“Twilight.” “The Vampire Diaries.” “Vampire Academy.” Even if you’re not a fan of horror and macabre, it’s hard not to notice the slew of vampire-themed young-adult novels that have been steadily stocked on bookstore shelves. Filled with brooding vamps and love-struck teens, many of these novels give a healthy dose of supernatural flavor to teen romance. Well, for all those who hate romance but love bloodsuckers and action, Jason Henderson has just the book for you. When he’s not writing comics like “Shadowland: Daughters of the Shadow” or hosting the “Castle Dracula” podcast with “Halloween Man” creator Drew Edwards and “Psy-Comm” co-creator Tony Salvaggio, Henderson is introducing the world to a new kind of vampire — and a new kind of slayer.
Meet Van Helsing descendant Alex Van Helsing, a young, modern-day vampire hunter with a super-spy streak and the last line of defense against undead terrorist bloodsuckers hell-bent on bringing chaos and organized destruction to the world. Alex doesn’t really have time for romance — he’s too busy staking vamps and avoiding getting blown up along with his school. Based in the universe of Henderson’s comic series “Sword of Dracula,” which has been published by Image, IDW and Digital Webbing, the young-adult series expands the world that Henderson created, allowing readers to fully explore another pocket of that story. Henderson’s first book, “Vampire Rising,” was the first to feature Alex Van Helsing, and now Henderson’s bringing the hero back for another action-packed ride in the recently released “Voice of the Dead.”
Henderson took some time out to speak with Comic Book Resources about what makes his young-adult series stand out from the Nosferatu pack, how it all ties back to the roots of “Sword of Dracula” and why readers of all ages should get pumped for the newest vampire slayer on the block.
CBR News: Jason, for readers that might be new to the Alex Van Helsing character and series, where does the book begin, and who’s involved?
Jason Henderson: This is the second book in the Alex Van Helsing series, taking place just a month after “Vampire Rising,” which was named a VOYA [Voice of Youth Advocates] Best of 2010 and was one of only 20 books on the Texas Lone Star List of the best new books for younger readers (the only book on the list by an actual Texan).
First, here’s the trailer. Here’s the way we describe it, and I like it so I’ll just repeat this verbatim: “Now that Alex is in the know about the deadly vampires that live — and hunt — clustered around his boarding school on Lake Geneva, everything is different. Putting his talents to use, Alex is training with the Polidorium to become a vampire hunter, just like his Van Helsing ancestors. Sure, he’s only 14, but c’mon, this runs in his blood. Meanwhile, Alex’s arch-nemesis Elle, a vampire whose youthful appearance and blond hair disguise a vengeful rage, is out to get him before a powerful leader called Ultravox arrives on the scene. Ultravox specializes in assassinations, but who is he targeting? Dodging Elle’s attacks, Alex is on a mission to uncover Ultravox’s deadly plan before his friends and his school become collateral damage. There’s no time to report back; innocent lives hang in the balance, and it’s up to Alex to act now — or else.”
At the beginning of “Voice of the Undead,” Alex’s school burns down. What’s the deal with his new boarding school, and how will Alex adapt to continue his training?
Well, luckily, it’s right across the lake! Through all of Book 1, Alex and his friends had to bike to meet up with Minhi, their friend from the all-girls school called LaLaurie across Lake Geneva. But in Book 2, thanks to an attempt on Alex’s life that goes wrong, Alex’s school burns down and all the boys have to go bunk at the girls school, a predicament that no one looks forward to. That whole deal was a lot of fun, the details of the boys having to stay on cots in the gym until they could get a dorm up and running. Training is not a problem, though, because Alex is still on Lake Geneva, where the Polidorium HQ he trains at is located.
I loved moving the two schools together, and it also allowed Alex to meet his new love interest, the vivacious and mysterious Vienna Cazorla, who of course has the effect of finally making Minhi jealous.
Let’s focus on the main character, Alex Van Helsing. Who is he, and what drives him to carry on the Van Helsing family tradition of hunting vampires?
Alex is a 14-year-old who has been raised to be a survival and problem-solving expert. His father, a retired anti-vampire spy, gave Alex all of these skills — how to find his way out of a forest, how to live on twigs and roots, how to get by on no sleep — but always hid the reality of the vampire world from Alex. In this series, Alex has finally become aware he is a part of a long tradition of vampire hunters, and more, that he might be the most inherently gifted Van Helsing since his great-great-great grandfather, who faced Dracula.
I like Alex. He comes from a big family — a twin sister plus three little sisters, plus Mom and Dad, who we meet in this book, as well. Everyone has secrets, including his mom. What I love is that Alex is intent on keeping everyone around him safe and taken care of. There’s this sense that new friends are just more family members.
What about Alex’s arch-nemesis, Elle? What’s her agenda, and how does her character grow in “Voice of the Undead”?
Originally Elle was going to die in Book 1. She was a vampire girl working for the Scholomance, the vampire organization below Lake Geneva, and she was — if I recall — starring in an all-vampire version of “Godspell” when she was tasked with killing Alex. She was just too much fun to write, so she survived. I can tell you I’ve now turned in Book 3, and she only gets more important.
Elle is Alex’s opposite number, truly the player on the other side –wisecracking, fast, clever and merciless. She is absolutely dedicated to furthering the cause of the Scholomance, which is to take over the earth in service of vampire kind. She has personal reasons for a lot of what she does, but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say Elle is awesome — if you read the first chapters on the HarperCollins page you’ll see; she’s a motorcycle-riding hellion who gives Alex a run for his money.
This isn’t your first time bringing vampires to the printed page, as you’ve had experience with “Sword of Dracula,” the universe where Alex’s adventures are set, and “Vampire: The Masquerade.” How did your experience help inform your work on “Alex Van Helsing”?
It helped me a lot. Having written “Sword of Dracula” meant I could come to this series with a universe already intact. Even if no one else cared, I knew the answers about the universe — that there is a Polidorium founded by John Polidori to fight Lord Byron, that Stoker’s Dracula is a report of true events, that Polidori and the real Van Helsing knew one another. It also gave me a ready feel for what these books would be like: fast, full of action, with lots of espionage and intrigue.
As we’ve mentioned, “Alex Van Helsing” has a few elements of “Sword of Dracula,” including the Polidorium, where Alex is training to become a vampire hunter. How else are the two books linked?
Lots of big and small ways that don’t matter if you’ve never read “Sword of Dracula,” starring Polidorium commando Veronica (Ronnie) Van Helsing, but that pay off a lot if you have.
First off, most importantly, Alex is Ronnie Van Helsing’s older brother. We actually see Alex briefly in “Sword of Dracula,” when he gives Ronnie some crucial advice, and both of them are in their late 20s/ early 30s. Which means that “Alex Van Helsing” takes place about 15 to 20 years earlier. Ronnie exists, but she’s 12. We hear her on the phone in “Voice of the Undead,” and she plays an even bigger role in Book 3, “The Triumph of Death.”
The Polidorium itself is more or less the same, just a few years earlier — they use big weapons, big vehicles, lots of gadgets; this is really SHIELD but for fighting vampires. Certain characters turn up in both series, too. The two agents Alex works with most, Armstrong and Sangster, are both in “Sword of Dracula” as older versions of themselves.
This is an ongoing young adult series, so is “Voice of the Undead” a good place for new readers to jump in?
Absolutely. This is supposed to be a series like James Bond, where there’s some payoff if you read them in order, but they are definitely standalone adventures. Now, “Vampire Rising” is out in paperback just as “Voice of the Undead” comes out, but you absolutely don’t need to read the first to read the second. The difference between them is that “Vampire Rising” sets up a lot of the characters, and in Book 2, they’re all there. In Book 1, Alex had to learn that there even were vampires. In Book 2, we open with a pair of vampire Mercedes trying to squish his motorcycle.
If these books are listed as YA, what does that mean regarding the writing?
It means the target is basically middle grade and high school, but honestly I don’t write them that way. I write them exactly as I would a book for adults, except that there’s no really strong language and we keep “onscreen” gore to a minimum. But that makes it essentially like a classic thriller. Also, Alex is 14. So, really: It’s marketing.
Thanks to the popularity of “Twilight,” vampire-related books are all over the YA shelves these days. What do you think sets “Alex Van Helsing” apart from the pack?
I’m glad those books are there because they’ve brought in all these new readers, but think of it this way: “Twilight” is a romance with vampires: “Love Story” with a vampire in the Ryan O’Neal part. Alex Van Helsing is a spy series with vampires: James Bond with a vampire supervillain in the Blofeld part.
My vampires are terrorists. They’re plum evil, or mostly. When you become a vampire in this universe you get de-empathized; those parts of your brain burn out. It’s possible to have a “Twilight”-style vampire, but they would be endangered anomalies. Plus my vampires are much more interested in doing something like blowing up the Olympics or poisoning a water supply than dating a teenager.
Having said that, there’s a lot of crossover. I hear from a lot of readers who like paranormal romance who enjoy reading about this confident hero who isn’t caught up in that kind of drama. There’s no time!
“Alex Van Helsing: Voice of the Dead” is available now from HarperCollins. For more information on “Alex Van Helsing,” you can visit Jason Henderson’s website.