It seems to me that vampires have been much maligned in the popular culture as of late. They're sexy and hip, but never scary. Antagonists in most modern vampire stories seem to want to be vampires themselves; they want to fall in love and sleep with vampires; they want to make vampires their sex toys. This seems odd to me since vampires are scary creatures of the night and I ask myself often why people aren't scared of them. All of that, however, is about to change.
DC Comics' Vertigo imprint has teamed up with short story author Scott Snyder (Voodoo Heart) and master of horror Stephen King (every horror bestseller you've ever heard of) to tell a uniquely American vampire story, and they're doing an incredible job at making them scary again in the popular culture in their new book hitting stands this month, American Vampire.
Winnowing through eras of American history, American Vampire tells the story of Skinner Sweet, the first of a new breed of American vampires. The first five issues of the book are split in half between Snyder and King. In his first original comics work, Stephen King gives us the origin story of Skinner Sweet and his turn into a vampire in the old West. For his part, Snyder gives us an engaging look at the silent film era of the 20s, where Sweet has his eyes on a lovely background performer named Pearl, but to what end?
The comic itself, beautifully rendered by Rafael Albuquerque, is eerie and haunting. Snyder has quite capably made the jump from literature to comics with an ease and grace that comes from his lifelong adoration of comics. When Snyder and I talked this week, he told me:
This is a perfect medium, I still love doing literary stuff and I'm working on a novel, but I've been on two years of enthusiasm for doing comics. The thing that's hard about writing literary stuff, short stories, is that it's just you and the computer all by yourself and it's up to you to put something that matters to you on the page and it's very, very lonely. Having collaborators, I talk to Rafael everyday and while Stephen was writing his part we talked everyday, and it's this real collaborative effort and there's something so exciting about having a team working with you on writing something. I've always loved literary stuff, but I don't relish the isolation.
The way the comic is laid out, into two stories in different eras, serves it well. I could easily see myself tuning out of the comic if it had started in the old West, but the silent film era is just too compelling to put down and raises just enough questions about the dark, creepy man in the corner that I want to know more about; and it doesn't matter when or where things take me. There's a genuine feeling of the eras represented -- in the subtext. When Scott Snyder and I spoke, we talked about how easy it is to just give off a stereotypical feeling for a time and place in American history, but it takes more to go deeper:
I wanted to do a vampire story that didn't feel foreign to me anymore. What made vampires scary to me was that they're these undead, feral, terrifying versions of people that you care about, that you recognize and are familiar with. It's the threat of someone scary that you know walking the same landscape as you trying to get you that makes it primally frightening to me. And then I started thinking why don't we ever see these vampires in this landscape that I really love, which is the iconic America landscape. The old west, or seeing them in the 20s, or the 30s, or the 40s or these hyper-American landscapes, because to me that would be really frightening to see them invade that place.
For King's part, you get the idea that he can write anything and be good at it. Though he's written westerns before, he's never written a comic book. Reading the issue, it feels like it's the most natural thing in the world for him. He makes everything look effortless and his story is dripping with that sense of place and time that could only happen when and where it does. He does an excellent job of making the title to the book so appropriate that it borders on cliche (though in exactly the right way).
Perhaps the thing I like most about this book is that there is a horror element to it, which has been missing from the treatment of vampires for the last 20 years. The book is scary and Sweet seems like he's going to become even scarier. Snyder came up with the story and concept of these ever-evolving vampires and Sweet seems like he's going to be the baddest of the bad. He thrives on the sunlight and has fangs like a rattlesnake. His claws are bigger than the European vampires we know from the standard mythos and he's darker, faster, and stronger:
I was thinking, you know, if we were going to have a vampire walk this American landscape, well what if it was a new species of vampire? And it sort of hit me then. What if it really was a new breed with new powers and new characteristics and what if the vampire bloodline every once in a while mutates or evolves as it hits somebody new? Then it hit me that this is a story about an American vampire that was born in the Old West and he has these sort of confounding powers to the old guard and from there it bloomed into this idea of vampire genealogy and evolution throughout history, all the way back to pre-modern times.
You can see some preview pages of the book below, but be sure to order it from your local comic book store. It's great to pick up a collected edition, but unless a book gets support on the single-issues, it'll never make it to being a collection. Out of the gate I like this book a lot and I'm going to be adding it to my hold. The first issue hits stands March 17th and it is a monthly ongoing series from there.
Do yourself a favor and pick it up before it sells out.
You can listen to the full interview with Scott Snyder over at Big Shiny Robot!s iTunes feed It's an interesting listen and we talk in depth about how Stephen King got involved, Snyder's literary work, and comics in general. It was a great conversation and I hope you agree.
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