Review by C.J. Bunce

Here’s the prologue of Volume 1 of the graphic novel adaptation of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s novel The Strain:

They have always been here.  VAMPIRES.  In secret and in darkness.  WAITING.  Now their time has come.  In one week, Manhattan will be gone.  In one month, the country.  In two months–the world.

If you’re like me, you’re tired of vampires.  Tired of zombies.  Everyone is writing about either zombies or vampires.  So if you’re going to read one of the several vampire or zombie books, you’ve got to have a reason.  I stumbled into The Strain in a sort of backwards way.  I don’t like horror as a general genre but will consider something new if a writer or artist I like is working on the project.  Usually cover artists entice readers to a book.  In this case, artist E.M. Gist’s grotesque characters in the cover art normally would cause me to move along to something else.  This is one reason I skipped Issues #1 to #6 of The Strain when they hit the bookstore shelves.  Then I saw the name Mike Huddleston as interior artist and I flipped open the new volume from Dark Horse being released November 14, 2012–Huddleston has created some of the best single pages of art I have seen over the years.  And checking out The Strain was a good call.  Reminder to self: You can’t judge a (comic) book by its cover(s).  Editor’s Note–A few spoilers ahead!

The story starts in the past, in 1927 Romania.  Where else do you start a vampire novel but Romania, legendary home of Dracula himself?  It begins with a story told to a child named Abraham Setrakian, of a Grendel-type monster of another time and place, and an unlikely hero facing a hidden beast that has defeated his compatriots.  Seemingly this is a parable to get the child to eat, or is this something true from Romania’s past?

Flash forward to present day and we encounter a passenger jet at JFK International Airport in lockdown for some type of quarantine.  We meet Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, a father trying to spend the weekend with his son.  And he’s chief epidemiologist at the CDC.  Work calls.  Some kind of bird flu on the plane?  No, everyone onboard is dead, except three, including a family man and a rock star.  No explanations except a strange coffin onboard that isn’t on the ship’s manifest.

Meanwhile a rare eclipse begins and folks all over Manhattan are ready to watch it.  The mysterious coffin is stolen.  Were this a Tom Clancy novel like Debt of Honor (which has a similar subplot) we’d be thinking terrorists are behind this, but there is something dark and ancient involved in this story.  Something was released and even more dead are showing up, their blood removed and they have been left almost embalmed.  A bit vile and gory, the survivors and the dead have been infected and something is bubbling inside them.  An ancient truce has been broken, and the abomination from Romania is surfacing in present day New York.

Now an old man, the little boy Abraham is here to warn the city.  A CDC scientist conducts blood analysis on the dead, and discovers a surprise–a room full of vampires.  To kill this curse the dead must be burnt, the dirt from the coffin dispersed and the living made dead.  (Are all vampires zombies?  This story feels like a zombie story and all vampires return from the dead, hence my thought this seems as much zombie tale as vampire tale).

The Strain comes from an original story by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan.  It includes dark themes of violence and includes issues of Nazis and Jews in the holocaust and has common themes similar to those found in del Toro’s critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth.  The dark and creepy world will be very familiar to del Toro fans.  (The horror elements here actually remind me we’re probably pretty lucky del Toro was pulled from The Hobbit and Peter Jackson brought in to take over.  But del Toro’s fantasy tends to be of the horror more than high-fantasy variety, which would have been too much for Tolkien’s world, even with Orcs and other vile baddies throughout the world of Middle Earth).  Having Nazis behind the evil of the story will be familiar to fans of del Toro’s Hellboy movies, too.

In this volume adapting del Toro and Hogan’s work, David Lapham’s handling of the story is pretty riveting, even the transition from a story about a terrorist virus to a contagion caused by an organism that creates blood-seeking vampires–moving us from what could have been a real-life story to one of fantasy–is done successfully here.  What really sets the tone and drives the story forward is Mike Huddleston’s art, and specifically his way of taking explanatory dialogue between characters and having the imagery remain compelling–not just a talking heads story like you might find were this a TV series.  And having recognizable characters and believable locations so that the reader doesn’t get bogged down in the telling of the story makes this effort evocative of another successful zombie work–the scary and brilliant film 28 Days Later.  I’ve liked Huddleston’s work before, but this may be a breakout project for him, or at least another great addition to his portfolio.  Again, I think his interiors triumph over E.M. Gist’s horror cover art.  (I am sure Gist’s richly painted work has a great appeal to horror fans, but for more of a mainstream crossover genre reader like me it’s just not my thing).  Colorist Dan Jackson deserves credit for his muted tones, which give a great creepy vibe to this novel.

The Strain is available for pre-ordering now at a discount price from Amazon.com and will be available at comic book stores and other outlets November 14, 2012.  The complete release of The Strain in graphic novel form will be divided into three parts, reflecting the three novels in the original trilogy.  Volume 2 of The Strain will be released in August 2013.  Part two, called The Fall, will be released in 2013 with the final part, The Night Eternal, released in 2014, presumably in two volumes each.  The Strain story continues monthly from Dark Horse Comics, available at all comic book stores.  The original three novels by del Toro and Hogan are available in bookstores at Amazon.com for those who want to check out the source material.  The Strain will also be a new TV series coming in 2013 from FX, and del Toro has said he hopes to direct as many episodes personally as his film schedule permits.

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