Comics on the can
Elvis Van Helsing
Written by Steve Kriozere & Mark Altman
Art by Jason Baroody
Letters, tones by Zach Matheny
A-HA Dracula! Your vile plans shall meet their end along with the… um, end of this wooden stake I shall sink into your cold dead heart! All your minions have been defeated by myself and the team made-up of descendants of various public domain characters from boys adventure stories, pulp novels, radio serials and classic fiction! Even the horrific death of Lenny Quartermain, great grandson of legendary explorer Allan Quatermain, in that pit with slow moving spiked walls has not deterred me from fulfilling the destiny that a mysterious teacher/father figure who appeared out of nowhere told me I had!
Well, yes.. True … Allan Quatermain admittedly had a problematic colonialist worldview… but it was “of its time” and Lenny sacrificed himself to save the rest of us. So he’s a hero in my book. It’s sad to think that his witty, charged banter with Judith Wells, granddaughter of The Phantom and the first woman to inherit the title, won’t get a chance to blossom into a full fledged romance a few adventures down the line. His sacrifice has allowed me to stop the wretched evil that is Dracula, Lord of the Vampires!
Ok, yeah, “The Phantom” is a difficult representation of “The White Savior” motif dominate in the pulp stories of the time and influenced many more representations of the same stripe! I KNOW THAT, ok! But I think Judith is a smart reworking of the core ideas of The Phantom while updating for a modern time and mentality! She’s biracial for heaven’s sake and she just sent a perfectly aimed arrow through the heart of your lieutenant, vampire Brazor of Mongo! How bout them apples!
Look, it’s my destiny to root out the vampire plague that has tormented mankind since the dawn of time. Garrison Van Helsing told me this just before he was killed at the close of the second act by you and the evil contraptions created by your seductive and sexually liberated in a very threatening way to the male hegemony, Sylvia Frankenstein!
No, it doesn’t bother me that she’s Bi! Why would I care? I’ll admit that when she had that three way with the hooker and the hitman before killing both was pretty gratudious yet titillating.
WHAT? Oh yeah, sex worker… not hooker… my bad. You have to admit, though, that Sylvia played right into the trope of sex workers being narratively disposable. Oh SNAP! There goes vampire James Moriarty the fourth! Chun Lau Reid; the New Lone Ranger and his silver bullets for the win! Way to go Dog!
Point is; it’s my destiny to destroy you and the vampire menace!
Hey, “racist” is a heavy word to be throwing around Drac! I’m a nice guy! One of my best friends is Master Detective Rufus Holmes! Sure I felt a little awkward at first but we’ve settled into mutual respect and bro quips as we fight evil side by side.
I don’t see color, just your evil! I was put on this earth to wipe out the vampire menace, ok!
GENOCIDE! Woah, do I look like Hitler or something? It’s my genetic duty! I’ve been tasked with purging the vampire menace from the world! Terrifying and feral with your with your claws and inhuman rat like… yep, I see it now. I see what you mean.
Listen, all of this is making me a bit queasy… no, I didn’t know that the Van Helsing family has been trying to build a pipeline through Transylvania for shadowy Russian oil Oligarchs! Or that your family was opposing it because of the environmental impact on local wetlands. Transilvanian swamps sound creepy and are probably overrun with giant rodents or…
A beautiful multi-colored bird on the endangered species list, of course!
Tell you what; while I reconsider moral complexity how bout you narrowly escape to seek vengeance at a later time? Maybe you could turn my one true love, who’s obviously a reincarnation of your wife from the sixteenth century, into your vampire queen. Or better yet you kill her in a gruesome way that gives me motivation to seek veng THAT”S FRIDGING DAMIT!
Guys! TIME OUT! In light of additional information I’d like to pull the plug on this little assault until I can sort some stuff out! Thanks for all your hard work but I’m… I’m not sure breaking into this castle, burning shit down and slaughtering all willy nilly was the “good” thing to do.
Yeah, what was that Blast Gordon?
I know we have a great TV pitch here and I’m sure HULU would jump but this just isn’t feeling right. I’m gonna go home, hit the toilet, read a comic and probably write about it like I was doing before Van Helsing showed up on my doorstep and said that slaying vampires was my family’s job.
Well I’m not entirely confident he was playing straight with me! For starters my last name is “Colbert” not “Vampslayer” or some shit!
Let’s go back to Miskatonic and research more with Professor Homer Lovecraft.
Fuck seriously? Of course his father was a notorious racist because that’s the kind of day I’m having!
Sorry, Count. I hope the insurance covers the fire damage.
Ok, I’ve had my time on the “comic as pitch for other media” merry go round. When you got stuff like a bad kids cartoon pitch which is a naked attempt at doing a lucrative toy line or A weaksauce sword and sandals “epic” with all the depth of a plastic kiddie pool from Walmart or even A decently crafted kids “science” adventure series with robots and dinosaurs focus marketed from the kids attending the creator’s 5 year old son’s birthday party. You can get a little jaded.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when the manna from the heavens that is titled “Elvis Van Helsing” fell into my lap but I had my suspicions. Coming out almost a decade ago on the AIT/Planet Lar imprint this graphic novel lands on the ass end of the “comic as TV/movie pitch” trend on an imprint that surely had that strategy as part of the business plan.
Spoilers: my suspicions were on point. Not to say that having an eye on the big money licencing prize is a bad thing in its own right. When you get something blandly mercenary like “Jurassic Strike Force 5” that’s the problem. If the creators of the product (and I use that term in a very neutral, utilitarian way) take some care in telling a decent story with engaging characters, and some killer ideas aka: doing the work, a translation to other media is a natural progression for an IP. Especially in this day and age! Hell, Warren Ellis did as much with RED, Global Frequency and a half dozen other ideas he developed during that time. Mark Millar does it while he sleeps on his bed stuffed with cocaine and hundred dollar bills! Point is just because you have ambitions for your work doesn’t mean your work is hacky. Elvis Van Helsing walks that line! First impression is that the story screams “TV Pilot” because all the structure is obvious but as the story went on there was a decent amount of potential rearing its head.
The book starts with the classic Van Helsing in the Carpathian mountains with a mysterious robed figure and his hired biographer Bram Stoker. Helsing dispatches some fang bangers like a boss with help from the robed figure who turns out to be a brunette hottie. That hottie is still sucking air in the modern day and sucking the life out of hotel bar Lotharios while she’s at it..
Cut to Elvis Yang is the adopted son of Korean parents who love to sing the King’s catalog on a karaoke machine. Hence his name. Elvis is the genius slacker variety; can pull shit down like have Stephen King on speed dial (cue odd but cool cred weekly cameo) but is unmotivated. Or is it scared of change? The rest of the set-up moves along in short order: intro of Elvis’ best buddy Randy and a mysterious hottie of the blonde variety (Ariel) that is great at fencing and dodgeball. A visit to what would be the regular sets of the TV show – HIs gig at the high school newspaper where a little exposition is doled out. Home with his karaoke fanatic adopted parents. His basement lair which currently holds the brunette hottie, Vanessa BTW, who doles out the gem about him being the lost great grandson of Van Helsing. To Elvis’ credit he doesn’t buy a word of it. Vanessa springs a pic of Elvis’ birth parents and that whole stock character conflict comes up. Vanessa also says she’s a succubus and has been helping the Van Helsing’s for generations. Check that plot box.
Of course Elvis finds out that Ariel, the blonde hottie, is also a vampire slayer and the descendant of King Arthur and rocks Excalibur. She works with a team consisting of the goth great granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes, A werewolf descendant of Mowgli from Jungle Book and a descendant of Robin Hood.
The story rolls out in an expected fashion hitting all the beats needed:
A Mcguffin: a special wooden stake, Check!
Red Herring of who’s good and who’s evil, Check!
The reveal of Elvis’ legacy including a secret lair with equipment and back data, Check!
Elvis’ adopted parents admitting they knew more than they let on, Check!
Elvis birth parents are both still around… but with a TWIST! Check!
Table is set for the ongoing adventures of Elvis Van Helsing, Check!
The whole affair has a perfunctory vibe to it but there is competence in the execution. Elvis is a bit smarter than his bro quips and attitude lets on. The choice of public domain characters is moderately interesting from the vast selection available. The structure is solid if predictable. Elvis doesn’t drag out the “pining for his birth parents at the expense of his adopted parents” arc; he puts that shit to bed with one talk. In cases like this I’m more impressed by competence than incoherence or mercenary merchandising. There was just enough below the surface of Elvis Van Helsing to keep me turning the pages despite knowing where the whole thing is headed.
When I describe Elvis Van Helsing as a “Pilot” episode I mean it as a compliment. A pilot introduces the world, establishes the characters, setting and rules. A pilot is a test to see if we’re interested in investing more time in what we’ve gotten a glimpse of. Nuance and detail follow, characters and stories elvove, some things that don’t work are jettisoned, others retooled. You need the series to explore further. Elvis Van Helsing’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Dude, where’s my car meets League of extraordinary gentlemen felt derivative but it also felt like there was enough under the hood to merit Tivo-ing from the CW for a season to see how things went.
Thoughts tangential to the column that I couldn’t fit organically into the main text…
Sorry I’ve been away so long. Work was an ass beating and then I got married.
By Elvis no less.
Don’t believe me?
There was the arrowverse shows that came back too.
And season two of Star Trek Discovery.
As is more often than not “Elvis Van Helsing” didn’t come from that original box that started this column. I found it in the library set of the show I worked on (Speechless). I still consider it divine providence.
Especially when the back cover shows Elvis trying to ward off a vampire with the Star of David.
Other comics that use the idea of incorporating public domain characters and pulp tropes better:
Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. At least the first two collections till Moore got lost up his own ass.
Warren Ellis’ fucking brilliant Planetary which creates a rich universe containing proxies of Vampires, alternate universes, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Time Travel, Kaiju, The Shadow, Fantastic Four, Kung Fu movies, Quantum Physics, Rendezvous with Rama and Lovecraftian mythos to name a few. It was also tangential to and occasionally overlapped with the DC universe. One of my all time favorites! I highly recommend!
Grant Morrison’s Invisibles – high on Moorecock odscura, James Bond tropes and literary geekery; Morrison’s hypersigil master class in comics is something I break out an reread every few years.
Ellison’s RED was vastly different than the Bruce Willis movies but he got some nice fat option money and executive producer credit nonetheless.
If you want to see the TV pilot for Ellison’s Global Frequency.
I wish this had gone to series. I loved this book!
I was such a fan of Ellis in the aughts that if my daughter had been a boy he would’ve been named Warren.
Of course now TV is awash in adaptations of comics: Umbrella Academy, Happy, Deadly Class, Powers, The Walking Dead, Preacher, etc! With more like The Boys and a whole Millar world on Nextfix on deck It’s a great time to be a fan!
Other Walking Dead spin offs: Fear the Walking Dead, The Walking Dead babies cartoon, and the reality dating show Walking Dead of Love.
I only joke about Millar sleeping on a bed of cocaine and hundred dollar bills… I’m sure it’s thousand dollar bills at this point.
Remember Tivo? That little pop sound it made when you chose a show to record? Nostalgia!
NEXT TIME: I get to go balls out on my Millar snark with Jupiter’s Circle… or maybe something else.
LATER: Whatever is next in the box… or maybe something else.
Talk about drivitive! Check out my weekly photo comic strip featuring Funko Pops of the Harry Potter gang and more toys! Fantoy Comics every Thursday at noon here on Fanboy Nation!