Review by Jamie McNeil
The supernatural has always provided interesting source material for storytellers, and around the period of the mid 1990s to early 2000s you couldn’t move for the sheer amount of genre literature, illustrated or otherwise, being produced. To that vast catalogue of stories both excellent and utterly dire we submit Scared to Death, a French series from writer Virginie Vanholme and artist Mauricet aimed at the pre- to early-teen market from the turn of the millennium.
Robin and Max are very different boys. Robin is clever and reserved while Max is the handsome lad with borderline ADHD who finds trouble, but despite the differences, they are good friends. What they have in common is shared love of video games and an interest in the macabre; something Robin’s house is not short on. His father is Doctor Lavigne, an unspecified medical practitioner and academic whose study is full of all sorts of strange cases holding no end of fascination for the boys. Not that they should be in there. Robin usually sneaks in and he has something to show Max: photographs of his father’s latest case, an unsolved mystery of a dead man riddled with small puncture wounds found at Deadwater Swamp. Max jokingly suggests that a band of vampires have moved into town and- just for fun- they decide to look into it. They don’t realise how close to the truth they are.
The Vampire from the Marshes is part horror, part adventure, building on a growing sense of foreboding through the suggestion that something unnatural is occurring. This is a skill Vanholme employs well in tandem with a talent for scripting very believable personalities. Max and Robin sound and feel like normal boys, a sense enhanced by Mauricet’s dynamic cartooning and skilful rendering of expressions and movements through hard lines and shadows. There’s also a wide variety of body shapes on display and it’s impressive how the artist captures Max’s energy, Dr Lavigne’s gangly frame or a policeman’s burly stature. It’s a book for kids so Mauricet has toned down the art in places to avoid it being overly creepy, facilitating shadows and layout to set the tone and helped by colourist Laurent’s evocative palette.
There’s a lot to like about Scared To Death but a few things keep it from being a great story (in English anyway). There’s a plausible but unsatisfying conclusion to a mystery that may/may not be setting up later storylines in the series, though it’s unlikely the intended readership are going to quibble or notice.
Some of the humour is slightly bawdy and there’s some mild swearing, both common to a company of boys. Ask anyone with sons or brothers. However, Luke Spear’s translation is odd, making the lads sound like upper middle-class old men in a country club. It does Vanholme’s script no justice, diluting her attempts to capture what boys are like, and clashes with Mauricet’s art, which succeeds in capturing a spirit of adventure. It’s hard not to think this be a much better story with an updated, more respectful translation.
There’s a charm to The Vampire from the Marshes with its lovely character interplay and decent artwork, making it pleasant despite its flaws which are primarily no fault of the creators. The series continues in Malevolence and Mandrake.