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Sunday Slugfest: American Vampire #1

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2010
By: Thom Young

Scott Snyder & Stephen King
Rafael Albuquerque (with Dave McCaig, colors)
DC-Vertigo
When notorious outlaw Skinner Sweet is attacked by an old enemy (who happens to be a member of the undead), the first American vampire is born--a vampire powered by the sun who is stronger, fiercer, and meaner than anything that came before.

In the second story, Pearl Jones is a struggling young actress in Los Angeles in the 1920s. However, when her big break brings her face-to-face with an ancient evil, her Hollywood dream quickly turns into a brutal, shocking nightmare.

Danny Djeljosevic:
Karyn Pinter:
Brandon Billups:




Danny Djeljosevic:

It was bound to happen eventually, right? A Vertigo vampire book in the post-Twilight era? Thankfully, it turned out to be a decent comic, though not particularly great.

Like any vampire story that strives for popularity, American Vampire presents its own mythology. In this case, throughout history, new bloodlines of vampires get created, resulting in breeds with abilities and weaknesses that are different from the rest. It turns out that the book will follow one of these "evolutionary" vampire bloodlines through the 20th century, which is a shame because I enjoyed the setting of this first issue and don't necessarily want to move on from it.

Like Brea and Zane Austin Grant’s We Will Bury You, the first issue of American Vampire takes place in the Roaring Twenties, and the monsters don’t show up until the very end.

Also like We Will Bury You, I’d be perfectly fine just getting an interesting comic book portrait of the era (specifically silent film-era Hollywood) sans the macabre. However, that type of story doesn’t sell particularly well. Thus, we’re going to keep getting werewolves in ancient Rome and Frankenstein monsters in feudal Japan, and I’ll just have to wait for HBO to make a show about the things I’m actually interested in.

The first story in the book, written by Scott Snyder, is 16 pages--which is probably an appropriate page length, as I can imagine the story going the usual 22 pages and still ending the exact same way but with worse pacing and a lot of padded scenes. At 16 pages, however, Snyder's story is the perfect length.

To make sure people read the book for at least five issues, Stephen King writes a second 16-page story set in the same universe. King’s story takes place in 1880, and it features six-gun shooting and a train robbery--yet it couldn’t feel more dull and lifeless (which is a relief for those who were worried that King would outclass Snyder, the guy who created the book).

Thankfully Rafael Albuquerque draws both stories, and his art carries King's half of the issue.

Yes, Albuquerque proves the winner of American Vampire with his slick, expressive art that is akin to the work of Leinil Francis Yu but with less scratchiness. The book is well worth reading just for Albuquerque's art.

I don’t yet now if American Vampire will succeed with two 16-page stories that take place in different eras. It will be like trying to figure out a picture given only a few puzzle pieces. However, I’m interested enough to continue reading, though I expect to stop caring about this title after a while.




Karyn Pinter:

Two stories intertwined by fate, misfortune, or coincidence? Any of those could work in the dual comic American Vampire. One tale is about a young woman in the Roaring Twenties; the other is about a murdering bank robber in 1880. Both appear to begin in tragedy, but who's to say how they will end.

The comic promises to be a new twist on an old classic, but how many twists in vampire lore have we already seen? Supposedly, we're to forget all about Bram Stoker's idea of the blood suckers in favor of this new genre twist--the American vampire. However, I'm not really sure how to go about that.

Okay, take away the Romanian accent, the widow's peak, the castle in Transylvania, maybe even the sharp suit, and what do you have? A pale guy/girl who was once alive but is now dead and who feeds on your blood to sustain life. All Bram Stoker did was give the vampire a sense of fashion, but I guess this American vampire wears cowboy boots and talks about baseball.

When it comes to vampires, it's difficult to push Dracula from the mind. Stoker's character is the one and only, and without the Count there would be no vampire stories--so I don't know about this "American vampire" concept, especially when it seems that it's basically just European vampires transported across the pond.

Yeah, it's a little bloodier than Stoker's story, but that's because of the time we live in rather than who the characters are and where they are located. What Stoker wrote back in 1897 was risqué, but no way in hell could he ever get away with some of the stuff that happens in the vampire movies and books of today. To say the least, I was a little bummed out to find in the first issue that nothing new has been supplied to the genre despite the promises of a "new kind of vampire" and "new powers."

I mean, what hasn't been done? Vampires have made it all the way to space. There's nothing left. They have conquered the final frontier.

It seems every week some new vampire story comes out where the vampire is a good, wholesome, doesn't-want-to-hurt-his-girlfriend sort of guy. I'm disgusted with the path the vampire genre has taken in the past few years, and I openly blame Twilight.

What happened to vampires being terrifying? There used to be kits made in the 1800s to defend yourself against them, and they weren't gag gifts; they were the real deal with Holy Water and spikes.

People used to behead one another from fear of their neighbor slipping into their house at night and feeding on their children. Those where the good old days of vampirism. Now what? They sparkle?

Hearing that Stephen King, the Master of Horror, was going to lay down a vampire comic was like a beautiful glimmer of light in an otherwise dark and dank tunnel. Finally, the genre might be good again. King pens the second story, "Bad Blood," a western tale about a murderous bank robber named Skinner Sweet who is on his way to be hanged. It certainly is a better tale than the downright ridiculous vampire stories that are flooding the market these days, but is it one of the best things King has ever written? Not by a long shot.

King's story has the same feeling as his Dark Tower stories, but it's good enough to make you want more. It plays off the general western clichés of a Pinkerton lawman bringing the bad guy to justice, a train heist, and a hanging in New Mexico.

If King's "Bad Blood" was the only story in the issue, I don't know how drawn into the comic I would have been. Really, Scott Snyder's "Big Break" was the story of the hour. It really sold the comic. Taking place in the up-and-coming era of Hollywood in the 1920s, the story begins with a mysterious hooded person disposing of bodies in the desert--one of which seems to still be alive.

Intriguing . . . I was hooked.

The story and the character of Pearl Jones have some substance. I wasn't blown away by King's story, which was a generic western with vampires added. However, Snyder's story has some mystery and style to it. It takes place in Hollywood in 1925, an era rarely seen in comics (as opposed to the western genre that is often used in comics).

I felt more of a connection to Snyder's story as well, maybe because the main character is a girl, or maybe because I'm a Hollywood buff, I don't know which (maybe both). I just feel like this one has more fiber to it. And it has the better ending—a true cliffhanger that leads back to the opening pages. "Big Break" could be a comic on its own.

It'll be interesting to see how the two stories play out since they are connected to each other by the Sweet character from King's Bad Blood. I think when, or if, they are finally combined, the story will be really good. It would be nice to see just how new the "new vampires" really are. With just the first issue to go by, there isn't anything to set American Vampire apart from any other vampire story other than the rare Hollywood setting and the presence of Stephen King, who isn't in it for the long haul though; five issues are all he's going to give us, so I hear.

American Vampire is really going to need to surprise and astound in order to hold up its end of the bargain in promising us more. Otherwise, it'll just be another good vampire story rather than a genre-changing one.




Brandon Billups:

Allow me to start this review with a preface: I have never read a single work by Stephen King before. Well, I read the first issue of the Dark Tower comic adaptation, but that doesn't really count. I have, however, had King's work recommended to me by a few well-respected, literary-minded friends, so when I saw that he was involved with American Vampire I figured, “Why not?”

It turns out that only the latter half of the book is by King. Scott Snyder, the creator of the series, pens the first half--a story set in 1925 called "Big Break" that details aspiring starlet Pearl Jones's encounter with a group of vampires. It's a great setup that bounces around effortlessly in introducing characters without being confusing or scattered. The cliffhanger is exciting, though a little predictable. However, the second half of the book more than makes up for Snyder's story.

"Bad Blood," King's contribution to the book, is told from the perspective of a writer in 1880 who witnesses a vampire attack while reporting on the capture of Skinner Sweet, a bank robber and general lunatic. It's not a stretch to see that Sweet is also the guy laying around outside Pearl's house in "Big Break," the difference is that he's trying to give helpful advice in 1925, but he's a psychotic maniac and thoughtless murderer in 1880. There's obviously room for a bit of development here, and I think it could be really interesting.

Rafael Alberquerque, who draws each story in a distinct style, immediately impressed me as well. Snyder's more modern story is a little starker and clearer, and Dave McCaig's colors are bold and vivid. King's older, wild west story is done in more of a textured, vaguely impressionist style. McCaig does an excellent coloring job here, too, with some panels looking almost like watercolors.

I also want to mention that I loved the vampire in "Bad Blood." He was disgusting and frightening and a little bad-ass, and if we don't get to see him again I'll be disappointed.

It's safe to say we're in the midst of a vampire craze, and American Vampire is obviously a cash-in on that--bolstered even more by the Stephen King byline. Thankfully, this comic book seems to be vampires done right--and while I'm not necessarily a King fan, it's easy to see why he's so highly praised for his horror writing. I'm already looking forward to the next issue.



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