Let The Right One In. Thirst. What We Do In The Shadows. The Castlevania series. Shadow of the Vampire. Legacy of Kain. Vampyr.
There’s really never been a shortage of amazing vampire media in the last 20 years. Yet by the 2010s, vampires had been run into the ground. Twilight, True Blood, and other vampire teen dramas had exhausted the idea of vampires in the mainstream and with it any semblance of cool. But in the world of comics, a truly great vampire story was gestating in the mind of writer Scott Snyder. Just as vampires were becoming passe, in came Snyder and artist Rafael Albuquerque with American Vampire, a neo-western horror saga spanning decades of lives and countless people.
At the center of this saga is Skinner Sweet, an outlaw from the Wild West who in a twist of fate ends up being the first in a line of American-bred vampires. Opposite Skinner Sweet is Pearl Jones, an aspiring actress in 1920’s Hollywood whose life forever changes after an unfortunate encounter with a vampire coven made of Hollywood’s most elite. Together, their intertwined fates put them at odds with the vampire race.
The modern anthology runs deep in American Vampire’s blood. Each arc deals with a different character’s perspective, often set in a totally different time period from the last, with lots of genre trappings. The first arc starts as your quintessential Hollywood fairy tale but then switches gears into a bloody horror movie. Some arcs go full Western when Snyder explores vampirism in the age of frontiersmen and cowboys. The book goes even bigger with two vampire WW2 stories: one set in the Pacific Theater of the war ala Band of Brothers and an Indiana Jones caper set in the Carpathian mountains of Nazi-occupied Europe. Hell, if you’re itching for something lower stakes (pun intended), there’s a coming-of-age story set in the 50s that taps into the delinquent cruising culture of the era.
That’s not even counting the standalone short stories written by the medium’s best writers and artists, including Stephen King, set in this world. Skinner and Pearl may serve as American Vampire’s linchpins but they aren’t the only stars in this joint as the comic explores the stories of other numerous characters in the saga, all the while connecting them in very meaningful ways.
And goodness does American Vampire boast an ensemble of characters that would give the most famous movie vampires a run for their money if this book is ever adapted for the live-action big leagues. You have Skinner Sweet, whose arc spans an entire century; he starts off robbing trains in the Wild West, becomes a soldier in WW2, a gangster running a brothel, a highway smuggler in the 60s, and by the end of the book, he’s an Evel Knievel death-defying stunt man in the 70s. Pearl Jones, who begins as a meek country girl seeking to make it big in Hollywood transforms into a battle-hardened crusader for her kind. Travis Kidd is a teenage vampire hunter in the 50s who poses as a womanizing delinquent in order to sniff out vampire families in the suburbs. His secret weapon is a pair of wooden fanged dentures he uses to bite vampires back.
Central to the story are the Vassals of the Morning Star, an organization dedicated to the eradication of vampires. Leading this organization are Linden Hobbes, a ruthless company man, and Felicia Book, a star agent with deep ties to Skinner Sweet. Calvin Poole is the resident genius and taxonomist, who himself gets caught in the hellish path carved out by Skinner Sweet. The Vassals also have an agent who moonlights as a traveling musician and relays information to other traveling Vassal agents via the color of the suit he wears on stage. This book is as nerdy as any Marvel or DC comic.
Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque have created a world so immersive, lived-in, and intricate that they’ve even created their own elaborate vampire taxonomy. Usually, you think of vampires, you think of the most generic kind. In American Vampire, those are the Carpathians; standard, basic bitch vampires who have the most famous of weaknesses. This kind makes up most of the vampire status quo in America. Synder brilliantly establishes that a lot of Carpathians were included in the first settlers of the New World.
In addition to that, you have the Gaelic Prime; vampires that can transform into monstrous bat-creatures, the Canis Asiatic; this book’s version of werewolves, Iberian and Caspian breeds, mummified vampires from Ancient Egypt with corrosive fluids, mindless bloodsuckers in the Pacific, and of course, the Abominus Americana; the titular strain that sets the vampire world on fire. Unlike the usual vampires, the American vampire has a unique set of traits and weaknesses, which make them feared by most breeds. Snyder even goes as far as introducing ancient vampire gods within the lore of American Vampire.
With numerous characters, storylines, and minute details, it’s easy to get lost in a saga as complex as American Vampire but its emotional storytelling makes it a very welcoming read. Be it Pearl Jones’ decades-long romance with her mortal, everyman husband Hank Preston or Agent Cash McCogan’s desperate mission to rid his infant son’s disease at any cost, there’s always something human beneath the blood and fangs. Snyder and Albuquerque masterfully interweave all these elements together for most of the run.
American Vampire recently bid its final farewell with issue #10 of its 1976 run. That final run was frankly, disappointing. The finale was paced at a breakneck speed that disserviced a lot of the stories and character work that came before it. One of the best things about this book prior to the ending was how it took its time in exploring the world, showing perspectives of everyone, and letting us readers grow with them. The finale does none of that and plays out like those big Marvel/DC event miniseries where the 5 main issues make no sense if you don’t read the 100 tie-ins. Except here, there are no tie-ins that flesh out what’s happening in the main event. It’s all gracelessly shoved in together.
The finale goes big in a save-the-universe kind of way which takes away from a lot of the smaller personal conflicts that made most of American Vampire amazing. The scope feels ambitious but the ambition doesn’t pay off. It instead dilutes a lot of the magic of the comic. You’re invested in this book for the characters, their aspirations, their conflicts with one another, so when the story becomes about defeating the devil himself, it’s just not as exciting.
I can’t help but wonder what exactly happened to the story during its lengthy hiatus. The first run ceased production around 2013 and then resumed for a brief run that ran through 2015-2016. It was slated to resume the year after but never did. During that time, Vertigo was dissolved and was replaced by DC Black Label. Did the hiatus cause them to rethink how the story was getting told? Was Snyder just too busy working on his countless new projects that they decided to just rush through the ending? Were they only contracted to do 10 issues only?
Nonetheless, American Vampire will go down as one of the best reading experiences I’ve had as a comic reader. Even in the face of a rushed and unengaging finale, getting to know these characters was worth it. I was 22 and still in college when I first picked this book up. There are specific songs from that time period that was on heavy rotation when I was reading this book that I can never ever separate from certain panels. If I could discover the book’s emotional revelations and the surprising connections between each character for the first time, I would all over again.
Thanks, Scott and Rafael for creating my favorite kind of vampire.