This October, to get us in the mood for Halloween, we’re taking a look at some awesome monster comics. Check back in every Monday this month for a review of Scott Snyder’s American Vampire Saga.
Scott Snyder’s American Vampire continues to barrel towards the present, with this third volume in the saga exploring the secret history vampires during the Second World War. As great as the series is, I do find myself feeling just a little bit sad with every step that Snyder takes towards the present day, as it means the series is one step closer to being over and done with, finished. I have no doubts that it will read astonishingly well from cover-to-cover when that happens, but it doesn’t mean I won’t miss watching Snyder’s exploration of American history through a darkly fantastic lens as it unfolds.
To be fair, this third collection does offer a bit more bang for your buck. It collects the Ghost War issues of the main series, but it also collects the Survival of the Fittest miniseries that ran alongside those issues. In effect, Snyder positioned Survival of the Fittest as Band of Brothers to Ghost War‘s The Pacific, using to opportunity to tell macabre stories in both theatres of conflict during the more important conflict of the twentieth century. (In a nice touch, the colour schemes are even subtly different, with Ghost War using earthy brown and yellow shades, while Survival of the Fittest goes from greys and blues.)
Snyder has used American Vampire as a tool to explore American history in the twentieth century. He’s looked at the birth of Las Vegas and the golden era of Hollywood through the prism of vampirism, charting the rise and evolution of a new breed of monster, one not confined to darkness or shade, one that lurks in the daylight poised to strike at any given moment. Like Severed, Snyder’s American Vampire reads as a grim metaphor for some of the darker and shadier moments of American history and cultural evolution.
Fittingly, then, the collection opens with a one shot, Strange Frontiers, that sees Skinner Sweet attending a Western show. It’s a touring spectacle, portraying the Wild West for paying customers, with all manner of legitimacy about it. Managed by Colonel Seldom French, a veteran of the era, it promises to give the audience a taste of a world that has long since gone, to explore the roots of the American frontier in an enjoyable and family-friendly manner, safe for consumption on a sunny afternoon.
Of course, French’s sanitized and commercially viable version of history has one tiny problem: it’s not the truth. Sweet has lived through that time, and he knows that French is being more than a little dishonest, “Funny, though – I seem to remember the West a little differently than Colonel Seldom French.” Indeed, French is far from the heroic veteran that he claims to be. “In fact, I remember the Colonel a little differently, too. The Frenchie I knew was more of a pampered Yankee brat than a hero of the plains… shooting buffalo from the comfort of his family’s armoured stagecoach to make coats to sell back East.”
Such a story isn’t quite what most people would like to hear about their history. There’s a reason that we generally sanitize the folk history that gets past down, embellishing the heroism of patriots and exaggerating the villainy of the losers. It makes it easier for us to digest as a society if our history is phrased in these grand mythological terms, rather than portrayed as a time just as ambiguous and as uncertain as our present.
Sweet exacts quite a brutal revenge on Colonel French and his audience, opting to give them a taste of what the Old West was really like. Sweet has a nice sense of irony. “You know, on second thought, these people want the West brought back to life do bad? Why not give them what they paid for?”The results are horrifying and brutal, the kind of thing that nobody might wish on anybody, let alone the kind of thing that Colonel French could charge tickets for and turn a quick profit on.
It feels strangely appropriate that Snyder should devote so much space to the Second World War. The conflict serves as a perfect focal point for the writer to expand upon the themes of the series, the moment in twentieth century where mankind found itself caught between progress and regression. The war provided countless scientific and technological breakthroughs, but they were often deployed in the most savage context, in service of man’s inhumanity to man.
Snyder’s American Vampire has really been a vehicle for exploring that strange dichotomy, the brutality inherent in the march of progress, so it’s no wonder that he hits it out of the park here. Once again, the vampire species find themselves the perfect metaphor for the situation at hand. We’re told that the war has reduced previously civilised genetic lines to outright savagery. “Still,” taxonomists tells us, “most Austronesian species are highly humanoid. They live like people, not animals in caves.”
And yet, Snyder makes it clear, this is not quite devolution. It isn’t regression. It’s just a weird form of evolution, where the creature must become more primitive in order to survive. “Yeah, well, a few bloodlines, mostly ancient ones, leave more of the host’s original psychology intact,” the platoon’s expert explains. “You’re a vampire, but you’re still yourself. This type of effect, though — a sudden, complete devolution into a feral mindset– I’ve never seen anything like it. I wonder if it’s something new.” It is something new, but it feels like something old.
A lot of war stories explore what soldier have to sacrifice in order to survive – humanity is frequently among the first casualties of war. And yet, that loss is what allows many to survive. It’s the willingness to do what needs to be done, no matter the cost or the price to their innocence or conscience, that allows some people to survive the conflict. The evolutionary line taken by the vampires here can been seen as a reflection on that trend.
It is, of course, impossible to discuss American involvement in the Second World War, particularly the Pacific theatre, without mentioning the dropping of the atomic bomb. It even casts a shadow here, as we discover a sinisterly similar Japanese plot at work. Their weapon isn’t nuclear in nature, but biological. “It’s a Hail Mary,” we’re told. “A Doomsday Bomb. That’s why they’re fighting so hard to protect the island. If they drop even one of these things, they could infect thousands, maybe even millions.”
The similarities seem quite clear. It’s a rather terrifying weapon used as a last resort, an example of “total war”against an enemy who won’t yield against conventional military might. The use of the atomic weapon against civilian targets remains one of the most hotly contested decisions in the history of modern warfare, and Snyder flips the question around. We would condemn the brutality and inhumanity of the Japanese Unit 731, but was their research into biological warfare any more violent than the Americans’ investigations into atomic warfare?
Of course, the methods they employed to accomplish their research were infinitely more inhumane and vile than anything employed by the Allies, but what of the goals themselves? Survival of the Fittest alludes to another aspect of American history around World War II that many would rather forget. In order to infiltrate a sinister Nazi experiment, two agents go undercover posing as wealthy American sympathisers.
In covering the lead-up to the Second World War, people tend to gloss over the sympathy that the Nazis tended to elicit in certain social circles. It is easier to believe that the lines between good and evil were always firmly in place, and that there was never any moral confusion between “us” and “them.” (This is also the case with pre-War Britain, where several prominent upper-class individuals were vocal in their support of Hitler’s regime.)
The reader has to make their own decision on the matter, but I like that Snyder dares to raise the question and make the comparison. He suggests that had the Axis forces produced a weapon of similar destructive force to the atomic bomb, it would be considered proof of their inherently evil natures. However, by raising the issue, he dares to suggest that historical morality is not quite as clear-cut as we might like to image.
Throughout these issues, though, Snyder balances interesting moral and philosophical questions like these with a rich pulpy atmosphere. Survival of the Fittest plays into that great Second World War trope of occult Nazis, with the Germans desperately using all manner of sinister other-worldly tools to win the war for the Fatherland. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark saw them attempting to use the Ark of the Covenant, Survival of the Fittest sees them trying to use vampires, relying on an ancient mythology to win the war for them.
There’s something deliciously trashy about the idea of vampires wearing Nazi uniforms, and Survival of the Fittest reads as an old-time movie serial fully of all manner of dark and macabre twists and turns. That said, it isn’t as if Ghost War is without its own pulpy charms. One of the closing sequences recalls those stories of sailors sunk in the Pacific (as recounted by Quint in Jaws), watching the sharks circling the floating survivors of the wreck, waiting for the time to strike.
Skinner Sweet remains a central character here, even though Snyder has broadened his canvas wide enough to divide his cast during the Second World War. Despite his violence and brutality, it’s hard not to feel a note of pity for the monster as a man out of time. Despite the fact he was the first of a new breed of vampires, there’s a hint that the world might even be moving past him. Dolly attemtps to justify her betrayal of Skinner by arguing that he was outdated even when he was alive. “It was over,” she tells him. “Everything. The world we knew. Paved over. Fenced in. Everyone saw what was coming, everyone except you.”
It would seem that the tragedy of American Vampire comes from the unfolding of time. Skinner Sweet had emerged as a character well ahead of his time, the next step in vampire evolution. However, vampires don’t evolve. Discussing his own son’s vampirism, Cash confesses, “It’s not the good or the bad of the blood I want to cure in Gus. It’s what the stuff did to him — froze him in time.” Sweet is similarly frozen, just as the aristocratic European vampires before her were frozen. That’s the wonderful thing about Snyder’s shifting time-scale, the ability to tell this sort of sweeping story.
Snyder is accompanied here by his usual artistic collaborator, Rafael Albuquerque for Ghost War. Sean Murphy illustrates Survival of the Fittest. The result is one fine-looking comic book collection. I really think that Vertigo’s American Vampire is a superb comic book judged on pretty much any criteria. Snyder’s storytelling is perfectly in step with the art on the title, and it all comes together almost perfectly.
American Vampire is a wonderful horror comic, and one that anyone with even a passing interest in vampires should be picking up.
You might be interested in our reviews of the rest of Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque’ American Vampire: