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In the very first Video Zone (the behind-the-scenes featurette attached to most of Full Moon’s films throughout the ‘90s) that played after the end credits rolled on Puppet Master II, Charles Band likened the independent studio’s movies to comic books. He said that he hoped to create franchises out of many if not all of them, to follow along with the various adventures from movie-to-movie, to even pair up and cross over certain characters. The comparison was made very early on in Full Moon’s run; this was barely over a year after the release of Puppet Master, which had been the company’s debut feature. Yet it proved to be more true than any fan at the time could have imagined.

Many of those series continue to this day, many of them have had crossovers—whether it be title fights like Dollman vs. Demonic Toys, Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong or the Sci-Fi Channel original Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys—or simply one character casually stepping into another franchise. The Full Moon universe often feels like Marvel or DC, albeit on a much smaller budget. Yet it wasn’t long after Band made that comparison that it became even more literal than it had probably been at the time. In 1990, Band made a deal with the comic publisher Eternity (a division of Malibu, itself a division of Marvel) to turn these straight-to-video franchises into actual comic book series.

This was a huge sign of faith in both the movies and the Full Moon brand itself. At the time, Full Moon was still in its infancy. These were not comics based on even cult franchises, these were things many had never heard of, given that in some cases the first issues were hitting shelves ahead of the movies they were meant to tie into. Throughout that early ‘90s partnership, Eternity published comics, usually in the form of four-issue miniseries, for Puppet Master, Trancers, Dollman, Demonic Toys and Subspecies.

With Full Moon being a direct-to-video studio with a large output, the films were often made both cheaply and quickly, sometimes making it tough for the comics to keep up, or to match the look of the movie itself. That was definitely the case with Subspecies. While the story was tight, its mythology absolutely rich for a comic, there were certain major elements of the movie that were changed late in the game—namely the titular subspecies themselves. Radu’s little minions were originally played by actors in suits and completely different in design than the stop-motion creatures David Allen and his team created, which were ultimately what was used. Because of this, Radu’s minions in the Eternity comic look nothing like they do in the movie.

For that matter, neither does Radu, or any of the other characters, save for maybe Stefan. It’s obvious that creative team of the comic simply didn’t have those references to work with while they were crafting the book. Visually, it’s not so recognizable as Subspecies, but the story is all there. The plot of the original 1991 comic book by Lowell Cunningham and M.C. Wyman is especially of interest now, given the imminent release of Subspecies V: Bloodrise, in that this comic is a prequel to the original film. It makes sense, too. So much of the first movie is spent talking about the past; how the vampire king made peace with the locals; how the fortress had seen great battles; not to mention the sibling rivalry between half-brothers Radu and Stefan, or Radu’s evil sorceress of a mother. All of that is covered in this four-issue series, and all of it is very different from anything eventually revealed in the movies.

In that sense, it is similar to Eternity’s Puppet Master miniseries that followed on the heels of the original film—though that had the good fortune to release after the movie, retaining the recognizable character designs. That was also a prequel that both established some mythology and contradicted everything that would come later, being released so quickly after the original. The timeline of this Subspecies prequel comic is vague, but it appears to be set in the Dark Ages. Because this is a tie-in to the first movie, the focus is very much on the rivalry between vampire brothers Radu and Stefan, as that was the heart of the film.

subspecies comic

In this origin, the rivalry is not something that gradually develops over time. Upon first hearing of Radu’s existence, Stefan immediately makes it his mission to seek him out and destroy him. There is also a flashback of Radu’s mother and her seduction of the King. This character would eventually be introduced in Subspecies II as a skeletal creature nicknamed “Mummy.” Her appearance here is a far cry from that, depicting her as a red-skinned demoness, even referring to her as one of “the demon brood.” Karl, the old man who watches over both the fortress and Stefan’s coffin in the movie, also appears in this comic. That would officially make him a supernatural character, someone who has been tasked with protecting his vampire masters for eternity, which was never even hinted at in the film. In fact, it would make the conversation he has with Stefan in Subspecies about Stefan pretending he’s human deeply hypocritical.

There are also several characters and creations designed specifically for this origin comic, adding to the mythology in some neat and some baffling ways. Radu is depicted as a warlord, almost reminiscent of Genghis Khan, which is great. He has a whole legion of vampires, an army that he leads to invade the village of Kronescu and his father’s castle once he learns of the bloodstone’s existence. There’s a young woman named Maria, a Romani woman whose father has been killed by Radu, herself saved by Stefan before she could meet the same fate. She falls in love with Stefan, and it’s perhaps implied that Michelle, our heroine in the present day, is a reincarnation of her.

And then there’s Radu’s trusty steed. Brimstone is a vampire horse that even Radu’s legion of undead soldiers are afraid of. It is supposedly a show horse that broke free of its masters to roam the countryside as a feral beast, sired by Radu himself. Though it’s not totally clear how the comic defines “sired” and vaguely implies the horse is Radu’s son, the implications of which are wild.

subspecies comic

As a whole, the 1991 comic miniseries is a fascinating read, simply to track what it took from the movie and what it set up so differently from the franchise to come. It is especially interesting to read now, with Subspecies V dropping on SCREAMBOX. Eternity’s prequel is very black and white. Stefan is the epitome of good, he had a strong moral compass instilled on him by his father—as strong as it could be, at least, for vampires who still drink human blood. And Radu is the epitome of evil. In fact, in this comic he’s depicted as an even fouler creature than he is in the movies. As fans will be able to see in Subspecies V, that prequel takes a vastly different and ultimately more layered and complex approach. The new movie is not so much an adaptation of exposition we’ve been told throughout the series, but more of an examination of what we’ve been told is true versus what is actually true. History is written by the victors, after all. In Subspecies V, the transformations of certain characters into who they are by the time we meet them in the original film are much more gradual.

For the next Subspecies comic, we’ll need to skip ahead almost thirty years. The circumstances could not be more different from the previous one. When the Eternity comic came out, Subspecies was just hitting video store shelves. The original film was making its debut, the franchise was truly at its dawn, and the future was limitless. In 2018, Action Lab, which had been publishing a slew of Full Moon titles, particularly a fantastic Puppet Master ongoing series, released a three-issue Subspecies miniseries by the incredible comic writer Cullen Bunn, alongside the talents of Jimmy Z and Daniel J. Logan. This was not, by any stretch, released at a time when the series was bustling. In fact, this comic came out twenty years after the most recent sequel at the time, Subspecies 4: Bloodstorm. There was no concrete announcement of Subspecies V yet, nor any certainty that it would ever even get made. Action Lab’s Subspecies series was released at a time when fans were starved for new material and it absolutely delivered.

One of the best things about Action Lab’s Full Moon titles is that they were never afraid to expand the mythology in new, unexpected, and even weird ways. They were never beholden to simply rehash a particular kind of story seen in the movies. Puppet Master succeeded at this with its “Rebirth” arc, in which the puppets regain their humanity only to still be stalked by the wooden bodies they left behind. Bunn’s Subspecies does something very similar. Even after the release of Subspecies V, it is unique in that it is the only story to pick up in the present after the end of Subspecies 4. Twenty years later, Michelle has a stable life as a vampire masquerading as a human, working the night shift at a hospital, keeping her bloodlust at bay thanks to the bloodstone. Of course, her life is upended when Radu comes back. And then another Radu. And another.

subspecies comics

Yes, that’s right. In this Subspecies comic series, there’s more than one Radu. In fact, there’s a few of them, and the explanation as to why is kind of genius. It’s revealed that the subspecies were actually hatchlings. They were Radu’s twisted offspring, yet they were still a part of himself. In the decades since Radu’s body was finally destroyed, they have grown. Each of these Radus is different, each is a distilled aspect of his personality. There is a noble and kind one, who helps Michelle much as Stefan once did. He’s the man Radu could have been if not for all of these more devilish aspects of his personality: his rage, his bloodlust, his fear. There’s even a big buff gym bro Radu. And as these other Radus are killed over the course of the story, the personalities begin to merge, back into the classic Radu of the films, slowly resurrecting himself.

It is not only a great sequel in its own right, it is such a cool take on the Subspecies concept. Even including all of the films, it is the only story in which the subspecies are essential, and are in fact the central, driving force of the plot. While Action Lab no longer has the Full Moon license, the trade paperback of this miniseries is still in print and I really recommend it for fans of the franchise. It’s such a fresh, unique take on the material.

subspecies comic

There was meant to be another comic as well. In 2019, Full Moon began publishing comics under the “Deadly 10” banner, releasing one-shot comics to tie into their then-ongoing Deadly 10 slate, of which Subspecies V was included. Unfortunately, the global pandemic derailed both the movies and their tie-in comics. Some issues were released while others never saw the light of day. Even though Subspecies V is finally out there in the world, its tie-in comic book never saw completion, and likely never will. As a fan, that’s a shame, because I would have loved to see it and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Still, the two Subspecies comic series we do have are fascinating and complement each other incredibly well, simply because they’re so different. One is a prequel that takes an approach to the characters and their origin that is somehow both faithful to the original film and wildly creative and different in equal doses. The other series is a sequel to a franchise that had long been dead, revitalizing it with a unique take on the material that’s simply impossible to resist. I don’t know if we’ll ever see another Subspecies comic book. Given Band’s love of both comics and merchandise, I would not be remotely surprised if we did. But simply considering the fact that this is a straight-to-video series that took over thirty years to hit movie #5, the notion that we even have Subspecies comics, let alone two separate series, is astonishing in its own right, and something fans should not take for granted.

Radu returns in Subspecies V: Bloodrise, on SCREAMBOX and Full Moon Features on June 2.

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