Wednesday, February 1, 2012

FLESH AND BLOOD: Tinnell and Vokes Return with Hammer Horror

Neil Vokes, a professional comic artist with decades of experience, was wise to team up with Robert Tinnell, moviemaker and comic scripter.  Their THE BLACK FOREST (both parts) was a spectacular re-thinking of the classic horror film mythos from the 1930s and 1940s.  Rendered in deep monochrome strokes, THE BLACK FOREST was the ultimate Monster Rally as envisioned by the world of Universal Pictures.  So, reteaming once again, their newly inaugurated series FLESH AND BLOOD BOOK ONE, now in glossy Technicolor, recreates the ultimate Monster Rally as envisioned by the Hammer mythos of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

FLESH AND BLOOD contains Gothic horror period detail and the characters are drawn with the Hammer horror look (wonderful caricatures of iconic characters, well-defined set decoration and lush period costuming).  The scope of the story, with its over-flowing cast of characters, would be much too opulent for the typical movie produced by the small independent production company in its heyday.  It was as though Tinnell and Vokes envisioned a mainstream, budget-be-damned ultimate Hammer production that would rip the walls off the sets and allow the Hammer vision to be expanded.  And that vision and dream is a worthy one.  However, it must be noted that Hammer horror is synonymous with claustrophobic set design, a limited cast of actors and an emphasis on character and performance.  In the unbridled Hammer world created here, Hammer seems to be the victim of its own success, existing in a parallel universe where the overblown replaces quiet subtlety.  But this is a graphic novel and visual excess is expected for the genre.  And wishing for a more mainstream, expensive Hammer production is and was a dream that many fans possess.

Book One is divided into multiple chapters, and the initial one, Primoris Cruor, gets the ball rolling with a 1970s vision of Hammer at its most sexual, with two young ladies rolling around in bed, only one of them a vampire attempting to seduce another innocent victim.  The intended victim’s father Ward-Baker restrains his daughter while vampire hunter The General tracks the evil Carmilla to her lair and there beheads her, putting an end to this predatory horror that reaches beyond death.  Claiming to be a Styrian, The General vows to exterminate the memory of Carmilla’s family, children, descendants, even the family home.  In many ways he appears to be even more evil than the vampires he seeks to destroy (to avenge his daughter’s death).  Cut to an asylum and a cell where a young medical student plays chess with Dr. Frankenstein. The enterprising General kidnaps both of them and promises Dr. Frankenstein a fresh start in life if he agrees to assist him. In the meanwhile, a Draculian vampire vows that Dr. Frankenstein, the General and all the vampire ravishers will be eliminated.  A very striking and dramatic beginning, I must say.

Chapter Two, Vindex Contrado, and the plot thickens.  Lawrence Ward-Baker writes a letter to his brother-in-law Horst to apologize for not believing his warning about the threat of the supernatural, the threat of Styria, which lead to the death of Horst’s sister and Ward-Baker’s wife.  He writes that this same evil almost cost the life of his daughter Laura.  Ward-Barker writes of his guilt over his behavior and asks for forgiveness.  Horst, since his sister’s death, has become an iconic monster-slayer and panel after panel of comic art attests to this scenario.  Into this mix comes another lesbian vampire seduction sequence, this time between two lovelies Katya and Greta.  But one of the vampires is captured by the General and transported back to his laboratory, headed by Dr. Frankenstein.  Their goal is to create a disease to eradicate vampirism.  Of course the young medical student Abraham and Laura become soul mates and the love interest of our tale. In the meanwhile, the vampires have gotten word of the experiments conducted by Frankenstein and the undead prepare to strike back.

By the time of Chapter Three, Refero, young Laura and Abraham confess their intentions to ask Laura’s father to allow them to wed, but local rowdies descend and threaten the lives of the young lovers.  However Laura’s uncle Horst, moved by Ward-Baker’s letter to him, appears on the scene to rescue Laura and violently dispatch the tormentors.  In the meanwhile Frankenstein is injecting his vampire subject with human blood tainted with garlic and other ingredients to study the manner in which the vampire’s body works, with the idea of developing a plague as the end result.  During these experiments Horst and Ward-Baker are reunited.  In the chapter’s end a naked Laura seduces Abraham, but her manners and words suggest that she may have been contaminated by vampire blood, confessing an inability to feel the love she has for Abraham.

In the final Chapter Four, Praelium De Sanguis, there is precious little dialogue and plenty of graphic action as the human’s worthy adversary king vampire is revealed to be Vlad (Count Dracula) who gushes to deliver lines such as “Frankenstein must be destroyed” and “bring me the head of Frankenstein.”  As suggested, Laura has been infected with the disease of vampirism and turns against her human lover and family.  Ward-Baker sadly dies in the human-vampire war, but worthy Abraham reveals that his last name is Van Helsing and the surviving humans vow to continue the battle … in Book Two!

I was impressed by Neil Voke’s always-transcendent artwork, sometimes gushing in vivid Technicolor hues, and at other times draped in duo-tone subdued hues of blues and brown.  Of course Voke’s depiction of Dr. Frankenstein resembles a gaunt Peter Cushing, although his Dracula is a typical comic book exaggerated vampire with fangs, demonic eyes and full mane of hair.  The art is visually spectacular and seems to be his most fully realized in his collaboration with Robert Tinnell.  Tinnell’s script, always action-packed but heavy with characterization and emotion, sometimes tries to plow ahead too dramatically, one sequence immediately butted onto the end of a dramatic one that followed before.  It’s as though the goal of Tinnell and Vokes was to make every panel visually explosive and to keep the plot moving rapidly ahead (akin to the editing of today’s movies where one whirlwind sequence follows another and the audience hardly has time to collect its breath).  In the classic Hammer films, scriptwriters such as Jimmy Sangster and Anthony Hinds allowed action to develop from character and these Gothic masterpieces are allowed some breathing space and quiet moments.  Not that Tinnell’s script does not allow for such quiet moments, but sometimes the comic seems to be patterned after today’s UNDERWORLD, BLADE and VAN HELSING-style cinema, where sensory overkill and hyperkinetic pacing undo the more leisurely pacing of the great Hammer classics.  Perhaps the duo compromised to the demands of what works in graphic novels today. But for an obvious tribute to classic Hammer films, FLESH AND BLOOD sometimes comes off as too modern and fast-paced for its own good.  I would have liked the tribute to play homage more to the Hammer classics of the 1950s and 1960s than to the more sexually explicit and violent Hammer films of the 1970s.  But then again in today’s market perhaps nudity and sex is de rigor by the demands of the marketplace.  But I have to admit that the lesbian vampire shenanigans are deftly handled and beautifully rendered.  But my Hammer reference points are geared more toward HORROR OF DRACULA and REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN than THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE.  But that’s just me.

Bottom line, FLESH AND BLOOD BOOK ONE is a smashing success, not simply because of its outrageous and deliciously designed art, not simply because of its loving tribute to Hammer in the plot, but because of its subtleties—lines of dialogue that wink at its audience, graphic tributes to Hammer film icons, moments of quiet emotional intensity, etc.  I eagerly look ahead to the remaining “books” in the FLESH AND BLOOD series and recommend this graphic novel series to anyone who loves great horror comics and classic horror (especially Hammer) in general.  I thoroughly enjoyed this nostalgic trip and hope to return to this world again and again.  Robert Tinnell and Neil Vokes are revitalizing classic horror comics, and their work stands alongside the best the genre has ever produced.  Keep it coming, guys!