Vampires are everywhere in film, television, novels, comics and beyond and there’s no end in sight. But when did they shift from malevolent predators to conflicted antiheroes? Those are the questions asked by Christopher Farnsworth, a writer living in Los Angeles whose latest novel, “The President’s Vampire,” is on sale now.
It used to be you’d never see a vampire as the good guy. After all, a vampire, by its nature, hunts and kills human beings. There are centuries of folklore detailing how mankind has been forced to defend itself against these lethal parasites. That’s not a reputation you lose overnight.
But today, vampires have moved into the light – metaphorically speaking, anyway. Edward Cullen and his family of vampire vegetarians – who only drink animal blood – are only the most famous examples. The ranks of on-screen vampire good guys includes Bill Compton from “True Blood,” Angel and Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Nick Knight from “Forever Knight,” the title hero from the “Blade” films and comics, Mick Angel from the “Moonlight” series, Selene from “Underworld” and maybe a dozen more that even I’ve never heard of.
Like everything else, however, comics got there first. Comic books have been turning vampires into superheroes since at least 1966, when Dell Comics tried to turn three of the iconic Universal horror monsters into heroes. A direct descendant of Dracula put on a purple bodysuit and a bat-shaped belt-buckle and swore an oath to fight injustice. Was it a concept ahead of its time — or just a concept with bad timing? Either way, the series lasted all of three issues.
But the idea endured and evolved. The Marvel character Blade crossed from comics to film and back again. The Japanese anime “Hellsing“ and “Vampire Hunter D“ both feature bloodsuckers who’ve turned against their own kind. And the Confessor from Kurt Busiek’s “Astro City“ is basically Batman with fangs.
Then there’s the bookshelf and all the novels about vampiric heroes: Fred Saberhagen’s Thorn series, Anne Rice’s Lestat, P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files, Jon F. Merz’s Lawson Vampire books, and (ahem) my own creation, Nathaniel Cade, a vampire who works as a secret agent for the president of the United States.
Vampire heroes are so common now that I felt it necessary to reestablish Cade’s credentials as a killer. He might drink cow’s blood by choice but he’s a predator by nature.
For me, that goes back to a single page from Marvel’s classic ’70s horror comic, “The Tomb of Dracula.” The series was about a team of vampire hunters tracking the Lord of the Undead. But when we passed around the issues in grade school, my friends and I often found ourselves rooting for the bad guy.
Part of this was because the creators put Dracula up against even worse villains, like, say, Satan. And Dracula had his own code of honor. Which led him to pick up a cross against a horde of zombie-like undead who threatened the children who’d given him shelter for a night. That scene is burned into my memory just like the cross burned his hands. I’m not the only one. Blogger Final Girl (a.k.a. Stacie Ponder) has a great piece on the issue. The final line of the book: “The dark ones attacked us … but there was a good man here. He told us to believe in the power of God … and that he was going to chase the dark ones … all the way to Hell itself!”
As much as I disliked vampires – I read the comics and watched the movies for survival tips rather than entertainment – I was impressed. For a moment, the face of ultimate evil finds redemption defending the innocents.
But that’s the dichotomy that drives all these stories in one way or another: the gulf between killer and hero. In my first book, Cade puts it like this: “Someone has to protect the meek until they can inherit the earth.”
Of course, Dracula went back to eating people soon enough. It’s possible too many sparkly vampires have inspired a similar backlash. Colin Farrell seems more like a serial killer in this summer’s remake of “Fright Night.” Vampires are ugly, big and scary in”Priest” and Justin Cronin’s “The Passage.” And no less than Abe Lincoln will be chopping off vamp heads soon in a theater near you.
Then again, Edward and the “Twilight” film franchise will be back in “Breaking Dawn,” and Johnny Depp will play Barnabas Collins in “Dark Shadows,” and the BBC’s “Being Human” is a U.S. spinoff now. And, well, I’m going to write about Cade for as long as people will read about him. I’m not ready to seal the coffin on vampire heroes just yet. Vampires have haunted us in every culture because they’re so perfectly adaptable as metaphors. There are still plenty of scary things out there in the dark. Maybe it’s comforting to think one or two might be on our side for a change.
– Christopher Farnsworth
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