This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: Brianna Anderson (@bri_anderson13)
Bloody Activism and the Eco-Vampire in Dark Fang
Content Warnings: Blood, gore, sexual assault, violence
In the face of escalating climate change, many recent comics take up environmental issues. Often, these texts provide feel-good narratives of activism and empowerment. Miles Gunter and Kelsey Shannon’s series Dark Fang (2017) offers a subversive counterpoint to this trend by portraying gruesome and violent forms of environmental advocacy. The series centers on Valla, a young fisherwoman-turned-vampire. After her unwanted transformation, Valla retreats to the ocean, where she resides peacefully until the BP oil spill destroys her underwater refuge. Fleeing the toxic waste, Valla returns to the surface and discovers that capitalism and industrialization have poisoned the Earth. Horrified, the vampire attempts to singlehandedly destroy the fossil fuel industry and halt the impending mass extinction by slaying oil executives in a spectacularly gory murder spree.
As a transgressive yet sympathetic monster, Valla reflects larger anxieties about climate change and the inadequacy of current responses to environmental issues. She plays the role of the ‘eco-vampire,’ an emerging horror archetype that Simon Bacon (2020) defines as ‘an environmental warrior’ who serves ‘as a double or doppelgänger of humankind, simultaneously representing a dark mirror image of humanity’s own vampiric characteristics as well as actively trying to destroy or neutralize the forces of consumerist/technological progress’ (p. 8). In the face of mounting anger and fears about the future of the planet, eco-vampires spurn conventional—and largely ineffective—forms of environmental activism like recycling campaigns, instead playing out violent and taboo fantasies of consumption, female resistance, and radical ecoterrorism. Furthermore, by drawing parallels between the abuse of nature and women, the comic promotes an ecofeminist perspective. Examining Dark Fang from ecocritical and ecofeminist lenses, I argue that the horror comic uses the female eco-vampire to offer scathing critiques of capitalism, consumerism, and the gendered power structures that contribute to devastating environmental issues.
About the Author: Brianna Anderson is a Marion L. Brittain Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida. Her research interests include archival studies, children’s literature, comics studies, ecohorror, and youth-made artifacts. She has recently published in The Lion and the Unicorn.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 8: Cannibalizing Femininity, which will take place at 6:50 PM GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Brianna Anderson, who is a Marion L. Brittain Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida. Her research interests include archival studies, children’s literature, comics studies, ecohorror, and youth-made artifacts. She has recently published in The Lion and the Unicorn.
In the last ten years, comics and graphic novels about nature and environmental issues have boomed in popularity. These narratives overwhelmingly center on one figure: the young, attractive, and always passionate environmental heroine. These female protagonists typically engage in positive, small-scale environmental advocacy, like fixing local pollution or rescuing cute animals. The prominence of female eco-activists in recent comics reflects the real-life emergence of vocal girl advocates like Greta Thunberg and Mari ‘Little Miss Flint’ Copeny. In the face of the global climate crisis and other environmental issues, these real and fictional heroines offer the tantalizing promise that empowered girls and women will band together to save the world through direct action, protests, and speeches.
However, several recent horror comics counter these feel-good, girl-power narratives by portraying female protagonists who take part in darker and decidedly more violent forms of environmental activism. Miles Gunter and illustrator Kelsey Shannon’s five-issue comic Dark Fang (2017) is one of the most gruesome texts to emerge from this trend. The series centers on Valla, a young fisherwoman who gets unwillingly transformed into a vampire. After this violation, Valla retreats to the ocean until an oil spill destroys her underwater refuge. She returns to the surface and finds the twenty-first-century Earth ravaged by industrialization and teetering on the verge of environmental collapse. Realizing that human-made climate change will soon wipe out her food supply, Valla attempts to singlehandedly destroy the fossil fuel industry by slaying oil executives in a spectacularly gory murder spree.
Published in 2017, Dark Fang debuted at the tail end of the late 2000s and 2010s vampire boom. Many of these texts, like Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling Twilight series and The Vampire Diaries television show feature attractive ‘vegetarian’ vampires who only consume animal blood. Combining environmental concerns with erotic allure, these narratives make social consciousness and (faux) vegetarianism fun and sexy but rarely touch on real environmental issues. As Sarah McFarland Taylor (2019) speculates, ‘much of the green vampire’s appeal may lie in being the monster transformed—the energy-sucking, life-destroying, consumerist, blood-lusting vampire reformed, if not redeemed.” Dark Fang subverts this trend by retaining the environmental consciousness and the sex appeal, while also depicting a decidedly unredeemed vampire who paradoxically preys on humans to help the environment.
As a transgressive yet sympathetic monster, Valla reflects larger anxieties about climate change and the inadequacy of current responses to environmental issues. She plays the role of the ‘eco-vampire,’ an emerging horror archetype that Simon Bacon (2020) defines as ‘an environmental warrior’ who serves ‘simultaneously represent[s] a dark mirror image of humanity’s own vampiric characteristics as well as actively tr[ies] to destroy or neutralize the forces of consumerist/technological progress’ (p. 8). In the face of mounting anger and fears about the planet’s future, eco-vampires like Valla spurn conventional—and largely ineffective—forms of environmental activism like protests and recycling campaigns, instead playing out violent and taboo fantasies of ecofeminist resistance and radical ecoterrorism. Examining Dark Fang through ecocritical lenses, I argue that the horror comic uses the female eco-vampire to offer a scathing critique of capitalism, consumerism, and the gendered power structures that contribute to devastating environmental issues.
The comic’s first issue portrays Valla’s transformation into a monstrous woman and immediately establishes her close relationship with the environment. A flashback scene shows Valla as a young human living in a fishing village by the sea. One night, Valla walks home alone carrying a simple fishing rod and a few fish. On the beach, she encounters an unnamed male vampire who snares her in a green and blue cloak that visually echoes the ocean’s waves. The comic illustrates the male vampire as feral-looking and monstrous, with unruly green hair that resembles shrubbery and teal-colored skin that mirrors the blue color of the water. The visual parallels between the vampire’s rugged appearance and the landscape imply that the monster has an innate connection with the environment, blurring the boundary between human and nature.
Unlike Valla, the vampire does not only hunt small amounts of prey for sustenance. Instead, in an erotically charged panel, he first consumes Valla’s blood, grasping the terrified woman in his unnaturally long hands and penetrating her throat with sharp, animal-like fangs. In an unmistakable echo of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire takes the newly transformed Valla back to his castle, where he forces her to serve him and his three vampire brides. Scrubbing blood and entrails from the castle floor, Valla narrates, ‘I was their slave. Destined to clean up after their blood feasts for all eternity. Feeding on rats and the scraps of their kills.’ Despite his animal-like appearance, the male vampire’s gluttonous behavior and multifaceted exploitation of Valla—as food, as slave labor, and, as the erotic attack scene suggests, as a sexual object—serves as an implicit critique of human consumerism and greed. These historical scenes evoke the feudal past, indicating that present-day environmental crises continue a long tradition of gendered violence. Fittingly, Valla soon punishes the vampire for abusing her, stabbing him with her wooden mop—the symbol of her enslavement--and decapitating his brides.
The comic’s environmentalist message grows more apparent when Valla rejects the human world and takes refuge under the sea. Valla recounts, ‘I befriended the ocean. It clothed me. And fed me. I even made a friend. She was like me. Always feeding. Never stopping. She was the first best friend I ever had.’ The accompanying illustrations show Valla wearing a dress made from glowing, living jellyfish, eating a fish, and bonding with a great white shark. By describing herself as ‘befriending’ the ocean, Valla indicates that she views herself as developing an equitable and mutually beneficial relationship with the sea instead of simply extracting its resources for her wellbeing. Additionally, by showing the jellyfish voluntarily clothing the vampire and drawing parallels between Valla and her ‘best friend’ shark, the comic promotes ecofeminist views of nature by calling attention to the agency of nonhuman entities. As Alice Curry (2013) writes, ecofeminism ‘sees the natural others not as an incorporated or assimilated self but as an entity with its own subjective agency and intrinsic value.’ In other words, though Valla does drink the blood of fish, her monstrous ability to form close, empathetic relationships with marine life distinguishes her from the purely consumerist male vampire. These scenes invite readers to envision new, more equitable—albeit fantastical and unrealistic—ways of coexisting with the environment.
Eventually, however, an oil spill disrupts Valla’s underwater paradise. As Valla and her shark companion playfully battle a squid, a loud ‘KRAABOOOMM’ echoes under the water. The sound comes from an exploding oil platform, a familiar scenario that mirrors the widely publicized BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The real-life environmental disaster killed untold numbers of marine creatures, most of which died out of sight of the media. Dark Fang confronts readers with a shocking snapshot of this violence by portraying black, poisonous clouds of oil that envelop Valla, fish, sea turtles, and other fleeing marine creatures, with the oil soon filling the panels. Valla narrates, ‘All at once, a darkness enveloped the waters. But this was not the darkness I knew. It did not belong in the ocean. It consumed everything in its path, including me. Only my immortal powers enabled me to break free of its grasp.’ When Valla escapes from the oil, all sea creatures have vanished, presumably killed by the toxins. Only her glowing jellyfish dress remains unharmed, which Valla attributes to the creatures’ consumption of small amounts of her immortal blood. Nearby, she finds her shark friend lying motionless on the ocean floor, gravely wounded by the oil. Gazing into the shark’s tear-filled eye, Valla realizes, ‘She could no longer be true to her nature. There was only one thing I could do for my friend.’ The next panel shows a vivid red plume of blood curling up through the dark water as Valla kills the shark, ending the animal’s suffering.
The intermingling of blood, oil, organic life, and water in this scene highlights the strange interconnections between humans, environments, and substances. Stacy Alaimo (2016) terms this enmeshment ‘transcorporeality,’ or ‘the material interchanges across human bodies, animal bodies, and the wider material world’ (p. 112). Most obviously, Valla’s blood links her with the jellyfish dress, allowing the creatures to remain alive despite the toxic oil spill. In return, the jellyfish clothe her body and provide her with a source of light under the sea, sharing a mutually beneficial relationship with no apparent power hierarchies. Moreover, the images of Valla and the shark covered in oil offer readers a vision of, as Alaimo writes, ‘a more potent marine transcorporeality that [submerges] the human within global networks of consumption, waste, and pollution, capturing the strange agencies of the ordinary stuff of our lives’ (2016: p. 113). By depicting the deadly intermeshing of oil with organic life in the ocean, the comic asks readers to consider the unpredictable and often out-of-sight consequences of the fossil fuel industries and global capitalism. After exiting human production networks, oil and synthetic materials like plastics continue to exert ‘strange agencies’ on the world, permeating ecosystems and the bodies of individual creatures like sharks. Significantly, the comic also repeatedly draws parallels between blood and oil, using the vampire narrative to offer a scathing critique of human dependency on fossil fuels. The plumes of blood that rise from the shark in this scene and in the earlier illustrations of Valla eating the fish closely resemble the clouds of black oil that engulf the marine creatures and the vampire during the spill. By visually equating blood and oil, the comic underscores the grim ecological consequences of man-made fossil fuel catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Valla’s role as an eco-vampire also allows the comic to gesture at the vast temporal scales of environmental issues. The third issue begins with our heroine dreaming of a future Earth ravaged by climate change and mass extinction. In the opening panels, the hot sun boils away the water in the ocean, and flames consume an urban landscape, engulfing humans and vehicles. Soon, only Valla remains, a vampiric echo of the lone humans in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. Alongside these disturbing images, Valla narrates, ‘Mankind poisoned the Earth. They ignored the problem. Focusing on their distractions, their greed. Their petty grievances. Until it was all too late. As the Earth slowly purged itself of humankind, I hoarded their blood. Creating reservoirs underground. As much as I could take… and when that was gone I hunted down the last remnants of organic life.’ Her nightmare concludes with an emaciated Valla attempting and failing to commit suicide after she has exhausted every source of blood on Earth. Due to her immortality and her supernatural ability to have visions, the vampire perceives climate change as a far-reaching crisis that will continue to unfold far into the future. Timothy Morton (2013) describes such phenomena as ‘hyperobjects,’ or ‘things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans’ (p. 1). He argues that the vast dimensions of hyperobjects mean that they elude easy human comprehension, noting, ‘They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to’ (p. 1). By blending images of momentary human suffering with fantasies of boiling oceans and an utterly lifeless planet, Dark Fang emphasizes the vast temporal distance between fleeting human actions and the long-lasting consequences of climate change and fossil fuels, which will continue to negatively impact the Earth far beyond the lifespan of any individual human. As an immortal vampire, Valla operates outside conventional human timescales and fantasizes that she will eventually experience an apocalyptic future where all life has perished unless she takes drastic action.
Instead of accepting her dystopian fantasy as an unchangeable future, Valla takes action by using her vampiric powers to murder wealthy white male executives and politicians who have profited from the fossil fuel industry. Here, the narrative shifts to a bloody, and at times darkly hilarious, ecohorror revenge narrative. In the second issue, Valla seeks to avenge her marine companions by hunting down A. J. Mastersen, the CEO of the company responsible for the oil spill. At Mastersen’s luxurious mansion, she discovers the man swimming naked in a pool full of purple gelatin. The pool highlights the CEO’s wasteful consumerism as he spends untold amounts of money on disposable gelatin instead of helping ocean ecosystem that his corporation has damaged. Interrupting this odd pool party, Valla forces Mastersen to give her a list of his business partners and drowns him in the jello, vowing to give other members of the fossil fuel industry ‘fates far worse than this gelatinous embrace.’ The issue’s last panel shows the CEO choking to death on jello, just as the sea creatures drowned in the crude oil during the spill.
A similarly over-the-top murder occurs in issue 3 when Valla expands her vengeful mission to the American government. Dressed in a sexy white power suit, the vampire crashes the birthday party of Senator Austin, another wealthy white man who has presumably profited from his fossil fuel dealings with Mastersen. She discovers that the senator has captured two endangered white lions, which, he informs her, he ‘was going to kill… with a rocket launcher while drinking a bottle of champagne from the year I was born.’ Valla declares that she will use the senator’s private plane to return the lions to the man’s vast property, where his fortune will support their preservation. By seizing Austin’s wealth for the benefit of the environment, Valla promotes forcibly confiscating the elite’s wealth as a viable—and perhaps necessary—strategy for conservation. The scene concludes with a close-up image of Valla’s bright red lips as she wishes the man ‘Happy birthday’ and feeds him to the lions. The final illustration depicts the two big cats entirely drenched in the senator’s blood, their white fur stained a vivid red. Instead of slaying the lions for meaningless entertainment, Austin serves as their food in a very literal case of ‘eating the rich.’
Following the senator’s murder, the president of the United States delivers a live television address about Valla’s killing spree. He informs watching American citizens,
‘For the past few months we have seen unprecedented terrorist attacks upon American soil… I know that right now many of you are afraid. You’ve stopped filling up your cars and your trucks with gas for fear that you will be a victim of the next attack. I am here to tell you not to be afraid! Unless you work in the oil and gas industry, you are not at risk.’
Unable to conceive of Valla’s murder spree as an act of radical environmentalism, the president instead dismisses the death as organized ‘terrorist attacks’ that seek to ‘undermine our way of life.’ In a moment reminiscent of George Bush’s post-9/11 message that Americans should go shopping, this fictional president urges the American people to continue consuming gas, prioritizing the economic health of the fossil fuel corporations over the safety of his country and the environment. However, Valla disproves the president’s claim that only fossil fuel industry employees are in danger when she interrupts the live broadcast and violently decapitates him. A grid of fifteen small panels shows a geyser of blood erupting from the stump of the man’s neck as shocked—and, in two cases, delighted—viewers watch from surrounding panels. These extremely bloody, almost hilariously unrealistic deaths confront the audience with the horrors of consumerism, environmental degradation, and political corruption, with the white male victims consistently appearing more monstrous than the righteously murderous Valla.
In the final issue, Valla attempts to partake in one last act of environmentalism. The series concludes with the American government hunting down Valla and launching a nuclear missile at her castle, a final act of cruelty from the white men who have consistently sought to oppress her throughout the comic. Trapped, Valla tries to use her cell phone to access the chat room she has been using to hypnotize men into donating their money to her environmentalist endeavors. She reflects, ‘If I can influence their minds to give me money… I can make them love their Earth the way they should. I will fall, but they will continue my efforts. Every day they will commit themselves to burning the poison out of the world.’ Instead of continuing to battle the fossil fuel industry individually, the vampire realizes that she can generate change through the mass mobilization of her online audience. Here, she pivots from vengeance and violence to the more positive emotion of ‘love,’ encouraging her followers to adopt her ecofeminist care for the planet and work to eliminate the ‘poison’ that has damaged both herself and the environment. However, Valla’s phone battery dies before she can send her message. The comic ends somewhat ambiguously with the missile blowing up the castle, apparently killing Valla. In the final panels, the vampire walks across a lunar-like landscape that may be heaven or the moon as voiceover text from a news broadcast announces the successful elimination of a ‘radical environmental terrorist cell… responsible for the assassinations of numerous members of the US Congress as well as high-ranking executives for a number of petrochemical corporations.’ Ultimately, Valla fails to achieve the environmental reform that she desires, ending the comic on a final note of despair and disappointment as the government and the fossil fuel industry apparently triumph.
Unfortunately, Image Comics canceled Dark Fang after Issue 5. However, the comic effectively uses the ecohorror genre and the eco-vampire trope to promote ecofeminist views of nature. The series fosters care and concern for the environment by repeatedly extending agency to nonhuman entities, such as the loyal jellyfish dress and the shark. Moreover, the emphasis on the transcorporeal enmeshment of humans with the environment and materials, challenges conventional views of humans as separate from and superior to nature. The comic also educates readers about environmental injustice by drawing attention to the ways that climate change and other ecological catastrophes disproportionately impact vulnerable people, organisms, and even monsters. Most significantly, though, Dark Fang responds to the frightening inadequacy of traditional forms of environmental activism in the Anthropocene. As climate change continues to escalate unabated and disasters like the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill wreak havoc across vast spatial and temporal scales, it has become increasingly evident that individual, small-scale forms of environmental advocacy like recycling will never effectively address these enormous and systemic issues. In the face of this grim reality, Dark Fang indulges monstrous fantasies about avenging nature and inflicting violence on the capitalist and patriarchal power structures that harm the environment and women. Though the comic’s ending ultimately gestures at the need for collective action instead of individual acts of eco-terrorism, the text also points to the need for more radical stories that portray women as empowered environmental warriors who express the anger and fear for the future experienced by many contemporary young people. As humanity struggles to come to grips with its consumerist vampirism, monstrous women like Valla can work against capitalist ideologies and help envision new, more transformative ways of relating to and defending the environment.