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‘The League of Vampires’ features hallmarks of a great yarn but doesn’t go in for the kill

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The League of Vampires

Written by Jim Lawrence

Art by Yaroslav Horak

Published in the Daily Express October 25 1972 to February 28th 1973

At a lavish party thrown for the European elite on the Medditerraean island of Corsica, newspaper reporter Dolly Hamnet follows her nose by mingling amongst the guests, inquiring about the mysterious League of Vampires, a group or sect very few people know much about save for its staunch exclusivity. Dolly’s curiosity warns a shadowy, muscular man also attending the party. As it turns out, James Bond was not far away either, but before the secret agent can extract much useful information out of Dolly back at her hotel room, the aforementioned muscular brute, adorned in Dracula-like attire, knocks Bond out cold and kills Dolly by biting into her neck! Clearly, this League of Vampires is willing to engage in any acts to protect its secrecy and agenda. When reports come out that other notable personalities have also been found dead with the markings of vampire bites, Bond is sent to protect the League’s most likely next targetsnotorious shipping line owner Xerxes Xenophanos, also known as ‘Big X’, and his wife Margot.

If League of Vampires were to be compared to one of the 007 films, the most apt exercise would to liken the comic strip to Tomorrow Never Dies. Brosnan’s second outing as 007 sports a genuinely interesting villain utilizing deliciously nefarious, à propos means to achieve his dastardly and egotistical goals. Bond’s investigation to find a break in the antagonist’s system is just as thrilling, with numerous action-packed and cleverly devised escapades. The issue is that the climax is a bit of a dud, hampered by uninspired set design and perfunctory running and shooting. In essence, the film starts off with a bang, only to conclude on a whimper. League of Vampires suffers the same fate, although it would be plausible to argue that the deflation the reader feels by the closing panels is even more severe considering the truly unique, unorthodox set-up writer Jim Lawrence and artist Yaroslav Horak painstakingly establish.

The tandem do deserve credit for taking a Bond story into rarely explored territory, that being the supernatural, or at the very least, into a mission in which the villains purport to practice fantastical means in order to strike fear into their targets and enemies. The protagonist has had to contest with a bevy of strange characters, an innumerable amount of them showing off their own particular quirks and occasionally near-superhuman abilities. Only in Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die is the topic of the fantastical even brought up (in the case of said novel, the antagonist Mr. Big is apparently a voodoo master). At first glance, pitting 007 against hoards of vampires sounds like the most ridiculous idea ever, taking the property into a realm it has no business of ever venturing into.

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It comes as no surprise then when the reader discovers, along with the hero, that the League in question is not actually a nest of creatures of the night but rather a well financed and technologically sophisticated group of assassins that employ, much like Bruce Wayne as Batman, fear and savvy weaponry to dispatch potential threats to its leader’s self-serving objectives. This is perfectly fine for the very reasons argued just above. The world of 007 and that of the supernatural should not mix, but only mingle, otherwise it simply isn’t a Bond story anymore. As with in Live and Let Die however, a villainous organization that disguises itself in a supernatural coat is nonetheless a very bold idea and can, or should, reap dividends by the climax. It is made abundantly clear very early in the story that the League means business, as Dolly, fellow MI6 agent Bridget and a trio of other characters is offed in equally grisly fashion. What’s more, Yaroslav Horak goes all out with his art to make the assassins look and behave exactly like vampires. When Bond successfully infiltrates the group by discovering the hand signal all members show to recognize one another, Horak offers the most visually arresting sequence in the entire strip, with the League’s hooded members (including Bond) gathered together in a large room decorated with vampiric flair, getting ready to rape an unconscious female victim and dance in a rave. Yes, a rave. Even though astute Bond fans know something more realistic is guiding the proceedings, it works really well in producing an offbeat, strange adventure where 007 will have to dig deep in order to figure out what in heaven’s name is going on.

Unfortunately, in the home stretch, League of Vampires forgoes so much of the creepiness and uniqueness that help distinguish it from one’s typical 007 adventure. Revealing Big X as the leader of the cult is a decent approach, but when one might expect for the villain’s lair and endgame to feature as many oddities as those that came before, Lawrence and Horak pull back virtually all of the peculiarities as Big X brings Bond and his wife Margot (now the protagonist’s ally) to his flagship where he explains that Margot’s father, a rival entrepreneur, will be the target of a nuclear missile attack in the next few hours when the latter opens an important computer plant nearby. After enjoying a very off kilter mystery up until that point, seeing Bond and a scantily clad blonde held hostage in an ordinary steam ship control room (which will remind some fans of the bland set of Elliot Carver’s stealth ship In Tomorrow) in which their options of escape are limited and reasonably straightforward is quite disappointing. All of the book’s flair is sucked straight out, no pun intended.

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On another disappointing note, it is slowly becoming obvious that Yaroslav Horak, while demonstrating impressive imagination with respect to creating locations and villains, is somewhat limited when it comes to concocting female characters, especially leading Bond girls. The supporting women, such as League member Tjana, are easy to distinguish, but the leading ladies often have long blonde hair and the same lip and eye features. Granted, League of Vampires is only the third story in Titan Book’s James Bond Omnibus 004, so there are several opportunities to come for some variety, but thus far the Bond girls look eerily alike.

It is never a good thing when a story ends on a disappointing note. When the buildup is as solid as it is in League of Vampires, one deservedly hopes for a special conclusion. Lawrence and Horak, for whatever reason, choose the opposite, a very plain route. Does it make the strip bad? Of course not, certainly not with so much working in its favour during the first two thirds. It also helps that these stories are very easy to read and can be done with quickly, so it isn’t as though readers will feel terribly ripped off. Still, there is a bitter feeling of ‘what if’ that hangs over the final pages of this mission. Maybe the creators felt that had bitten off more than they could suck, or chew rather.

 

James Bond will return in Die With my Boots On.

-Edgar Chaput


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