Thunderstruck silhouettes of beautiful young men weeping, leaping, languishing, caught in the wind of stormy melodrama, uttering tearful declarations with a slender weight you could sink under. Sappy poems drifting over flowery spreads, time stopping and rushing all at once. These are the impressions The Poe Clan leaves with its reader, and they must not be far off from what its protagonists feel as well, ageless vampires caught in the beauty of their youth like flies in amber.
The Poe Clan is a less a comic that you read and more a comic you fall into. Hagio arranges her panels on the page like whirlpools, dragging you deeper into a swell of overwhelming emotional chaos, tender affection gripping your attention like a vice. On an early page, an obsessively cross-hatched rose lies gleaming over a sequence of sparkly eyed lads confronting one another and it feels like a punch in the face.
In this early work, Hagio’s craft is not so consistent and refined as in her later comics, certainly not the screen-toned polish of Otherworld Barbara. The comics in this volume were originally made quickly for a magazine that didn’t care much about literary quality, by an artist not yet rocketed to shojo manga immortality by the success of collected reprints. These comics are not works of prestige but the fruit of deadlines, diamonds in the rough of mass entertainment. Born under the frenzy of commercial pressure, Hagio’s illustrations are buoyant and vibrantly alive in that way cartooning ought to be. Her line flows freely from thick slashes to slender details, labored stippling to automatic doodles, lush spreads to functional pages. The fluency of Hagio’s artistry drags us into her tumultuous melodrama, lending an honest emotional intensity to what would otherwise be gaudy pulp.
The Poe Clan’s strengths in craft accompany a narrative that in the hands of a less talented writer would be forgettable genre fare. Beginning as a generic gothic tale for children, the comic makes wild gestures as it grows from a low-stakes short story into a complex serial. Like an adolescent in the throes of puberty, moment by moment, the work is childish, but taken as a whole, an assertion of newfound maturity comes into focus.
Initially, The Poe Clan is a romance set in an idealized historic England about a boy who becomes fascinated with a beautiful, ethereal girl named Marybelle, a sickly child whose brother Edgar protects her obsessively. Thrilling enough as cliched fiction, a well executed short comic, but not something necessarily suggesting a special body of work to come.
But the story was popular enough to continue. The second chapter is similar but longer and more intense, starting with a hunter accidentally shooting Marybelle and seeking help for the girl while under the scornful eye of Edgar. Eventually we gather that the titular Poe Clan are a commune of Vampirnella, a version of Vampires invented by Hagio for this comic. The difference between Vampirnella and vampires is that Hagio’s name for them sounds prettier, but Hagio’s version of beauty is idiosyncratic enough that the separation from vampire feels appropriate.
From here Hagio skips around in time a little, doling out lore and emotional depth in equal measure before arriving at the present. Later, in the longest continuous story in the book, the Poe clan is decimated and Marybelle is slain by an angry mob reminiscent of a prettier and more lethal variation on a Universal monster movie. Remaining are Edgar and the newest member of the Poe Clan, Alan, a haughty yet sensitive young boy who fascinated Edgar while he was human.It’s a bit of a spoiler to mention this as it takes about 100 pages to reach this traumatic break, but this moment becomes so fundamental to the series, not mentioning it would be like trying to describe Spider-Man while talking around what happens to Uncle Ben. After this, the series has a bit of a narrative hiccup, flashing back to a complicated (and oddly Rose of Versailles-ish; I smell an editor) love triangle Marybelle was caught in before she became a vampirnella. Once this admittedly lush side story mercifully winds down the series finds a stable premise and comes of age with Edgar and Allan Poe (yep.) at its center.
Perhaps volume two will see this premise hurtle again into the unknown, but at the close of this book we have a relatively clear concept - the two Vampirnella travel from town to town, getting entangled in the angst of the homosocial adolescent spaces they infiltrate (boarding schools!) and fleeing when they are discovered to be different. Allan is impulsive, struggling to contain his cravings as a young Vampirnella, but he is sensitive. Edgar, while more mature, masks deep emotional scars with an air of arrogance and domineering wrathfulness. They are at once shattered children and powerful forces of nature, their separation from humanity raising the stakes of emotional conflict to the heights of melodrama and ultimately chaos. Homoerotic yearning permeates these chapters, both implied and directly addressed, while the memory of Marybelle haunts interactions with an equal ferocity.
The homoeroticism both subtextual and textual in The Poe Clan must have appealed greatly to Hagio’s teen girl audience, but Hagio’s subversion runs deeper than titillation.The female gaze Hagio places on men and male attraction is functionally a pretense for a playful exploration of gender roles, less overt in this comic than in her later work, but just tangible and deliberate enough to let a curious mind run wild. Hagio’s Europe does not exist, and its inhabitants could be anyone, their bodies anything. Maybe they’re you, reader, or maybe they’re who you want to be. While Edgar and Alan are never explicitly defined as lovers, their cohabitation, their position as two messy young men together against the world, raises unspoken possibilities of alternative lifestyles and expressions more radical than the boyish crushes confessed explicitly by other characters.
Poor lost Marybelle, perhaps a one-dimensional cypher, the desired gothic virgin embodying a very narrow notion of femininity in the guise of tragedy, functions in the best moments of The Poe Clan less as a character and more as a sign of an ideal, prelapsarian feminine past, an embodiment that cannot be attained and whose loss cannot be reversed. So many boys and men throughout this series have lost daughters, sisters, lovers, and friends who look just like Marybelle. Perhaps every dead girl is Marybelle in Hagio’s world, perhaps every romantic and repressed man has lost her. One starts to get the sense after a time that Marybelle is less someone these people knew but rather an absence to be measured against, an ideal to possess or abandon remaining a source of internal conflict or regret nonetheless. From her initial weakness and need for protection to the trauma of her death which reverberates through the series, each character wrestles with their relation to her in reflection to their relationship to, desire for, repulsion by or distance from the unattainable girlhood embodied by her essence, eternally young and forever dead.
[ Shifting the narrative forward into the present day of course means awkwardly walking around the atrocities of recent memory - In an interlude set in a romantic German setting, a flashback to a generation’s worth of time passed between chapters gives mention of Hitler and the Nazi party barely a page, two narrow panels addressing this dark time directly before moving on. It would be unfair to expect Hagio to deliver a nuanced reflection on Shoah in a shojo vampire romance, but as a Jewish man living in a time and place where Nazi sympathizers choose anime avatars when they anonymously harrass people online, it is at least worth acknowleging that a fantasy comic about eternally beautiful youths with blond hair and blue eyes in an ideallized Europe does not exist in an ideological vacuum.