Nothing Sparkles: The Evolution of Vampires and America in ‘American Vampire’

[28 March 2011]

By Michael D. Stewart

PopMatters Associate Comics Editor

Vampires are currently overexposed. Movies, TV, comics – the fangs and bloodsucking crowd have infected just about every corner of our popular culture. Sometimes they yearn for love. Sometimes they seek redemption. Sometimes they just bite and feed. Sometimes they sparkle. What can you do with a vampire that hasn’t already been done? That’s when creative talent and execution come in to play.

What makes a comic series good is not a plethora of action, but rather when the action sequences are tempered with a deep emotional connection with the characters… no matter how new they are. The same is true in TV and movies. But when it comes to comics, something deeper must be explored. The vast possibilities of the medium are also its handicaps, mainly the static nature of movement and expression. There has to be something more going on. The plots, dialogue and art must be so balanced that they create kinetic movement out of stillness.

Since its early issues, Vertigo’s American Vampire has had something going for it. Many critics would opine that the name “Stephen King” printed on the cover was enough to keep horror fans buying the comic. But what flew under the radar during its initial story arc was the creative hand of creator and writer Scott Snyder. A couple of story arcs and 12 issues later, it’s hard not to be enthused by the comic series. What’s been presented in the last dozen issues is not your typical vampire saga. No, the depth of the mythology is only outmatched by the strength of its characters. The appeal of American Vampire is even further cemented by a fresh take on the creatures, seeing them divided among several species, and seeing the American version as a new variation on the old legends. This is the birth of a modern understanding, a reinvention of the very old and gruesomely staid. This is the tale of America herself.

American Vampire by all accounts is an allegory about the rise of American society out of its European roots. The first and second industrial revolutions changed the course of human history and had an even more profound impact on the rise of the United States as a global superpower, allowing the relatively young country to stand shoulder to shoulder with its older European counterparts. By the dawn of the 20th century, the United States had overtaken its European “parents” as the leader of industrial production. It’s no stretch to say that this period is where American roots became disconnected from Europe, and wholly established as their own. This is the setting for American Vampire and the establishment of a new vampire species; a creature born out of the old European vampires, but with unique attributes as to separate it from its ancestors.

Issue 12 of the series builds further upon this foundation by revealing more of the back story of its standout character – and first “American” vampire – Skinner Sweets. His story is a microcosm of the Old West and its singular examination of heroes, villains and everyone in between.  Where do the legends come from? Where do they go after their time is done? Sweets embodies both allegory and transition; a transition from savageness of the frontier to the refinement and progress of the industrial age. And the expansion on his history is as much an exercise on the depth of the series as it is an evolution of the narrative. From here, the future is open ended. The possibilities are endless and evocative of the type of evolution American society felt some 112 years ago.

American Vampire didn’t take the easy road when it came to its follow-up story arcs. Though, how hard could it be when the narrative employees one of the better villains of the last decade? After establishing several fascinating characters, Snyder put them aside to establish more and more and more. That speaks to a thoroughly thought-out narrative structure. His cast is ever expansive and connected, creating a plethora of directions for the eventual stories, and series, to go.

As said above, the standout to this issue is the continued advancement of the mythology for the series. Snyder has developed a surprising amount of depth in these few story arcs. It’s curious as to how much more he can create with a few more arcs. But in comics, story alone does not make a series. The art has to match. Cover artist for this issue, and original artist for the series, Rafael Albuquerque has done the best work a penciler can do. In issue 12, Danijel Zezelj tries to match the ambitious panels of his predecessor. It’s an odd fit, though a valiant effort. It’s not the work of Albuquerque, but it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to exist somewhere else, another time, and another place from which this history is still being written. What holds these panels together with the rest of series is the color work of Dave McCaig. It unifies all that has come before with what is now, creating that transition that most series aspire to. It is not seamless, but what about our history or the history of vampires is?

American Vampire has quickly become a fan favorite comic. With its deep and compelling narrative and stellar artwork, the case can be made that it’s the best new series going. The all but certain violent panels are dripped with sinister dread. The dialogue is strong and pointed. The characters are well defined. All parts are working independently and together, creating a very enjoyable series.

The success of American Vampire is very much rooted in the strong efforts of the creative team.  Each pulls their weight, creating a fresh and original take on old legends. It’s not paint by numbers character design and storytelling. It’s a thoughtful implementation of an aesthetic and tone. Just when you thought vampires were overdone, Vertigo publishes a book that makes you change your mind. No one sparkles, looks for redemption or frets over their emo girlfriend. How refreshing. Maybe they could do the same for zombies…

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/138806-nothing-sparkles-the-evolution-of-vampires-and-america-in-american-v/