From the stack: VAMPIRE LOVES

May 25, 2006

In a recent piece at The Comics Reporter, Bart Beaty wondered how much Joann Sfar was too much. There’s no denying that he’s prolific, and his body of work is showing up more and more in English translation. But I’m still at the point where having too much Sfar to choose from seems like a lovely dream world.

Sfar’s meandering narratives and sometimes barbed observations about human nature are like spicy comfort food, familiar and satisfying but with a bit of bite. The latest I’ve read, Vampire Loves (:01 Books), transposes classic examples of relationship neuroses onto a vampire and his cronies.

If that suggests the melodrama of Anne Rice or the angst of Joss Whedon, don’t worry. Sfar’s far more interested in the smaller moments of connection and dysfunction than anything self-consciously deep. His protagonist, Ferdinand, just wants to find someone with whom he can share the rest of his death… or maybe not. He’s not sure.

Ambivalence isn’t the easiest thing to make entertaining. It can be irritating when the object of the ambivalence seems trivial or the weight of the character’s confusion seems out of proportion. While Ferdinand worries a lot about his prospects for romance and past mistakes in that arena, Sfar throws plenty of distractions in his path, whether it’s a police investigation, a gang of seafaring mummies, or finding dinner for his cat.

That isn’t to say that the relationship bits aren’t potent and funny. The central object of Ferdinand’s obsession, a tree spirit named Lani, could be dreadfully unsympathetic but miraculously isn’t. She doesn’t really mean to drive Ferdinand crazy; there’s no malice in her fickleness. But she simply doesn’t have the same emotional morality as Ferdinand, or really any of the men she encounters (and inadvertently torments).

Ferdinand bumps into a number of other romantic prospects (a smitten vampire cursed with a flirty older sister, a wispy phantom with a sense of adventure, and even a human who sees more of Europe than she might have expected). Each is appealing in her own way, as are Ferdinand’s male friends. It’s a large cast, featuring some characters who’ve apparently wandered over from Sfar’s (many) other works, but they all bring something unique to the conversation about life, death, love, conscience, and the many other subjects, big and small, that Sfar covers.

I’m very fond of Sfar’s illustrative style, too, though I always have trouble describing it. It’s crude but intricate, creepy but touching, and just right for this subject matter.

Vampire Loves is a charming ramble through emotionally and philosophically rocky territory. It doesn’t travel in a straight line, and it asks many more questions than it attempts to answer, but the company is excellent.