When I was a kid in the early, mid 1970s, I had an unreasonable phobia of vampires. During the mid 1990s, I had grown sick of watching Superman die and Spider-Man get cloned, so I tuned out of mainstream superhero fare in favor of Vertigo comics, and therefore missed Marvel’s era of Midnight Sons. In the mid 2000s, I never got caught up in the whole Twilight, sparkly vampire craze because I am a grown man who prefers the company of women.
The point is that, despite years of reading comics, I have no real personal history with the character of Morbius, The Living Vampire. Sure, I came across him a few times in Marvel Tales reprints and (I think) in one of those giant-sized The Spectacular Spider-Man Treasury Editions, but for the most part, for me, Morbius was one of those dingbats who showed up in Spider-Man now and again, wearing that stupid circus jumpsuit with the batwing armpits and lapels that would make John Travolta circa Saturday Night Fever weep like someone gave him a peek at his career between 1983 and 1994.
So I didn’t have a hell of a lot of anticipation for Morbius The Living Vampire #1, written by Joe Keatinge and drawn by Richard Elson; in fact, Amanda grabbed it as part of her pulls at our local comic store, where they know me by name and ask me not to query the playing customers if they have anyone into whom they’d like me to drive my stake. But she left it in the bathroom, so I gave it a shot, expecting what I vaguely remembered from the character back in the day (having, honestly, missed his star turn in The Amazing Spider-Man #699.1 last month due to holiday hecticness (Rob: You misspelled “drunken blackout.” –Amanda)): a mopey dipshit living in a sewer lab, howling at the walls at how tortured he is, punctuated by a fight with some supervillain whose head would, by law of averages, be on fire.
But it turns out it’s not like that at all. Instead, it’s a book about a vampire, but one that isn’t obsessed with vampires. Instead, it’s a surprisingly light – and not in a bad way – story about a guy who’s down on his luck and trying to navigate a rough situation. And that guy happens to be a vampire. And he, and the book as a whole, have a surprising sense of humor for a dude who used to run with Ghost Rider and eat rats. It’s a 21st century vampire story that is less The Vampire Diaries and more Zombieland, and it is a hell of a lot more fun than you’d think.
Michael Morbius is in a bind. He has just escaped from The Raft prison during the chaos of “Doctor Octopus’s” escape in The Amazing Spider-Man #699, and, not being the most powerful guy in the world – or the guy most able to blend into a crowd, thanks to fangs and a skin tone that makes a native Irishman look like a Jersey Shore guido – he needs a place to lay low for a while, outside the view of dedicated law enforcement or superheroes. Morbius comes across a friendly wino (who are reportedly everywhere in Manhattan; the ones I’ve met who offer to trade an angry handjob for the ten bucks they need to have the FBI chips removed from their necks are clearly outliers) who suggests Morbius go to Brownsville: a Brooklyn neighborhood where the cops are crooked, crime runs wild, and hipsters only approach when they’re looking for an angry handjob. So Morbius hops on the subway and lands in a neighborhood where the cops are nonexistent, tattooed goons run the streets, and a pale guy in an alley with mangled teeth is assumed to be a connoisseur of methamphetamines. Michael, however, still stands out in this environment, what with being reasonably polite and concerned when people are beaten stupid in front of him, and standing out in this neighborhood, well… let’s just say that it doesn’t go well for him.
I was genuinely surprised by this issue, since, based on my limited history with the character (and based on that Gabrielle Dell’Otto cover) I was expecting yet another tortured urban vampire melodrama of the type that gets the tweenaged girls and sexually frustrated soccer mommies hot and bothered enough to spend days camping outside Hall H. And sure, Keatinge does the heavy lifting required to make sure we know that Morbius is a vampire, and that he is dealing with a constant bloodlust, but on top of those all-but-required elements of a vampire story, there is a lot of humor in this book. Not laugh out loud jokes or anything, but Morbius comes across as a dude with a medical condition and a personal hard-luck story who has developed a wry sense of humor when it comes to answering questions about them. It helps humanize the character and make him likeable.
However, a potential issue with that characterization is the way that Keatinge chooses to present it: with big title cards (think “Denouement” in Kevin Smith’s first Clerks movie) reading things like, “Disadvantages of being vampire-ish,” and with copious caption boxes for Morbius’s internal dialogue. Presenting a story and characterization in this way walks a really fine line: if done poorly or too bombastically, it can really turn a reader off. It’s the opposite of “show, don’t tell,” which is often the kiss of death for a comic book… and yet I didn’t mind it here. Part of the reason for that was because Keatinge makes Morbius’s thoughts so damn entertaining and likeable:
I can’t change into anything.
No mists, no bats, no whatever would be really useful right now.
Crosses don’t faze me.
I find garlic delicious.
Particularly in a nice pesto sauce.
Look, if you gotta present exposition that tells new readers about the character and his situation, that’s the way to do it: in an entertaining voice, over visuals of a terrified goon waving a cross in the character’s face while a train bears down on them. Frankly, the internal voiceover and the title cards reminded me of Zombieland, another heavily-stylized story with ample title cards, about a horror-based situation, but with a damn likeable narrator and a sense of humor about itself. And while it might seem hypocritical of me to praise this book for aping a movie’s conventions when I just damned another for doing something similar, the fact of the matter is, I didn’t feel cheated on story for the sake of cinematic style and long-term tease when I finished Morbius the way I did when I finished New Avengers #1. Sure, Morbius ends on a cliffhanger, but it also presents a lot of story, character introduction, setting establishment, and good humor, so I didn’t feel cheated by the fact that Keatinge was seemingly influenced by a movie.
Elson’s art is a good match for the story, in that it is good old, straight ahead comic art. His figures are realistic and his faces expressive, but nothing here is particularly stylized or overly attention-seeking. He works in a mix of medium and fine lines, without too many fine-detail lines, and a pretty simple layout (with some figures crossing panels into the bleed, but nothing that gets in the way of the storytelling) and good pacing. Pretty much it looks like any art you might see in a late 70s, post Neal Adams comic, but with the benefit of better paper and coloring… which I believe was Elson’s intent. Because Morbius The Living Vampire is clearly meant to be a comic book. From the standard comic lettering in the title cards to the setting in the one place in New York that looks like it might have come from, say, pre-Guiliani, 1980s New York (including goons who favor spiky purple mohawks, like they came straight from the set of that punk rock episode of Quincy), this book all but shouts Old School Marvel, and Elson’s pencils match that vibe very well.
Morbius The Living Vampire #1 isn’t what I expected. In a world where vampires brood and sparkle before committing statutory rape (but if you’re married it’s not rape, amirite, Stephanie Meyer?), and starring a character best known for whimpering about his fate and dressing like Peter Criss ten minutes after Gene Simmons told him to fuck off and find a real job, I thought I was gonna be reading a stone bummer that tried mightily to get that Twilight reader. Instead, I found one hell of a fun story about a guy who had a sense of humor about himself, in a book where the writer clearly had the same sense of humor about the book. It’s a good read, particularly if you don’t have any preconceptions about Michael Morbius. Give it a shot.