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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fear in Four Colors: American Vampire #1

By Paige MacGregor

Despite the recent Twilight phenomenon, the most influential vampire lore has traditionally originated in Europe. From F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu to Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula, the most enduring vampire tales have come straight out of places like Germany and England. Now, however, New York Times bestselling author Stephen King joins Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque to create a monthly comic series that revolves around a new, distinctly American breed of vampire.

Well-known short story writer Scott Snyder’s contribution to American Vampire #1 tells the tale of a Jazz Age starlet-wannabe named Pearl and her roommate, Hattie. The two girls spend their days as extras on Hollywood sets, and nights working second and third jobs in order to make rent. When Pearl catches a lucky break on set and is asked to stand in for a light reading for the film’s leading lady, she finds herself swept into a world of decadence, invited to a ritzy party with the film’s elite cast members and other high society individuals. Unfortunately, what Pearl and Hattie discover among the Hollywood hotshots is something far more sinister than expected.

American Vampire #1 features Stephen King’s first comic book writing based on original material. King’s story, titled “Bad Blood”, tells the tale of an 1880 bank robber and murderer called Skinner Sweet. After being taken into custody, Sweet runs into an old enemy while being transferred. The scuffle that ensues gives birth to the first American vampire—perhaps one of the very same creatures that Pearl and her roommate have the misfortune of meeting years later.

The vampires in American Vampire #1 are a unique breed: stronger and faster than their European ancestors, American vampires are also more muscular and vicious than their predecessors as well. Although the first issue of the series leaves the recently bitten Skinner Sweet a bloody heap in the middle of the desert, we already know that he will make a formidable blood-drinker if his personality traits carry over during the transformation.

American Vampire #1 sets the stage for what will undoubtedly be a very interesting vampire story. Assuming that vampires have successfully infiltrated at least part of America (and an influential part, at that) by the time Scott Snyder’s story takes place, the comic series appears to be asserting that a single man could be entirely responsible for the proliferation of vampires in the continental United States. Had the goal of the vampire who turns Skinner been to create a strong, clever creature capable of surviving and even thriving, he couldn’t have chosen a better candidate. After all, the same qualities that made Skinner such a renowned criminal and allowed him to evade capture for such a long time will allow him to survive as a vampire.

When combined with a compelling storyline, the beautiful visual style of American Vampire #1 makes this a must-read title, especially for Stephen King fans. We have a feeling that the king of terror has more than a few tricks up his sleeve for the remainder of the series.


Missy Y. (formerly A Case of You) said...

I guess first of all I just have to say that originally many vampire stories (particularly Dracula* and the far superior Carmilla) were invasion stories. These two in particular were written by Irishmen who were commenting on the British occupation of their land, and this is something I find really, really fascinating, and it's something that is largely missing from American vampirisim, which is (it seems to me) mostly picking up on the concept of the vampire as the lonely romantic, which is great and all, but not nearly as relevant or interesting. (I'm leaving Anne Rice out of this conversation for two reasons: 1) I think she is an anomaly and 2) she lost her fucking mind recently and can suck it.)

On a more personal note, I don't like the evolution of the vampire in American culture, much like I am not all that pleased with the evolution of the zombie. We don't really need these quick, ruthless killing machines. What has always made zombies scary to me is that there is a MASS of them. What makes vampires scary is their ability to enthrall. And we don't need an ultraviolent or even more than vaguely violent vampire to accomplish this task.

I guess what I am saying is that I like my vampires classy, and in America, they just aren't.

Having said all of this, I love The Lost Boys. Yeah, I'm all confusing and shit.

*I fucking hate Dracula (the novel) with the fire of a thousand suns. It is so poorly written that I can hardly believe people still read it.

B-Sol said...

Missy, I couldn't agree more on both the vampire and zombie front.

I am much more interested in the alluring, beguiling form of the vampire, rather than the more animalistic, revolting form the vampire takes in more recent American cinema. I think that's actually a throwback to the representation of the vampire in pre-modern times, since in ancient folklore the vampire is usually far from classy. I think with vampires, you're right on the money in saying you don't need ultra-violence. I always think it's ridiculous to see vampires ripping people's heads off rather than the old-school puncture wounds. Overkill (pardon the pun).

And of course, it goes without saying that I'm a proponent of the creeping-dread, slow-moving mass of zombies, over the ludicrous Bruce Jenner zombies we see today.

Missy Y. (formerly A Case of You) said...

Yes! I do always forget about these pre-canonical versions of the vampire. And it makes me think of the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which they had those super vamps. Do you remember this? I actually really liked that, which is weird because normally I wouldn't have a taste for that.

I think what made the difference is that the season of Buffy was all about origins--the origins of the slayer and the vampire and of evil itself. And when you give me a complete understanding of something and I am able to see how one gets from point A (evil, vicious, ultraviolent vampires) to point B (Angel and Spike), I am much more open to variation. Anyway, there was context for it. And nowadays, people seem to be unable to contextualize these things. And I'm sorry, but if you are talking about something that is basically a mythological creature, then you need to contextualize that myth.

Does this make sense?

B-Sol said...

Absolutely it does. I guess what bugs me the most about the 30-Days-of-Night style of rampaging vampire is that--without context--it seems like they're basically more zombie-like than anything else, ripping their victims to pieces, and only vaguely human in any way. That's just not a vampire to me--and I actually thought 30 Days was kind of OK as a horror movie.

I once wrote a gag line in one of my Random Ramblings posts about how much more efficient old-school vampires were, since they were able to drain their victims dry using two simply puncture wounds to the throat, while these new school vamps make such a mess of things...

Missy Y. (formerly A Case of You) said...

Yes, their ability to maintain a certain level of humanity is very important to me as a viewer. And I feel the same way about the kinds of vamps in 30 Days of Night (which I also did not totally hate). What is the point of a zombie-like vamp when you have zombies already doing that job? This seems like wasted filmmaking.

There has always been an air of intellectual superiority to the vampire that is being destroyed by these representations.

However, Daybreakers, which was a tragedy, tried to utilize these two versions of the vampire--sort of--and you know, it failed miserably, as that movie was so boring I almost left during it. I often think of that movie and wish it had been better (or, you know, good at all). Oh, sigh.

I also just feel that in literature and film, the zombie and the vampire have been *about* very different things, and they have been very successful ways of debating their various themes. Why confuse them?

Though, I do think they both handle race well, if given the opportunity. I do so wish someone would make a zombie movie that was really about Caribbean zombies as they really were and not as mindless killing machines.

Sorry about my ADD in this comment. I was getting distracted by, you know, my job and shit.

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