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American Vampire, Vol. 2 (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.

What happens to those childhood monsters when there are no more shadows to hide in? Do they leave? Do they move on? Or do they simply learn to live in the light?

– Cashel McCogan pretty much sums up American Vampire

The more I read, the more I like Scott Snyder’s American Vampire. The author has proven himself quite adept when it comes to writing comic books, handling his short stint on Detective Comics with great skill and proving a worthy scribe for Swamp Thing. Outside the mainstream superhero books, Snyder has defined himself as one of the leading writers of comic book horror. He did an outstanding job on Severed, but his on-going American Vampire might be the finest work I have read from the writer.

No bones about it, this something special…

The premise of American Vampire is delightfully simple, and yet completely engaging. Snyder very astutely “evolves” the traditional vampire. In Dracula, Bram Stoker had built upon classic myths and legends to construct a monster to terrorise Victorian England. The raw sexuality of his book, as Stephen King noted in his superb Danse Macabre, represented an attack on traditional British values of the time. However, Snyder isn’t writing a story set in the Victorian England of 1897. As the title implies, Snyder is writing a different beast all together.

The first volume of American Vampire established the rules and introduced us to Skinner Sweet, the first of the new and vicious breed of blood suckers. As with all predators, he found himself in competition with other breeds – in his case the older and outdated European dynasties. While that first book set up the back story and moved the pieces into play, this second volume really gives us a better sampling of what we might expect from Snyder’s story about the next generation of blood suckers.

It takes some bottle to police this town…

For one thing, time is moving pretty fast. The first volume did introduce us to Skinner Sweet in the Wild West before moving to nineteen twenties Los Angeles. This second volume confirms that Snyder will be taking us on a whistle-stop tour of the American twentieth century, with Sweet as the common thread tying it all together. We jump from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and it’s hard to believe that there’s a better setting for a story about the dark side of American cultural development during the twentieth century.

“You see that new sign on the Mohawk Hotel they put up?” Cash asks. “With all the lights? Our bedroom window looks right at it.” Cash is, in fairness, willing to forgive the tacky neon of Las Vegas as the “price of growth”, and it reflects the sort of bright day-glo quality of the city – the city that never sleeps where bright lights create the illusion of perpetual daylight. Fitting, then, that the next generation of American predators have learned to walk around in broad daylight, monsters no longer confined to the darkness. And, of course, the creature’s weakness is gold – that capitalist corrupting vice.

If you call that progress, it ain’t worth a damn…

Just as Las Vegas would – despite its bright lights and primary colours – become a beacon for sin and vice and corruption, so the American vampire can masquerade as perfectly normal. Harold Evans described the twentieth century as “the American Century”, and its hard to argue. The nation evolved into the premier global power player on the world stage, deciding the course of two World Wars, developing the first nuclear weapon and dominating global popular culture. Snyder seems to be offering a unique perspective on that century, though he seems to agree with Evans’ theory – his characters describe the Hoover Dam as “nothing less than an American pyramid.” A wonder of the world.

And, in some ways, Snyder seems to suggest that America was perhaps too young or too immature for such power and prosperity. It seems, reading American Vampire, that the infra-structure wasn’t in place to properly support such rapid social change and evolution. Accused of being unable to manage local law enforcement, Cash retorts, “Oh, we were keeping it under control just fine, see… that is, until the U.S. government — you guys — decided to build the largest engineering project in the history of the country in our backyard… without giving us a dime to expand the police force accordingly.” Miss Book responds, “It’s called progress.” It seems that excuses everything.

She’s a monster…

And as much as the technical accomplishments of the country might expand and develop, so will its corruption and vices. It is, perhaps, “escalation” – not so much a new direction but an increase of depths of depravity. “All this legalisation was supposed to be temporary,” Cash observes. “The gambling. The prostitution.” Of course, we know that it doesn’t just go away. Compromises made to get through “dark times” stay with us. “You took money from goddamn monsters so you could lowball the P.W.A.,” Cash accuses one of the contractors at the Hoover Dam. Of course, I don’t believe in vampires, but that’s still an easy enough accusation to believe.

Hell, the series is filled with distinctly human monsters as well. At one point, Pearl and Hank stumble across a former bootlegger who has found a way to turn a profit with the legions of the undead that seem to roam the emerging country. “In the teens, I smuggled girls,” he explains. “In the twenties, I smuggled booze. Now I smuggle blood. No difference to me.”It’s just another vice, another example of corruption and decay, which Snyder reflects through the classic vampire monster myth.

Time to Cash your chips?

In this second volume, Snyder offers a bit more texture and fabric to his world, sketching out details he’d only hinted at before. He posits breeds of vampires, such as the “Strigus Gaelic-Prime.” These breeds seem unnaturally quick to breed and to die, to rise and fall like so many human accomplishments. In a way, perhaps they mirror human accomplishments, providing a dark reflection of mankind’s own peaks and ploughs. “We thought it extinct, actually, wiped out by common vampires in the 1700s.” Just as those common vampires find themselves under siege by Skinner Sweet.

At the same time, we can see the threads in place, and it’s clear that Snyder is structuring a long-form story involving these monsters and the people who fight them. Already we’ve encountered several second-generation characters, as well as catching up with a bunch of players from the first act – even if the settings might have changed somewhat and driven them apart. I don’t doubt that Snyder has a grand over-arching plan for American Vampire and it will make one hell of a read when it’s all finished and collected.

They’ve got him dead to rights…

Snyder is ably accompanied by Rafael Albuquerque, who has a wonderfully unique and murky style that fits the subject matter perfectly. It seems like Albuquerque might be struggling a bit to maintain a monthly release cycle, but Snyder and his editors do a good job keeping the title ticking over. Mateus Santolouco provides a short two-issue arc after the initial Vegas story arc, and also helps provide a few pages over the initial arc. However, Snyder structures it so Santolouco handles flashback sequences, allowing the relatively subtle stylistic shift to make sense in context. It’s a nice touch.

American Vampire is a rare treat, and a book to savour. It’s a great little horror comic, with a writer on the absolute top of his game. It’s deliciously seedy and sordid, but also quite astute and clever. It’s well-observed and constructed with an obvious affection for American pulp literature and pop history. Vertigo have long established themselves as a publishing house with a rare eye for engaging and clever constructs, and American Vampire is definitely a title that can be ranked among their very best.

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

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