Vampirella: Character or Commodity?

(This is a cross post with the AMAZING STORIES MAGAZINE website where I blog as MD Jackson)

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gonzalez6ftposterPoor Vampirella.

You look at her and you think that she’s free to do what she wants, that she is in charge of her own destiny. The truth is, she is merely a commodity, bought and sold like so much chattel. She is a slave dancing to the whims of her cruel master, who, at this time, is Dynamite Entertainment.

Like a slave from bygone times she has had several owners throughout her miserable life. She has been bought, used up and then sold off to the next buyer.

But it’s not just her alone. All fictional characters are owned by somebody and most of the ones that everyone knows about have likely been bought and sold at least once. They are properties of their creators or their publishing or other entertainment companies and will be until they get so old that they get to enjoy a kind of retirement when they finally slip into the green pasture known as Public Domain.

It was September of 1969, just after the “Summer of Love”. Flower children everywhere were basking in the warm glow of the apex of the hippie era, blissfully unaware of the harsh cold winter that was about to come upon them. It was a time of great upheaval and social change and Forrest J. Ackerman thought: “Hey! We need a sexy vampire woman!”

vampi_trina_robbinsInspired by Jean-Claude Forest’s science fiction heroine Barbarella, who had been made into a film the year before by Roger Vadim, starring his then wife Jane Fonda, Forrest J. Ackerman and James Warren of Warren Publishing came up with the idea of a “vampire-ella” as a counterpoint to the ghoulish male presenters of Warren’s comic magazines Eerie and Creepy.

Ackerman and Warren took the idea to artist Trina Robbins who came up with the general look and a costume which would suggest a vampire’s usual attire but be kind of bathing suit-like to show off Vampirella’s physical attributes.

They took this idea to a rising star in the art world, a powerhouse of an artist named Frank Frazetta. Robbins described the outfit and Frazetta provided the first illustration of the character. Frazetta’s interpretation of Vampirella from Trina Robbin’s description gave her more of some things and less of others… like clothing.

frazetta_vampirella69sep“His original cover art of Vampirella looked a lot like my idea,” Trina Robbins said. “but her costume shrunk.”

With each issue the men drawing the sexy heroine seemed to find ways to make the costume smaller to show off more of Vampirella’s other assets. “By now it doesn’t bear any resemblance to what I designed.” Robbins says.

Vampirella began life as a slightly tacky bit of titillation used to introduce the real horror stories in the early issues of the magazine that bore her name. Eventually, though she grew into a strong character in her own right with her own entourage of supporting cast – both heroes and villains. As time passed the focus was less and less on the traditional horror story and more on the Vampirella story, which quickly established itself as the lead story and the cover page subject.

Jim Warren had the good sense to recognize real artistic talent and many of the top writers and artists in comic book history were published in Vampirella. The one artist who stood out head and shoulders over the rest and who’s art defined Vampirella for decades to come was José “Pepe” Gonzalez, a talented artist originally from Barcelona, Spain.

barbaraleigh-fjaThe magazine was a big success and it ran for 112 issues, finally ending its run in 1983 with the demise of Warren Publishing. After a period in limbo Harris Comics bought the Vampirella title and launched her back into the spotlight.

Their first foray was a “continuation” of the Warren magazine format with issue #113, which had limited success. As such, it is one of the most sought after and rare Vampirella comics. Having tested the water, Harris then produced a range of comics, trade paperbacks, and magazines as well as various peripheral items such as statues and trading cards.

After a steady decline in sales Harris Publishing decided that the Vampirella character was no longer a viable concern. In 2010 Vampirella was sold to Dynamite Entertainment. Dynamite kicked off a new look Vampirella with a monthly series in November 2010.

talisa-soto-2In her time as a comic book icon Vampirella has been drawn by many artists and portrayed by a multitude of models and other pin-up girls. Hammer films tried to turn the property into a movie in 1976. Plans were to have Peter Cushing and John Gielgud in supporting roles to Barbara Legh’s Vampirella. Sadly the project fell through as did Hammer Films shortly afterward.

Vampirella eventually did make it into the movies, albeit not in such a big way. Roger Corman produced a direct-to-video Vampirella in 1996. The film was done on the cheap and it looks it (Vampirella’s outfit looks like an off-the-rack plastic Halloween costume). Former Bond Girl Talisa Soto was cast as Vampirella, despite not having quite the same… assets.

Poor Vampirella. She has been bought and sold, exploited by men, forced to wear a skimpy, barely-there costume, had her origin story changed several times, had her memories stolen, altered and returned to her, and still she goes on working for her cruel masters, providing cheap titillation for the fanboy masses.

When will her suffering end? Will she ever reach the promised land of the Public Domain?

Okay, maybe I’ve pushed the slave metaphor a bit too far. Maybe I’m trying too hard to make some sort of salient and profound point in order to turn this post into something more than just an excuse to show pictures of Vampirella. Then again, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that beauty is it’s own excuse for being. Maybe we can say the same about Vampirella?

Or maybe I’ll just be quiet and you can look at the pictures.

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DEBT’S PLEDGE

ImageMy latest science fiction novel, Debt’s Pledge has been a long time coming.

I started this book many years ago. I wanted to write a military science fiction novel about a soldier who is down and out.

At the time I had been doing research on Ancient Rome and the conditions faced by soldiers in the years before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army. There was opportunity for reward and glory for Roman soldiers, but there was also much deprivation and hardship. I wanted to translate this situation to a traditional military science fiction milieu.

I also wanted to examine the idea of debt. Not just monetary debt, or the debt that a society exacts upon its citizens, I wanted to try to separate what individuals owe to society separate from what is mandated by taxation.

What I discovered, as I wrote, is that we, as individuals owed the existence we have in the present to those who came before us. This seems obvious, though sometimes we forget how much of what we have today we owe to those who came before us. Not just fathers and mothers, but “founding” fathers are owed a debt by all of us in the present. A simple experience like going out for a meal represents an immense societal effort over many years to create the situations where today restaurants and fast food outlets are commonplace and affordable.

Even the simple act of flushing a toilet is the result of decades, even centuries of hard work and building of complicated infrastructure. For that hard work and ingenuity, we owe a debt.

What I also discovered was that the debt goes both ways.

It’s fashionable now to talk about leaving a better world for our children (as if our ancestors didn’t want the same things for us) but do we really appreciate what that means. Parents will sacrifice and work hard for their own children and I am no exception, but what about the many children who are unborn today and who may never be born. What debt do we owe to them?

The concept of debt becomes more nebulous and contention at this point but while I was writing I wanted to explore a situation where that concept suddenly became clear. I think that I was successful in doing that in Debt’s Pledge.

I wrote the first draft of this novel and most of the second well before the global economic crisis happened. World events have borne out much of what I had been thinking at the time and, I hope, have made this story even more relevant and timely now than when I started.

Certainly you can read the book and enjoy it as an exciting, military, space opera adventure. The book contains spaceships, space travellers, future soldiers, aliens (and some really badass aliens) enough to content the lovers of science fiction, military SF and Space Opera.

But there is also a human story mixed into all that, and some thoughts on the relationship between individuals and society and what each owes the other. That is what Harlan Ellison refers to as the “fibre” hidden within the story. I’m quite pleased at the way it made it into the narrative.

I am also happy with the characters that developed and grew along the way. Some were created consciously and others just kind of showed up during the writing. This is their story and I am pleased with the way that it has been told. I believe I was able to stay out of their way sufficiently to allow them to tell the tale as it needed to be. That, for a writer, is the best feeling. It’s like some sort of magic has been invoked and it has infused itself into the text.

Debt’s Pledge is available now at Amazon.com for the kindle. It will soon be available in other e-formats as well as a print edition soon afterwards. Personally I think you owe it to yourself to check it out, maybe even buy a copy. If you have already purchased a copy, then sincerely, thank you.

I am in your debt.