Blood: A Tale #1-4 (Epic) by J.M. DeMatteis, Kent Williams, Gaspar Saladino, Robbin Brosterman, Daniel Chichester, and Steve Buccellato
Countless works of fiction—and non-fiction, too, while I mention it—have been built around the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery. One might even argue that every story, to one degree or another, is about the hero’s path toward self-actualization, just as some would say that self-actualization is the driving force behind everything we do. Whether or not it’s truly such a universal phenomenon, the search for self is certainly common, in our real lives and our entertainment. Blood: A Tale is, above all, another example of such a story, its main character constantly striving to define himself and his world. But the book steadfastly refuses to settle on a consistent narrative identity, moving through its beats with a manic, chaotic energy and pulling from as many genres as it can think of along the way. It’s a fairy-tale horror, a fantasy adventure romance, a metatextual story about stories, and a spiritual time travel narrative all in one. It is also none of those things entirely, and the lush but often blurred and/or vague artwork only adds to the schizophrenic atmosphere. I don’t mean to indicate that Blood or its creators are confused about what the comic should be. On the contrary, the ever-fluctuating tone and rhythm are deliberate elements, there to underline the difficulty and, perhaps, the futility of the hero’s efforts to understand himself and find his place. Each of us is a million people in one, behaving differently and wanting different things depending on where we are (physically and emotionally), who we’re with, and any number of other unpredictable external and internal factors. Blood celebrates that fact by letting its title character play numerous roles, all while trying to uncover what his role is really supposed to be.
The star of Blood is Blood, an odd name to be sure, but it’s one of the least strange aspects of the series. Trying to recap the plot with any detail here would make for pretty dull reading, I imagine, because there’s a lot that goes on and no obvious momentum or direction to it. It’s a rather disjointed string of events, though each thing always leads directly to the next and, in the end, there’s a circular kind of conclusion that ties some of the pieces together. Blood doesn’t even have the name Blood at first, starting out as an infant called the Boy, then growing into the Man, and only getting named Blood after he literally murders and then flees his childhood. He gets the moniker from a character he meets in the first issue, known as the Old Man, and then in the final issue Blood becomes the Old Man and meets his younger self and gives himself his own name, so…that’s the kind of fantastical logic on which this comicbook runs.
This paradoxical relationship between Blood and the Old Man is very much a bookend as opposed to a throughline, though the presence and image of the Old Man pops up throughout the story, so he’s never completely forgotten. The bulk of the narrative revolves around Blood’s time with the Woman and/or Little One, who are the most regular supporting cast members present. Little One is introduced first, meeting Blood in issue #1 and traveling with him briefly until they get attacked by vampires and Little One runs away. It’s hard to say exactly what Little One is. He seems to be a human whose arms and legs were either severed at the elbow and knee or never developed past that point. He’s wearing some kind of spacesuit, I think, but has no helmet, though there is a high collar that looks like it might attach to a helmet. Oh, and he’s carried around by a pair of hovering UFO-like gadgets attached to him by wires. He’s a visual delight, one of the only futuristic things in the whole comic, but he still fits in because of his faded coloring and the semi-pathetic air about him.
After Little One abandons Blood to the vampires, they transform Blood into on of their own, as vampires tend to do. Tragically, though Blood does gain their immortality and hunger, he finds himself unable to embrace the lifestyle like his brethren have, refusing to join their society and hanging onto his remaining humanity for dear life. It is then that he meets the Woman, a fellow vampire, and the only other one who shares his anti-vampire attitudes, who didn’t quite change all the way. She tells him she always knew there’d be someone else like her one day, and that she’s been waiting for him, and the two of them quickly fall in love. She gives him sustenance and security in his new form, and he gives her the partner she’s been hoping for all this time. Eventually, they decide to run away from the other vampires, already living on the fringes of the group anyway, and though it’s a close call and involves some violence, they do make it out. Shortly thereafter, they run into Little One again, and they form a trio and continue their adventures together.
Those adventures include Blood climbing a ladder and being transported into a whole new life, one in our own world, or at least a world much more similar to it than Blood’s. It’s also set in modern times, and not necessarily 1987 modern, either. It could just as easily be today; Blood has an office job, having given up on his dream of being a rock star and instead settling into his marriage with a woman named Helen, having kids, etc. We see him age through this new life in only a handful of pages, discovering his wife’s affair, getting a divorce, losing touch with his kids, dating a much younger woman, developing a drinking problem. Eventually he gets cancer and dies in the hospital, which transports him back to his original life as Blood, the vampire in the magical mystery land.
That’s just the most stand-out example of the kind of sudden detours Blood likes to take, and does take all the time. It’s a trip, almost a collection of short stories by J.M. DeMatteis that happen to use some of the same characters and ideas. Kent Williams’ painted artwork is even trippier than the scripts, sometimes to the point of being unclear, but more often effectively enhancing the narrative’s many experiments. It is blurry, fuzzy, and dark, casting everything in either haze or shadow, if not both. The reader is invited to get lost in the visuals, to let the rich moods they create surround and overpower even when, or maybe especially when, they’re hard to decipher. Williams can also occasionally be more lighthearted, like in the design of Little One, or downright horrifying, like when Little One gets taken by some super creepy beings to the Isle of the Dead. Though everything is done in more or less the same style, that style is incredibly adaptable, as it needs to be for a story set in such a unique and expansive world.
Williams’ best contributions are all interactions between the Woman and Blood. Not every panel or page with the two of them is excellent, but their affection and inescapable connection is essential to the series, and it’s also what Williams depicts most clearly the most often. That makes it easier to invest in, to believe in, which is important because of how quickly the two characters become intertwined and how much time they spend together after that. The Woman’s death in the finale is a significant breaking point for Blood, and it must be for the reader as well, which happens in large part because of how well Williams establishes their love leading up to that point. There’s also the fact that she dies in childbirth, and Blood immediately kills the child out of heartbroken rage, a powerfully intense moment in art and script alike.
I have up to now completely ignored the framing device DeMatteis employs, which is partly because I’m not convinced it really matters or adds anything of value to the rest of Blood. It’s interesting on its own, a story about “the King,” whose body died long ago but whose soul insists on sticking around anyway, so he’s a living dead man stuck in his bed, his entire kingdom waiting for him to give up the ghost for good. The King is visited by a spirit that takes the form of a young girl, and she tells the King Blood’s story. I don’t dislike it, but the King parts never really ties into Blood material in any noticeable way. Eventually the King disappears and the framing device switches gears just for issue #4, when it becomes two birds flying together, one telling Blood’s story to the other. These framing sequences feature DeMatteis’ most pretentious writing (and there’s a decent amount sprinkled into the rest of the comic, too) and once the King was out of the picture I lost interest completely. Even with the King, it’s never as interesting as what Blood is up to, nor is it thematically connected, so I’m not sure what the deal is. None of the framing stuff is bad, but it never proves itself necessary, either, and superfluous material is always a bummer.
I wouldn’t describe Blood: A Tale as an amazing or even particularly impressive comicbook. It certainly has its moments, and tries some brave things, and admirably never shies away from its own insanity. The writing can be a bit full of itself and the art isn’t always easily digestible, but even during its low points, this book has a very specific appeal. If you’re looking for something hard to hold onto, impossible to predict, and less-than-easy to understand, I’d recommend this in a heartbeat. The same goes if you’re interested in stories that serve to remind us how elusive a strong sense of self can be, even for the most confident people. Blood seems to know himself fully at times, but the bottom always drop out before long and he’s forced to question everything all over again. In the end, he reaches some finality in his search for identity when he becomes the Old Man and gets to name himself, but this immediately precedes his death, or at least a death, and the message there is pretty clear. Trying to figure out who we are is a endless endeavor, one that only resolves when we no longer have a self to explore. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort, because everything we learn about ourselves is another episode in our own tale. Childhood, school, rebellion, romance, family, aging, death…ultimately, Blood’s is a simple, practically traditional life story, but one that unfolds in a complicated and unfamiliar setting.