Thursday, April 17, 2008

Life Sucks by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria, and Warren Pleece

I'm a pretty geeky guy, so I usually enjoy manifestations of geek culture, and most of the usual maneuvers to get my interest or sympathy in a story along those lines work like a charm on me.

Unfortunately, there's one major area where I don't identify with the generic geek at all, and this book is set right in the middle of that territory. The stereotypical geek (young division; the old geek has his own troubles) is a weedy, scrawny, weak, ineffectual chap, whiny about his lack of success with women (or with anything, really) and always being pushed around by bigger, more confident men.

I'm six-foot-three, and my days of being bullied ended in eighth grade when I got into three fights within a month (with three different people). Getting the nickname "Psycho" the next year probably didn't hurt, either.

So when a book relies on audience identification with the poor-me sad-sack of a mid-20s male loser, I usually just can't do it. I have no more sympathy for those worms than the equally-generic surfer antagonists do.

Which is a shame when it comes to Life Sucks, since that's all its hero has going for him.

Dave is the night manager of a Last Stop convenience store, somewhere in a strip mall in Southern California. He's also a vampire; when he went to apply for the job, his boss Lord Arisztidescu ("Radu" for short) fanged him to make him loyal. (It's not entirely clear if -- or why --vampire masters pay their slave followers; the economics in Life Sucks is a bit fuzzy.) Somehow, the same thing happened to his friend Jerome, who is similarly a night manager at Kwik Kopy. (One begins to suspect these young kids are just too stupid to live.) How much of a loser is Dave? He rides his bike to work in southern California. Case closed.

Dave's convenience store is on the flight-path of a nearby night club catering to Goths, so, every night when the club closes, a swarm of attractive young women draped in layers of black wander through the area. One of them, Rosa, has caught Dave's eye -- he's smitten. She over-romanticizes vampirism -- of course she does, she's a Goth -- but our loser hero refuses to use that to win her, and just settles into the usual schlubby, needy, sad-sack, "just friends" mode.

(At this point my hands were itching for a nice wooden stake to put him out of my misery.)

And then there's Wes, another young vampire turned by Radu and the epitome of the evil blond surfer dude. (Except, he's a vampire, too.) And he sets his sights on the hot Goth chick, too. Dave, briefly abandoning whining for a more useful tactic, then maneuvers Wes into making a bet to see who can "get" Rosa first, without using any vampire trickery.

OK, that's all plot set-up. The thematic center of the story is that Dave is a "vegetarian vampire" -- he's never bitten another person, and survives on blood plasma. This has left him weaker than other vampires, and unable to use the full array of Kewl Vamp Trix (hypnotism, superstrength, turning into things, and so on). Life Sucks would like us to believe that this is a principled stand on Dave's part -- that he can be turned into a vampire, but not made to use other people for food -- but he's such a wimpy little loser that it's just another piece of his character. Of course he can't bite anybody -- if he could, he wouldn't be a loser.

The big confrontation at the end goes to the heart of the theme. The good options for an ending -- depending on how writers Abel and Soria wanted to go -- would have been either A) Dave realizes that he is a vampire, and he has to live like a vampire to survive among vampires, and so fully accepts his new life, or B) Dave stands by his principles and finds a way to win as a human, without descending to the level of the vampires.

Abel and Soria, however, pull a third, lousy ending out of the unfortunate plotting hat, in which Dave stays a loser when it counts, but caves in off-page after he's already lost at the important moment. It's the worst of both endings, and it moves Dave off to the side when he should be central -- if this is Dave's story, then it should be determined by his actions. The last five pages of this book are badly misthought and, frankly, a mess.

There's plenty that's good about Life Sucks: the art is well-paced, and deals with a lot of very talky scenes well, keeping everyone identifiable; the dialogue is smart and precise; it has a new and interesting take on vampire life. My problems with Dave are idiosyncratic; they won't bother most people. But the ending just doesn't work.

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