In recent years, vampires have been “prettied up” by Hollywood and young-adult novels, and while that may be all well and good, vampires are traditionally something much darker, and much weirder. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) and Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves) understand this. Their novel The Strain, the first of a trilogy, brings vampirism to New York City and sees a group of people struggling to keep the contagion from spreading. Del Toro and Hogan have teamed with Dark Horse to bring their work to the comic-book format with The Strain, written by David Lapham and drawn by Mike Huddleston.
In 1920s Romania an elderly man tells his grandson, Abraham, an old legend from his youth when he grew up in the shadow of a large, ominous castle. There once was a son of a nobleman named Jusef Sardu who had been born with a condition that made him excessively tall, and his body was excessively weak. Jusef was as kind as could be, and was beloved by the children of the village near his castle home. All things must end, so one day his father took Jusef and some of his men to hunt wolves in Romania, hoping to make his weak son strong, and preserve the family bloodline. Their group encounters something in the wilderness, something that kills for sport rather than for food. Jusef returned to his home alone, and different. That’s when the children started to disappear.
In the present day, Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather is enjoying a night at home with his son. He is currently in the process of being divorced by his wife, so he only gets to see his son sporadically. Eph ignores several messages asking for him to come into work, he heads an in-the-field team for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), but after a frantic call from a colleague he decides to bite the bullet and go in. The reason: an airplane has just landed at JFK, and every passenger is dead. Meanwhile, an aged Abraham sees the news and stirs himself, because something wicked this way comes.
This title, at least at this point in the story, reads like a combination of the films Contagion and I Am Legend. Considering I like both of those (though the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend is based on is superior), I have high hopes for The Strain. The story doesn’t take any unpredictable turns during the issue, but it does set the stage well for future issues, with the antagonists still mysterious and shadowy, but definitely ominous and menacing, and a protagonist who is quite easy to get behind, despite his obvious flaws.
Lapham has successfully built a world that is apparently teeming with complex machinations beneath the surface in only one issue, so I am curious to see what he can do with a few more. The story in The Strain is very cinematic; I would not be shocked to learn that Del Toro had eventually intended to adapt his novel for the screen. This series is structurally reminiscent of a horror film: a man with an interesting day-job is pulled away from moments with the family in order to figure out why something went horribly wrong, and whether or not what happened is even natural. I like horror films, so the somewhat formulaic setup doesn’t bother me that much, but it is definitely noticeable.
The artwork by Mike Huddleston is well done, but his pencils seem like they may not be dark enough for the subject matter. I must note, however, that he draws a very good grizzled-old-man, and there are quite a few panels where those appear in this issue. The colors by Dan Jackson are fitting for the first part of the issue that documents the horror story from an elderly man’s childhood. When the story in this issue shifts to the present day, however, the same even coloring that made the earlier portions more ethereal and fairytale-esque make the comic seem to be more rushed and less substantial. Many of the backgrounds in this comic are not particularly detailed, in fact, more than a few are totally empty aside from being filled with a color, and this becomes somewhat distracting in parts, though not in a very significant manner.
The protagonist of this tale, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, is developed rather well in the inaugural issue. We learn that Eph is going through a divorce, and that there is another man in his wife’s life. His relationship with his son seems to be strong, but clearly affected by the infrequency of their time together. He seems to have a romantic, or at least emotionally charged, relationship with one of his colleagues. And he appears to be damn good at his job. It is also refreshing to see a protagonist whose flaws are on full display immediately, in subtle and natural ways: his wife casually mentions his drinking (how much he drank is left vague), and he shows a general ambivalence towards his profession.
The other characters present take a back seat to Ephraim and the setup, but there seems to be a good ensemble cast present already, one that only promises to grow in the issues to come. I would, for example, be shocked if Ephraim’s CDC colleagues that we see only glimpses of don’t play a major role in the story. Abraham, the child in the beginning and the old man at the end, is also poised to be a major player, and quite possibly the main driver of the plot, because he seems to be the only one that actually has an idea of what went on inside of that plane. The vampires do not make an appearance just yet but, if the cover is anything to go by, we are in for something more along the lines of Let the Right One In than Twilight.
The first issue of The Strain is solid and entertaining, but hardly spectacular. David Lapham’s writing is strong, and he does a good job of developing both the world and the protagonist, but the art by Mike Huddleston is middling overall. It must be said that Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain seems like it may end up being a must read for people who miss their vampires having some teeth, and not some sparkle.