Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

28 October 2016

Greenberg the Vampire

Collects: Bizarre Adventures #29 and Marvel Graphic Novel #20 (1981, 1986)

Released: October 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 104 pages / black and white AND color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785197911

What is this?: A Jewish novelist deals with life as a vampire.

The culprits: Writer J.M. DeMatteis and artists Steve Leialoha and Mark Badger

Hey, it’s Halloween! Time for something … spooky.

Well, actually, no. Despite featuring an undead protagonist, Greenberg the Vampire is not spooky, and it was not intended to be. But it is a story about vampires, and vampires are Halloween appropriate and notionally scary, so: Let me tell you about Greenberg the Vampire.

Greenberg the Vampire coverOscar Greenberg, a Jewish writer who has been turned into a vampire, has made only two appearances, both of which are reprinted in Greenberg. Despite being a vampire, Greenberg isn’t a brooding creature of the night who preys upon the innocent (or guilty, for that matter); he’s more or less a normal New Yorker. He lives in Manhattan with his nephew, Morrie; he has a girlfriend, Denise Keaton, who accidentally turned him into a vampire. He hangs on to his Jewish identity, although his vampirism puts a damper on any chance that he’d be a practicing Jew. He still visits his mother and his brother. He visits bars and goes to parties.

In Greenberg‘s introduction, writer J.M. DeMatteis says Marvel staffers reacted to his first Greenberg story, in Bizarre Adventures #29, by saying “how funny, how offbeat, how unique it was.” I suppose it was different, although it’s hard to see 35 years into the past and estimate how often vampirism was treated as if it were just another personality trait a nice, normal person could possess. But I don’t get the funny part at all; I never laughed while reading anything in the book.

I wonder if it’s a difference in audience. Marvel staffers were likely to be New Yorkers and at least be familiar with Jewish families, but I have no connection to either. I admit DeMatteis emphasizes Greenberg’s Jewish background without making it distracting or making it seem more exotic than his vampirism. But when it comes down to it, nothing is exotic about Greenberg; DeMatteis has made a Jewish vampire into an almost normal guy, and that makes him less interesting to read about.

Especially since the stories’ plots aren’t strong. In the first story, one plot thread is resolved by a character returning from the dead through no credible or known method; Greenberg and Denise speculate on why the dead woman returned, but even they shrug at their own solution. The other plot thread in Bizarre Adventures involves a vampire hunter who destroys one of Greenberg and Denise’s friends; the vampire hunter’s career ends abruptly when he learns his sister, Denise, is still walking around as a vampire. The idea for the twist ending isn’t bad, but Denise never mentions a brother, and the vampire hunter never mentions a sister who was attacked by vampires. The familial connection — the idea that either of them had a family — is dropped into the story without warning, stopping the story in its tracks.

In the graphic novel, Greenberg and his friends battle a dybbuk and Lilith, the Biblical Adam’s first wife, who later became a demoness; the nature of a dybbuk is never spelled out. Lilith’s lifelong interest in Greenberg is only vaguely explained, and the story’s conflict is resolved via the power of love. I mean that literally: The power of love allows a bullet to strike Lilith, who had been previously immune to firearms.

The graphic novel also revolves around Greenberg’s battle with writer’s block. That’s a clichéd, if understandable, avenue to take with a writer character, although it’s a bit discouraging that DeMatteis used writer’s block in Greenberg’s second (and final) appearance. (DeMatteis and artist Mark Badger do throw in a little sex and semi-naked ladies to spice things up.) I do appreciate DeMatteis using a sample of Greenberg’s awful writing to simultaneously show readers how bad his situation is and to give readers the necessary backstory.

DeMatteis looks almost prescient on one thing, though: Although Greenberg is heterosexual, the Bizarre Adventures story has two homosexual couples, and neither the narration nor the protagonists stigmatize those characters. True, the gay characters are on the fringes of society — one couple is a pair of vampires, and one of the other couple is a cult leader who thinks herself a god. But even in a more mature book, one in which he could get away with someone, such as a villain, demonizing homosexuals, DeMatteis sticks to the course of acknowledging these characters’ sexuality is normal.

Steve Leialoha’s work in Bizarre Adventures is beautiful and expressive, taking advantage of the strengths of black-and-white art. (He also draws Denise Keaton to look like Diane Keaton, down to the hat, vest, and tie she wears in Annie Hall.) Leialoha’s art is a little stiff occasionally , although he manages to take advantage of the kind of simplicity used by cartoonists at times. Badger’s art on MGN is harsher and more angular; the subtleties of Leialoha’s work is sacrificed for Lilith’s artfully concealed nudity and full-page text pieces. This is understandable, given the change in plot between the stories, and there’s nothing subtle about Lilith’s seduction of Greenberg. Other parts of the story might have benefited from more precision and care, like Greenberg’s shift in emotions once he’s possessed (or influenced — it’s never made clear) by a dybbuk.

I can’t recommend Greenberg, unfortunately. Although it may have been playing around with the borders of what a vampire can be, the book doesn’t have much to it other than that. Neither the story nor the attempts at humor stand up, thirty years later, and the price tag is too high for such a slim, obscure volume.

Rating: Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (1.5 of 5)

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