The story of Vampirella

Contributed by
Jul 15, 2019, 3:01 PM EDT

Vampirella debuted in Vampirella Magazine #1 in 1969, released by the well-known classic horror publisher Warren. Created by two important figures in the development of comic book fandom becoming the cultural behemoth it is today, Forrest J Ackerman and Trina Robbins, Vampirella would go on to become one of the most widely recognized independent comic creations of all time. Though she is often dismissed by audiences as being oversexualized due to her particularly revealing costume, Vampirella has always been a much deeper concept than she’s given credit for. Not only is she incredibly powerful even by mainstream superhero standards, but she’s also sharp as a tack and conducts herself according to surprisingly complex ethical standards.

Of all popular longstanding comics properties, Vampirella is one of the most difficult to track for new readers. Not only has she spanned countless crossovers, guest appearances, and mini-series, she’s also spanned multiple publishers. Dozens of creators have taken on Vampirella stories, with completely different ideas of what makes the character work. Fans have rejected her as being too sexy, then when the costume is changed she’s criticized for not being sexy enough. When you pick up a Vampirella comic, it isn’t always easy to guess what kind of take you’re going to be reading.

Yet it is this writer’s belief that this is easily as much a strength as it could be a potential weakness. Vampirella’s flexibility is part of why she’s so iconic, and why, over five decades as a character, she continues to enthrall new audiences.

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Vampirella Magazine #30: Cover art by Enrich Torres.

Vampirella's Humble Drakulonian Origins

Warren began as an independent publisher who was able to bypass strict censorship on horror comics during the ‘60s and ‘70s by printing their comics in black and white. This money-saving approach deemed their output to be specifically intended for an older crowd. As such, the improbable standards of the Comics Code Authority did not apply to titles like Creepy, Eerie, or Vampirella Magazine. Almost single-handedly keeping the fine art of the comic book horror anthology alive during the time, those books are now regarded as genre classics.

With Vampirella Magazine beginning as a horror anthology much like Creepy and Eerie, Vampirella was a horror host akin to the Cryptkeeper or Vampira. She introduced the stories of others but was not the focus of the stories — yet Vampirella proved to be too popular to remain on the sidelines, and she quickly began taking a more prominent role in the series. Readers were slowly introduced to more of her backstory as she became the full focus of the book.

Hailing from the distant planet of Drakulon, where rivers flowed with blood, Vampirella was a vampire who was actually, in fact, an alien rather than being undead. Drakulon was faltering, increasingly unable to support its vampiric population, so when Vampirella discovered a spaceship full of dying Earth astronauts, it was time to feed. She killed the men on the ship and delightedly set her sights on Earth. Yet, once there, she came to realize that she didn’t particularly mind people, at least not enough to constantly murder them without having some fairly good reasons for doing so. Such is the complicated moral code of Vampirella, who is essentially a mass murderer but also surprisingly sympathetic due to her comparatively ethical choice of who she feeds on. She uses all of this backstory to mostly hang out on movie sets and have sensuous encounters with directors, producers, co-stars, and crew members while occasionally solving mysteries.

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Changing Publishers and Job Titles

In the early ‘80s, a lot of what had made readers so interested in these horror stories had gone by the wayside. The anthology format, intended to teach moral lessons through graphic violence and ironic endings, had begun to fully infiltrate the film industry and had become fairly exhausted by the time Warren fell on hard times and declared bankruptcy. Vampirella Magazine had drawn to a close, and the publisher itself followed suit. Between the years of the conclusion of Vampirella Magazine in 1983 and the relaunch of the character by Harris in 1991, there were no new Vampirella stories save for a one-issue continuation of the original series in the late ‘80s. Both Warren and Harris are defunct now, and Vampirella, as well as much of her reprint rights, belong to Dynamite.

The majority of Vampirella’s most interesting stories have appeared in the time since the Dynamite acquisition, but there are still a lot of highlights through the Harris period. This was where we saw Vampirella develop greater depth, and she began to settle into life as a paranormal investigator. Changing her focus toward justice was a necessary move if we were going to see Vampirella evolve with the times. She surprised readers by becoming much more driven and ambitious, actively working to hold demons accountable for their misdeeds. Stories like Morning in America and Vampirella Lives were classic horror stories that injected Vampirella into the mix with great success.

By the time Dynamite began publishing Vampirella in 2010, the character had entered another dormant period. During the early 2000s, there weren’t many Vampi comics at all. Criticism of her costume increased, and people tended to view the character as dated and even as being inherently sexist, despite being designed by a feminist.

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Vampirella Magazine #1, cover art by Frank Frazetta

Vampirella's Costume: Sexist or Empowering?

Ultimately, the problem with this is that it falls on the wrong character. There are many women who are hypersexualized and treated as objects in comics, and it is indeed a sweeping problem throughout the industry. Still, if you consider Vampirella’s backstory, her personality, and her general approach to sex and sexuality, her costume has always made a fair amount of sense. It genuinely does fit her character to be as openly sensual as she is, and shame over that aspect of herself is almost nonexistent in Drakulonian culture. Vampirella’s will is always primary in her stories. She is in control, and she chooses her partners freely. Her sexual autonomy is, more often than not, actually handled surprisingly well in an industry with a long history of failing its female characters on that front. In short, on Earth, Vampirella is at the absolute top of the food chain, and she dresses how she wants. That all checks out.

It is still understandable to feel distanced by an image of an overly sexualized woman that is intended almost explicitly for male consumption, and that has certainly also appeared in Vampirella’s legacy. This is much of the reason Vampirella has been a complicated character for many readers. Still, changes to the costume have generally not been well received. It is a creative standstill at the cost of the character being taken more seriously.

This is a shame because Vampirella’s stories have only gotten more and more feminist as time has gone on. Not only have several women worked to bring us some of the better Vampirella stories of the last many years, but by finally revealing her as pansexual after years of strongly hinting it, creators have given us a new kind of queer character. Naturally, insatiable female vampires are nothing new, but a moral and complicated one who is given time to grow, change, fall in love, and experience loss really is.

Vampirella is a great character, and while there have certainly been missteps along the way, she hasn't stumbled any more than any other character who has been regularly published for as long as she has been. Making it to 50 is no small feat for an independent comic character, and the knowledge that Vampirella’s story has only just begun is comforting for this longtime fan. As her morality evolves and her feminism continues to assert itself, Vampirella has the chance to become a salient commentary on the objectification of women and the rise of personal autonomy, and for that eventuality, we are here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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