If you’ll forgive the pun, the classical vampire is a bit long in the tooth. The foppish, castle-dwelling aesthete of the gothic novel is a tedious caricature to all but the most stalwart fans, and most of us prefer a vampire more in touch with today’s world. Everyone from RPG company White Wolf to blood-and-guts comic author Garth Ennis (who brilliantly skewered bloodsucker stereotypes in Preacher) has provided vamp revisions, with an eye towards dragging Dracula into the iPod era, trading the cape and drawing room for a three-button suit and wireless internet. (Or at least a pair of shades and a bottle of whiskey.)
Vertigo’s Bite Club is a new-and-improved vampire saga that brings bloodsuckers into the present as well as anything else in comics. One of the greatest virtues of Bite Club is the way writers Howard Chaykin and David Tischman presents vampires as a fact of life, rather than shadowy boogeymen. This is a world with vampire lawyers, vampire golfers, even vampire priests and vampire school shooters. The comic presents its vamps as something akin to an ethnic minority, facing down prejudice and struggling to navigate a relationship with mainstream society—in Bite Club, “bloodsucker” is considered a racial slur. The miniseries is full of great touches that flesh out vamp identity, like a girl who dumps her vamp boyfriend as soon as he gives her “the bite”, putting a novel spin on teen heartbreak.
Bite Club chronicles the fall and rise of the Del Toro family, a pack of Nicaraguan-American vampire mobsters sunk fang-deep into the Miami underworld. Like Watchmen, the story begins with a guy falling out of a building, as Del Toro family patriarch Eduardo plummets to earth with a chest full of wooden bullets, only to be dramatically impaled on an umbrella. Bite Club follows its toothy cast through a whirlwind of sex and violence that recalls the infamous opening of Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive, getting the reader acquainted with the nasty environment of Miami vamp society. Bite Club plays out like a vampiric cross between The Sopranos and Cruel Intentions, full of trashy decadence and more profanity than Al Pacino’s entire screen career.
Bite Club‘s also got heavy shades of The Godfather, especially in its focus on how Eduardo’s death pulls straight-arrow son Leto (an ordained minister) into the family business. But the miniseries is much closer to Scarface in tone, with a breathless nihilism that keeps the story rushing forward at breakneck speed: you’ll find yourself furiously flipping pages and gobbling up stunningly profane banter like candy. Tender moments are exceedingly rare, and the characters feel more than a bit archetypal (Risa Del Toro could’ve been directly inspired by Sarah Michelle Gellar’s vindictive slut in Cruel Intentions, except nastier, not to mention Leto’s Michael Corleone routine), which makes the story a bit exhausting at points—but the plot threads knit together nicely anyway, and the magic’s in the telling.
The Complete Bite Club also includes the spin-off miniseries Vampire Crime Unit, a yarn following a squad of hard-bitten vampire dicks: a burnout hooked on the designer drug Plasmagoria, his self-hating vamp partner, a top cop with a serious vampire grudge, and a rookie with a dangerous fixation on the Del Toro family matriarch. It’s a police procedural with fangs, like a Twilight Zone version of Special Victims Unit. VCU is just as good as Bite Club, and probably a bit better: there’s more emotional nuance compared to the relentless nastiness of the first miniseries, and more three-dimensional characterization. It’s enough to make you wish that the world of Bite Club had yielded a monthly book.
Bite Club‘s art more than lives up to the story’s stylish verve. David Hahn’s illustrations are clean and neat, but what really makes the comic sing are Howard Miller’s colors. He bathes each scene in a particular color filter, ranging from swamp gas green to prison shower white. As a result, the comic is positively drenched in atmosphere and mood, blending environmental and thematic factors like a less austere version of Sin City. And Frank Quitely’s covers are among the best work he’s ever done: the eye-catching front of this collection, featuring a comely, half-naked Risa sucking down grocery store plasma, will no doubt cause more than a few double takes at your local comic store. (My personal favorite is Bite Club #5’s casual vampire preppie.)
Bite Club is a great series with a boatload of potential appeal: I can imagine fans of offbeat crime books like Powers digging this, as well as anybody with a soft spot for bloodsuckers. (Oops, I mean “Vampiric-Americans.”) There’s a reason I’ve made so many movie comparisons in this review: Bite Club is wickedly cinematic. It plays out like the best Brian De Palma movies, gleefully overflowing with blood, sex, and swear words. After all, how many comics can boast a prison shower catfight between a bunch of vampire gangsters? Drink up.