CONTENT WARNING: This article contains discussion of abusive relationships.
When a friend recommended I watch a low budget webseries about a lesbian vampire who falls in love with her plucky college roommate, I didn’t realize it was based on Carmilla, a vampire novella by Sheridan Le Fanu older than Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I was fascinated that behind this goofy YouTube show there was a story written during a time when queerness was widely reviled, but provided a twisted yet insightful piece of queer representation. Later, when I was working on a piece about Jane Mai’s comics, I found a preview on her website for a zine called Soft, described as a modern retelling of Carmilla. Soft, however, was completely unavailable – I even asked Mai at a comics festival about it, and she affirmed there was no way I could access a copy.
May 7, 2015
Until now, three years later, when Peow Studio launched a digital store — and included a PDF of Mai’s comic Soft for only nine bucks! With some fellow WWAC writers as my witnesses, I yelled a lot, and then I bought it.
I read Soft immediately, vowed to finally read Carmilla, dawdled, actually read Carmilla, and then read Soft again. While it’s a much older work of Mai’s, I was blown away by how easily she swept all the pieces of Laura and Carmilla’s complicated and very unhealthy relationship into a beautiful but heartbreaking story.
In Le Fanu’s novella, Laura is both enamored with Carmilla and disgusted by her. Laura frequently describes loving gestures of Carmilla’s — and there are several such gestures. Carmilla wraps her arm around Laura’s waist, nuzzles her neck, touching her at every opportunity — or describing her beauty. However, Laura often follows these lines by marveling at her simultaneous feelings of repulsion toward the other girl. Readers of the era were, of course, meant to see this as foreshadowing — clearly some evil is afoot, and Carmilla has something to do with it. In Soft, Mai perfectly captures Laura’s complicated emotions in one succinct line: “Something, some tiny thing in the back of my mind found her repulsive, and I never knew if it was Carmilla or the shame I felt in myself.”
Laura’s internalized homophobia plays a central role in Soft. In an early scene, she seems to be looking at pornographic photos of women in her room, and hides them when her father walks in. As she slowly falls in love with Carmilla, she reveals to the reader that the hardest thing to admit to herself wasn’t Carmilla’s vampirism — that she seems to simply accept as their relationship grows more intense — but that the object of her affection was a girl. Later, after she’s been with Carmilla awhile, two boys accuse her of being a “dyke,” and she vehemently denies it. When Carmilla kills the boys, Laura is able to confront her about their deaths, but cannot discuss her denial of their relationship.
The slow draining of a partner’s life force works well as a metaphor for an abusive relationship, and Laura’s deep sense of shame coupled with Carmilla’s cruel jealousy leads her to isolation. Afraid to face her own feelings, Laura sneaks out of the apartment she shares with her father to see Carmilla, and shuts out her best friend, June. When she’s too exhausted to participate in gym and goes to the nurse, the nurse asks Laura if her “boyfriend” is abusive. In two painful panels, Laura looks at her, then looks down, and simply says “no.” No, she doesn’t have a boyfriend, and if she can’t admit Carmilla’s role, how can she ever ask for help? Nor could anyone assume Carmilla might have such influence on her to intervene. It’s easier to continue giving up her blood, her time, her vitality, and her supportive relationships, all for Carmilla.
Soft is drawn entirely on graph paper, with a dark purple colored pencil that makes the whole comic feel faded, like pages from an old diary, and gentle. Laura narrates the story, and her past tense narration feels right, as if she is drawing this story in a composition notebook from school and relaying it to a friend. The panel backgrounds are sparse, which also feels right for a story about abuse and isolation – the emphasis is fully on the characters, especially on Laura. Carmilla’s beauty still shines through the simple line drawings, and her long, darkly shaded hair takes up a great deal of space in the small panels to draw the reader’s eye. While the story is largely Laura’s, the heaviness of Carmilla’s presence does more than just remind the reader of her dark role in Laura’s life. We empathize with Laura’s fascination with this gorgeous girl, and are ready to pick up the pieces of her origin story, and fill in the gaps.
Before things reach their darkest, Laura gifts Carmilla a few books, including a copy of Frankenstein. Carmilla reveals that it’s her favorite novel and remarks, “It’s so, so sad, how they treated his creation.” Her empathy for the monster is apt, because Carmilla herself is a kind of creation. She was murdered by a girl whose name she then stole. She doesn’t hesitate to call herself a monster, and she mourns the time when she was human – when she was still fragile, and soft.
There are two images in Soft which parallel each other. The first appears at the end of the scene with Laura in the nurse’s office, passing off a neck bruise from one of Carmilla’s bites as a simple hickey. After she declares herself to be “OK,” we get a full-page illustration of Laura holding her hand to cover the bite mark on her neck. However, other bruises, drips of blood and wounds are clearly visible on the other side of her neck, on her wrist, her shirt and her sweater. Later, when Laura finally confronts Carmilla and causes the vampire to recall her humanity, we get a similar full-page illustration. Carmilla is crying, she has a slash mark on her chest where Laura tried to stab her, and there are shadows on her neck and arm that could be bruises. Carmilla is an abuser, but she’s also a Frankenstein’s monster – a once-soft creature recreated through abuse.
With Soft, Mai has taken the most horrifically timeless elements of Carmilla and crafted a story that, even years later, feels like it could have happened yesterday. The comic is a steal at nine dollars, and you can get it and read it immediately from Peow Studio’s digital store.