“All it takes is one nutcase who starts chopping up women in the middle of the night and who gets blamed? The vampire! Isn’t that convenient?”
—Ferdinand, Vampire Loves
Joann Sfar’s Vampire Loves is as noteworthy for its good-natured enjoyment as it is for its ability to take ideas and plot elements which have been fodder for graphic novels for years and construct them into a wholly original tale.
Sfar’s Ferdinand, a Lithuanian vampire, experiences the pitfalls of love and life in a world that seemingly doesn’t understand, just as do the characters of Daniel Clowes, Harvey Pekar, and David B., among others. But the originality arrives in Sfar’s ability—and willingness—to impart the hapless lovelorn loser motif on a character type, the vampire, which is almost always vilified as the worst kind of evil. From village folklore hundreds of years ago to movies and television today, the vampire has always been, simply, bad. Sure, thanks to Anne Rice, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and later Angel, the vampire has taken on a brooding self-awareness all but missing prior to the end of the 20th century. But Ferdinand in Vampire Loves is no Lestat, and he’s certainly not Angel. He’s not even a threat to the people of his village. He bites necks with one tooth to give the impression that they were bitten by a mosquito—plus he never kills anyone, just quench his hunger—and he’s chummy with many humans including two on the police force. No, Ferdinand isn’t the typical literary vampire. Instead, he’s Joe Music Nerd, the guy that trolled the halls of high school clutching old recordings of folk and the like as he longingly wishes for the return of his ex-girlfriend. Ferdinand is the vampire equivalent of Seymour as played by Steve Buscemi in the film version of Ghost World.
But Ferdinand, unlike Seymour, is able to attract at least a couple members of the opposite sex. And not just vampires, either. At the beginning of the book, he breaks up with Lani, a plant-tree-girl. He then becomes the object of affection of Apsirine, another vampire, who leads him to form a crush on her sister, Ritaline, a witch. Then there are ghosts and giant caterpillars and Black Lagoon creatures and even a couple of mortal humans—one Japanese, another Hispanic—that Ferdinand tries to hook up with. Every attempt results in limited or no success.
He faces other issues, as well, like a backstabbing best friend, civic responsibility, the inability to fit into a crowd, and disdain for more mainstream tastes. By giving Ferdinand these problems, Sfar moves Ferdinand away from Seymour to be closer to what every person faces growing up—formulating a character and personality, fostering strong interpersonal relationships, and trying to quell the desire to just get laid.
Sex is nothing new for vampire lore, but the hapless-yet-well-meaning inability of Ferdinand is, as is Sfar’s presentation of the angst Ferdinand is faced with. While most people can’t relate to the beautiful-people existentialism of something like Angel, more can certainly feel a kinship to Vampire Loves. At some point or another, most people go through the kinds of trials and tribulations Ferdinand deals with in this book—if they still aren’t going through them. This allows readers to look past the fantastic world Ferdinand inhabits and see, simmering beneath the surface, their own reality.
Don’t look past the fantasy entirely, though. Sfar’s illustrations are beautiful and almost childlike in their simplicity (Vampire Loves shares a certain kinship with Rugrats). The world Sfar creates for Ferdinand to live and play in is richly textured and populated, and once readers start in on it it’s hard to pull out of. From the monsters to the nightclubs to the mundane humans, everything here is overflowing with a charm and character not seen often in any medium. This is an entirely unique physical world, one that can only exist in the creations of Joann Sfar. But his writing synergizes that unique place with the one readers live in to create one of the richest, most textured works readers could hope to find.
Few graphic novelists are able to incorporate the fantastical and aching reality as well as Sfar does in Vampire Loves. When the book ends, Ferdinand has grown, but only slightly. This is not a work meant to wrap things up neatly at its conclusion; to do so would be to go against the spirit of the characters and narrative. Instead, Ferdinand is a little wiser, a little more aware, but still as unsure as ever about his world.
Vampire Loves is a chapter in the life of Ferdinand the Lithuanian Vampire, not his life story. Here’s to hoping to cross paths with him on more journeys in the future.