Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dearly Departed: Ex Sanguine

Dearly Departed is a semi-regular column where I look back on recently completed or canceled series.

I'm not really much of a vampire guy, nor am I passionately anti-vampire. Vampire stories are a subgenre of horror (duh), and I adore good horror, so a well-done vampire tale appeals to me as much as the next guy. But I'm not naturally drawn to vampires like I am, say, superheroes. The concept of blood-drinking undead immortals doesn't do much for me in-and-of itself. Similarly, romantic comedies are not what I would call, "my bag." Speaking broadly, I prefer comedy to drama most of the time, because I like to study it, to dig into a given joke or string of jokes and see what makes them work or fail. Romantic comedies, however, are often hair-pullingly formulaic, or they have one-note characters, or both. So rather than being interesting subjects of observation and analysis, they're commonly predictable to the point of their third acts feeling unnecessary.
     Tim Seeley and Joshua Scott Emmons' Ex Sanguine is 100% a vampire romantic comedy, or at any rate that's how I'd describe it, yet it is nevertheless a comicbook series that I enjoy immensely. It keeps me guessing while it has me laughing, takes a few truly dark and disturbing turns, and ends with its central couple mutually agreeing to go their separate ways, rather than winding up happily ever after in one another's arms. That conclusion isn't the only way in which it bucks trends. Seeley's design for his star vampire Saul is unorthodox, veering toward werewolf aesthetics, with giant canine teeth rather than the more humble fangs typically seen. Saul's co-star/romantic interest, Ashley, is more classic in her appearance—busty blonde diner waitress to a T—but she's also a serial killer, which gives her a twisted sense of humor and an unapologetic arrogance that are less common traits for the leads of love stories, especially women. The two make a bizarre but intriguing couple, attracted to each other mostly through their shared bloodlust, Saul's coming from an actual physical need and Ashley's more of an overwhelming compulsion. Though they're not very nice or good people, their romance is fascinating, and it makes them relatable enough to cheer for despite their murderous activities.
     Saul and Ashley meet because he's a daily visitor to the diner where she works. Another regular customer is killed, and the F.B.I. suspect Saul, which understandably upsets him. As a vampire tying to hide his identity, having federal agents knocking on his door is perhaps the worst thing that could happen. Though he's innocent of this particular murder, he still doesn't want anyone digging into his life and finding out what he is. Shortly after his run-in with the feds, Saul discovers that Ashley is the real murderer. Well...she decides to reveal herself to him, is a more accurate way of describing it. It's not like Saul sets off to clear his name and uncovers Ashley's secret. On the contrary, she catches him showing his true face to a man he's about to devour, and decides that since he's a literal monster, it's safe to tell him about the monster she has inside. At first, Saul gets mad at Ashley for all the attention she's brought his way, and threatens to do something about it if she doesn't find a new hunting ground. But Ashley never takes Saul's posturing seriously, realizing right away that they'll both be happier if they work together instead of against each other. When Saul gets arrested for one of Ashley's kills, she's brazen enough to alibi him, and thus begins their relationship.
     What I find so interesting about the two of them, and a big part of what attracts them to one another, is how casual they are about killing. When they invade a man's home and murder him together, it's a fun, flirty date, full of getting-to-know-you conversation and ending in blood-soaked sex. They can talk about murder like they'd talk about the weather, and when they do argue, it's over the relative morality of Saul's motives (hunger and survival) vs. Ashley's (sport and personal gain). But beyond this particular hobby, there's not a great deal they have in common, which causes friction between them as a couple. Saul is low-energy, logical, and detached. Having already lived several lives over innumerable years, he doesn't let himself get overly invested in the concerns of the world. What he's interested in is self-preservation, and he has no real ambition beyond that. Ashley is young and active and passionate. She's on a mission to leave behind a legacy, to be remembered forever as the prolific killer she is. She loves to take risks, he prefers to play it safe. She's flashy when she kills, and he tries to stay discreet. They're opposites in many ways, which, again, may be part of what brings them together, but is also what ultimately drives them apart.
     Ashley and Saul split up amicably after killing the two F.B.I. agents who've been hunting her down (and have never stopped suspecting Saul). Those agents have their own thread within this series, because one of them, Agent Quinn, has a history with vampires, having been kidnapped and tortured by one a few years ago. Or so she believes. Her partner, Agent Franks, eventually explains to her that it was just a regular human being who kept her captive, and that the stress of the situation has transformed him into a monster in her memory. Which leads to a grimly funny twist at the end of the series, when only minutes after Quinn learns that the vampire from her past wasn't real, an actual vampire is involved in her death. At the same time, Quinn's former trauma is the aspect of this book I struggle with the most, because it's hard to believe that someone so completely convinced that she'd been the victim of a vampire would be allowed back in the field by the F.B.I. Aren't there like psych evaluations and other such processes for that kind of thing? Not that this is a strictly realistic comic, but Franks and Quinn are certainly the most grounded characters, so I'm not sure why she gets to be an active agent when she so clearly hasn't recovered yet. Franks keeps a pretty close eye on her, and is a talented, thoughtful, capable, accomplished agent, so I guess the idea is that with him at her side she'll be ok. But Quinn has a totally inappropriate freakout during their first visit to Saul's apartment, and gets gradually worse from that point until she kills someone herself in an attempt to frame Saul. So she's definitely not fit for duty, and it not only gets her killed but Franks as well.
     As the only truly innocent member of the cast (by which I mean he never murders anybody) Franks is arguably the hero of this story, but the reader isn't necessarily supposed to be on his side. Saul is our point-of-view character and narrator, so the man who's out to get him isn't shown in an especially positive light. That's another aspect of this title I like: there's no one to love and no one to hate. Saul and Ashley are despicable people, but their romance is the heart of the narrative, so the audience naturally warms to them as they warm to one another. Franks and Quinn, meanwhile, are admirably trying to bring a serial killer to justice, but between Franks' cold professionalism and Quinn's obvious instability, it's hard to see either one of them as all that likable. Also, they get considerably less stage time than Ashley or Saul. My point is, the protagonists are morally abhorrent, and their opponents are federal agents trying to do their jobs, so there's really no one to fully support or root against. It's just a good story, able to make us see the good in heartless killers and the bad in earnest cops.
     There are several other things Seeley and Emmons do in this story (they write the scripts together, with Seeley also handling the art) that set it apart, but the one that sticks out most is how they approach the introductions/explorations of Saul's magical abilities. Rather than having Saul tell the reader directly what he can do, or even lay it all out for Ashley once they get together, his powers are introduced a little bit at a time as the story calls for it. Sometimes he does explain something to Ashley, like how metal taints blood so he can't feed off of it, but only when necessary for her understanding. It's never wedged into his dialogue where it doesn't belong for the reader's sake, and there are plenty of examples of Saul doing something uniquely vampiric without any explanation at all. He can change his appearance (which is how he hides his mouthful of terrifying teeth), teleport, block bullets with some kind of black energy, and a handful of other tricks that, while we know they're all powered by blood, we don't get an in-depth breakdown of how they work or even what they are. Saul is what he is, already so old and established by the time this narrative begins that he's effortlessly comfortable and talented with his various skills. He doesn't talk about them, because what's the point, he just uses them as needed, and the audience is given enough credit from the creators to figure out what's happening on our own.
     Seeley's art is wonderful, very full of life even in a story so riddled with death. All of his characters are fiercely expressive, able to display a full range of emotions without losing the core of their character. Ashley is always fun-loving and cocky, even when she's scared. Saul's always stern and brooding, Quinn nervous and driven, Franks worrisome and focused. No matter what they're doing, these fundamental traits shine through in everyone's facial expressions and body language, so that the cast is visually and emotionally consistent throughout the story.
     There's a lot of blood in Ex Sanguine (surprise surprise) and Seeley doesn't hold back, but he doesn't let it overpower his panels, either. There's an excess of gore because there's an excess of violence, but in any given scene the volume of blood spilt is reasonable. The violence itself is also right down the middle, intense and fast-moving enough to always be gripping, but never unrealistically graphic. Even Saul isn't pulling any ridiculous action stunts, despite his superhuman talents, because that's not the kind of book this is. Fights are swift and brutal, with severe consequences for all involved, even the victors. When people are wounded, they don't recover all of a sudden and strike back. Usually they die soon after, but even when they survive, their injuries are felt profoundly. Having such realistic violence and pain adds to the horror of the narrative, while Saul and Ashly's callousness about the damage they inflict heightens the comedy. So both sides of the equation get a bump from how Seeley draws violence.
     I'm leaving out a boatload of plot details in favor of more general descriptions of the cast's personalities and the creators' storytelling methods, and also to avoid spoiling everything, but believe me when I tell you there's a lot more going on than I'm going to touch on in this column. Ashley's endgame and how it relates to her father, Saul's past lives that he can barely remember, the plot-thickening surprise of the final two pages, and many other odds and ends have been excluded here. Seeley and Emmons are doing a lot, maybe even a bit too much in places, but on the whole these are a tightly-packed five issues. It's a vampire story that never reminds me of any other vampire stories, and a romance story that's just as unique. For two such overplayed genres as those, being able to seamlessly combine them and do something new with each is impressive as hell. 

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