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American Vampire, Vol. 4 (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.

American Vampireis a wonderful vehicle for Scott Snyder to explore his obvious fascination with the social history of the United States. In this fourth volume of the series, Snyder brings the action into the fifties. The fifties time that seemed to be rife with great social change coming out of the Second World War. However, despite those origins, they would ultimately just serve as a prelude to the more dramatic social developments during the sixties. This collection of issues allows Snyder to hint on a number of familiar themes that fit quite well with the setting, including the conflict between old and new – something that has been at the heart of the series since the very beginning.

Grabbing the snake by the… whatever it is you grab snakes by…

In particular, this volume seems to recall the author’s work on Severed, another horror comic set America’s past. Although most of it was set in the lead-up to the First World War, the story was framed during the fifties. It opens with the media frenzy around Elvis Presley’s pelvic thrusts, and Snyder finds something quite delightful in the notion that Presley’s hips could be a threat to the youth of the day. Here, Snyder introduces the character of Travis, the young vampire hunter, and it allows him to play with the same sort of idea: the notion that society tends to miss what is really damaging to kids.

The fifties were a time when America seemed afraid of its youngsters. Death Race is set in 1954, four years before the Starkweather homicides would become a focal point for a nation terrified of their own children. As Travis suggests in the opening page of the arc, “There’s a lot of talk lately about the young folks. Now we’ve all gone mean and ornery. Turned into animals. Packs of roaming savages out to burn down ma and pa’s house and city hall to boot.” A young girl, Piper, warns Travis of the effect that he’s having on the established vampire community, “They’re scared of you.”

Staying on top of things…

Snyder teases the audience with the possibility that Travis is a vampire himself – a menace preying on young girls like so many movie monsters. He even has a sinister ring, and seems to require an invitation to come inside. Snyder shrewdly frames the introductory scene with Piper and Travis so that the audience suspects he is a representation of a younger and hungrier generation. “Let’s neck,” he playfully suggests. The cover even features Travis licking juicy fangs, a somewhat misleading illustration of the wooden fangs Travis uses to “bite them back.”

Neatly enough, the story turns the idea on its head quickly enough. Travis is the good guy. He isn’t a predator. He’s a victim. He’s the product of a broken system, and society’s unwillingness to engage with him has made him somewhat hostile. It’s just easier to present him as an out-of-control monster than it is to engage with him. The real villains are the older generation unwilling to try to understand or to treat Travis as a human being. Travis is the product of institutionalisation.

The kid’s got drive, I give him that…

To be fair, his particular trauma is fairly unique, but it’s also an illustration of how society handled “problem children” at the time – with talk of of an “ocular labotomy” using “a tool like an ice-pick.” You can understand how Travis might have turned out a bit rough around the edges, and the fact that nobody is willing to treat him as a human being explains how his problems have only developed. It’s a clever idea – and in keeping with his work as a whole, but also the series – to present the vampires as the forces of conservativism rather than the rebellious upstart kids.

In The Nocturnes, Snyder pulls a similar narrative trick. Like Calvin, he clearly intends that his readers assume that the punk kids are the ones causing trouble, and that they are a problem that the older generation simply can’t handle. Naturally, Snyder upsets the audience’s expectations by turning the idea on its head. In Alabama, it turns out that it’s the old veterans that they need to be afraid of, not the young punks. Appearances can be deceptive.

The times, they aren’t really a-changin’…

In fifties America, Calvin recognises that the sense of change is not as widespread as it could be. He discovers that vampires have been feeding on African-American bands by luring them down to play at carnivals. “And no one notices the ones who go missing down here?” he asks. Of course they don’t. There is the illusion of social evolution in the fifties, but it wouldn’t really change until the sixties at least. And, even now, the issue of race is still a contentious one.

Despite all the protests about the youth being out of control, Calvin recognises that there’s still a strong resistance to anything more than cosmetic change in American society. “These days, there seems to be a lot of talk about newness. About how the country is changing, evolving, becoming something new and exciting. I want to believe it. I do. But the taxonomist in me, he looks at the details, the smaller things, a glance, and he sees the same old beast.” And that “same old beast”is quite monster, threatening to chew its victims up and spit them out.

A beast of a vampire…

Vampires are repeatedly identified as sources of conservatism in fifties America, perhaps reflecting what became of the American Spirit. America emerged as this strong and dynamic global powerhouse, and Snyder has used his American Vampire to tell an allegorical tale about the expansion out West and the taming of the American wilderness. His vampires reflect the dark side of the American psyche and so these once-ambitious monsters have settled down in their old age.

The first vampires we meet in Death Race are posing as the parents of a young girl, Piper. They speak to her like conservative fifty parents, treating her as an object they can control. “And you — you’re nothing but an ungrateful bitch! After everything we’ve given up… everything you’ve sacrificed for you.”It reflects a generation of parents living in the dark, clearly unaware or indifferent to the world that their children live in, afraid of change.

“Um… we should probably also swap insurance details…”

Of course, by this point, the vampires have been around a while. It’s inevitable that a person can only resist the establishment so long before they become the establishment. Skinner Sweet had been a notorious outlaw and a fiend. Now, it seems, he has settled down, with his life drained from him. “… Ain’t that a surprise,” Travis notes arriving at Sweet’s address. “Skinner Sweet, the meanest vampire on Earth… lives like a square in the suburbs.”

Wrestling with Sweet, he explains the inevitable tragedy of Sweet’s immortality, the simple fact that he must eventually be left behind the times. Travis explains, “Cool. What’s cool and what’s not. Because being cool is not giving a fuck. And maybe you need to be young to be that way. Take you for example, maybe you were cool once. Maybe even after you came back as a bloodsucker. Living in Las Vegas, not scared of anyone. But see, the thing is, Sweet, I’ve been after you a long time, and I’ve seen a change in you.”

Looking for a companion. Must enjoy long conversations and moonlight chase sequences.

He argues that the Second World War changed Sweet, arguably as it changed America. Travis suggests, “It’s almost like after whatever happened over there, for some reason, you just stopped being dangerous anymore.” In essence, this is how Sweet’s immortality becomes a curse – because he’s powerless to stop himself fading away and becoming part of the system. He must face the fact that he’s no longer cool and is, in fact, out of touch.

As Hobbes arrives, Travis seems to score some points against Sweet, observing, “You know what, all this time I’ve been wanting to kill you. Funny thing is, looks like you beat me too it.” Surely to live long enough to see yourself tamed and hemmed in by white picket fences of your own choosing must be some form of existential slow torture? I’m curious to see where Snyder takes the character during the explosive era of the sixties, even if it does push the series closer towards the present day and its inevitable conclusion.

“Just let me put my teeth in…”

Even Agent Hobbes is getting old at this point, suggesting that things are approaching a conclusion. “In my day, we gave handkerchiefs when courting,” he muses, betraying his age. One of the things about a fixed time scale like this means that there must be a fixed ending. There’s a sense of time, and there’s a very clear idea that things are all heading towards a nice, big ending. Snyder has pretty much guaranteed that I’ll be on-board to see that through. I can;t wait to see what his version of the sixties looks like.

As with the earlier collections, the artwork is superb. Artist Rafael Albuquerque provides covers throughout, but he only provides the interior artwork for one of the three arcs collected here, Death Race. Jordi Bernet provides some lovely cartoonish artwork for The Beast in the Cave, giving the story a unique visual design that really suits it as a story told entirely in flashback – it looks almost like the style used in nineteenth century newspapers. Roger Cruz and Riccardo Burchielli do good work with The Nocturnes, even if it isn’t quiteas impressive as the work by Albuquerque or Bernet.

Death Race, 1954…

These collections continue to be a top-of-the-line addition to DC’s Vertigo imprint, and a great comic book in general. It’s great to have a serialised vampire narrative that gives the creatures back their teeth, and which uses them in an engaging and exciting manner to commentate on American history and culture. After all, what are monsters but a shadow? And a show must retain some of the same features as the object that casts it, right?

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

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