By Joann Sfar
First Second Books
From The Addams Family to Mitsukazu Mihara’s Haunted House, one of the great modern comedy tropes is taking stock horror-film characters and depicting them as regular folks. Little Vampire uses that convention to good effect: The title character is less Vlad the Impaler than Dennis the Menace, a sweet boy who wants to go to school and make friends, not suck people’s blood. He does have some of a vampire’s cultural traits—fear of light and garlic—but he is also blessed with loving parents and a houseful of friendly monsters whose comical antics are one of the best things about this book.
Each of the three stories in this book starts with a simple premise: Little Vampire goes to school, Little Vampire’s friend Mike wants to fight a bully, Little Vampire and Mike rescue animals from an evil scientist. But the stories are filled with twists and turns. Sometimes they drift away from the original premise, but that’s OK; the world Sfar creates for this books is interesting enough that he doesn’t have to always push the story forward.
The characters really make this story. Little Vampire himself isn’t that interesting, but I like his human friend Mike a lot; he’s a straight talker who questions the existence of God, fights monkeys and a dragon to learn Kung Fu, and isn’t in the least intimidated by Little Vampire’s ghoulish circle. Little Vampire’s father, the Flying Dutchman of legend, and Mike’s grandfather, a doctor who survived the Holocaust, are not only gentle and wise, they talk to the children as equals. That’s one of the great strengths of this book: The moral dimension comes in the form of questions rather than answers, suggesting avenues of thought rather than preaching. I do wish that there was an interesting female character; Little Vampire’s mother is kind and loving but doesn’t get to say much, and the only other girl is Mike’s friend at school, who is nice but unremarkable.
Despite the subject matter, I don’t think most kids will find this book scary. The monsters that live with Little Vampire are more funny than frightening (one, a giant named Marguerite, brings a wheelbarrow of poop with him wherever he goes, because “it might come in handy”). There is some cartoon violence—the monsters eat a bully, offstage, then vomit up the bits so they can be reassembled. Sfar handles this with little gore, and Marguerite’s insistence that he would much rather eat cakes than little boys should reassure the timid reader.
I’m usually not a big fan of Sfar’s art, but his squiggly expressionism and attenuated figures serve this story well, and he doesn’t skimp on details or backgrounds. The characters are solid, convincing, and well defined. The colors are rich and full of contrast, and First Second has done a superb printing job, displaying Sfar’s work at its best. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is about the cover: Highlighting the figures and the title with spot varnish, so they pop off the page, is a nice touch, but the matte black background scratches too easily, making the book look beat-up after only a few readings.
There is a real richness to Little Vampire. The pictures are full of little details, and the conversations are full of asides. This complexity rewards the more mature reader, while the stories themselves are straightforward enough for children. In short, this is a book that parents can enjoy with their kids. More likely, though, they will have to tiptoe in and steal the book while the kids are sleeping. Little Vampire is subversive in a way that kids love, and parental approval would take the fun out of it. So if you see a copy of this at home, put on your best disapproving face, and don’t ever let them hear you laugh.
This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher.