Carmilla: The First Vampire – Graphic Novel Review

If you’re a fan of vampire stories there’s probably a good chance that you’ve heard of Carmilla. A lesbian vampire seductress that pre-dated Dracula, she’s one of the oldest vampires in fiction, although she doesn’t get nearly the same kind of attention as the previously mentioned Count. Perhaps it’s due in part to the fact that whilst Dracula and other vampire stories are rooted in sexual imagery and can sometimes border on being queer, Carmilla is unabashedly a queer story, one where if you try to remove that from the text it ceases to be Carmilla at all. Luckily, this new story about Carmilla from Dark Horse and creators Amy Chu and Soo Lee, not only fully embraces the LGBTQ+ aspects of the character, but also brings in a lot of Chinese culture and history to expand it in new and exciting ways.

Carmilla: The First Vampire is set almost thirty years ago, in 1996 (writing that sentence just gave me physical pain), and takes readers to the cold of winter in New York City. Here, we meet Athena, a young lesbian social worker who’s doing her best to help young people living on the streets. She works at a shelter that takes in vulnerable kids and gives them a place to stay, as well as help with their addictions, mental health, and general life issues. She’s passionate about her work, and making the world better for these people, so is hurt when she learns that another of her clients has fallen victim to a killer that’s stalking the streets, targeting young women.

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Unable to just let it go, she ends up looking into the killings, and soon finds herself at a nightclub called Carmilla’s, built in an old converted Chinese Church. It’s here that she first meets Violet, a young woman who Athena finds herself instantly attracted to, despite having a girlfriend already. Initially wanting to help Violet, Athena soon finds her carefully balanced life unravelling as Violet becomes a bigger part of it, and she digs deeper into the killings.

Those coming to this graphic novel expecting a retelling of the original book, even an updated one, will not find that here. This isn’t the original story transplanted to a new time and setting. Instead, the creators tell their own story, one inspired by the original. Though there are some parallels. Violet takes on a role similar to Carmilla in the original book, slowly ingraining herself into the life of our protagonist. There is a vampire hunter present in the book, just like the Baron Vordenburg character, and Carmilla likes to play word games with her name. But that’s about it, and these things are minor parts of the narrative.

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Instead, we get a brand new story, one that has its own themes and goals. This book is created by a team of Chinese American women, and that becomes a big part of the book’s identity. Athena is Chinese American, and that informs her life in a number of ways. The first time we meet her she’s getting yelled at by someone who assumes she can’t speak English. Later in the book we get to see her bonding with her grandfather, and how he’s trying to get her to embrace parts of her heritage that she’s less enthusiastic about. It’s wonderful to see the story written this way, where Athena’s heritage isn’t just a piece of token representation but a part of who she is, and this is the kind of story that you only really get when people who understand that get to play a key creative role.

The book also deals with queer themes, and Athena’s sexuality is another key part of the book. With the story being set in 1996, attitudes towards queer people were different, and the book does reflect this. Whilst there are some characters who know about Athena’s relationship with her girlfriend and fully accept it, there are times where she’s forced to explain that they’re not just roommates. Queer identities are an afterthought for some people in this book, a thing that wouldn’t even enter their mind as a possibility, and when it does get brought up their attitudes shift towards becoming hostile.

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The book’s artwork reflects the often dark themes of the book, and has a very gloomy, moody feel to it a lot of the time. The book uses colour carefully throughout to help to shape the tone and to lean into certain emotions. A lot of the book is presented in shades of blue to begin with, to represent both the coldness of the city, and the coldness that surrounds Athena. The first time we get warm colours is when she first enters Carmilla’s, a queer club where people don’t have to hide who they are. The second time we get warmer tones is when she’s with her grandfather, a man who loves and accepts her, and around whom she can feel relaxed. Colour plays a huge part in the presentation of this story, and is worth keeping an eye on whilst reading.

Carmilla: The First Vampire is an interesting adaptation of the original story, taking the themes and the ideas presented there, but transforming it into something new and unique. The queer themes inherent to Carmilla are joined by those that cover experiences for other groups of marginalised people, and helps to expand it in new and interesting directions. This isn’t your typical vampire story, and often feels more like a story about identity and discovering your place in the world, and for that it stands out amongst other vampire tales.

Carmilla: The First Vampire is out in comics shops on 11th January from Dark Horse.


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