The best comics! (Last Blood)

I figured I’d do a series of posts highlighting some great (and free) online comics. There are some fantastic artists out there and it seems a shame not to plug their work. While I tend to prefer horror/fantasy comics, the ‘must-recommend’ list is still quite varied.

First out is Last Blood, which is a take on the typical zombie story but with a few clever twists. The art (by Owen Gieni) is beautiful in a rough and gritty sort of way, perfectly complimenting the story (by Bobby Crosby). It starts on familiar ground: the small group of survivors and the zombies closing in – you’ve seen it before. And just when you think you know what you’re in for, you suddenly get… (drum roll) vampires.

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The premise is simple: the zombie apocalypse happened and human blood is in short supply, meaning that any vampire not wanting to starve needs to protect the last human survivors from the undead zombie hordes. As for the humans, the situation is simple: the enemy of my enemy (and the lesser of two evils) is the only option available. The introduction of a human-vampire alliance is only the first twist, and I won’t mention the rest and spoil the surprise. Suffice to say that trust is at an all-time low, there’s plenty of peril to go around and the two types of monster lore fit together surprisingly well. Both vampires and zombies benefit from this fresh interaction, bringing a much needed different dynamic to story structures that do occasionally risk going a bit stale.

Last Blood is high on concept and perhaps less so on characterisation, but I’m willing to forgive that if the underlying idea works. And here it does work very well indeed. Last Blood is clever, it feels new and it makes surprising sense. The latter part is quite a treat, as I’m always happy to suspend my disbelief but very grateful if I don’t have to do it too much. So if you’re after a fresh version of ‘zombies and vampires and apocalypse, oh my’, prefer your plot hole-free, and don’t mind if the premise takes the driver’s seat, Last Blood is almost perfect.

There is one caveat: Last Blood is unfinished and has not been updated since 2011. While I’d very much like to see it continue, or even make it to the big screen, I’m not holding my breath after half a decade. Still, it’s worth a read, even if you have to make up the ending yourself for now.

Link to the online (free) comic: http://lastblood.keenspot.com/
(also available from amazon.com)

Let me know what you think, or if there are other comics/stories you think is worth a mention in the comments below?

Book review: Rabid: a cultural history of the world’s most diabolical virus

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a summary of rabies, its history, cultural significance and the ultimate unraveling of some of its secrets at the hands of science.

As non-fiction books go, it is an easy read. Perhaps a bit too easy in places, leaving out the drier details that might interest anyone wanting a more in-depth analysis. For example, the book provides little to no detail on any mechanisms by which the rabies virus modifies behaviour, be that in animals or humans. It gives a very brief nod to rabies altering communication between brain cells as well as killing neurons, but it doesn’t delve into the specifics. This is a shame, as the mind-altering properties of rabies, its defining characteristic, is perhaps the factor that has embedded it so solidly in history.

This can be forgiven, because there is no firm consensus yet as to how rabies operates in the brain. However, there are plenty of hypotheses that the authors could have explored. For example, it has been suggested that in addition to killing cells, rabies disrupts the release and binding of chemical messengers in the brain 1. This includes serotonin, which, among other things, is negatively associated with aggression. Less serotonin equals (typically) more aggression. There is also some studies that suggest that rabies targets brain structures associated with memory, fear and emotion: the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus 2. I may be biased, but in my opinion, a few paragraphs on the intricacies of the rabid brain would have been the icing on the cake.

587px-rabid_dog_text_and_illustration-_wellcome_l0014575

Apart from this omission, Rabid provides a rather thorough introduction to the history of rabies treatment. It outlines the early misconceptions, the discovery of the virus (a lyssavirus), the numerous host reservoirs (dogs and bats in particular), and attempts at rabies control (culling and vaccines), as well as last-resort treatments (a very good description of the not yet proven Milwaukee protocol). This highlights both the unrelenting force of the disease and the almost paradoxical drive to beat it. With only a handful of people ever surviving, this is the stuff of nightmares and a strong element of the book.

However, it is in describing its impact on society that Rabid truly shines. From the uneasy relationship between humans and dogs (the source of most human cases) highlighting how man’s best friend can turn into man’s greatest horror, to the historical fear of the beast within which has emerged in a number of classic horror novels, this book is nothing but thorough. Rabid makes the case that our fear of rabies has been central to our culture and literature, and after reading the book, I doubt anyone would argue that there isn’t some element of truth to that.

“Stories evolved, too, as they spread, and so we can consider what remained after centuries of such ‘audience testing’ as having a perverse sort of evolutionary fitness. […] The animal infection – the zoonotic idea – is mankind’s original horror, and its etiology traces back inevitably to the rabies virus.”

I have written before about some of the mind-controlling horrors in nature and how they relate to our modern monsters, but rabies is the mother of all such links. Rabid touches briefly upon the most likely modern suspect, the zombie, and goes on to provide a much more substantial discussion on the old classics: vampires and werewolves. It’s not a novel idea by any stretch. For example, a paper in medical science journal Neurology outlined the link between rabies and the vampire legend in 1998 3, and while Neurology is a good source for new developments in neurology, one suspects it may not be the first to report on vampirism. Despite it being an old idea, Rabid does a fine job of describing the numerous links between vampires, werewolves and rabies, spanning the entire range from Byronic ghouls to 28 Days Later.

google_werewolves

In short, Rabid is an accessible, well-written popular science book, which gives a good introduction to rabies-the-disease and an even better one to rabies-the-history. Given the subject matter – one of the most interesting (and feared) diseases in human history – it could hardly be anything but an exciting read. It’s thoroughly recommended for the non-squeamish.

1. http://www.kliinikum.ee/infektsioonikontrolliteenistus/doc/oppematerjalid/Referaadid/Rabies.pdf
2. http://neurowiki2013.wikidot.com/individual:neuroethology-of-parasites-that-alter-host-behavi#toc8
3. http://www.neurology.org/content/51/3/856.short

Book Review (sort of): Dracula

Everybody knows Dracula.

Stoker’s novel of 1897 is a part of the establishment in the modern horror menagerie, and its caped monster nothing short of iconic. After 100+ years and multitudes of adaptations, a synopsis would be pointless. But there are aspects of Dracula which may not be common knowledge. Having re-read and done a bit of research on Dracula not long ago, I decided to briefly summarise my thoughts on Dracula in light of the period in which it was written.

Stoker wrote Dracula around the same time that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and H. G. Wells wrote The Island of Dr Moreau. We’re talking the end of the 19th century, and fantastic adventure stories were immensely popular following the success of authors such as Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne. It’s the age of Edmond Dantès, Phileas Fogg and Rob Roy.

However, unlike some of the other fantastical tales published at the time, Wells, Stevenson and Stoker have a certain theme in common: the notion of something beastly resting in the human lineage and nature. Dr Moreau, for example, plays heavily on the fear of degeneration, of man becoming lesser, and Jekyll/Hyde remains the poster child for man/beast dualism to this day. Dracula is animalistic, able to transform into animals at will. This is contrasted with his cordiality and perceived humanity at the beginning of the story. The horror does not lie in Dracula being a beast, it lies in the dualism: Dracula is a gentleman and a beast. Incidentally, these books emerge not long after the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871), which may to some extent explain the fascination with the beast in the late Victorian era.

No place in the text is this ‘beast beneath’ more apparent than in the description of Lucy, Mina Harker’s friend, turning into a vampire. Her appearance becomes more animalistic as her personality changes.

“…she drew back with an angry snarl, such as a cat gives when taken unawares; then her eyes ranged over us. Lucy’s eyes in form and colour; but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell-fire…”

It is no accident that it is Lucy who is seen turning into this creature. Lucy, who, despite starting as a pure woman on par with Mina, is described in quite sexual terms. This female sexuality, even if not (initially) acted upon, was threatening for Victorian conservatives, particularly in the light of the rising suffragette movement. Lucy is therefore an obvious target for corruption in the book, and her fall could be a comment on the moral failings of the ‘new woman’ of the Victorian age, i.e. women availing themselves of the education and employment that had previously been reserved for men. That said, Mina herself embodies some of the qualities of the ‘new woman’, however she matches these with virtually no sexuality, a “man’s brain” (as stated by Van Helsing) and pronounced maternal behaviour. Mina is thus a more acceptable version of the Victorian ‘modern’ woman – someone who participates almost equally in society but maintains the existing social structures of subservient wife and mother.

And then there’s the madness aspect. Insanity was a fixation of the Victorian society, with the public fearing both the lunatics (the term of the time) and being accused of being a lunatic. The time was rife with stories of wives locked up in asylums by husbands wanting to get rid of them, and there was a growing sense that treatment should be humane and founded in emerging scientific advances (partly established through the Lunacy Act of 1845). The Woman in White (1859) by Wilke Collins is a mystery novel that deals with this particular topic, and the book enjoyed great popularity in its time. In Dracula, there is not only the madness/vampirism of Lucy, but also the asylum-bound Renfield. Again, the focus on insanity highlights the dissonance between the ‘disordered’ individual and the structured society, but in this case it is not limited to one gender. Many writers at the time, including the Brontë sisters and Dickens, used madness in their works, and both men and women were under scrutiny. Renfield and the asylum administrator, Dr Seward, are both given a great deal of attention by Stoker. Through this we get not only an example of the Victorian fascination with lunacy but also of the scientific and medical advances in dealing with it. In Dracula, however, science falls short in the face of the horrors of old, suggesting that these modern inventions also had their limits.

Finally, there is the fear of the other, the foreign, plaguing Victorian society. Dracula certainly encompasses this anxiety of immigration, of danger approaching from abroad. Immigrants from Eastern Europe, which was also Dracula’s origin, were particularly vilified. Incidentally, during the hysteria surrounding Jack the Ripper in 1888, the genteel population readily blamed the barbarous murders in Whitechapel on the growing Jewish community in East London. Published less than 10 years later, Dracula emerges as an echo of the brutal murders, their (presumed) alien origin, and Stoker even establishes a lair for the count near Whitechapel upon his arrival in London.

There are many ways of reading Dracula and certainly more educated interpretations of the text, but I am always a bit sad to see some of these old Victorian anxieties get lost in modern interpretations.

Sources: The British Library: Dracula – the Victorian Vampire (Greg Buzwell) and Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England (Sarah Wise).