Writer: Joe Keatinge
Artist: Richard Elson
Vampires are popular. That simplistic sentence does not even begin to tell the tale of just how much green these connoisseurs of the red are raking in for every facet of the entertainment market. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has become the standard to which all modern vampire tales are held to; that thing with Kristen Stewart (Twilight et al.) seems to make a bit of money despite her paralyzed face; True Blood and Vampire Dairies are ratings winners; and I, Vampire from DC made a shockingly huge impact on the bookstore market for a book most pundits were sure wouldn’t last a year. So why wouldn’t Marvel want in on the bloodsucking action, considering that the “v-word” seems to equate to SALES in today’s market?
Chasing the almighty Vampire Dollar Marvel looked towards their resident Living Vampire to make a nice crimson splash. Michael Morbius has always been a problematic character. He works very well as an antagonist for Peter Parker/Spider-Man, but when he is called on to carry a narrative, it is very difficult for a creator to center a story around a character so far removed from humanity. Every generation seems to get their crack at Morbius. From the black-and-white mags of the 70’s,to the metaphysical oddness of Adventures Into Fear, to the Midnight Sons of the ‘90s and a few aborted attempts in between, Morbius seems to be marketable with his awesome visual look and conflict of duality, but each revival of Morbius seems to fall flat. Enter Marvel Now! and Joe Keatinge.
Keatinge’s Glory from Image was the most eminently readable comic of 2012. Keatinge crafted a Campbellian tale of bravery and redemption in the most unlikely of places, the playground of 90s excess. He took a character that was a tabula rasa of cheesecake and turned her into something the market had never quite seen before. Marvel was betting Keatinge could do the same for Morbius. He certainly had the set-up, as recent issues of Amazing Spider-Man focused on Morbius’ escape during a prison rampage by Curt Conners. Morbius had been in the spotlight, vampires are popular and Keatinge had already done a book where he pulled substance seemingly from nowhere. What could go wrong?
A few thing apparently. Morbius, The Living Vampire #1, The Living Son starts off strong with a fevered action sequence in which Morbius takes down a bunch of thugs who seemingly just left a Black Flag concert. This action piece allows the readers to learn which vampiric tropes apply to the Living Vampire and which ones don’t. Seemingly crosses, holy water and garlic have no effect and the sequence and Morbius’ compellingly move the narrative through this tutorial phase. Then things fall apart a bit. Morbius is high concept. He is a science vampire in a world where actual vampires exist. Morbius has an undeniable hunger (see bloodlust), but the will to fight it. Morbius has hubris in that he thinks he is intellectually superior to most. Yet Morbius resists his urges in order to protect those he honestly thinks are beneath him. But these compelling aspects are glossed over in order to establish the setting of Brownsville.
A streetwise associate of Morbius sets him up in Brownsville, a neighborhood somewhere in NYC where no one blinks at a homeless dude in Cradle of Filth makeup warming his hands over a hobo oil drum. Brownsville is an ungentrified place where poor cast off punks rule the streets with an iron hand. The antagonist of the book seems to be a shockingly pierced punk rock pimp who, improbably, is a physical match for a Living Vampire. I’m sure the origin of this physical prowess will be covered, but is this a worthy antagonist for a Living Vampire? It all seems a bit mundane and forced. The major conflict for Morbius is internal; the visuals of him being bullied by the lead singer of Rancid seem out of place and jarring.
Where the antagonist fails, the narrative of Morbius’ past succeeds. The flashbacks utilized by Keatinge give the reader an idea of the contradictions that lie within the title character. The idea that Morbius suffered from a debilitating disease as a child lends the character a vulnerability and nobility. Morbius was once weak and broke at the slightest fall, yet now he is a magnificent being who can fight, crush skulls and glide. Morbius chooses not to use these powers to place himself above humanity, but stands beneath them in Brownsville in order to protect society from himself. The contrast of the visual of Morbius’ broken, youthful body to the powerful being he has become gives the book a potentially powerful emotional core.
The potential is there but the book just seems mopey. Morbius shuffles around Brownsville in a hoodie, being bullied. First issues are always tough nuts to crack, so much has to be established and audiences will only tolerate so much exposition. So sometimes conflict is forced. In a being struggling with his own dual nature, conflict never has to be forced on Morbius, it is an integral part of his character.
Morbius, The Living Vampire has potential, but the same boundaries Keatinge broke in Glory need to be broken here in order to keep this book from falling into naval gazing redundancy. Elson’s art is clean and he deftly handles flashbacks and emotions. Perhaps the style is a little too clean, as everything is a bit ordinary for such a dark world. Morbius’ motivations are spot on, he just needs to be seen doing things other than being booted around. And it doesn’t matter if the Marvel Universe is made up of Negative Zones, Savage Lands and Blue Areas of the Moon, no reader is going to buy that there is a NYC neighborhood without a Starbucks.
If Marvel wants to share in the bloodsucking dollars on offer in today’s market, Morbius, The Living Vampire will need to sharpen its fangs. The very last page of Morbius, The Living Vampire #1, Vol.2 does promise to do just that and provides us with just enough intrigue to be worth a return for the next issue.
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