What does Christopher Priest see when he looks at Vampirella?
And in his new Vampirella ongoing launching July 17, the veteran writer will give Vampi the human connection she craves... before ripping it all away.
Illustrated by Ergun Gunduz, Dynamite's new Vampirella relaunch begins with the alien vampire as the last survivor of a plane crash which took away any friend or acquaintance she had. Now she's here on Earth and all alone. And this isn't a fictional world known to have vampires, witches, warlocks, or werewolves - this is the real world, and you know how real people would take to someone like Vampirella?
... but do you, really?
As Priest tells Newsarama in an email interview, Vampirella's supernatural abilities are "a metaphor for a univeral human condition, for being either rejected or idealized (or, in the case of our series, both) because you are different. Anyone who’s ever moved to a new town or a new school or taken a new job should be able to identify with Vampi’s challenges."
Priest, an ordained Baptist minister (as a reminder to readers, prefers to be addressed as 'Priest'), shared his thoughts with Newsarama on how the prospect of writing Vampirella was first received by him, how it fits within his religious life, and how he's using it to examine humanity.
Newsarama: Priest, what makes Vampirella interesting to you?
Christopher Priest: The fangs. Definitely the fangs.
When DC Comics approached me about writing Deathstroke, I’d really never thought much about the character. It wasn’t a book I’d normally read because I probably wasn’t the audience the book was targeted toward. But it presented an interesting challenge: what new things could I find to say with this character and what unexplored areas of the character were there to develop?
When Dynamite Publisher Nick Barrucci said “Vampirella,” I had nearly the identical reaction. I was, of course, familiar with the character but wasn’t a Vampirella fan, wasn’t the audience for that book, which made me an odd choice. You’ll have to ask Nick why he made it.
My immediate reaction was exactly the same: what new thing could I bring to this property? Where is the untapped potential? That, for me, is the interesting part; craft a Vampirella narrative that broadens the audience for the property while (hopefully) not putting off the hardcore Vampi fans.
Nrama: So what was the answer to that? What is the story?
Priest: I read this Bruce Springsteen Rolling Stone interview a couple decades back (yah... decades...) around "Born In The USA," where Springsteen said something remarkable that’s stuck with me all this time, about how each of us needs community. He said something like, “Without community (by which I presume he meant human attachment and interaction) we’d likely go crazy and kill ourselves.”
Over many interpretations Vampirella has developed many versions of a supporting cast, but she is fundamentally alone, one of few of her race living on Earth. Considering the Boss’s statement, I wasn’t eager to create yet another supporting cast and then echo adventures she’s had before. For better or worse, I wanted my at-bat with the character to be unique and in some ways challenging.
So the thought occurred to give Vampirella that community, that human connection... and then have it all ripped away. Our story arc revolves around a plane crash which effectively terminates many connections Vampi has built while forging new ones.
Nrama: You're setting this in the real world. A real fish out of water scenario, but one you're playing at for deeper cultural issues. What's a woman like Vampirella likely to face here on Earth?
Priest: With all due respect for the legion of much better writers who’ve handled the character, as I mentioned, I probably was not the audience for this book. Vampirella was created with a satirical flair and Vampi herself was in on the joke; not quite breaking the fourth wall but offering up a knowing come-hither smile. She’s existed in a reality that routinely and, for me, far too benignly, accepts the supernatural as fact.
Here in the real world, vampires are merely a thing of myth and the reality of hyperfactual supernatural events are subject to the interpretation of the particular tribe one belongs to. It bothers me that, in 2019, DC and Marvel universes are still mostly portrayed in an idealized hyper-reality where the average man on the street simply accepts superheroes as fact and, in fact, refers to them literally as “heroes” or “villains,” which is absurd. There’s no news anchor in the world who would start a broadcast piece with, “Arch-villain Saddam Hussein...” even though that description would be apt.
The world our Vampirella series takes place in doesn’t believe in vampires. Or witches or warlocks or werewolves. This world seeks rational scientific explanation for paranormal phenomena which it greets with enormous skepticism.
Which isn’t to suggest no one will believe Vampirella exists but that that acceptance is not as matter of fact as it seems to be in most of this genre.
In terms of what she’s facing, her number one enemy is loneliness. I am, hopefully, writing a woman first, a story about a woman who loves and wants to be loved but whose circumstances are complicated by the fact she has fangs and drinks blood. The supernatural attributes are a metaphor for a universal human condition, for being either rejected or idealized (or, in the case of our series, both) because you are different. Anyone who’s ever moved to a new town or a new school or taken a new job should be able to identify with Vampi’s challenges.
Anyone who wears their hair a different way, listens to a different kind of music, embraces a different religion, anyone who steps outside of or gets shoved outside of the so-called “mainstream” can identify with our take on Vampirella. I hope it is precisely this universality of theme that helps broaden her audience; the Vampi tent is large enough for everyone.
Nrama: Someone walking around in that Trina Robbins-designed costume is bound to get some headturns. If I know you as much as I think I do, you're going to tackle that head on, right? How are you getting into the subject of the costume?
Priest: Well, yes, we will have a go at it. The basic argument is simple: where do you draw the line between women’s liberation and women’s exploitation, and who gets to draw it? Who gets to define femininity and why should an extraterrestrial have to submit to that definition?
It’s like the world woke up in the last few years and realized we actually have two genders and both of them matter.
So we now have heightened scrutiny of themes and behaviors and that poor bastard Joe Biden gets caught up in the switches. I’ll confess, I’m terrified of women because I’m a Joe Biden. I was taught to pay a lady a compliment and open doors and I want to be friendly and accessible but I’m absolutely terrified of having my good intentions taken in a bizarrely paranoid light.
It is comical to me that I am far too often seen as creepy by women - especially black women - because they have been conditioned by their personal experience and their media consumption to misinterpret a simple "Hello." These days I cannot pay a woman a complement without a legal preamble and assurances that, no, I am not hitting on you and even then I get the skunk eye of suspicion.
Which is a little insulting because this “guilty until proven innocent” defensive posture presumes I am other people or that the bar is set so low for me that I’ll jump into bed with just anybody I happen to meet. It’s like we’ve just gone too far now to the point where women are not just being protected but being alienated to some extent because I have no earthly clue how to deal with them and I’m frankly scared to shake their hand.
So, is Vampirella’s wardrobe choice sexist? I don’t know. Vampirella obviously doesn’t think so. As I see her, she comes from a culture much like Star Trek’s Betazed, where people wear little or nothing at all. If anything, Vampi wonders why we humans choose to smother ourselves in so much fabric and why we’re all so bound by self-loathing.
There are hundreds of women who enjoy cosplaying as Vampirella, and maybe hundreds of thousands offended by the character. How do we reconcile all of that for the 21st century?
The one thing I won’t do is cover her up. I accepted the gig: write Vampirella. If you change the outfit, she’s no longer Vampirella. Frankly, her costume is the only thing about her (well, okay, that and her pansexuality) that makes her at all shocking or controversial.
My goal, and the readers will have to let us know if we’re passing or failing, is to make this a book as much about femininity as about bloodsucking. The storyline is driven by women, mostly populated by women, of all shapes and sizes and ethnicities, and most of them dress as sexy as they dare. The singer/rapper Lizzo is a terrific example of this. Is her blatant sexuality liberating or is she being exploited? How about Beyoncé? Do we put Vampi in a raincoat but cheer Bey on?
See what I mean? I’m screwed either way.
Nrama: So Priest - Vampirella's here on Earth. What would you do if you found yourself, I don't know, sharing a cab with Vampi?
Priest: I’d ask the driver to pull over and let me out. I’m a Christian, so I have these issues with all of that “fornicating in your mind” stuff. I don’t live a perfect life but I try to avoid cluttering up my conscience. Among the things the printed page cannot convey is the amazing, intoxicating glow and, yes, smell of a woman.
All women are beautiful, from 8 to 80, regardless of weight, height, or nationality. I wouldn’t share a cab with a woman as under-dressed as Vampi, which sounds hypocritical because I’m writing her. But I write Deathstroke, too, and wouldn’t share a cab with him, either.
Nrama: On the flip side of this, Vampirella's stranded on Earth. What's going through her mind in all of this?
Priest: How stupid and primitive we are. It’s not arrogance. I believe any visitor from another world would surf the net for a few hours and come away shaking their heads. I watched an episode of Little Miss Atlanta yesterday. Jesus. We’re just idiots. The moms fighting and bickering and cursing - cursing - in front of these little girls, berating the little girls. This sickening child abuse... That's entertainment?
I have Christian friends who will criticize me for writing Vampi but they watch that crap.
Nrama: This comes over a decade after your previous stint with Vampirella - Harris Publishing's Vampirella Revelations with artist Eric Battle. That run had some issues, but you're back here again. What makes is something you want to return to?
Priest: *scratches head* Really? I did a run...? I remember doing a silent issue... and vaguely remember doing something with Eric, a good bud. But that was way back. I really hadn’t considered this a “return.” I just pivoted and stared into Barrucci’s hypnotic vampire eyes and ran dozens of scenarios through my feeble brain, coming to one conclusion: this would be an interesting experiment, a writer’s challenge. Writers love challenges.
Nrama: Big picture, what are your goals with this ongoing?
Priest: To not have the women of America torch my house. This run will be as different a take on Vampi as any that have come before.
Which is not to say “better;” “better” is subjective. I’m sure a great many Vampi fans will hate what we’re up to. Maybe they’ll come along, maybe I’ll get fired. If I wasn’t nervous about it, it wouldn’t be worth doing.
Editor's Note: The above interview was conducted via email eariler this week, and we received all of Mr. Priest's responses along with all our original questions. Newsarama asked Priest if he would respond to follow-up questions Friday by email. He agreed and those questions and answers follow.
Nrama: Priest, our original questions to you were about the Vampirella comic book and our role is to talk about that and not audit your personal life, but your responses appear to be hyper aware of a social climate you seem to lament in terms of relationships between genders and conduct towards one another.
Priest: I lament the social climate in general, on all levels. I lament our lack of civility and lack of empathy, lack of patience and understanding. I hate the way we assassinate one another with our thumbs, all this hostility in social and other media. It's not just gender issues.
Nrama: Yet empathizing with Joe Biden without citing the actual specific behavior he’s under scrutiny for, stating things like "the amazing, intoxicating glow and, yes, smell of a woman" and by offering you’re “often seen as creepy by women,” it seems like intentionally inviting the sort of reaction/assumptions you state you’re “afraid” of and inviting the same scrutiny Biden is under.
Was this was your intent and are you prepared for pushback to your words and questions to be asked?
Priest: Wow, there's a lot to unpack, there. But let's start by saying I seriously doubt anyone reading this is NOT aware of the Biden issue to which I am referring. I come neither to defend Biden nor to bury him, so I think you're probably taking my "poor" Joe reference a bit too seriously. I wasn't trying to litigate Biden, only to make a point about how hyper-sensitive and overly politicized our nation is and how this will impact Vampirella in her series.
Assembling disparate quotes to paint me as some kind of deviant makes that point for me. I stand by my statements. "...the amazing, intoxicating glow and, yes, smell of a woman..." is something difficult if not impossible to convey in literature (which was my point), but your question was about me sitting in a taxi with a near-naked woman and I answered that honestly. And my point was relevant to understanding the challenges and conflicts Vampirella will face in this series.
This is the environment Vampirella finds herself in, people misinterpreting her actions, words, and motives. This is why I mentioned it, to place the work we are doing with Vampirella into context.
Were a person like Vampi walking around in our world (or riding in a taxi with me), she would be misinterpreted, and every word she says would be drilled into looking for the worst possible interpretation of it. I can't help but wonder why anyone anywhere speaks publicly because no words spoken by anyone can withstand this level of ridiculous scrutiny.
Nrama: In another response you state “It’s like the world woke up in the last few years and realized we actually have two genders and both of them matter”. While not assuming your intent one way or another, it seems it to overlook genders outside the male/female paradigm. Can you speak to that?
Priest: Gender: noun
1. either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. The term is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female. "a condition that affects people of both genders"
I wrote an ecumenical commentary in support of gender and and LGBTQ issues, Chris. I invite everyone to read it.
It was a simple interview. I was promoting a comic book and, as a really busy writer, I was typing really fast and speaking honestly while engaging with you.
What I won’t do, not even for my own safety, is censor myself or try and anticipate every horrible way someone might choose to misinterpret something I've written or said. If anything, that just makes my point for me about how free speech is being compromised.
It's a tough environment to publish comic books in because every publisher is terrified by the spectrum of extreme possible reactions from an increasingly intolerant environment where everybody's playing "gotcha" and looking for the worst possible and most extremely negative interpretations of everything.
The whole point of free speech is my duty to defend others' rights to have it, not to shout them down or demonize them.