What the world needs even less than a new pop-culture vampire franchise is somebody saying that the last thing the world needs is another pop-culture vampire franchise. So let’s examine Dark Horse’s new series The Strain on its own terms.
The new comic, based on Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s series of novels about a vampire-virus outbreak in New York, isn’t ground-breaking. At all. Not even a little bit. But there is a small spark of innovation in The Strain’s slick, sleek mashup of vampire and zombie films, political thrillers, disaster movies, and police procedurals. The creative team—del Toro and Hogan get top billing and credit for the story, with indie-comics vet David Lapham (Stray Bullets) scripting the adaptation—finds common ground among established pulp traditions and promises a new perspective on all of them.
Whether the series, which premiered in December, will ultimately deliver on those promises remains to be seen, but the first four issues are a good start. Lapham balances a large ensemble cast and multiple parallel storylines, and the necessary exposition never gets in the way of a dramatic reveal or a burst of bloody action. In fact, Lapham and artist Mike Huddleston have turned out a cinematic, state-of-the-art page-turner. What The Strain lacks in originality it makes up for with technical proficiency and narrative efficiency.
The series starts with a prologue, set in Romania in 1927, that flashes back to the 19th century. Then it’s on to modern-day New York and JFK Airport, where a jetliner from Berlin has gone ominously incommunicado immediately after landing. The eventual discovery of 200 dead passengers on the plane—along with three (unlucky, it turns out) survivors—sets the plot running in several different directions, as CDC investigators try to identify the cause of death. A virus? A terrorist attack? An accident?
The second issue introduces a nuclear-energy tycoon named Eldritch Palmer who is seeking eternal life and a mysterious pawnbroker—the boy from the prologue, most likely—who recognizes the signs of the coming vampire-ocalypse. A dirt-filled coffin, domestic drama, occult conspiracies, CSI-style science labs, and cosmic portents fill out the big setup that is just now starting to pay off.
The Strain appeared just a few months after Dark Horse kicked off the so-called Season Nine story arc of the genuinely original Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which started in September. The Buffy comics are a rare exception to the depressingly pandering quality of licensed comics; the long run of Season Eight, from 2007-2011, is a legitimate continuation of the TV series, and led to some major changes in the official Buffyverse—an army of slayers, run by Buffy and Xander from a super-hi-tech headquarters in Scotland, face a world where vampires have become celebrities, and Angel once again goes rogue, this time as the mysterious Twilight.
The aftermath of Season Eight looks to be just as significant: Giles is dead, Angel killed him, and there is no more magic left in the world. Willow has lost her powers, Buffy is on the run from the police in San Francisco. And pregnant. Or a robot. Or something. It’s still being worked out.
Buffy creator Josh Whedon’s willingness to commit to real, lasting change for his characters has been one of the most appealing things about his storytelling since the start of the Buffy TV series. The main characters on too many serialized entertainments—Downtown Abbey is a particularly bad recent offender—always seem to find their way back to a state of equilibrium. Bad things might happen, but the consequences don’t last.
Not in Sunnydale. Death was real, and even when it was overcome, it mattered. Friendships were shattered, trust dissolved, hearts broken, just like in real life. So whatever writer Andrew Chambliss is putting Buffy through during the first seven issues of Season Nine feels like a big deal, even if it’s not entirely clear what it is yet. (The same doesn’t quite apply to the simultaneous new Angel and Faith series written by Christos Gage; Giles’ death feels like it matters, but its impact is dulled by one more round of Angel’s remorse-and-atonement routine as he tries to find a way to bring Buffy’s former Watcher back to life.)
As good as the Buffy comics continue to be, though, the slavish commitment to recreating the likenesses of the TV show’s stars is distracting. In Buffy, Georges Jeanty hits on a slightly cartoonish, John Romita Jr.-influenced style that’s pitch-perfect for the series; but his waxy caricatures of Sarah Michelle Geller, James Marsters, Michelle Trachtenberg, and others are the series’ single unfortunate nod to fanboy purists, and a little creepy.