crime noir style of storytelling that harkens back to classic comics from Vertigo in the 90s to 2000s also oversaw by Karen Berger. This is further enhanced by Soo Lee’s terrific art that not only accurately portrays the time period but also creates a dark ambience that runs throughout the story. She also brings in some elements of Chinese folklore that marry well with the gothic vampire themes.
Carmilla: The First Vampire is a brilliant take on a classic horror story which brings a new perspective to the lesbian vampire archetype. Horror and crime noir fans will find this a worthy edition to their bookshelves.
Carmilla: The First Vampire is out 28 February from Berger Books (9781506734644, p/b, £18.99)
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