Over time the metaphorical meaning of the vampire has diversified, shifting away from its earliest existence as a literary representation of xenophobic beliefs. Whatever cultural fear or anxiety vampires come to represent is dependent on the context of the story and the storyteller’s motivations. Sarah Nelson’s Daniel, a horror webcomic about a young man turned into a vampire, is one of the latest twists on the vampire metaphor. Aside from drinking the blood of strangers, Daniel’s love for his dear Christine turns into a horrific obsession. He uses manipulation and threats of harm to keep her. Vampirism in the context of the story is toxic masculinity, a problem that is terrifying not only in extreme manifestations but prevalent social norms.
Rather than use the modern era to comment on these social norms, though, Nelson sets Daniel in Oak Parkland, Illinois in 1934, but makes the curious decision to feature few cultural references to this decade. The only one I can recall is a mention of “Lights Out,” a radio show dedicated to horror and the supernatural. The culture of 1930s America is mostly a visual aesthetic. Sarah Nelson authentically recreates the fashion, architecture, and technology.
That adherence to a vintage visual aesthetic is likely a big part of why Nelson chooses to make the comic 90% black and white. This color choice has several artistic strong points. One is how it recalls the fact that most visual media in the 1930s was black and white. This includes photographs, film, and cartoon illustrations in magazines and newspapers. Speaking of film, black and white allows Nelson to use techniques of light and shadow similar to that of pre-color cinema, particularly horror. Most notable are the moments a character has a dream or flashback which is visually cued as characters and objects isolated by a black or bright background and shrouded in mist. It’s an eerie, uncanny effect that unsettles the reader.
Subtle unease is the primary type of horror in Daniel. It creeps up on the reader until the scene reaches a shattering climax. Many times, Nelson breaks from the black and white palette to include color. These are at the most violent moments of the comic featuring blood and gore. They are also when the theme of toxic masculinity peaks. Daniel is at his mot violent, abusive, and manipulative. This includes a scene of him forcing Christine on a bed while he drinks from her neck. The way he restrains and taunts her is reminiscent of a sexual assault.*
Choosing color for peak moments of toxicity goes beyond shock value, it symbolically reveals the truth beneath the setting’s black and white morale. During the 1930s, America experienced a massive change in gender roles. Men were having a hard time finding work. As such, many stayed at home with nothing to do. They wouldn’t even contribute to housekeeping because that was seen as women’s work. Women were forced to take the initiative. They found jobs and for the first time ever the power dynamic of who was the breadwinner of the house changed.
Men were not happy about this. They accused women of stealing jobs and being too emotionally frail for working environments. It didn’t help that pop culture narratives reinforced ideals that men should be strong and outgoing. This may have distracted men from blaming the private sector and government who actually failed to provide jobs, not to mention gave them an unhealthy motivation to reclaim their masculinity.
Toxic masculinity can be seen through Daniel and his rival Wayne, both of whom are different types common in pop culture. Wayne is a macho hero. He is strong, sharply dressed, and has a certain suave to him. However, he bullies Daniel and is so obsessed with Christine he flies into a jealous rage over a gift. Daniel fits the common romcom trope of a shy, clumsy but ultimately kind man perfect for marriage. Except Daniel doesn’t put in any effort. He avoids taking his relationship with Christine to the next level.
I would argue that Daniel’s change into a vampire represents how meek, inactive masculinity evolves into psychotic violence as overcompensation. Society may reject him, but he is an extreme manifestation of the masculinity it strives for. The scenes of color, when Daniel is at his most violent, highlight what is underneath traditional masculinity. Behind the black and white facade of morality is something truly evil. Daniel’s fear of mirrors further stretches this point. Toxic masculinity cannot reflect and realize the ghoulish nature of its being.
Stuck in the middle of toxic masculinity is Christine. She suffers most from both ends of it, constantly fighting off Wayne’s aggressive courting and exacerbating her emotions trying to reach out to Daniel. All this while living alone and holding down a job as a secretary. When Daniel turns into a vampire, their relationship becomes abusive.
Christine’s family suffers too. While her sister Francine and brother-in-law Leonard try to convince her something is wrong with Daniel, Francine and her daughter Molly have horrific nightmares of strangulation. Before waking up, they see blurry visions of a man with glowing red eyes. They don’t realize it, but that man is Daniel. Like in real life, domestic violence causes stress for family members as they try to do everything to help but may be powerless if the abuser somehow has an upper hand in the situation.
If this were a story of toxic masculinity where the woman character were just a victim or prop for the man’s story, it would defeat its own purpose. However, Christine is an active agent. A large chunk of the comic involves her; she is the narrator and has the most scenes. It’s a tragic story because Christine deeply loves Daniel and does everything in her power to help him. But she cannot stop vampirism from corrupting his mind. Like someone stuck in such a situation, Christine is drained emotionally and physically. She remains strong, fortunately, and fights back once it’s apparent Daniel is lost.
Christine’s situation is both a negative and positive portrayal of women in the 1930s. These attacks from angry, frustrated men stressed them out but also fueled their resolve to overcome. Christine is a heroine, representing their inner strength to combat toxic masculinity.
Reading Daniel made me realize this toxic masculinity is not exclusive to the setting or its time period. It is very much alive today. Men can be fired for stating their women coworkers are inferior to them, but they will not take responsibility, instead opting to double down on their erroneous beliefs. Online hate groups exacerbate modern misogyny with doxxing and harassment campaigns. It’s not even just openly toxic men but also those that are secretly so, as many self-proclaimed male feminists have been outed as manipulative predators.
The comic also reflected my own potential toxicity. I hate to admit how much I’m like Daniel, meek and often scared of taking action, relying a lot on the emotional support of others. It used to be that I made the emotional support a crutch to not grow up. I feel as though that time of my life was when I became a burden on loved ones. I have improved since then, but reading Daniel was a terrifying reminder that I need to give equally as much as I receive. If not, I’m just another vampire sucking the energy out of the people I care about.
Daniel takes one of the oldest ghouls of horror and gives it a new twist to a relevant issue, one that aims to challenge rather than reinforce social norms. As I continue to search for and read more indie horror comics, I hope they are as intellectually and artistically stimulating.
*Sarah Nelson attaches CONTENT WARNINGS to pages that contain scenes that are possibly triggering.