Like any good nerd, I do love to shell out the bucks for a good intercompany crossover. It makes the fans happy by putting together characters who could only logically meet in fan fiction, and it makes the shareholders happy by getting your own competitor to actually promote your product (and vice versa). Even better, usually (emphasis on usually) writers and editors have just enough sense to make such crossovers delightfully thematic. Thus we have Batman Versus The Punisher, Green Lantern/Silver Surfer, Captain America Meets Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS…oh, oops, that’s my own fan fiction, at least until the glorious day a DC editor’s car breaks down outside my apartment. Anyway, one of the more obscure but just as theme-appropriate intercompany crossovers was the not one, but two Vampirella vs. Lady Death series.
Today I’m going to discuss the second crossover between the two characters, Vampirella vs. Lady Death. Given my own neurotic obsession with doing things in order, normally I would have written up the first crossover, but…honestly, it was so dull I couldn’t think of anything to say about it. Not to say that the second crossover is that much better, but…hey, it’s got Nazis! With all that aside, I give you Vampirella vs. Lady Death or, as I like to call it, Boobs vs. Tits!
I’ve already talked about Lady Death and my love for Chaos! Comics that breaks through the borders of ironic and comes back around again. So let me introduce Vampirella.
Vampirella is one of those odd characters that you can’t really describe as “obscure”, but at the same time has a cult following that’s not all that visible. In fact, today she’s probably less known as an icon of comics horror and more as the reason why Roger Daltry’s career hit a nadir so low that the world’s most brilliant mathematicians still struggle to calculate it. But there’s much more to the character than just one infamously terrible straight-to-video movie. If you can get past that Vampirella was originally more of a damsel in distress (despite being the title character) than the kick-ass “bad girl” heroine later writers turned her into, her original ’60s comic series published by Warren is for the most part an underappreciated gem, merging horror, sci-fi, and pure camp in a way that for some reason could only really be done in the 1960s. There are good points after her character was revived in the ’90s by Harris, and in fact her gory, skimpy adventures were presented by big names in the comic industry like Kurt Busiek, Adam Hughes, Amanda Conner, Grant Morrison, and Mark Millar. To be honest, I haven’t read much Vampirella aside from some of the original ’60s comics, but I do plan to actually review some of the ’90s comics in this space sooner or later. Also it’s worth mentioning that even though Harris gave up on comics years ago Dynamite Comics got the rights and is currently publishing Vampirella comics. I haven’t read Dynamite’s Vampirella either, but regardless I do encourage you to check them out for yourself. The thought of a comics industry without a property as flagrantly campy as Vampirella depresses me to no end…
…but not as much as this crossover ended up depressing me.
Sure, it starts off promisingly. There’s plenty of fetish fuel in that one image alone, and they’ve already got characters’ logos showing up in dialogue balloons, which is one of my favorite little things about comics. Also I have to admit that the premise seems absolutely perfect and even kind of gutsy. Dr. Midwinter, a mad scientist/neo-Nazi cult leader/immortal occultist, has entered an alliance with Lady Death based on the promise of the immortal life of Vampirella’s friend, Pantha. With Lady Death’s help, he plans to start a (never described) cataclysm that would kill everyone not of “Aryan” descent, but only after Vampirella and her lover, Dixie, are lured to Dr. Midwinter’s stronghold and destroyed. All well and good, but four pages and the writer screws up even Lady Death’s continuity. I’ll probably be the first and last person in the entire history of the Internet to complain about someone mishandling Chaos! Comics continuity, but by 2000 when this was published Lady Death had been softened up a bit in her own universe. She was the “avatar of death” by this time, which the crossover does get right, but she also no longer wanted or needed to wipe out the human race in order to escape from Hell, like in her earlier stories. Yet that’s pretty much her motive here. Come on, comic, it’s important to get these points correct.
Actually, it is pretty important, since it calls attention to one of the crossover’s biggest plotholes. Lady Death flat-out tells Midwinter she wants to wipe out humanity (although she also says just two pages later that she’s just under orders from Death itself, but whatever). The story never spells out exactly how Midwinter expects to kill the “blood enemies of the master race”, except that his plan depends on Lady Death’s powers. Now if Lady Death has access to that kind of power, and it’s exactly what she wants, what’s stopping her? Why does she need Midwinter’s help or Pantha’s soul at all? And how would she be able to pull it off anyway? Before she needed the help of an undead mass murdering teenager; in fact, that was the entire point of her character originally. I know I’m nitpicking, and you can’t expect an intricate, airtight plot from something like this, except…we’re just a few pages in! At least save the plot holes the size of Vampirella’s breasts until the halfway point.
Anyway, Vampirella and Dixie conquer the neo-Nazi horde with bloody gusto. That’s to be expected, along with the occasional gorn shot…
What I wasn’t quite expecting was that these comics would have more one-liners than a Freddy Krueger impersonator convention. Sure, it’s in character for Vampirella, but…the Nazi mad scientist? Lady Death too?
VAMPIRELLA AND LADY DEATH: ”Save the innuendo, creep! You’re a cliche away from going down on death!”
“An interesting choice of words, Vampirella, but I’ll decide who gets intimate with death tonight!”
MIDWINTER: ”I’m sorry, Sigrid. Blood may be thicker than water, but it’s no substitute when you’re really thirsty!” (Said after Midwinter without remorse shoots his niece to death when Dixie takes her hostage; is “half-a-dimensional villain” a term?)
MIDWINTER: ”Trust me, I’m a doctor! But perhaps you’d value a second opinion!”
VAMPIRELLA: ”You sound disappointed! Who were you expecting? Eva Braun?”
Far be it from me, a lowly Internet pop culture reviewer, to impart lessons on someone who has actually gotten something published professionally, but here’s a general pro-tip about writing adventure stories that I learned from the screenwriter of Batman Forever. If you have a wise-cracking protagonist, generally you should set them up with other characters and/or against villains who can be the straight men. Otherwise you just might end up with a story where everyone seems to be channeling Mr. Freeze from Batman & Robin. The weirdest thing is that, while Lady Death actually starts acting more like Lady Death by the second issue, Dr. Midwinter is the worst offender. It really makes you wonder if it was driven insane because he was very traumatized by the stereotype that Nazis don’t have a sense of humor.
Well, Lady Death defeats Vampirella with the Spear of Longinus – which Midwinter has, as all Nazis in these types of stories do – and with more than a little help from the fact that Vampirella thought it would be a good idea to drink the blood of someone who proudly announces she’s the “avatar of death” every ten minutes.
So the first issue ends with Vampirella dying – definitively, no fooling, dying. How’s she going to get out of this one?!
Well…the story continues in the regular Vampirella series, which I didn’t read. Luckily (?) for me, the second and final issue of the crossover has a three-page info dump summing up what happened. Her soul was sent back to 1969, and ended up in her own past body, and she managed to get the Pantha of the past and Pendragon (another Vampirella supporting character) to help send her soul back to the present, and the spear magically heals her even though it was just used to kill her, and there’s something about a Satanic biker gang. Eh, I’ve read over the exposition explosion five times and it still doesn’t make sense, so let’s just say “she passed out and got better.”
Vampirella isn’t the only one who’s gone through a traumatic experience between issues. Lady Death has had something of a personality transfusion. Not only is she no longer cracking innuendos and one-liners, but she’s not talking about killing the entire human race anymore and acting more like the hard-edged but basically quasi-benevolent Amazon she was over in her own stories at this time. Instead she talks more about her “warrior code” - it’s the discerning writer’s tactic for getting a villainous character to act in a way that benefits the protagonist for no logical reason! Oh, and of course she turns against Midwinter, because…I have no idea. It’s implied that Lady Death takes her job as death’s avatar so seriously she feels personally offended by immortals walking around, which is an idea I kind of like, but she just completely drops the whole “killing billions of people in one night” thing she was so thrilled about just last issue.
Lady Death and Vampirella do get into another fight, which this time Vampirella wins. But after that it’s basically your standard issue “heroes team up to fight a villain” story, which is…such a waste.
On the other hand, maybe I’m just not the target audience for this comic. Forget the storytelling, the plot, characterization, the dialogue. There’s one just as crucial aspect to this crossover that I just can’t appreciate…
Being a trash culture archaeologist serious about the many academic aspects of his work, I actually conducted a study with five heterosexual men as my subjects. Carefully selected from a pool down the hall from my day job office, I queried them using techniques perfected by the nation’s foremost sociological and psychological authorities.
The results surprised me. Despite the…ah, lack of realism in the characters’ erotic features, the participants in the study both overall gave an average rating to the erotic appeal of the comics, despite the gore, torture, and Holocaust elements. At the same time, one of the respondents did give highly negative ratings overall. Two interesting comments (all of which can be seen below) were “I don’t see the comics as lesbian positive!” (it’s easy to see why the comics didn’t win any GLAAD awards) and “The Internet has forever skewed my perception of erotic” (tell me about it).
So since the response to the special qualities of the comics wasn’t overwhelming, I guess maybe I’m not that out of touch after all. This is especially true for the second issue, which traps to wrap up the story with not a homoerotic wrestling battle between Vampirella and Lady Death in a pool of Aryan blood, but actual pathos. Midwinter manages to kill Dixie. Vampirella pleads with Lady Death to bring her back to life, but Lady Death states that Dixie’s death was inevitable and instead invites Vampirella to take a bloody reprisal from Midwinter, who is then hurled off a tower and impaled by a gloating Lady Death who promises that in the afterlife he’ll learn the true meaning of torture and evil (she got as fed up with his one-liners as I did, I assume). Thus our story – and the ’90s run of Vampirella - ends with Vampirella mourning Dixie and angrily renouncing her life of selfless heroism, while Lady Death fulfills her promise to Vampirella that she would conduct Dixie’s soul to the afterlife.
Thus the ’90s Vampirella ends not with a whimper, but a bad intercompany crossover.
Well, okay, this might say more about the kind of radioactive junk I expose myself to, but…honestly I wouldn’t describe this as terrible. The art is decent with some nice touches, like Vampirella coming armed with grenades that have phrases like “Hi there!” etched on them. And while the dialogue is a bland mush of cliches and there’s more plot hole than plot, it’s still not aggressively bad and completely a Script-o-Matic affair like so many low-tier superhero comics from the ’90s comics boom.
What makes it a bad read isn’t so much what Vampirella vs. Lady Death is but what it might have been. Maybe the writer wasn’t really to blame and was under a mandate to portray Lady Death sympathetically, but letting the plot turn into the typical “protagonists fight then team up” affair really kills the story, brings it back to life, and drives a stake through the heart. Now by most standards it probably wouldn’t have been a lot better, but at least it would have been more fun if it had been a real versus story. Just have the Nazis working on some mystical means to destroy all non-Germanic people, but Lady Death betrays them and hijacks their experiment in order to destroy the entire human race, forcing Vampirella to race against the clock or even team up with the Nazis instead to stop her.
It’s possible the scriptwriter felt obligated, officially or otherwise, to make Lady Death a more straightforward protagonist. And admittedly, like I complained about before, it would have been more accurate to her portrayal over in Chaos! at the time. Still, Lady Death began as someone who wanted to condemn the entire human race to an apocalypse at the hands of a zombie plague – not a plague of mindless zombies, but of zombies that get marching orders from a sadistic serial killer – just out of a desire for revenge for things done to her by people dead for centuries and so she could beat a curse preventing her from returning to Earth. With all that, it’s pretty safe to make her a bona fide villain.
Alas, it was not to be. The whole thing has just put me off of intercompany crossovers. If they can waste so many seemingly obvious ideas, and adhere so strictly to formula, then why not just stick to fan fiction? What’s the point?
Dammit! Okay, I give up. Take my money!