American Vampire – A Study In True Vampirism

Scott Snyder is a writer who is working to remind the reading masses what vampires are. In American Vampire, Snyder has created a new divergent path for vampires to tread as he imagines the species taking a different path as they evolve and change. He’s joined by the amazing art of Rafael Albuquerque and the introductory arc, which just wrapped up, made a fair degree of press as Snyder was joined by horror heavyweight, Stephen King. This is a comic that is important to the genre of vampires if you care to give it a look.

American Vampire

American Vampire feels like good vampire lore because it’s something new. And I don’t mean sparkly skin new, I mean new and exciting and well thought out. Snyder looks at vampires in America and we see a sub-species spawned when one of our leads, Skinner Sweet, becomes infected and left for dead. After much torture of being trapped underground and then underwater, Skinner emerges as something different. He can handle the sun, and now he wants to handle the bastards who did this to him. Sweet sets out to do this slowly but surely and the old school vampires don’t know what to do with themselves. They’re trapped away from the light and suddenly they feel like the prey as this new monster comes after them. It’s a wonderful inversion of the usual tropes.

Skinner Sweet is a great character because he exudes charisma. He’s the cool guy who’s always got something to say and everyone ends up listening even when they don’t want to. His origin lies in the old west, which Stephen King gets to detail in his half of the opening arc, and Sweet is instantly an anachronism in his time. He’s got long hair, a skinny build and while many have pegged him as Kid Rock, I agree more with Snyder himself who lays the ultimate comparison at the feet of Kurt Cobain. Now just imagine it, it’s a Cobain-esque vampire in the wild west. That’s pretty cool, if executed right, and in this comic it’s executed damn well. He’s not an evil character, he’s just a bad boy, and fiction can always use more of those.

Snyder also looks at others who have been created in this new vein. There’s a whole breed ready to sweep across America and make it their own, and Sweet is only one leader of what will surely become a veritable army. Except, Sweet isn’t that sort of guy, he doesn’t strap on the general’s helmet and lead the charge with a stirring war cry. Instead, he guides and instructs where he can, but otherwise he wants a new regime. He doesn’t want to be beholden to any dictated rules or hierarchical structures. What he does want, well, we don’t exactly know that just yet. He’s probably still happy with some red liquorice and a good time.

Snyder also shows us a new convert to the nascent side of vampirism, Pearl. She’s a young wannabe starlet in 1920’s Hollywood. She ends up on the end of a set of fangs and is turned into one of the new kind. She decides to exact her revenge on these blood thirsty monsters who have ruined her life, but she gets an early opportunity to ride off into the sunset instead in a surprising, and gory, turn of events. How long that happiness will last is anyone’s guess.

Pearl shows promise as a female lead because she’s tough and ready to stand up for herself but there is also a soft side within her that hasn’t been killed outright. She’s not a portrait of an extreme in either direction, she’s just a girl trying to get by. There’s plenty of promise for future stories with her, and considering Snyder has said this series will take place over multiple decades I wouldn’t be surprised to find the love and happiness she finds withering away and dying while she lives eternally.

We seem to live in an age where vampires are defined by two franchises, Twilight and True Blood.  Both stories are popular, sure, and I’m not here to argue their validity at all, they don’t fill the vamp-void that I always want to see presented. Vampires shouldn’t be purely about the romance, there needs to be the danger as well. And while one of those stories might present this better than the other, I still feel like we’re missing a solid vampire to really hold up as an icon. When I think of vampires I always think of Chris Sarandon in Fright Night. He was one cool bastard and while he was ready to make with the bloodletting he also didn’t mind setting it all up first. He was calm and collected and that’s what I want from a vamp. Someone who inherently knows they are different and still has fun with it. I don’t want angsty sparkling and I don’t want non-stop sex. I want characterisation, and Snyder, with the help of exceptional art from Rafael Albuquerque, gives us just that. He’s exploring these characters and not just their situations. He’s crafting a tale and not just trying to appeal to our more base urges.

This new comic from DC’s Vertigo imprint is one of the better vampire tales I’ve read in quite some time. It sits somewhere between Near Dark and Martin on the scale of what is being attempted and I can’t help but feel that Snyder plans on mashing in plenty of other genres to suit the needs of his characters, not his set pieces.

American Vampire is a new tale where the map lines are being redrawn. It’s a visceral tale, sure, but it’s also a very well thought out and written tale. This isn’t played like cheap genre fare, this is a story of character, it just happens that these characters have bite.