"Who is the fly in your champagne? / Who's got the body and who's got the brain? / Let me taste your blood 'cause I'm in pain / You are the one that I desire"
I'm slowly catching up with my reviews of original graphic novels and those sorts of things, so I'm only 4 months behind, as this came out at the beginning of April! Yay, me! This is, of course, written and drawn by Arnold and Jacob Pander, who haven't done comics in a decade or so. I'm glad they've been off doing their own thing, but I'm also glad they're doing comics again, because let's be honest - they were born to make comics!
This comes to us from the fine folk at Dark Horse, and it costs 20 dollars It's a nice, hefty 282 pages, though, so that's a pretty good value!
The big "twist" in Girlfiend (it's not much of one, as the title of the book kind of gives it away, as does the blurb on the back) is that Karina, the female lead, is a vampire. She arrives in Seattle and almost immediately gets impaled, and when she ends up in the morgue, the technician, Nick (I don't think he's the actual ME), pulls the big wooden stake out of her and she comes back to life. Nick seems terrifically blasé about the fact that Karina isn't dead, and he takes the news that she's a vampire in stride, as well, but that's actually somewhat keen, as it seems to indicate that the people in this comic are well versed in popular culture, so the existence of vampires doesn't ruffle their feathers too much. The Panders don't actually want to just write a vampire story, though, so this is kind of like True Romance with vampires - it's a love story, sure, but it's also a crime thriller, with several different plots intersecting in major violence. Karina wants to be "free," but members of her clan are tracking her to Seattle to take her back to wherever she came from. A gang robs a convenience store of its safe and kills some witnesses, making it an even more major crime. The gang is working for a mysterious person who wants to open the safe himself, and no one knows exactly what's inside it.
Meanwhile, one of the cops investigating the murders is a bit strange, and his partner isn't quite sure what's going on with him. So there's a lot going on, but there are a lot of pages in the book, so the Panders keep it together quite well.
The construction of the story is quite nice - we get a lot of different characters, and they're all interesting, even the punks who rob the store and are, by all accounts, despicable human beings. When Karina (or other vampires) bite a person, they "read" that person's memories, and the Panders use this to show how the punks got to where they are in life - it doesn't redeem them, but it does show that they might have been doomed from the start. Nick comes up with the idea of feeding on the scum of society, because Karina is so hungry and bloodbank blood just isn't doing it for her. One of the gang ends up on his table, and he realizes that she can attack scumbags and nobody will care. When they intersect with the other gang members, they find out about the safe, and they realize that could be their ticket out of town and even out of the country. So they have a mission. Meanwhile, the strange cop - Drake - slowly reveals to his partner - Russo - why the other cops think he's crazy, and Russo gets caught up in that world so that the existence of vampires doesn't faze him as much as it might. The only part of the book that doesn't make any sense is early on, Karina is about to feed on Nick (before he knows she's a vampire), but she resists and runs away from him into the night (leaping off a high balcony to do so, which probably clues him in that something is unusual about her).
The very next time we see them, she's in his shower, as if she never left, and they talk calmly about her being a vampire. It's kind of weird. When did she come back?
In any vampire story, there's going to be a subtext of immortality not being all it's cracked up to be, a sexual element, and a sense of loss because vampires, for all their power, can't lead "normal" lives. The Panders do a nice job with these elements, as Karina wants to be free of her clan and leave her lifestyle behind, but she can't because killing people is the only way she herself can stay alive. She's lonely, as we see in the beginning of the book, and the idea of her wanting to make an emotional connection with someone is an overriding factor in the book. Meanwhile, the "misunderstood" vampire trope, which has become very common these days, is present too, as Russo and Drake think that she's the vampire who's been killing more than just gang members, so they want to kill her even though she's trying to be "good." The MacGuffin in the safe is even part of this, as it ties into Karina's desire - or need - for someone to hold onto.
Even the gang members are clinging together because they're marginalized from society, either because of actions their parents took or actions they themselves took, and the Panders do a pretty decent job showing that even they care about each other, despite being, you know, murdering scumbags.
The least successful part of the book, unfortunately, is the central romance. True love in fiction is hard to express, and the Panders don't quite achieve it. Like many, many other creators, they use "great sex" as a shorthand for true love, and so we get two really attractive people who are attracted to each other, have great sex, and then decide that they love each other. They have petty arguments that everyone says is just par for the course for "true love" but is really what happens when two people who have had great sex don't actually have that much in common, so of course they argue. Karina is a rebound girl for Nick, who, mere pages before meeting her, discovers that his girlfriend is cheating on him, and rebound girls might turn into something else, but it's clear that in the beginning, he's just kind of desperate and sad, so Karina simply fills a need. Meanwhile, Karina is so lonely that Nick could be anyone, and while it helps that he's foxy, the fact that he's simply nice to her makes her believe that she loves him when she has barely spoken to him. I don't want to hold it against the Panders too much, because this is a very common occurrence in popular culture even though I imagine that if you ask most creators, they'll tell you they fell in love the more "traditional" way, but it does weaken the book a bit because of it.
Separately, Karina and Nick are interesting people. I buy that they like to screw, but I just don't buy that they're so in love that they'd go through what they do in this comic.
Of course, one of the reasons you read a Pander Bros. comic is for the distinctive Pander Bros. artwork, and they do not disappoint. Over the years, their work has gotten a bit thicker, so we get beautifully heavy jagged lines all over this comic, creating a harsh, brutal world. Despite the fact that we don't get many views of Seattle, it still feels like a concrete place, as the Panders give us just enough of the misc-en-scene to suffice, while making the interiors - of Nick's apartment, of the morgue, of fleatrap motels, of filthy bathrooms - solid, real places, giving the horror a nice extra jolt. The Panders' style is most evident in their people, who are mostly devastatingly handsome or beautiful (they can't even draw truly ugly gang members, it seems), with high, sharp cheekbones, spiky hair, and all-around sexiness. While I don't quite buy that Karina and Nick are in love, I can totally believe that they'd want to shag like minks, as they're both so very sexy. The Panders use wonderful black swaths to splash blood around and hide Karina in certain instances when she's stalking her prey, and they get particularly dark and thick with the inks when they show the vampires becoming more monstrous.
They use an interesting trick to show fluorescent light, which can hurt the vampires, by drawing diagonal lines across the panels and switching the contrast between the blacks and whites in each strip, which is purposely disorienting to the reader. They do a wonderful job varying their line weight, so that many of the scenes - the ones that aren't filled with horror - simply look lighter not only because they don't use as much black, but because the lines are thinner. It's a clever trick that too many artists forget about. The book is very dense - the Panders are Dutch, and I assume they were influenced by European comics, which tend to be denser than American superhero comics - which makes it a nice, meaty read, and each page is a visual feast.
Despite my tiny reservations about the relationship between Karina and Nick, Girlfiend is a fun, entertaining read, with a good, dense plot and a lot of cool stuff packed into it. Fans of the Pander Brothers should definitely get this, but even if you're not, it's a wild ride that does a good job fitting the vampire mythos into a different kind of story. It's a blast, and I hope that we get more work from Arnold and Jacob in the near future!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆