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"Carmilla: The First Vampire" Comic Review

Written by Ricardo Serrano Denis

Published by Dark Horse Comics


Written by Amy Chu
Illustrated by Soo Lee
Lettered by Sal Cipriano
2023, 112 pages
Graphic novel released on 11th January 2023


Bringing old stories into modern times can incur a large debt to the source, but it doesn’t necessarily need to become a slave to it. Certain expectations accompany the update, especially as it pertains to the identity of the original story. Creators that bring Dracula to the present, for instance, expect a vampire with a singular type of presence that carries over his Transylvanian identity and his bloodsucking proclivities. You keep enough to make sure the character doesn’t become something else entirely.

Amy Chu and Soo Lee have something else in mind for their Dark Horse Comic Carmilla: The First Vampire, a modern interpretation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 story of the same name (minus the subtitle), in which the titular vampire befriends a woman that later finds out she’s responsible for the deaths of attractive young women. The original Carmilla predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 26 years, initially serialized in the London-based literary magazine The Dark Blue. It has been the subject of academic discussion for years given its blend of queer themes and gothic horror stylings, especially in its decision to make the monster female while not passing judgment on her sexual identity.

Chu and Lee’s Carmilla takes place in 1990s New York, in a time when AIDS was still being debated as a gay disease and the queer community was ostracized for the fears and stereotypes the pandemic magnified to fit certain discourses. A social worker called Athena, who is Chinese-American, pays special attention to homeless people from the LGBTQ community in Chinatown knowing the challenges they face. When young homeless women start showing up dead, Athena starts digging into the killings and finds a connection to a nightclub run by a mysterious figure whose presence is not physically seen but always felt.

Click images to enlarge.

Chu’s script pulls off the rare feat of rewarding fans of the source material while being easily accessible for those who don’t know much about the character or her place in gothic horror. The change in time periods helps in this, but it’s the decision to explore Chinatown’s culture and Athena’s own identity and place within it that helps create an experience that is self-sufficient.

Athena’s heritage informs her drive, her mission to find out what’s killing these women and why the police don’t seem to care (which is also a comment on how the queer community has been overlooked by law enforcement due to prejudices of their own).

I don’t want to spoil how far Chu and Lee go with their cultural interpretation of Carmilla but suffice it to say that it leads to reveals and horror sequences that transform the female vampire into something completely different. What’s interesting is that the vampire’s thirst for women doesn’t automatically turn the monster into an intolerant being that’s out to purge queerness. The victims themselves speak more to society’s negligence of that community than the vampire’s personal politics. In any case, Carmilla is opportunistic, not a force of anti-LGBTQ sentiments.

Those familiar with the Chinese jiāngshī (or hopping vampire) movies of the 1980s and 90s, most notably the Mr. Vampire films, will be happy to know they get a mention that hints at what awaits Athena and her inevitable confrontation with Carmilla. Even then, the vampire takes on a different form altogether, but it’s a mention that will hopefully get new eyes on these incredibly unique horror/comedy films.

Click images to enlarge.

Lee’s art captures 1990’s New York with a sense of dark memory, as a place that we have to remember so as not to provoke a return to it. There’s an elegance in it that ultimately paints a troubled city that could’ve done more to take care of its people. Sadness and worry hang over it, but also a sense that people held close to their culture as a means of survival. Chinatown is not as colorful as it’s usually presented. Instead, it comes across as gothic, with dark greys and flat tones creating a dangerous and unwelcoming atmosphere that ramps up the horror appropriately with hints of noir throughout.

Characters get the same layered treatment as the environments. Lee imbues each one with a weight that helps readers better understand the emotional complexities of dealing with deaths that can’t be explained away as merely the result of anti-LGBTQ violence. They’re grounded in reality and they move through the story like people with real concerns and believable personalities. This is owed to Lee’s facial expressions and body language work. Not one character feels like filler. They all inhabit a living, breathing world shaken by the existence of something that’s not fully human.

Carmilla: The First Vampire is an important piece horror fiction that brings some much-needed eyes on the original story while also providing a good alternative to adaptations. It modernizes an important (but still undervalued at a popular level) gothic vampire story without sacrificing its original identity while also making sure it’s also capable of claiming a level of originality that helps it exist on its own merit. Amy Chu and Soo Lee have created a brave new vampire book that I hope leads to future collaborations.


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About The Author
Ricardo Serrano Denis
Staff Writer
Ricardo believes that everything can be explained with horror. It’s why he uses it in his History classes and why he writes about horror comics. He holds a Master’s degree in Comics from the University of Dundee in Scotland in which he studied the relationship between Frankenstein and Marvel’s Ultron. He was born and raised in Puerto Rico and is now based in Brooklyn.
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