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Vampirella's underrated history as a sex-positive pansexual vampire

Contributed by
Oct 11, 2018

Vampirella debuted in 1969 in her own comic, with the cover painted by Frank Frazetta and costume design by Trina Robbins. A vampire from the planet Drakulon, she has gone through more origin story retcons than just about any of her mainstream superhero counterparts. On Drakulon, rivers run with blood rather than water, which is what sustains her and her kind. In her first story, she is delighted to discover that men have blood in their veins. This short tale begins a trail of murder, mayhem, and occasional heroism that would become Vampirella’s trademark over the next many decades into the modern era.

Initially published by Warren, a company known for its horror titles, Vampirella stood out from the start by headlining and becoming the star of her own series. Warren’s stories were typically anthologies and seldom focused on a single character. Their line of horror comics were printed during the height of the Comics Code era for comics, but circumvented the inclusion of the Code on their cover by printing in black and white, thus finding a loophole that would allow them to be determined “adult” books and escaping much of the censorship that bound and sometimes bankrupted other companies. Eventually, Dynamite Entertainment gained rights to print new Vampirella stories from Harris Comics, who had owned her for a time after Warren ceased to be a company in the early ‘80s. Despite many recent attempts to revitalize the property, Vampirella has struggled to find a solid fan base.

The trouble with Vampirella

This is for many reasons, one of which being that it’s incredibly difficult to sum up Vampirella’s origin. While many beloved characters have motivations that can be summed up in an elevator pitch, Vampirella is a bit more complicated than that. Her origin has changed so many times that it’s almost impossible to track, but essentially she’s a vampire who came to earth because her planet was dying. The deeper one looks beyond that, the messier it gets. There are also many several Vampirella series from different publishers, with different creators, and they range in quality from great to bad to even worse, depending on which era or which issue you pick up. Despite a long history, it’s also hard to point out definitive Vampirella stores, which serves another strike against her for new fans.

Another one of the immediate problems with Vampirella is that her costume design and her previous portrayals have been major deterrents for people who would likely enjoy her as a character. The overplayed sexiness of many Vampirella stories made for bad copy, which is unfortunate because her sexiness is definitely one of her strengths, though it is just one piece of her personality. Vampirella is an interesting and well-loved character who exists beyond the cheesecake renditions of her, but unfortunately, a lot of people stop there. It’s too bad, because she is also an enigmatic antihero with a dry wit who has stuck around for decades longer than other equally blatantly hypersexualized characters, and she deserves a deeper look.

Vampirella's feminist origin

The thing is, Vampirella’s original costume design was never inherently sexist because an article of clothing can’t be inherently sexist. It was designed by a queer feminist, in fact — Trina Robbins, one of the legendary cartoonists behind Wimmen’s Comix, who has since released several books on queer and feminist comics history. In essence, there’s nothing wrong with a woman dressing however she wants, and it just so happened Vampirella wanted to wear a rad high-collared swimsuit. Not only is that entirely her prerogative, the costume was pretty great. We here at SYFY FANGRRLS are suckers for a well-played high collar, and Vampirella’s high collar is one of the greats. The fact that it’s attached to a swimsuit with an ab window is even better, and the boots? Don’t get us started. Vampirella has a look she fully committed to, and that is always admirable.

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However, Vampirella was written and drawn almost exclusively by men for decades, and taking into account the over-sexualization of all women in comics, the fact that a lot of men would only read a female comic character if she was wearing next to nothing, and the lack of emphasis on any other part of her character is what makes us begin to see Vampirella as a sexist caricature. There’s certainly evidence to support the argument — for many years, her myriad thirsts came to define her character, and she was written as fairly one-dimensional.

A new take on the trope of the horror host

It’s also important to note that Vampirella was a parody character in her original imagining. In the ‘60s, the trope of the sexy, hypnotic vampire woman was already familiar to the public consciousness, and horror hosts like Vampira had already been appearing in television and movies for years by that time. Warren primarily created anthology horror magazines like Creepy and Eerie, and Vampirella was initially one of them. Her role in the comic was to bookend horror stories, until eventually, her popularity increased to a point where she herself began appearing as one of the characters in the stories, then later became the star of the book.

As years went on, the costume also reduced in size significantly. While the original design from Robbins intended a bit more practical coverage while still very fully embracing the abs and cleavage window, even the first appearance we see of her shows her swimsuit significantly smaller than the Robbins design, and once the ‘90s came around, Vampirella blended with a crew of other women that showed up wearing basically nothing, such as Lady Death, Chastity, and countless others. A costume and a character that was initially intended as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the generic format of horror hosts became just one face in a crowd of hyper-sexualized female characters that were intended to appeal specifically to teen boys. This distanced her significantly from the quite feminist embrace of her sexuality that had once set her apart. As Trina Robbins said in an interview with Comics Bulletin in which she criticized objectification of female superheroes, “Her costume, through the years, has gotten briefer and briefer. She has been hypersexualized, but not by me.”

Redesigning and redefining Vampirella for new audiences

Vampirella’s subsequent redesigns have been more inclined to distance her from the objectification that many have criticized, but the fact remains that the costume itself was never really the problem, and it fit Vampirella’s character fairly well. The series over the last few years has struggled with an inability to marry the campy parts of her background with the horror elements from her early days, and most takes have read as being a bit dated or actively trying to divorce the character from her previous incarnations. In this way, neither long-time fans nor new ones have been captivated by recent appearances, although they are more often than not high-quality storytelling. Again, Vampirella appears almost as a cipher, and we seldom see deeper into her character. The push to grant her legitimacy distances her from the things that, in her best moments, makes her one of comics’ most genuinely fun and entertaining characters. Attempts have been made to appeal to a more feminist audience, which of course is great, but the changes that were made to fill out her costume could have been focused on filling out her character. From writers of all backgrounds, the predisposition to focus overly on either sexualizing or desexualizing Vampirella belies an overly nervous concern for her appearance over her persona.

On the plus side, Vampirella recently was finally outed as queer when she partnered up with a new character Vicki Vincente. As of the conclusion of Volume 4, Vicki was still Vampirella’s girlfriend and a contender for the love of her life after stabbing her through the heart in order to save them both from the longtime villain Pantha. Their relationship is great and went a long way in humanizing Vampirella, but the story shifted to being mostly from Vicki’s perspective. Often, other characters in the book are given the focus, because no writer ever seems to get a very long time to get to know Vampirella, and they often seem as genuinely perplexed by her as many potential fans have been.

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Another strange element of Vampirella comics is that her rogues' gallery comprises mostly of other women, and there’s a great deal of hypersexualized “cat fights” in these stories. Her villains tend to lack depth in the same way that Vampirella herself can seem to, and so it’s hard to pinpoint who exactly her nemesis is. Pantha serves as a Callisto to her Xena at times, and her mother Lilith is often portrayed as a villain, but that becomes problematic pretty quickly as Lilith is an actual religious figure that we view as being quite feminist who is generally villainized in these comics. Scattered Biblical references have defined a number of Vampirella tales, and, while it could be interesting if given more time, the questions they raise about what God and religion could possibly mean to a vampire from outer space tend to go unanswered.

Importantly, Vampirella’s sexiness is something that could potentially and often has made her a hero to many women who feel objectified and find inspiration in a comic character that fully embraces that part of herself regardless of what other people think of her. By distancing her from that part of her character, writers aren’t doing anyone any favors, or making her portrayal “less sexist.” In fact, comics could really use this sex-positive pansexual vampire to make some salient points about what sexual empowerment looks like through a feminist lens. As with many women in real life who are criticized for being “too sexy” or whose sexuality is used to villainize them, what people have to say about Vampirella very seldom has anything to do with Vampirella herself. Her character is predetermined as flat, her costume is criticized, and her feminist origins are dismissed. Although there are years of receipts to back a view of Vampirella as a male gaze fantasy, she hasn’t always been that, and, most importantly, she doesn’t have to be that going forward. Either way, her revealing costume and her open sexuality are triumphs of her character, not the fails they’re often made out to be. Vampirella is a queer icon, and the sooner we all allow her to be the truly epic character she is, the better off comics will be.

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