Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Vampire Free Style feeds my inner goth

I often feel a little nervous about reviewing self-published and small press books. Those projects have a difficult enough time getting any kind of attention that I don’t want to crush anyone’s butterfly with a negative review. When I don’t like a small press book, I usually just don’t write about it. Fortunately, Jenika Ioffreda’s Vampire Free Style is simple to review, because it’s lovely and charming. It’s not without flaws – mostly grammatical errors and some unnatural dialogue – but I found those increasingly easy to ignore because I liked the story and the characters so much.

Vampire Free Style is a gothic mystery/romance with heavy manga influences. Something that's not immediately apparent by looking at me is that I have a strong inner goth. It probably traces back to Universal monster movies, but I grew up on Sisters of Mercy and The Mission UK and love stories with dark, crumbling mansions, beautiful innocents, and sinister forces that conspire against them.

My manga experience on the other hand is extremely limited, but it's obvious even to me that Vampire Free Style’s sense of humor and pacing owes a lot to Japanese comics. Ioffreda’s art even reminds me a little of Bizenghast, the manga-inspired gothic series by M. Alice LeGrow (though I like Vampire Free Style a lot better than that one).

Vampire Free Style is about a young witch-boy named Padroncino who’s just lost the love of his life. His girlfriend Elea has gone missing and he’s distraught. If you made it past “gothic mystery/romance with heavy manga influences” above, I’m hoping that the characters’ names aren’t off-putting to you. It’s a trope of the genre and Ioffreda uses it well sometimes (I quite like Elea’s name, for instance) and not as well at others (Baron E. Van Darth).

As the story opens, a stray cat wanders into Padroncino's life and it quickly becomes apparent to the reader that the cat is in fact Elea. We know this because the cat keeps having flashbacks that are obviously from Elea’s point of view, but Padroncino knows nothing. As he investigates Elea’s disappearance, the real mystery for the reader isn’t what happened to her, but how did it happen and why?

Complicating the situation is a young man named Edward who’s hanging out with a group of goth kids. When he accidentally comes into contact with the cat on the street, he begins to have strange flashbacks to the eighteenth century where he also met and fell in love with a girl named Elea.

I don’t know how long Ioffreda intends the series to run, but there are six issues so far. It feels like she’s close to revealing everything, so I don’t want to go into any more detail about the plot and risk spoiling something. I’ll just say that the description above goes through around the third issue and that revelations abound in subsequent issues.

As much as I like the mystery aspect to the series though, I’m equally invested in the romance. At times, it feels like it's building toward a Casablanca-like dilemma for Elea. If she’s the same girl with whom Edward fell in love with in the past (the title of the series might be a clue to how that’s possible, but doesn’t explain all the details), she’s going to have a decision to make at some point. I’m not saying whether she is or isn’t the same girl; I’m just noting that Ioffreda plants the idea and that made me want to keep reading.

Like a lot of manga characters, Elea comes off a bit perfect, but it’s impossible to dislike her. She’s so sweet, so ideal – and Ioffreda draws her so beautifully – that I can’t help but root for her. The same goes for Padroncino. I want these lovely, crazy kids to end up together, even as I’m hoping that nothing bad happens to Edward in the process. That’s the story that drives Vampire Free Style and makes we want the seventh issue.

Though it’s primarily available in comics shops in the UK, I imagine that if you contact Ioffreda through her website, she’ll be glad to arrange something with you.

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