Tag Archives: Blade
Trump promised a return to the Golden Age, but when was that exactly? Once again Ester Bloom:
The boundaries of America’s “golden age” are clear on one end and fuzzy on the other. Everyone agrees that the midcentury boom times began after Allied soldiers returned in triumph from World War II. But when did they wane? The economist Joe Stiglitz, in an article in Politico Magazine titled “The Myth Of The American Golden Age,” sets the endpoint at 1980, a year until which “the fortunes of the wealthy and the middle class rose together.”
We’ve already toured the not-so-golden decades of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. So that leaves the 70s. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the first year of what comics fans call the Bronze Age. How do you think it looked for African American characters and creators?
Take a look:
Reflecting the legislative gains of the Civil Rights Movement, superhero comics featured black characters at an increasing rate. Though more African American artists entered the industry, black superheroes were still written exclusively by white authors who relied on shifting stereotypes and expressed ambivalent attitudes about black political power. Acknowledging both the “good intentions” and “cultural ignorance” of white creators, William L. Svitavsky summarizes black superheroes of the era as combining “a veneer of streetwise attitude with a core of values comfortable for middle-class white readers” (2013: 153, 156). In 1969, Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan introduced Sam Wilson as the Falcon in a three-issue Captain America story arc, with a fourth-issue epilogue leaving the new hero to fight crime in Harlem. Because Black Panther is African, the Falcon is considered comics’ first African-American superhero. He returned for a single episode six months later, in which he tells Captain America: “Your skin may be a different color . . . But there’s not man alive I’m prouder to call . . . Brother!” (Lee, Colan & Romita 1970). Like Kirby and Lee’s Black Panther, the Falcon places interracial unity above black identity. Colan’s chest-exposing costume design echoed the open-shirt of the 60s Lothar and established a norm for black superheroes for the coming decade. Though white superheroes of the 70s also sometimes wear shirts with v-shaped openings (Sub-Mariner, Killraven), the pattern is disproportionately common for black men, who, writes Conseula Frances, “in the popular American imagination, are often read as hypersexual” (2015: 141). The costume design reflected that hypersexuality visually while writers contained it narratively by portraying black men as physically powerful but willingly subservient.
For the Falcon’s one-issue return to Captain America, Stan Lee had pitted him against a black gang whom the Falcon denounces: “They’re like a black version of the Klan! All they preach is hate Whitey! They can set our progress back a hundred years!” (Lee, Colan & Romita 1970). After another six months, Sam Wilson becomes a permanent character. The January 1971 Captain America cover includes the bottom subtitle “Co-Starring: the Falcon!” and for the following issue the title was redesigned Captain American and the Falcon, which it remained until 1978. Captain America’s previous sidekicks included Bucky from 1941-1947 and Golden Girl, from 1948-9, making the Falcon his longest serving partner. Andre Carrington argues:
Narratives of the black and/or female superhero as a team player promulgate a reductive politics of representation that puts minoritized characters on the page in order to support white male characters’ claims to iconic status. Black and female characters frequently appear to buttress the notion that the white male superhero is the sine qua non of the idealism that white Americans spread throughout the globe. (2015: 155)
While Sam Wilson significantly increased the representation of African Americans in comics, in terms of social power, the character also positioned a black man as the equivalent of a white adolescent male and a white adult female.
The Comics Code Authority’s revised guidelines went into effect in February 1971, and one of the first new series affected was Jack Kirby’s New Gods. Issue #3, cover-dated July, introduced Black Racer, an incarnation of death in the form of a paralyzed Vietnam vet, months after the Supreme Court upheld bussing as a means of integrating public schools. July also saw the release of Shaft, widely popularizing the “Blaxploitation” film genre and heavily influencing the portrayal of defiant African Americans in subsequent superhero comics.
Between the Falcon’s premiere and his 1970 return, Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams had started their seminal run on DC’s Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow, beginning with an indictment of Green Lantern by an unnamed African American man: “I been readin’ about you…how you work for the blue skins…and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins…and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with–! …the black skins! I want to know…how come?!” (O’Neil & Adams 2012: 13). Now a year into their run, O’Neil and Adams replaced the previous Green Lantern substitute with John Stewart, an architect who lives in an “urban ghetto” and challenges white authority figures, including police officers, a Senator, and the Hal Jordan Green Lantern: “Listen, whitey, that windbag wants to be President! He’s a racist…and he figures on climbing to the White House on the backs of my people!” (276, 280). Two months later, Marvel premiered the first superhero comic book series featuring an African American character, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Archie Goodwin and George Tuska’s Cage gains his superpowers by volunteering for human experimentation while wrongly imprisoned, calls people “baby” and “jive-mouth,” and utters “a cry of raging defiance” (Thomas et al 2011: 192, 208). Tuska’s splash page features Cage posed in his open shirt, giving an eye-clenching, open-mouthed roar, his apparent response to the “Harlem” backdrop surrounding him (190). The creative team also included inker Billy Graham, one of the first African American artists employed at Marvel.
Where Adilifu Nama reads Stan Lee’s earlier Falcon dialogue as signaling “a rejection of the type of race-based political brotherhood (and sisterhood) advocated by Black Power nationalism” (2011: 72), Marvel’s new editor-in-chief Roy Thomas retitled the series Luke Cage, Power Man the following year, echoing the increasingly popular movement. Beginning in 1974, Ron Wilson, another recently hired African American artist, would provide cover and pencils, and when the series changed to Power Man and Iron Fist in 1978, it would be the second Marvel title in which a white character received second billing after an African American. In 1972 Marvel also premiered “Reno Jones and Kid Cassidy” in the western Gunhawks. Reno is the third African American Marvel character named “Jones,” and the seventh and final issue, retitled Reno Jones, Gunhawk, featured him alone. Also due to dropping sales, DC cancelled O’Neil and Adams’ Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow in 1972, two issues after introducing John Stewart.
Samuel R. Delany, possibly the first black writer in superhero comics, scripted two issues of Wonder Woman in 1972. He left before completing his intended arc because of DC’s decision to restore Wonder Woman’s original costume and powers. Delany was replaced by Robert Kanigher, who with Don Heck co-created a dark-skinned Wonder Woman named Nubia for three issues in 1973, ending the industry’s forty-year exclusion of black women from superhero comics. Jack Kirby also introduced a young black sidekick, Shilo Norman, in Mister Miracle #12—a title cancelled seven issues later. The same year, Marvel elevated Black Panther to the cover-feature of Jungle Action, which had previously starred Tarzan knock-off “Tharn the Magnificient.” Luke Cage alum Graham penciled twelve issues of writer Don McGregor’s nineteen-issue run, which included the story arc, “Panther vs. the Klan.” A month after Black Panther’s Jungle Action debut, Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s Blade the Vampire-Slayer premiered in The Tomb of Dracula, with likely the first comic book cover to depict a black man protecting a white woman from a white man. Colan again draws a black man with an open shirt, and Marv Wolfman scripts Blade with standard Blaxploitation slang, “dig?” and “dude” and telling a disrespectful police officer that he did not understand “Pig English” (Wolfman et al 2004: 6). At the end of the same summer, Len Wein and Gene Colan’s Brother Voodoo began a five-issue Strange Tales run. The Haitian wizard is a “noted psychologist” who dismisses voodoo as “superstitious bunk” before assuming his dead brother’s role as the island’s “Houngan, voodoo priest” in a costume that largely reproduces Colan’s chest-revealing Falcon design (Thomas et al 2012: 49, 52). Joining the small but expanding group of African Americans in mainstream comics, Wayne Howard, who worked mostly in horror and had received his first credit at DC in 1969, inked the October issue of Marvel Team-Up in 1973. Keith Pollard and Arvell Jones received their first Marvel credits in 1974. Jones would move to DC in 1977, and Pollard would pencil and ink the final issue of Black Panther’s Jungle Action in 1976, later taking over as penciller for Amazing Spider-Man in 1978.
Jeffrey A. Brown acknowledges DC’s and Marvel’s attempts “to create legitimate black superhero characters,” but attributes their failure “to achieve any long-lasting success” to those characters being “too closely identified with the limited stereotype commonly found in the Blaxploitation films of the era,” including Superfly in 1972, Coffy in 1973, and Mandingo in 1975 (2001: 4). Marvel’s Blaxploitation phase peaked in 1975, with Steve Englehart’s retconning of the Falcon’s past as a Harlem criminal named “Snap.” Marvel introduced its first two black female superheroes that year. Influenced by actress Pam Grier’s performances in Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Sheba Baby, Tony Isabella and Arvell Jones created Misty Knight for an episode of Marvel Premier Featuring Iron Fist. Her bionic arm later established her as the first African American cyborg—a motif for black superheroes expanded in later decades. Len Wein and Dave Cockrum’s Storm had debuted in the new, multi-ethnic X-Men team a month earlier. Cockrum had intended the character to be called “Black Cat,” before merging her with another of his unused ideas for a white male superhero “Typhoon.” Storm is worshipped as a rain goddess by a tribe in Kenya in her first appearance. 1975 also saw Tony Isabella and George Tuska’s Black Goliath debut in Luke Cage, Power Man. The superhero’s alter ego, Bill Foster, was originally created by Lee and Don Heck in 1966 as an assistant to Henry Pym, A.K.A. Goliath, in The Avengers. Marvel launched a Black Goliath solo title the following year, which, like Brother Voodoo, lasted only five issues. Rather than an open shirt, Tuska’s costume design included a bare midriff, a variation on the skin-exposing costumes of female superheroes. Black Goliath, like John Stewart Green Lantern earlier, casts a black superhero as an imitative replacement of a white character and so, argues Svitavsky, “falls too easily into the cliché of the competent ethnic supporting character, such as Tarzan’s ally Mugambi or the Lone Ranger’s Tonto, who ultimately reinforces the white hero’s preeminence” (2013: 158). At DC, Dennis O’Neil’s Bronze Tiger shared the first cover though not title of Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter, and a second, unrelated Powerman appeared in 1975 too. Commissioned by a Nigerian ad agency and designed by British artist Dave Gibbons of later Watchmen fame, the black and white Powerman was distributed in Nigeria for two years. On the color covers, “Africa’s Hero with Super Powers!” sports a fuchsia unitard and lion-print briefs.
Murray Boltinoff, who had been editing Superboy since the late 60s, prevented artist Mike Grell from introducing a black character in 1975. Grell recalls Boltinoff explaining: “You can’t do that because we’ve never had a black person in the Legion of Super-Heroes, and now you’re going to have one in there who’s not perfect. We can’t do that” (Cardigan 2003: 89). Boltinoff’s concern that a black superhero must be depicted as “perfect” reflects the overwhelmingly white-dominated industry’s anxiety over representing African Americans, especially when the general lack of representation places a greater burden on each individual character. Grell still drew the character, Soljer scripted by Jim Shooter, as “a black man who had been colored pink” (89). Soljer’s pink skin thematically reverses the norm of white authors creating black characters who are what Kenneth Ghee terms “White heroes in Black Face” (2013: 232), as signified most obviously with the use of “Black” as a modifier, indicating “White” as the unstated norm.
The DC policy barring black superheroes changed in 1976 when Grell and Cary Bates created Tyroc, who defends his all-black island against the Legion of Super-Heroes before joining the team. “When it comes to race, we’re color-blind!” explains the white-skinned Superboy, who is then echoed by three of his multi-colored teammates: “Blue skin, yellow skin, green skin…we’re brothers and sisters…united in the name of justice everywhere!” (quoted in Singer 2002: 111). Grell so disliked Bates and Boltinoff’s handling of race that, now given the opportunity to draw a black superhero as he had previously advocated, he intentionally undermined the character by designing what he considered an unappealing costume for Tyroc—which included the same open-shirt design as worn by the Falcon, Brother Voodoo, Luke Cage, and soon Black Lightning (Cardigan 2003: 89). DC’s change regarding black superheroes coincides with Jeanette Kahn succeeding Carmine Infantino as publisher in January 1976. The Tyroc episode of Superboy Starring the Legion of Super-Heroes is cover-dated April, and a second black superhero was added to a pre-existing team that fall. After the series had been cancelled in 1973, Teen Titans resumed with “The Newest Teen Super-Hero of All . . . The Guardian!” on its cover (#44). Mal Duncan, an amateur boxer from “Hell’s Corner” introduced in 1970, assumes the superhero identity of the pre-Code character Guardian—and then the magic trumpet-wielding Hornblower in the subsequent issue, which also introduced his girlfriend Karen Beecher, who would become Bumblebee and join the team three issues later. Both remained on the team until the next cancellation in 1978. Paul Kupperberg and Joe Staton’s Tempest joined Doom Patrol in 1977, becoming the third black superhero to join one of DC’s pre-existing teams.
Marvel introduced its next black superhero, Thunderbolt, in 1977 for three issues of Luke Cage, Power Man, but killed the character after his next appearance in 1980. Lee Alias’s costume design is the first since Black Panther to not feature an exposed chest—though, also like Black Panther, the costume also completely disguises the hero’s racial identity, repeating the second most common pattern for black superheroes. Thunderbolt, like DC’s Guardian/Hornblower, also reprised a black character first introduced in 1970, this time in Daredevil #69. The practice of reusing and expanding previous secondary characters is common—though here it also emphasizes the dearth of such black characters since both sets of authors went back seven years to find ones to transform into new superheroes.
As Jack Kirby returned to Marvel and a new Black Panther series, DC premiered its first African American superhero title in 1977, Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden’s Black Lightning, a very late example of Blaxploitation influence. The hero’s costume includes a mask attached to an afro wig to disguise his identity as a school teacher who wears his hair conservatively short. “The Afro-mask,” writes Blair Davis, “also serves to make an ethnic minority character ‘more ethnic’ by giving him a hairstyle that was viewed not only as a fashion statement but also as a form of political expression in the 1970s” (2015: 203). Isabella was originally hired to script a very different black character:
The Black Bomber was a white bigot who, in times of stress, turned into a black super-hero. This was the result of chemical camouflage experiments he’d taken part in as a soldier in Vietnam. The object of these experiments was to allow our [white] troops to blend into the jungle…. I convinced them to eat the two scripts and let me start over. To paraphrase my arguments… “Do you REALLY want DC’s first black super-hero to be a white bigot?” (Isabella 2000)
Von Eeden, identifying himself as the first African American artist employed at DC, recalled in a 2016 interview how his white colleagues “chose to play a very mean-spirited and ill-advised ‘prank’ on me” involving a collapsing chair. He never “heard of any other such pranks being played on anyone else at DC Comics,” and in addition to “being ALWAYS treated as a ‘black’ artist (as if I represented an entire nation of fundamentally alien people, all by my lonesome),” he soon found “it was very hard to even want to do one’s best for people who seemed to not only not really appreciate it—but had actually tried to punish and humiliate me, in return.” Von Eeden later left during “DC’s eventual downsizing of its entire staff (freelancers like me being the first to go),” concluding that the “very same people who’d given me the opportunity to live my dreams, had directly caused that dream to become a living nightmare” (Gill 2016).
DC cancelled Black Lightning after its October 1978 issue, and Marvel cancelled Black Panther after its May 1979 issue. Gerry Conway also scripted Black Lightning in a 1979 Justice League of America issue in which Superman asks him to join the team. Len Wein had desegregated the team in 1974 when he included the John Stewart Green Lantern in a single episode, but Conway’s Black Lightning declines. Nama reads the issue as “a clear critique of black tokenism” (2011: 26). Marvel, however, expressed no qualms when Falcon joined two issues of The Defenders in 1978 and eleven issues of The Avengers beginning in 1979. DC had intended to debut their first African American female superhero in her own series in 1978, but Vixen and a range of other planned and low-selling titles were cancelled due to the company’s financial troubles during the industry-wide slump. Gerry Conway and Bob Oksner’s Vixen debuted in Action Comics in 1981 instead. The character echoes Black Panther’s African-based animalistic powers, but with a sexualized name, and like Cockrum’s Storm, cover artists Ross Andru and Dick Giordano draw her hair in flowing waves for her debut image. DC also briefly introduced E. Nelson Bridwell and Ramona Fradon’s Doctor Mist in Super Friends in 1978, adding the character to main continuity in 1981. Like Black Panther, Doctor Mist hails from a fictional African nation.
Reviewing superhero comics in 1982, Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet formulated “a descriptive framework of the general patterns found in the subgenre,” concluding that a superhero is “an adult white male” because “Black heroes (Black Panther, Black Goliath, Black Lightning, the Falcon) don’t seem to appeal to a predominantly white readership; they are not role models” (1983: 185-6). Roy Thomas, Marvel’s editor in chief from 1972-1974, observed the phenomenon with frustration: “It’s kind of a shame. You could get blacks to buy comics about whites, but it was hard to get whites to buy comics in which the main character was black” (Howe 131).
[So much for the
Golden Bronze Age? Next week we’ll try the Golden Age of the 80s.]
Tim Seibles cuts straight to the heart. When I met him at his hotel to walk him over to my wife’s poetry class, conversation leapt from “nice weather” to “parents with Alzheimer’s” in a single bound. He was giving a reading that night and—because his most recent book, Fast Animal, includes five poems about Blade the Vampire-Hunter—visiting my Superheroes class the next morning.
Seibles was in high school when Marvel launched the character in 1973. He’s not the first black superhero—Black Panther debuted in Fantastic Four in 1966 , the Falcon in Captain America in 1969, and Luke Cage in his own title in 1972—but he beat Brother Voodoo to newsstands by two months. The comic book market was slumping, so Marvel was desperately mixing its superhero formula with blaxploitation and horror. Shaft hit theaters in 1971, Super Fly and Blacula in 1972. Hammer Films had been pounding out low budget Dracula and Frankenstein flicks for over a decade, but the Comics Code prohibited “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism” until 1971, provided the horror was “handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high caliber literary works.”
Marvel pounced with Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula, The Monster of Frankenstein, and a half dozen other horror-tinged titles. He sounds like a pseudonym, but flesh-and-blood writer Marv Wolfman moved to Marvel at the same moment, and soon he and artist Gene Colan were adding a black “vampire killer” to their Dracula cast. I’ll let Seibles introduce him:
“Years ago, a pregnant woman was bitten by a vampire and turned. Her son was born with the thirst but, being half-human, he could walk in sunlight unharmed. Though vampires quietly dominate the world, he fights them—in part to prove his allegiance to humanity, in part to avenge his long isolation, being neither human, nor vampire. Because of his deadly expertise and weapon of choice, they call him: BLADE, THE DAYWALKER”
It’s hard not to read the character as a racial metaphor. Barack Obama turned thirteen when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade that year, and though President Nixon made no public comment, White House tapes reveal his opposition to abortion, except when “necessary,” as “when you have a black and a white. Or a rape.” I read all vampires as rapists, so it follows the horror of our cultural logic that the first black half-vampire would have to take a vow of blood celibacy. Note all those unconscious blonde women draped in Dracula’s arms too. Blade’s skin makes explicit more than one coded fear.
Seibles told my class that he saw the character as an “emblem of alienation,” a metaphor for what it feels like to be black in the U.S., to feel “both American and not.” The night before they heard him read his poem “Allison Wolff,” set in 1972 when “Race was the elephant / sitting on everybody.” Seibles was born in 1955, the year Emmett Till was lynched, and that horror haunts the teenaged Tim the first time he kisses a white girl.
Fast Animal includes a high school photo of Seibles, “circa 1971,” long before he met Blade. The half-vampire lurked around Marvel’s black and white magazines for a few years, vanished for a decade or so, then reawakened in the 90s. I showed my class the 1998 film, which opens with Blade’s vampire-assaulted mother bleeding out on a delivery room table. David S. Goyer penned the screenplay, which also explains Goyer’s rise to dominance in the DC film universe since both his Batman Begins and Man of Steel screenplays open with the bloody deaths of their heroes’ mothers. Seibles said the two sequels weren’t as good, and both the Spike TV and anime series were news to him.
Apparently Wesley Snipes has spent the last three years in prison for tax evasion. He last played Blade in 2004, about when Seibles started using the character in his poetry. Seibles said it was George Bush who turned him, that feeling of “a deep trouble taking over the country,” or, as his Blade explains: “it’s almost like I can’t / wake up, like I’m living // in a movie, a kind of dream: / action-packed thriller.”
Political essayist Jonathan Schell drew the same conclusion in 2004. Since 9/11 and the War on Terror, it seemed to Schell “history was being authored by a third-rate writer” compelled “to follow the plot of a bad comic book,” with the President turning “himself into a sort of real life action figure.”
The vampires in Fast Animal do have a Wolfowitz-neocon vibe: “the ones / who look in the mirror / and find nothing // but innocence though they stand / in blood up to their knees.” But Seibles-Blade addresses a much larger audience, everyone watching “the war on TV” while not wanting “to see / what’s // really happening,” all of us living “in / the blood,” fighting for “The right to live / without memory,” to ignore “So many / centuries, so much / death.” Slavery, Seibles reminded my class, is a kind of vampirism too, one of many ways America has exploited the world. Of course Blade longs for “this country / before it was bitten,” even as he mourns: “I don’t know how // to save anybody from this.”
Seibles called Blade his “mask,” a perfect term for my Superheroes class. He used Blade to channel his rage, he said, likening the character’s name to a pencil: “Some days // I think, with the singing / of my blade, I can fix / everything.” That’s a poet’s superpower, to reveal through language, since “evil thrives best in the dark.” He even gave us his mission statement: to fight “inattentive dumbassery.”
Seibles also has a pair of poems in the new anthology Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (where my wife, Lesley Wheeler, and I do too). Swapping his vampire superhero mask for Natasha and Boris of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, Seibles playfully critiques American capitalism, a theme one of my students asked him to expand on. Another asked how, if our leaders are as stupid as Seibles suggests, were they smart enough to come to power? But my favorite question came at the end of class: What would Blade do if there weren’t any more vampires to fight?
Superhero missions, like Batman’s quixotic “war on criminals,” guarantee never-ending battles. You never run out of bad guys. You never get to walk away. But instead of talking vampires, Seibles talked about his father. The idea of sitting in a room of white people and discussing race, his father couldn’t imagine such a thing. His father can’t believe there are white people who aren’t racists. Sure, at an intellectual level, of course he can, but the idea is meaningless at any emotional level.
I’m guess his father was born somewhere around 1930—a moment my class understands well in terms of American eugenics. We read excerpts of a standard high school biology textbook that explained the hierarchy of white supremacy and advocated the extermination of unfit gene pools. That’s not something you walk away from. That’s not a world that ever runs out of bad guys. Seibles described Blade’s life as a psychological and spiritual war—one his parents’ generation can never stop fighting.
The only hope, he said, is for Blade’s children.
I’m pretty sure I saw the first Twilight movie. Though I might have it confused with a really good parody my daughter showed me on Youtube (Edward was Santa Claus). I started reading the novel too, in an attempt to understand what was enthralling my then tween daughter. I set her copy down just before the baseball scene. That was maybe four years ago.
So I am no expert on things Twilight. And yet I feel I have inhaled more than my fair share of Edward Cullen from our cultural ecosystem. If I recall correctly, Ms. Meyer paints him in superhero shades, a cursed but noble superhuman who uses his powers for good. It was, for example, very noble of him not to kill and eat Bella when she smelled so delicious in science class. That’s some serious restraint for a soulless monster who literally lives to devour women.
But he’s not the first. Edward might not literally have a soul, but his soulful self-restraint recalls a colony of similarly abstinent vampire hunks. The BBC’s Being Human featured three seasons of the AA-esque Mitchell struggling to stay on the blood-sucking wagon, followed by season four’s equally valiant and tortured Hal. Before Joss Whedon turned his attention to men in leotards, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator sired not one but two vampires-with-a-soul, the angsty Angel and the bad boy Spike.
But Buffy owes both those lovers and most of her name to Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, who introduced Blade the Vampire-Hunter to readers of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula back in 1973. Though soulless as any other blood-sucker, Blade kept his vampire virginity and so earns the all-time abstinence award.
But he’s still not the first vampire trying to be good. That goes to Barnabas Collins of the 1966-71 soap opera Dark Shadows. Introduced as a temporary side character, the lovelorn Barnabas saved the show from cancellation and was soon taking a serum to restore his humanity. (Something Johnny Depp finished for him earlier this year.)
With a few very notable exceptions (Le Fanu’s 1872 “Carmilla,” Catharine Deneuve in The Hunger), vampires are men. Octavia Butler’s Shori from her novel Fledgling is a personal favorite, the proverbial rule-proving exception. “Most vampires,” Butler told an interviewer, “I have discovered are men for some reason. I guess it’s because Dracula; people are kind of feeding off that.”
When I taught Fledgling in my contemporary novel class (Thrilling Tales), I asked my students to describe a typical vampire.
“A guy who hides in the shadows and jumps out and bites women.”
And what would you have if you took out the fangs?
After a moment of awkward mumbling, an intrepid senior spelled it out: “A rapist.”
The first was Lord Byron. Or “Lord Ruthven,” as Byron’s personal physician, John William Polidori, thinly disguised him in his 1819 short story “The Vampyre” (begun by Bryon during the ghost story gathering that also spawned Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein). Polidori plucked the vampire from eastern European folklore and recast him as a seductive aristocrat feeding on high society women. In other words, Lord Byron. “The Vampyre” sparked the first vampire craze (imagine Edward Cullen singing in two simultaneous opera adaptations) and the enduring undead genre.
Byron, of course, did not have fangs. Just a penis. Which remains the not particularly veiled subtext of most vampire plots. Stoker’s Dracula is about a foreigner buying the house next door and penetrating the neighborhood’s daughters and fiancés. It’s also about property. Women, like other Victorian real estate, do nothing but lie very still while men make their transactions.
Which, oddly, is why I think the genre has endured. The figure of the seducer opens one of culture’s favorite taboos: women’s pleasure. We’re less terrified of the topic than the Victorians, but not as much as you’d like to think. A lunch table of high school girls knows that sex drive is supposed to be a boy thing.
Which is why vampires are so useful. If you’re being seduced by superhuman means, how can you be expected to defend yourself? Your failure to resist your sexy attacker isn’t your fault. All you can do is lie back and remain innocent.
And if it feels good? Well, that’s not anybody’s fault either.
And, since you’re enthralled and all, who can object if some of that vampire urgency seeps into your own blood?
Which brings us back to Edward and his neutered cousins. Remember how startled he and Bella were the first time they kissed? How she was the one overcome with passion? It’s as if the laws of thermodynamics apply to arousal. Bella’s longing is possible to the degree that Edward suppresses his. If you tame the rapist, you claim his libido for yourself.
My tween daughter started reading the Twilight series because her older friends were, girls she literally looked up to, young women now in their second years of college. My daughter now admits that she liked boys in elementary and middle school, but that she didn’t have the slightest idea how to talk to one, only stare creepily from across a science classroom. That’s where Twilight came in. And Vampire Academy, and House of Night, and the other books I kept buying her for birthdays and Christmases.
Edward and his clan have something to teach boys too. Culturally, we tell young men they’re supposed to have voracious appetites. That they’re supposed to value sex over the body they happen to be having it with. That a penis really isn’t all that different from a set of fangs.
Edward and Angel and Mitch and Barnabas and Hal and Blade and Spike, they’re a reminder that being male isn’t permission to think like a rapist. Grow a soul, boys. Join the human race. Joss Whedon (did I mention he majored in Women’s Studies?) played out this plot best, evolving Spike from literal rapist to president of the tortured soul club over the course of seven seasons. But he never dumped the leather jacket. Even reformed bad boys are allowed to keep a little of their signature badness.
I’m not necessarily endorsing vampire sex. But it has its uses, a kind of safe sex practice zone of the pubescent imagination. My daughter has since outgrown vampires, even regards her former Twilight obsession with a sophomore’s embarrassment. Which I suppose should alarm me more. What does it mean when you’re done with metaphorical sex?
She saw the first half of Breaking Dawn last year with her boyfriend, who apparently has a blood phobia and had to leave for a light-headed stroll in the theater lobby.
That’s the kind of vampire a father has to like.