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American Vampire, Vol. 1 (Review)

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.

In the end, though, it’s all about giving back the teeth that the current “sweetie-vamp” craze has, by and large, stolen from the blood suckers.

– Stephen King’s introduction to the collection

Stephen King, who wrote the origin half of this collection based off Scott Snyder’s notes, remarks in his wonderful foreword, “Here’s what vampires shouldn’t be: pallid detectives who drink Bloody Marys and only work at night; lovelorn southern gentlement; anorexic teenage girls; boy-toys with big dewy eyes.” American Vampire seems to be a strong rebuttal to all those modern and soft depictions of the blood-sucking monsters we’ve been swamped with over the last decade or so.

If that isn’t enough to at least interest you, then I don’t know what will.

Ch-ch-ch-changes…

The book essentially tells two stories, each taking up half of the five chapters presented here. I can’t help but wonder if the collected edition might have been better served to present two complete stories rather than retaining the comic’s half-and-half structure. It seems that no sooner has Scott Snyder’s 1925 adventure through “Hollywoodland” begun than we’re thrown back into Stephen King’s origin story, and then jolted right back out of that. Reading the collection, it feels like the momentum of both stories is broken up by keeping the sequencing used in the original comic books.

The premise of the book is exceedingly simple. Though the initial chapter of the origin is set in the twilight of the nineteenth century, the bulk of both stories is set in the early days of the last century – what has been referred to as “the American Century” by some historians and journalists. Indeed, though the first American vampire, Skinner Sweet, is turned in 1880, but only emerges from his trap in 1909. As the narrator observes when Sweet rises from his watery grave, a feat that no previous vampire could have accomplished, and certainly not in daylight, “It’s a new century… and the time of the American Vampire has come.”

Going West…

I’ve always liked my horror as social allegory – or at least with undertones of social commentary. Set in the early part of the century that would see America become the world power, it’s hard not to read American Vampire as something of a grim commentary on American success. King’s Danse Macabre – a fantastic look at horror from one of the modern masters of it – broken down the horror movie monsters into three different archetypes, and the vampire was amongst them.

The vampire, to King, was the very concept of “outside evil”, and he juxtaposes the “pretty graphic” sexuality of Stoker’s Dracula (at least “for turn-of-the-century England”) against the social moors of a repressed and buttoned-down society. No wonder these creatures seemed dangerous, he observed, in a culture where “very few unmarried women of the day would have known an orgasm if it bit them on the nose.” However, one imagines that King felt great delight in taking that raw and primal energy out of the structured and carefully controlled Victorian old European setting and moving out to a far less civilised realm… the Old West, still waiting to be tamed.

Movie magic…

King observed that Dracula had to lure his victims into a churchyard, and hide the passion “in a fairly classy way” to do his business – which King referred to as “the ultimate zipless f*ck.” That was England in the dying days of the nineteenth century. Compare this to the way that the vampires – even the older “European nobility” – prey in the Los Angeles of 1925, luring an actress to a party and taking her to a bedroom with a bunch of Hollywood big shots. In this new country and this new century, it seemed that even the old-world vampires were lewder and cruder and more aggressive.

It’s easy to see why so many of those old Europeans from noble blood have migrated to America to feed. For a bunch of monsters that thrive and feed on blood, the American countryside was carved out, inch-by-inch, the blood of men and women. There’s no high society, none of the pesky social moors that prevent a beast from indulging those most carnal of instincts. Hell, Skinner Sweet is a blood-thirsty monster with no control over his base instincts even before he’s turned into a vampire. “I saw no reason,” he casually remarks of a bank robbery, “why the boys shouldn’t have a little fun with gals…”

None of your watered-down vampires…

The social conditions attract these old world powers, much as the attractiveness of the American frontier would have drawn the colonial powers a century before. And those first adapters, those first settlers, would have been the ones who the British came to fear and dread, as they were driven from the country. The older vampires have a similar view of the inhabitants of the country, remarking, “Americans are only food, like the great slabs of cow they shovel down their throats!”

These are old men who find something bitterly hilarious about “the great national fantasy” that is the American dream, where anyone can be anything they can imagine. It seems a bitter irony then, that these old vampires of high social standing find themselves threatened by an American vampire who is nothing but a common criminal. That is the American dream right there. If anyone can be a star, anyone can be a monster.

Old-time vampire-hunters…

And so, Skinner Sweet becomes a vampire. But he’s meaner, stronger and more evolved than those who spawned him. He refers to these new vampires as “shiny new 1926 Fords” when compared against the established utter crust. He can walk in daylight, swim through water and do all sorts of things that it would seem vampires can’t normally do. He’s a new breed, a replacement for the older models. Their time is over, while his is yet to come.

Sweet is a monster. I don’t mean because he has fangs or drinks blood, just because of who he is. He’s a harsh man, perhaps tempered by the Wild West, perhaps by a harsh upbringing, perhaps by pure random chance. There’s something of the grotesque monsters of American history in the way Snyder and King offer us Skinner Sweet, calling to mind the sort of casual violence of those old Western Outlaws, or – even later in the century – the famous Starkweather homicides. He’s a man with boundless ambition. Offered a pact with the powerful establishment that outnumbers him significantly, Sweet doesn’t compromise. He rejects the proposal, favouring his own “plans, plans. So many plans.”

That one is for the birds…

As such, Sweet is perhaps too evil a character to really make a protagonist, at least for Snyder’s present-day segments. Instead, the story focuses on a young would-be actress named Pearl Jones. Pearl is converted early on, and reaps a terrible revenge against the monsters that changed her, and Sweet really feels like a supporting character at best. I’m a little on the fence about whether giving us such a clearly sympathetic vampire protagonist does represent giving the genre back its “teeth” (as I tend to favour my monsters… well, a little alien), but it’s an interesting story nonetheless.

It’s a nice story, but this first volume feels a little light. Perhaps it’s the fact that each of the five chapters only really had half of a given story, and the fact that the series didn’t quite flow as fluidly in the hardcover format as it might have in a monthly read. Still, the stories themselves are good reads, and I like what Snyder is doing. I think using vampires as a means of exploring the darker side of “the American Century” is certainly an interesting concept, and the team definitely seem up to the task.

You might be interested in our reviews of the rest of Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque’ American Vampire:

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