Transmyscira: VAMPIRONICA Is One Bite Forward, Two Steps Back

Archie Comics’ grand foray into the direct market to produce hip comics that break from their reputation as impulse buys at grocery store checkouts has a problem. They don’t really hire women creators very much, which is an odd problem to have for a company whose characters are the first thing that jump to most people’s minds on the topic of comics that girls and women are familiar with.

Aside from extreme outliers like Josie and the Pussycats or Betty and Veronica: Vixens, Archie has been stuck in a bizarre holding pattern of putting female artists with male writers when women make it onto the creative teams. It’s a dynamic made all the stranger when you consider a series like The Archies, which has mostly featured the titular band interacting with real, female fronted bands like Blondie or Tegan and Sara, executed by an all-male creative team.

So Vampironica arrives in a pretty awkward context. It’s great to see Meg Smallwood credited as co-writer with her brother Greg, who is also on drawing duties. Especially within Archie’s horror titles. It’s also fun to see siblings collaborating. But we’re still in this hazy twilight zone where Archie as a company seems particularly afraid of going beyond a simplistic idea of gender parity on individual titles towards any kind of serious embrace of female creators.

It’s in keeping with the strange kind of logic that a lot of publishers seem to ascribe to, whereby if one of the top two named creators on a book — more often than not the artist — is a woman, they’ve done their due diligence in promoting diversity.

That’s a line of thinking that doesn’t hold up anywhere else in the visual arts. You can’t expect to be taken seriously if you point to Hollywood movies and say that sure, there’s next to no female directors out there, but hey there’s a bunch of women in leading acting roles. It’s a non sequitur. Those roles inform and impact different aspects of the finished work and are not interchangeable.

When a creative team is women from top to bottom, the resulting work is going to have very different sensibilities than if you have an “even” split or entirely male team. Those sensibilities are going to always change from person to person across any demographic, but the underlying point is that we have very few iterations of collective, unmitigated female psyches at work on these characters. Or, well, any major licensed/proprietary characters in comics other than Jem and the Holograms if we’re keeping it 100.

That’s a dynamic that matters a lot when it comes to horror, because the gendered imagination has a massive effect on how horror, fear, disgust, and transgression are made manifest in the visual arts. It’s a complex and thorny topic to be sure, but if you compare and contrast Caravaggio’s iteration of Judith Slaying Holofernes with Artemisia Gentileschi’s, the general idea begins to take shape.

You can get deep into the weeds on the technical merits of each, but the fundamental difference between them is the psychology each artist imbues their figures with. How Caravaggio approaches women’s relationship to violence is incredibly different from Gentileschi, and we’re richer for having both, say nothing about Kehinde Wiley’s much more recent addition to the canon.

These same contrasts emerge in horror film in very striking ways. Carrie is an acknowledged classic and the template for body horror rooted in female puberty despite being directed, written, edited, and shot by men and based on a novel by a man. Teeth is a cult hit in a similar vein, but if you compare it to Ginger Snaps, the teen werewolf movie, the gendered differences emerge just as strikingly as setting Caravaggio and Gentileschi side by side.

Teeth, the product of an all male crew (despite its female protagonist), rests on the heteronormative male fear of vagina dentata, whereas Ginger Snaps, written by a woman and otherwise executed by men, capitalizes on how growth spurts and the emergence of hair in weird places puts teen girls on the wrong side of patriarchal expectations of femininity.

It’s in these nuances that the Smallwoods’ efforts don’t survive far beyond the cover. In a couple notable places throughout the comic, but nowhere near as strikingly as the cover, the Smallwoods want to let us know that they’ve seen Jennifer’s Body, which was written (Diablo Cody), directed (Karyn Kusama), and starring women.

Veronica, in her cheerleader uniform posing cheerfully over the stacked corpses of football players, fangs out and covered in blood, unmistakably evokes Megan Fox as Jennifer Check, and it’s about as good of a starting point that you could ask for in a silly riff on Archie characters. The parallels are already baked into the film, with Jennifer the popular, raven haired cheerleader eating her male classmates after being possessed by a demon and her blonde, nerdy best friend Needy (played by Amanda Seyfried) put in the unenviable place of having to decide whether or not to kill her. Kusama and Cody probably even had Betty and Veronica in mind when they cast Fox and Seyfried.

Greg Smallwood even continues the allusions to Jennifer’s Body in a sequence where Veronica emerges from a backyard pool after killing a pair of vampires, mimicking the iconic image of Fox as Jennifer swimming across a lake after a kill. They’re fun and welcome homages, but the Smallwoods don’t really reckon with the dynamics of the film or the kind of transgressive glee that it revelled in. In Jennifer’s Body, she was the victim of a botched sacrifice by a satanic emo band, turning her into what amounted to a bloodthirsty succubus.

The sacrifice itself was framed as a rape metaphor, which is particularly interesting in terms of how it was executed relative to the infamous “tree rape” scene in Evil Dead, which set the stage for Jennifer exploiting her male classmates’ sexual expectations of her to get them alone and eat them. The result gives female viewers a rare chance at sadistic glee when Jennifer deadpans that she’s not eating people, she’s eating boys in response to Needy protesting her behavior. It also flipped the gendered dynamics of sex and violence in horror on its head, much the same as Gentileschi did, in her own way.

Vampironica doesn’t seem to have much to say about any of these topics as of the debut issue, and its framing suggests that it probably won’t before it’s over. Veronica becomes a vampire by getting bitten by a vampire that just killed her family and an indeterminate time later, she apparently becomes a stake wielding vampire hunter who kills the bad ones. It’s a tired and disappointing dynamic relative to the expectations set by the Jennifer’s Body homages and the ad copy selling the tension between Veronica’s dark desires and her humanity as the key theme of the comic.

We definitely see Veronica briefly conflicted over her desire to bite Reggie’s neck after a spectacularly drawn car crash, but the textual emphasis from beginning to end is on Veronica clinging to normative morality and her eventual desire to kick other vampires’ asses. It’s a dull choice both in the context of the homages and the fact that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like twenty years old and the intended audience is pretty well aware of Blade’s existence.

We’ve all been here before.

It also just doesn’t ring true as a take on Veronica Lodge. She starts off the issue feeling put out that Betty snagged Archie for the date she wanted, creating sympathy for her dilemma leading to her encounter with the vampire. It’s a position that makes a lot more sense for Betty, whose moral compass, aggregated over the decades, would be far more troubled by the entire sequence of events than a typical portrayal of Veronica would.

Perspectives on Veronica’s morality and attitude change a lot by creative team, as it should, but the major gravitational pull is unmistakably going to come from Camila Mendez’s portrayal on Riverdale. Her presence as a morally compromised creature of privilege struggling to do right with the wrong tools on Riverdale would map easily onto Vampironica and the kind of moral relativism that she could conceivably sink into as a vampire. Instead, what we get is a safe, well worn take on the dark avenger superhero archetype that doesn’t seem to do anything that Batman, Ghost Rider, Blade, or Spawn hasn’t already.

Vampironica is well drawn and has some bright spots, but it ultimately can’t escape the frustrating holding pattern that Archie apparently doesn’t want to pull itself out of in its direct market offerings. It wants to chase an audience hip to movies like Jennifer’s Body, but it doesn’t seem to want to do the work to be a story that reflects the distance that horror as a popular genre traveled to get there, let alone push it forward.

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