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Drawn Together: The Skinner Sweet gang on the cusp of their vampirism
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American Vampire #1

(DC/Vertigo; US: May 2010)

No doubt about it, I liked Dark Skies a whole lot more than I liked X-Files. Or at least I would have.


What Chris Carter’s more evolved high concept, higher production-values oriented, somehow sleeker X-Files lacked in nuanced morality, Bryce Zabel’s Dark Skies made up for in spades.


X-Files morality was very focused, almost to the point of being derivative; here’re the good guys, these are the bad guys, join in the crusade of one against the other.


Dark Skies on the other hand, saw its protagonists sometimes working against, sometimes along with the Machiavellian and ostensibly monolithic conspiracy that produced Majic-12. And Dark Skies spanned the course of American history since the fictive alien crash landing at Roswell. The show offered a darker, more sinister view of both American foreign policy and domestic politics. I just wanted to like Dark Skies more than X-Files. In just the same way, I really want to like American Vampire.


But Dark Skies found itself simply outgunned. The show ran for only one season. Perhaps it was the higher production values of X-Files. Perhaps it was the fact that the show’s villains were predominantly American patriots (X-Files villains were by contrast, were a group of Europeans). Or perhaps it was simply the fact that the show was set in the 1960s. What ever the reasons, Dark Skies would not be picked up for a second season. And the X-Files juggernaut would simply keep lurching forward until its vague and vaguely ignominious end with its season nine (and series) finale.


Dark Skies was the James Mechner of conspiracy-style TV shows. It chronicled a secret invasion by alien parasites, and efforts by the ultra-secret Majestic 12 agency (nicknamed ‘Majic’) to cripple colonization of the planet. As a conceit of the show, every major political event since the late 40s, was a directly influenced by this clash of species. Carl Sagan’s role as public scientist and fierce opponent of non-scientific hokum, for example, was a direct extension of his work for Majic. Colin Powell’s rapid rise through the ranks? Also due his involvement with Majestic. The show even went for the big one; JFK’s assassination was painted as being due to his untimely discovery of the existence of Majestic-12. American Vampire promises exactly the same kind of radical re-imagining of key historical points of the twentieth century. But immediately out of the gate, there are some key stumbling blocks.


American Vampire is a biologist’s treasure trove. It tells the story of the evolutionary passage of vampires as the American races bring new strengths and weaknesses to the decorous but staid bloodlines of European vampirism. Here already is something uniquely inventive in creator Scott Snyder’s outlook of the vampire genre. That American vampirism is not seen as the luckless second-cousin of the older, more established European vampire clans. Instead American vampires are a new breed, charting a new course for their species. American vampires as an evolution, rather than an inferior replica.


The storyarc (which seems will run for the first five issues), is primarily the gathering up of the female and male leads. Pearl, a young starlet in 1920s Hollywood, and Skinner an old-timey outlaw from the 1880s, will ostensibly find themselves the Adam and Eve (by way of Bonnie and Clyde) of the new American vampires.


Issues in the first storyarc will be told as two origin stories; Pearl’s in the 1920s (also the story of how Pearl and Skinner meet) and Skinner’s origin in the 1880s. As an unexpected but entirely welcome surprise, Skinner’s stories are penned by horror and American literature icon, Stephen King. Series creator Scott Snyder takes on writing duties for the initial stories of Pearl’s origin, and series co-creator Rafael Albuquerque executes the artwork that so lavishly epitomizes both the 1880s and the 1920s.


But in an almost backhanded compliment, Snyder’s writing suffers by comparison with Stephen King’s. King is clearly more practiced in his modes of storytelling, and more disciplined in his choices. The story of Skinner Sweet, nothing more than a minor outlaw catapulted to infamy through the dogged pursuit by the Pinkertons, seems so much more absorbing than that of the starlet seduced by the glitz of the silent era Silver Screen. The stories themselves are clearly a product of their writers’ skills. Lamentably, Snyder comes off as worse in comparison to King’s decades of mastery of literary forms.


Pretty On The Inside: The outlaw Skinner Sweet is a new, more audacious breed of vampire.

Pretty On The Inside: The outlaw Skinner Sweet is a new, more audacious breed of vampire.


Where though, does that leave the first-time reader?


In one sense, there is not much risk at all. Hesitant readers could simply wait until Stephen King’s ecliptic influence passes, five issues hence. By then the beauty and the grace and the outright and elegant savagery of Snyder’s loquacity and Albuquerque’s composition can be seen for what they truly are; a much needed innovativeness in a dry genre.


Or.


Or the first-time reader can choose to immediately see Snyder’s genius at play. The idea to weave together those handful of decades at the birth of the twentieth century (a handful of decades which also saw the rebirth of America itself) with the vampire genre is itself a kind of non-stop creativity. American Vampire then, falls not so much into the recently popular vampire stories that appeal to the core demographic of such shows as Gossip Girl, but finds a place among such detailed and panoramic works as Coppola’s Godfather trilogy or Ellroy’s American Tabloid or, of course, Stephen King’s IT.


While not obvious at first glance (the blinding glare from Stephen King, just a little too blinding), American Vampire stands primed as one of the breakaway hits of the vampire genre. Seductively original, American Vampire simply deserves to be read.

Rating:

AB-, ENTJ, PhD: shathley Q is deeply moved by the emotional connection we build with our perpetual fictions, and hopes to answer for that somehow, somehow. He holds a Doctorate in Literary and Cultural Theory. His writings have appeared in Joss Whedon: the Complete Companion and Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, as well as regularly on PopMatters. Like a kid in a china shop, he microblogs as @uuizardry on Twitter. Or hit him up directly on shathleyq@popmatters.com.


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