Story by Guillermo Del Tero & Chuck Hogan and Script by David Lapham
Art by MikeHuddleston and Colors by Dan Jackson
Letters by Clem Robins
Published by Dark Horse
Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s vampire trilogy The Strain has captured the imagination of horror fans since its 2009 release. Adapted as a comic by writer David Lapham (Stray Bullets) and artist Mike Huddleston, Dark Horse has just released the hardcover collection of the first 11 issues comprosing the first part of the trilogy. Working in close collaboration with Del Toro and Hogan, the comic book is not merely an illustrated novel but rather a visualization that captures the spirit and content of the book. This is an adaptation in the true sense of the word, building off the existing material and adjusting it to fit an entirely new medium.
Framed as an outbreak narrative, The Strain begins in New York City with a mysterious incident on a Boeing 777 that leaves only three survivors. With no sign of trauma, struggle or sickness, investigators are at a loss as to what caused the deaths of so many people. Dr. Ephraim heads the team that is meant to find the source and he soon finds himself on a strange journey to eliminate a parasitic supernatural force.
Wrought with familiar trappings of both the vampire and the outbreak genre, The Strain emerges as a nonetheless compelling entry in horror due to strong characterizations, interesting subtext and atmospheric art work. Leaning heavily on the ideas of Joseph Campbell, one can easily chart the narrative progression through his pivotal work The Hero’s Journey. The Strain similarly draws on Campbell’s ideas about mythology and it’s continued role in the understanding of the self and the world around us. Fear is the origin of myth and fear becomes the central motivator for the characters, as well as the narrative thrust. Not only in the sense that they are dealing with the threat of a vampiric parasite, but also through the fear that the evil exists within us all.
Like most monster narratives, the creatures often serve as a personification of real fears and anxieties. The Strain is loaded with familiar images of evil and destruction from the last 100 years, most notably an featuring an extended flashback sequence that harkens back to the Holocaust. While there is a lack of subtlety in evocating such an iconic event, it is handled with a certain degree of care and originality.
The comic’s nuanced understanding of evil is particularly refreshing. The comic opens with a myth that explores the origin of The Master – the supernatural force who is behind the outbreak in NYC. Before he was transformed into a vampire, he was a rather weak but benevolent nobleman who happened to be a giant. His father was wrought with shame at his son’s condition and sought to find a cure, only to doom himself and his entire family to a terrible death at the hands of a monster. The father’s motivation was his bloodline; the fear that his family name would end with his weak and monstrous son. The fear of death becoming a central motivating factor in the comic, and one that ironically pushes it’s villains to disrespect the lives of others.
Even before we are introduced to the parasitic evil in contemporary New York, the art emphasizes vast empty and dark spaces. Characters are isolated from each other, cloaked in darkness, and within the frame they are often placed in different planes of space. This creates a compounded effect; an overbearing claustrophobia, as characters are literally stacked together in the two dimensional space of the page, working in stark contrast with the variety of extreme wide shots of vast and empty urban spaces.
The color scheme is also cold, evoking death long before it invades the city completely. Splashes of red become all the more shocking in this land of urban blues and greys. Life has little place in a world where it can be bought. In a world of finite resources, where life becomes the most integral commodity, one is reminded that for one to gain life, another must be lost. It is the hubris of Mr. Palmer, the billionaire who refuses to die, who brings the strain to his city.
As a means of contrasting these dark ideas about a corrupt and poisoned society, Dr. Ephraim’s journey is as much about reuniting his family as it is combating the vampiric strain. The hold of the comic is on these human relationships, and they are layered with impressive complexity. Emotions are layered and sometimes in conflict, but it only adds to the realism and their eventual potency. The dialogue is strong, and each character has a strong and real voice. They exist beyond the confines of the page, bringing resonance to the familiar.
It is these details that set The Strain apart, raising it above other similar narratives. The graphic novel questions our very relationship with death in a way that offers no easy answers or solutions. With its absolutely monstrous representation of immortality, it forces readers to reflect on their fear of death, and the price that living has. The Strain is not going away anytime soon, and it will be appearing on FX this summer.
– Justine Smith