The GeeksverseREVIEW | The Strain, Vol. 1 TPB (Dark Horse Books)

REVIEW | The Strain, Vol. 1 TPB (Dark Horse Books)
Published on Wednesday, November 21, 2012 by
Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and novelist Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves) recruit David Lapham (Stray Bullets, Deadpool MAX) and Mike Huddleston (Gen 13) in translating their vampire horror vision into comics in the excellent The Strain, Vol. 1.

Key Review Points

Pros:

  • Successfully blends supernatural horror and medical thriller tropes.
  • Impressive creative pedigree delivers on the page.
  • Dynamic art grounded in solid storytelling technique.

Cons:

  • Curious choice for the volume’s narrative cut-off point might be unsatisfying for some readers.

Publication Details

  • Publisher: Dark Horse Books (a division of Dark Horse Comics)
  • Publication Date: November 2012
  • Story by: Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
  • Script by: David Lapham
  • Art by: Mike Huddleston
  • Colors by: Dan Jackson
  • Letters by: Clem Robins
  • Chapter break art by: Mike Huddleston and E.M. Gist
  • Cover art by: E.M. Gist
  • Format: 152 page, full color, trade paperback. Collects The Strain #s 1–6, originally published in 2011 and 2012 in single magazine format by Dark Horse Comics.
  • List Price: $19.99 (digital review copy provided free-of-charge by the publisher)
  • Availability: On sale on November 14, 2012

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Full Review

Editor’s note: Are you a returning reader wondering why this hardcover collection review isn’t under the Leaving Proof article category? Read this for the explanation.

The popular entertainment world just can’t seem to get enough of vampires these days. Not just any vampires, mind you, but the sexy, emotionally vulnerable types who feed on blood—after much bleating and chest-beating over the ethics of it all—only because they have to, tortured romantics caught in contrived, impossible situations not of their own making. The malevolent, blood-drinking revenant of pre-Christian Central and Eastern Europe that informed the concept of the vampire in the film and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries has been supplanted in the contemporary cultural space by winsome, if pallid, eternal youths who serve as clumsy metaphors for burgeoning adolescent sexuality. The Strain doesn’t have those kinds of vampires, at least not in the first volume collecting the maxi-series’ first act. Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s vampires are creatures descended from the Romanian mythological tradition of the strigoi, immortal undead monsters driven by an insatiable thirst for the blood of the living.

The Strain, Vol. 1 starts out with an overt nod to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a Boeing 777 airliner landing at JFK International full of the seemingly dead and dying standing in for the 1897 horror novel’s Demeter. The story takes a more contemporary turn from there, however, with the protagonist, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) investigator Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, treating the case as a possible epidemic risk. The unfolding narrative should be familiar to readers schooled in the beats of current medical thriller fiction: Authorities stubbornly resist Goodweather’s theory of a new pathogen even as evidence and dead bodies continue to pile up in support of it. By the time they do respond to the mounting crisis in a more appropriate manner, a full-blown medical catastrophe is already underway, and the hero is placed in a position where he has to take drastic, high-risk measures to contain its spread. The particular twist in this case however, is that the spreading disease is vampirism.

Unlike some film personalities who are content to lend their name to a comics project and let the creative team do the actual heavy lifting (I’m looking at you, John Woo’s Seven Brothers), evidence of Del Toro’s involvement in the plotting and production design are all over The Strain. The idea of vampirism as a communicable, physiological condition as opposed to a supernatural curse was put forth by the Mexican director in his very first full-length feature film, 1993’s Cronos, a notion which he later expounded upon in 2002’s Blade II. A shadowy mastermind villain in The Strain also seems to share some attributes with Cronos‘ Dieter de la Guardia. Even artist Mike Huddleston’s designs for the book’s vampires appear to have been inspired in part by Blade II‘s Reapers.

The barbed extending tongues and bald pates of The Strain’s vampires (L) call to mind that of Blade II’s Reapers (R)

The juxtaposition of supernatural monsters with the all-too-real terrors of 20th century fascism, a theme in full display in Pan’s Labyrinth, is touched upon in The Strain as well in certain flashback scenes, with Nazis in the latter filling the role inhabited by the Spanish Falangists in the former.

Huddleston’s dynamic art complements the story very well while still hewing to the principles of good visual storytelling. There are all manner of little flourishes for the keen-eyed reader. A particular favorite of mine: In a stealthily portentous sequence early in the book, a poster reproduction of Edvard Munch’s The Scream is seen in the display window of the shop owned by the book’s putative Dr. Abraham Van Helsing analogue. The significance of this particular image? Strigoi, the Romanian word used in the story’s Eastern Europe flashback scenes to refer to vampires, is a cognate of the verb striga, which translates to English as, you guessed it, “scream.” Beyond its grounding in a fantastical (but still reasonably believable and internally consistent) version of comic book science, it is the attention to detail and technical craft in the writing and the art that helps set The Strain apart from its trend-chasing peers in the crowded vampire comics scene.

The book is not without its faults, however. There are a couple of plot holes regarding the way the potential epidemic is handled by the CDC, but the disruption of the reading experience due to these small flaws is more likely to be the result of the reader refusing to meet the work on its own terms as a piece of popular genre fiction, not necessarily because of poor craft or story planning on the part of Lapham, del Toro, and Hogan. Slightly more disappointing though, is how the authors chose to wrap up The Strain‘s first volume. The first act of a planned trilogy, The Strain, Vol. 1 expectedly ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, but given how well the story is built up over the book’s six chapters, it is somewhat unsatisfying to see the first volume conclude without even a token resolution of a major subplot to at least tie the volume together as a more coherent whole, giving it the same “less-filling” feel as single-issue comics that are “written for the trade,” although in The Strain, Vol. 1‘s case, the trade paperback gives off the impression of being “written for the omnibus.”

Despite these admittedly minor complaints however, The Strain promises to be one of the better vampire-themed horror comics series of current vintage. Conscientiously realized, smartly written, and skilfully illustrated, fans of horror comics and del Toro’s films should get in on the ground floor of The Strain trilogy if they can. Recommended.

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