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The Strain Vol. #1 Review

9 min read

The visionary imagination behind Pan’s Labyrinth co-authors a haunting new look at a very old nightmare.

What They Say:
When a Boeing 777 lands at JFK International Airport and goes dark on the runway, the Centers for Disease Control, fearing a terrorist attack, calls in Dr. Ephraim Goodweather and his team of expert biological-threat first responders. Only an elderly pawnbroker from Spanish Harlem suspects a darker purpose behind the event – an ancient threat intent on covering mankind in darkness! Adapting the first novel from Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain, this horrifying first chapter deals with an outbreak of diabolical proportions that puts a terrifying twist on the vampire genre. A thriller for science-fiction and horror fans alike!

The Review: (please note that content portions of review may contain spoilers)
The Strain is a comic book adaption of the novel series written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan which revisions the classic European vampire lore and tinkers with the premise to bring a brand new level of terror to a world that has largely become desensitized to the type of terror that once gripped Europe a couple of hundred years ago and which brought terror to their already dark nights.

The tale of The Strain begins in Romania in 1927 as a young boy named Abraham is being regaled with the tale of a legend of an unusually large, frail yet kind man by the name of Jusef Sardu who once walked with a cane in that land. The events epicenter revolves around an expedition when his father mounts an expedition into the woods to collect wolf meat which he thought would bring his son strength but instead of wolves though they found something else, something which killed all the men of the party but Jusef who supposedly tried to face the unknown force alone and who was the single person to return from the endeavor. But the Jusef that returned was not the same gentle giant who set out as he has changed as upon his return he became a recluse and the sound of his cane which once signaled treats for the village children grew sinister as its nighttime raping became a siren of doom that lured away the children from their homes to their deaths.

A quick change of time brings the story to the present day as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather is attempting to spend time with his young son Zack and normalize his life after his recent divorce, a situation which alone would be stressful enough as his interactions with his former wife aren’t exactly rude but more curt as he is fighting with everything he can muster to keep partial custody of his son. But this is merely the start of his problems as Dr. Goodweather gets a phone call dragging him into a mystery despite his protests and attempts to spend time with his son as Dr. Goodweather belongs to a special advance team of members from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that goes by the name of Canary who are to be sent in to ascertain the nature of emergencies where there appears to be an outbreak of particularly virulent and dangerous infections or other possible biological emergencies in order to try to quickly asses the threat.

The mystery he was pulled into surrounds a Boeing 777 that had landed at New York’s JFK airport and then without warning had fallen completely silent with no signs of life being visible from the outside. Given the day and age the airport quickly calls in the CDC who assembles their the Canary team which then enters the plane in full biohazard gear complete with a hazmat equipped SWAT team, not knowing what sort of pandemic or possibly hostage situation they may encounter within. Inside they find that 198 of the plane’s passengers and crew have died from causes the Canary team can’t immediately determine and that the 3 miraculously still surviving people on the plane have no idea or memory as to what might have happened with the only oddity immediately being present that might lead be a clue found in the presence of a very large, ornate and foul smelling coffin in the plane’s hold which isn’t listed in the plane’s manifest.

As Dr. Goodweather and his second in command work to uncover the mystery of the deaths on the flight it appears that some shadowy hands may be playing a role in the course of events, one of which looks to belong to an incredibly wealth and old man, Elderitch Palmer, who opines on how long life is the only thing that really matters in the world which lays an undertone that this event isn’t something that happened spontaneously but which was orchestrated to occur on the same day as a solar eclipse and the other hinted to belong to something far older than humanity is prepared to believe. Events start spinning madly as the three survivors of the flight start to act strangely and the corpses from the flight that were sent to different morgues throughout the city begin to stir. In the midst of this madness a number of people will come into contact with events, some to be victims and rise again as others find themselves fighting for their very lives. As events pick up speed Dr. Goodweather and Martinez are going to find all their years of study pale in the face of this new danger and they will have to rely on the experience and knowledge of an old man who they would normally ignore as a crank but who has been fighting monsters for many, many years and who may hold the only key to helping them stop this threat before it sweeps the first the city and then the world as he holds the key to the secret behind these creatures as well as their sudden appearance.

The nature of vampires as pop culture phenomena probably dates back to Bram Stocker’s Dracula which combined a number of myths and lore and while it wasn’t the first tale of vampires it is the one that has resonated to the greatest extent throughout the years and has played the biggest role in shaping the common perception of the creatures. When later combined with cinema and the performance by the legendary Bela Lugosi the vampire became almost cemented in the idea of the finely dressed and charismatic individual with a bit of noble bearing which holds the power to posses their targets and make the target succumb to the vampire’s will. Of course as cultures change legends adapt and the vampire has been along for the ride, occasionally being used as an eccentric old grandfather who experiments for fun, sometimes as a tortured soul who is striving for redemption in the face of his eternal damnation and sometimes even as a creature that sparkles in sunlight. For their story though the authors chose to reinvent the creature in a manner similar to its darker roots as they infuse this cultural boogeyman with a new and even more horrid and dangerous manner of preying on their victims than the traditional biting on the neck (fans of del Toro’s work on Blade II may find more than a little resonance with del Toro’s new vampires found in that feature).

Largely where the book works is in its slow build to terror as the authors don’t attempt to lure the reader in using the premise that the book may be doing a head fake as to whether the events really follow the course of a vampire infestation as the earliest pages of the book flat out state that the book will be dealing with the creatures which sets the bar that from the point that the creatures exist and from that foundation of a baseline premise the story begins the careful and structured building of events. The authors’ story then begins to work its magic as the initial folk tale like prologue sets the reader up to be spun around when the stories setting shifts to a much more modern environment as it plays off the present day nightmares of biological threats, either man made or natural, which helps focus the reader’s attention nicely and creating a realistic base for the story to leap off from. With this base set the characters are then put into play as they begin to confront these new creatures before them and some will find themselves placed into the most horrible of positions for the audience to watch and see how they and those around them will react to this seeming Hell on Earth situation. It is through this playing around the edges of science both in its study of the natural world that tries to explain events as well as the disciplines that deal with human psychology as well as those impressions and conclusions created simply through observations many people make of those they encounter that the book truly reaches the heights of terror and gains the ability to shock even the more jaded genre fan as it slowly twists the knife of chaos, panic and seemingly inevitable doom and despair.

The book does have flaws however (at least in this adaptation) as the time spent with Dr. Goodweather before dropping him into this nightmare scenario is a bit on the brief side and if one doesn’t catch on quickly to him and his struggles they will be left hanging a bit as he is often the focus of this introduction to the world of this narrative. In addition to that the book introduces a number of other characters who will likely find bigger parts to play later in the series but the inability to develop them in this format or at least at this time can make events a bit sink or swim as it is a bit harder to connect with their trials. Finally there is the whole pop culture issue as del Toro’s vampire does borrow a bit from a number of sources (including his own work on Blade II) and it is hard to escape the vibe that the book gives off when compared to some other horror creatures, particularly when it comes to some of the zombie films that have multiplied at seemingly an almost exponential rate (sort of like the creatures in the films themselves) over the past few years. Still, when the most famous book about vampire wasn’t exactly original itself it feels a bit shallow to sit down and create a long list of faults in the overlap between this and other interpretations and even doing so feels like it does a disservice to this story which has the ability to shock and amaze with its look at life and the undead as humans face extinction at the hands of an ancient menace now unshackled.

The art style for the comic goes with a bit of an interpretive look itself as it uses some less detailed appearances for some characters for a good deal of panels (though it can be far more detailed for others) at times with character models conforming a bit more to expressing emotion than staying with a strictly realistic approach. Along these lines the backgrounds and items in them often are less carefully and intricately detailed than some artist do but the more broad touches it tends to use create an incredible life of its own that a different style simply may not have matched. The colors used in the comic span the spectrum though blacks are rather common given the nature of the time of events and much of the art looks like it was done in a manner to give off the impression that it was painted which adds a fabulous and just slightly off from reality backdrop that helps to heighten the tension of the series and really bring its monsters to life.

In Summary:
Stories of vampires and their actions have long been with Western culture but rather than stick to one interpretation authors Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan have chosen to fuse together various elements of different legends with their own twist to present this tale of an ancient menace stalking the modern world with only a small number of people standing in the path between humanities survival and extinction. While the adaptation from the original novels likely losses something in the process of switching medium it gains a stylistic and often terrifying visage through the art work that will thrill many as it relates its gruesome events. Those who are looking for a good horror comic would be well advised to pick it up as would those simply looking for a fascinating tale of humanity pushed to its breaking point by the most unbelievable of evil.

Grade: A-

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