Hollywood’s dream factory, like any other industrial zone in capitalist America, needs workers to exploit. But is there any other factory that treats its workers as both labor and raw material, simultaneously using up their bodies and capitalizing on their ideas? Is there another assembly line that lures its workforce with the promise that their work is an artistic pursuit and a rendezvous with creative destiny (0ther than big comics publishers)? I doubt sweatshop workers in China believe the cheap Disney toys they are making are invested with deeper meaning, but the VFX artists who suffer nightmarish hours to fulfill the impossible expectations of Marvel Studios are working, I suspect, in what they once viewed as dream jobs.
Sammy Harkham’s Blood of the Virgin (Pantheon, 2023) dispenses with any pretensions that the movie business is anything but a sacrifice zone. While the story is sprawling and meandering, it largely follows the filming of a low-budget horror flick that lends its name to the book. The production, which unfolds in early-seventies Los Angeles, could generously be described as a disaster, at least from an artistic perspective: the cinematographer drinks on set; the script is repeatedly rewritten for arbitrary reasons; crew members fall asleep; and the lead actor punches the director in the face.
Everyone involved recognizes this reality — all except Seymour, who is, along with his wife, one of the comic’s protagonists. Seymour works as an editor for exploitation films, cheap commercial crap with titles like Maximum Destruction and Five Fingers of Evil, and, well, Blood of the Virgin. He’s spent three years slumming it in the editing room, waiting for his shot to “finally do something,” and when his boss greenlights Seymour’s script for the comic’s eponymous film, he deludes himself into thinking it can be a vehicle for his professional ambitions. While we can’t judge Seymour’s talent — obviously we don’t get to see any of the films he’s worked on — he does demonstrate a genuine love for old horror films. He wants to make a film that builds on the legacy of the classics, movies like The Wolf Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, and the work of Val Newton.
This love of filmmaking is what ultimately renders Seymour a tragic figure. With Blood of the Virgin, he deludes himself into thinking that he’s creating something meaningful. After a violent falling out between the director and the leading man, Seymour finds himself in the director’s chair, giving him an illusion of control over the production. But the more obsessively he tries to micromanage, the faster his dream unravels. Seymour stops listening to what the studio wants, and, in retaliation, they cut the filming short; Seymour tries frantically to fix his doomed film in the editing room, but when he starts talking about reshoots, his boss confiscates the reels. The point is that Blood of the Virgin isn’t Seymour’s film; it belongs to the unsentimental power brokers with the capital to create movies. This isn’t Seymour’s chance at artistic immortality; it’s just something to pay for upkeep on the studio owner’s fifth mansion. Near the end of the book, an older, jaded screenwriter tells a depressed Seymour: “The tortured artist thing is over. You’re fifty years too late.”
Yet this cynical view of art, though certainly a major theme of the story, is subverted and contradicted by the comic itself. While Blood of the Virgin, the movie, is a soulless cash grab stitched together by a committee of hacks that plays in decrepit, half-empty grindhouses, Blood of the Virgin, the comic, is the product of an auteur — fourteen years of work by one hand on a single graphic novel that gets excerpted in the pages of The New Yorker. The book is also lavish in its attention to the mechanics of filmmaking, and Harkham repeatedly draws our gaze to sequences of Seymour editing film, zeroing in on the precise physical motions of his hands at work. There is little romance or nostalgia, just a sense that this particular mixture of dreams, delusions, skills, and systems of exploitation is worth documenting and remembering, even if the films themselves are garbage.
Whether Blood of the Virgin (the comic) represents an “authentic” depiction of Los Angeles in 1971, I can’t say. But Harkham certainly imbues the book with the texture of reality, imbuing even seemingly inconsequential moments and places — like Seymour’s visit to a hot dog stand — with memorable details. The comic feels interested even in its minor characters, and the hot dog chef gets one of the book’s best lines: “I told the manager, no one wants to eat no damn boiled wiener on no Thanksgiving!”
Despite my rather narrow focus on Seymour in this review, Blood of the Virgin (the comic) is actually not ultimately his story, in the same way that Blood of the Virgin (the movie) is not his creation. The frame is much wider. An entire review could (and should) be written about Seymour’s wife Ida, who deals with her own sense of alienation and frustration with Seymour by temporarily abandoning him to live with her family in New Zealand, where there are hints that she abandoned her own creative talent — drawing — to get married. (Brian Nicholson’s essay on Blood of the Virgin in The Comics Journal explores her characterization to some degree.)
The center of the comic — both physically and artistically — is a side-narrative that seemingly has nothing to do with Seymour or Ida. Done in full color (unlike the rest of the book, which is black-and-white washed with gray), this chapter, tucked into the exact middle of the book, tells the story of a young Arizona cowboy named Joe who, in 1915, is recruited to help with a new “motion picture” being shot near his ranch. He follows the production crew back to Los Angeles, where his naivety and work ethic is exploited by a studio boss. Eventually, Joe realizes that he’s been screwed out of the prestige and money that his labor should’ve earned and departs to make his own movies. But he is consumed by bitterness, and, at the close of the chapter, near the end of his life, he sits in his mansion, still obsessing over the boss who wronged him.
Though they never meet, Joe is a foil for Seymour, a character whose life suggests that the Golden Age of filmmaking Seymour idolizes was rife with the same exploitation and petty bullshit as his own era. To emphasize this point, Harkaham ends Blood of the Virgin (the comic) with a scene of Seymour and Ida wandering through the gutted wreckage of Joe’s mansion — a moment of convergence between two generations of embittered, frustrated dreamers. The world will move on and forget about Blood of the Virgin; other films will get made; other naive souls will wander into Los Angeles and create things, or they won’t. As the older, jaded screenwriter remarks to Seymour: “None of this really existed anyway.”
A nihilistic sentiment? Perhaps. A casual indictment of the entire entertainment industry? Possibly. But the final focus on Seymour and Ida together, still trying to build a life together, offers a tiny spark of hope that perhaps they won’t end up like Joe — miserable, alone, and stuck forever in the past.