Published on July 18th, 2014 | by Steven Roman
Review: The Strain, Book 1
I’ll be completely honest: I hated the original Strain novel on which this graphic novel—and the recently launched FX television series—is based on; couldn’t even finish it. Written by acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) and Chuck Hogan (more the latter than the former doing the work, I’d imagine), it tells the story of a modern-day vampiric plague created by The Master—one of the seven original vampires. Battling him is a varied cast of characters, including lead hero Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, an epidemiologist working for the Centers for Disease Control (which makes sense, given the viruslike spread of the disease); his assistant/lover Nora Martinez; and Abraham Setrakian, an old man who essentially plays the part of vampire (or as they’re called here, strigoi) expert Professor Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Sounds like a good setup, even though it borrows a few elements from Stoker: the wizened authority on vampires; men of science battling creatures of superstition; an airliner standing in for the Demeter, the ship that brought the count from Transylvania to England—only in this case, the plane (with The Master aboard) lands at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The one major change is in the way vampires are presented. Forget about handsome, romantic, sparkly members of the undead that became all the rage in recent years—the vampires in The Strain are more like the horrific, oh-God-what-the-hell’s-it-doing-with-its-mouth types seen in one of del Toro’s earlier directorial successes: Blade II.
The problem, though, was that the novel (the first of three) was too long, too boring, stunningly cliché-ridden, and inhabited by some of the most dickish, unlikeable characters you could imagine. How are we supposed to cheer for Goodweather when he’s presented as a workaholic father who continually puts the CDC above his son, Zack, even after the family has split apart? (That’s like a top-tier cliché.) His ex-wife is a shrew (of course) battling him for custody of the boy; her new boyfriend is a dolt (naturally); and the moment Zack shows up, you can pretty much start the countdown clock as to when he’s either going to be in danger, or put others in danger. ’Cause that’s what kids do in these kind of things. (Did somebody out there say, “Where’s Carl?” Then you know what I mean.) I also didn’t need to become intimate with what started to seem like every passenger on the plane, after they returned to their respective homes. When the novel began feeling like the world’s longest novelization of a movie that didn’t exist, mixed with the authors’ apparent desire to drag out the story to the length of Stephen King’s The Stand (the unabridged version), I gave up. You can’t make me care about a cast of assholes in a 600-page paperback, not when the writing is this dull.
And so we come to The Strain, Book 1, a hardcover collection of all eleven issues of the Dark Horse Comics adaptation by writer David Lapham (Stray Bullets, Ferals, Crossed) and artist Mike Huddleston (Batgirl, Harley Quinn, Friday the 13th: Bad Land) released to coincide with the broadcast of the television series. Could they succeed in making a terribly written story that had so much promise…not so terrible?
Somewhat. Goodweather is still a dick, his wife still a shrew, and Zack’s countdown-to-danger clock is ticking away, but Lapham does an admirable job of tightening some of the novel’s bloated length (e.g., dispensing with some of the needless splinter plots involving the numerous plane passengers) and making the story—especially Setrakian’s personal history—interesting. As for his collaborator, one of the advantages of comics is that it’s a visual medium that allows you to show rather than tell, and so rather than having to deal with Hogan’s prose, we have Huddleston, who does a great job of depicting (as the old saying goes) ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, and in giving an old-school horror vibe to the art. So yes, Lapham and Huddleston do succeed in making The Strain, Book 1 a better read than its source novel.
Bottom line? If you hated the novels, you might find The Strain, Book 1 more enjoyable. If you loved the novels, The Strain, Book 1 is a good addition to your library. (Also, this graphic novel trilogy may be as far as you get with this property’s licensed merchandising; I doubt you’ll ever find plush strigoi dolls at Toys R Us or Walmart.) If you enjoy the current television adaptation but have read neither the novels nor the comics, then The Strain, Book 1 will help you get a leg-up on your coworkers and friends—and then, like fans who knew what was coming in Game of Thrones’ notorious “Red Wedding” episode, you’ll be able to sit back and watch everyone else’s horrified reactions as The Master’s Strain infects the world.
The Strain, Book 1
Adaptation by David Lapham
Based on the novel by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
Art by Mike Huddleston
Cover by E. M. Geist
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
272 pages • full-color • hardcover graphic novel
On sale now
Steven A. Roman is the author of the Saga of Pandora Zwieback novel series and the graphic novel Lorelei: Sects and the City, and the bestselling author of the novels X-Men: The Chaos Engine Trilogy and Final Destination: Dead Man’s Hand. Follow his adventures in publishing at StarWarp Concepts.