Van Helsing’s Night Off

By Nicolas Mahler
112 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions

Ok, let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. This has nothing at all to do with the Van Helsing movie starring Hugh Jackman that’s about to hit movie theatres. No connection at all other than the idea that Van Helsing is a monster-hunter. No, this is something far, far different. For starters, I suspect that Van Helsing’s Night Off takes itself a lot less seriously than the upcoming movie does.

Nicolas Mahler’s creation is a series of “silent” (or wordless) cartoons about classic monster characters of old: vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, and so on. Then, Mahler firmly plants them in the modern world of gag cartoons and lets the story go wild from there. And you know, it really does work.

Mahler’s got a very off-beat sense of humor here, and he’s got to work with using the unexpected on the reader to keep them forever surprised and amused by the punchlines of his stories. There’s a story starring “the masked avenger”, for instance, as he keeps saving women from various foes and finding yet another one coming home with him, despite the fact that the previous ones are all still there. It’s not where you think it’s going, and the punchline made me actually laugh out loud. That’s the sort of thing you get from Van Helsing’s Night Off, a level of silly that for the most part works. Even when one or two stories just didn’t quite connect for me (I think everyone can see where a story about a two-headed man fighting over a pint of beer is going), the majority is funny enough to more than make up for any possible missteps here and there.

The art in Van Helsing’s Night Off is simplistic to the extreme, a series of lines scratched into the page. I’ll admit that there are a couple of characters—the werewolves, for instance—that I wouldn’t have recognized if it wasn’t for the title of the stories. On the whole, though, seeing the characters boiled down to just a few features does work. It’s partially because they’re so silly looking, I think; seeing the masked avenger run around with his goofy hat and sword is so ludicrous the way that Mahler draws him that it makes for a particularly funny story. At the same time, though, it’s important for Mahler to use this art style because it makes the reader not focus so much on previous depictions of these characters. These are the characters boiled down to their archetypes; it doesn’t matter if the vampire is Dracula or someone from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any character in-between the two, what does matter is what happens after it’s been boozing it up during a night on the town. Simple and unpretentious to the extreme, Mahler’s art achieves what it sets out to do.

Top Shelf published Van Helsing’s Night Off as a small book, the sort that you can stick on a coffee or end table without it looking out of place. Not only does the size of the book lend itself well to the art (I can’t imagine what would happen if you blew these simplistic scratch-art drawings into a larger size), but it’s the sort of book that makes you want to just scoop it up and start reading. That’s where it’s going to suck all your friends in as well, because the stories are just short (or long) enough to read one or two of them while waiting for a commercial break to end, but before you know it you’ll have read the entire book. There should really be a warning about how addictive Van Helsing’s Night Off can be printed on the back cover or something. Great, great fun and I hope this is just the start of seeing Mahler’s comics brought into America.

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