Stories about the undead grow in number every day. Most remain forgettable. Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing’s four part Raptors graphic novel turns out to be anything but.
A few words about the artwork. Something about it feels European, and indeed such proves to be the case. What I read was an English translation, but the images retain the kind of heightened reality at which super hero comics in particular excel. Unlike (for example) Buffy, the costumes worn by many characters simply don’t make sense–at least not naturalistically. Bright crimson almost never helps when it comes to stealthy sneaking up on anyone. Long hair worn loose gets in the way during hand-to-hand combat, as do voluminous coats. No matter! Everything about these four volumes looks and feels like an intricate dream world, a distorted version of the world we know, tinted with nightmare.
Another sign of non-American origins–sex. Raptors includes the kind of material most publishers avoid yet cannot help but feel refreshing. Not simply because sex happens in the story, but the edginess of that sex. Full frontal nudity (male and female) for example. For another, lesbianism as well as incest and the blending of eroticism with violence too often hinted at or (much worse) underplayed. Indeed, the whole four volume story successfully manages to both rivet and disturb. No easy answers here. Even a just war is a thing of darkness. The best of us have sides to our personalities we’d like to ignore or pretend don’t exist.
Set in modern day New York City, the story (initially) centers around a bizarre series of murders–each victim drained of blood, a pin driven into the skin behind the right ear. Even weirder, autopsies reveal each victim in absolutely perfect health, no matter what their age. Inspector Lenore and her partner Spiaggi soon run afoul of a gigantic corruptive conspiracy worthy of the most paranoid of film noir. Vampires–the city’s elite–view those like Lenore and Spiaggi as cattle. But someone else, a pair of enemies from centuries past, sees the decadent rulers of this city in much the say way. Drago and Camilla, brother and sister lovers, long for revenge against those who killed their vampire parents, a pair of proud nobles in medieval Spain unwilling to give up their lives as pure predators. Now the twins cut a swathe through the undead of New York–with both Lenore and her partner caught in between it all.
This tiny precis of the plot barely hints at the twists and turns, many of them heart-breaking, the plot takes over the course of four books. What may be most impressive about the whole work remains how it never pulls a dramatic punch. Yet at the same time this is anything but a story of despair. Desperation, yes. Also, cruelty and terror coupled with the peeling back of mystery after mystery. Still, genuine heroes show their mettle–often in unexpected ways. What could have easily been a long descent into pure darkness, proves an epic tale of strange salvation. The mass of humanity, not necessarily innocent but undeserving of what some plan for them, end up protected–at a price. The way it happens in the real world.
Likewise characters, for all their intensity and heightened natures, remain nuanced. We come to understand certain points of view, even (slightly) sympathize with them. After all, is it not better to be civilized than savage? Yet isn’t a ruthless hunter of human prey at the very least an honest vampire, not a hypocrite, in the end even less damaging than those who wrap their bloodlust with self-righteousness?
Makes for a compelling tale, albeit not one for children. Sex is the least of it. Along with the beautiful we find plenty of the grotesque. A set of parents murdered is one thing. Another set (human in this case) rigidly and deliberately humiliating their own child is another. Not so much because Raptors makes for a dark story, but because the darkness remains complex. A sophisticated urban fantasy steeped in blood–what frankly Underworld tries to be only to ultimately fail (too “nice” too “simple” too straightforward).