Scott Snyder and Stephen King. The co-creator of the series (artist Rafael Albuquerque being the other half of the creative duo) working with a world-renowned novelist who has never written a comic book. It might sound like styles and egos would clash, but both writers work in tandem to weave two interlocking stories that are the building blocks of a unique horror series that is rich with character, heart, humor, and history. This first volume of “American Vampire” (which contains the first five issues) is the beginning of a massive saga that Snyder has been wanting to unfurl before his audience, and the reader is lucky to see the beginning of a series that is growing into one of the most exciting titles of the twenty-first century.
Both Snyder and King allow the story to flourish organically, with Snyder opening the story on a mystery that unlocks as both writers’ stories unfold in their respective sections of each issue. Snyder, in the first half of each issue, writes the story of struggling actress Pearl Jones in the “present day” Los Angeles of the 1920s, while King, in the second half, regales the reader with the introduction of the new vampire villain Skinner Sweet that takes place in 1880s Colorado. It is proof that King understands Snyder’s vision for his creation that both stories and the characters within them have the same voice. Although both writers bring something unique to their slices of the story, the beginning of the “American Vampire” odyssey reads as a rich, seamless whole. A new breed of vampire has arisen in the pages of this first story arc that will whet the appetite of new readers who will be excited to see what results from this stunning origin and set-up of a tale that only gets richer and deeper as it goes along. The story and its richness would not be the same without the stunning artistry of artist Rafael Albuquerque and the unique artistic style he contributes to the complimentary tales of Snyder and King.
The theme of rebirth is one that resides in both Snyder’s and King’s intertwining tales. Pearl Jones and Skinner Sweet are transformed into the new breed of “American” vampire that is vastly different from the “old” and traditional breed that lives among them. Unlike this old breed, Pearl and Skinner are able to walk in the daylight and survive other weaknesses that plague the traditional vampires that have been around for centuries. Pearl and Skinner are the main protagonists of the book and both must reconcile with who they have become. Pearl struggles, while Skinner embraces the thirst that comes with being a vampire. Seeing the two clashing personalities only opens readers’ minds to how these two will interact in the future. The scene with the two of them at the end of this volume hints at a future filled with possibility.
Despite not having thought boxes to see what the characters are thinking, a connection with these characters is built by Snyder and King through dialogue. Snyder creates Pearl Jones as a character with wide-eyed wonder, optimism, naivete, and strength. In the first issue, Pearl enthusiastically recalls her first encounter with the magic of film, which led her to move to Los Angeles in order to be near the industry, to her friend Hattie Hargrove. Her body language and facial expression, as rendered by Albuquerque, betrays her excitement and awe. Working multiple jobs and slaving away as an extra on movie sets doesn’t deter her excitement for the craft of acting. She knows what she wants and who she is, not allowing for any distractions. The scene where Henry, who is the guitarist in the band that plays at the club where Pearl works, asks for a date with her has witty dialogue that unveils the personalities of both characters. Pearl is hesitant because of the perseverance and sense of responsibility she has to her jobs and her dream. Later on in the story, Henry says that before she went to her third job, he would watch her rehearse her lines “over and over.” Pearl says, “So?” and Henry responds by saying, “So you’ve got real heart. You’ve got guts.” Snyder, in his part of the story, makes the reader care for the cast with real, human dialogue. This is not a stereotypical gore and guts vampire horror story (although it has some great scenes of that by Albuquerque), but a story with heart and visceral, human emotion along with the visceral vampire action.
King, also, uses dialogue to great effect, but in a different way. His story leans more to the historical side of this vampire story, with the character of writer Will Bunting regaling an audience with the story of Skinner Sweet. The reader learns of the European vampire nobility and their grasp on the Western United States. Skinner, the first of the new breed of American vampire, threatens the very existence of the European strand of vamp. Although Skinner, in this first arc, may appear to be hellbent on revenge and fairly one-dimensional, both King and Snyder depict a character who is cunning and who contains an underlying depth to the darkness. He’s a rogue and a monster, yes, but one that is simply trying to survive. In one particular scene, the consequences of there being no moon that night drives Skinner to push himself to commit violent acts that even he possibly thought improbable. Like Pearl, he has an inner strength that goes far beyond the boundaries of their own imagination. They both are growing into their new bodies and new selves, with their rebirthing pains mirroring each other. Both struggle with the vampiric and human sides of themselves, with Skinner seemingly becoming reborn into something more monster than human.
Rafael Albuquerque (along with colorist Dave McCaig) brings a distinct and separate style to the tales being told by Snyder and King. Albuquerque’s inking for Pearl’s story is sleek and clean compared to the “dirty” and darker inks that he uses for Skinner’s story. The cleaner style contributes to moments of horror, as well as moments of beauty. In the two page scene where Pearl is discovered by Hattie and Henry, the art is stark and sparse. McCaig’s use of bright yellow sunshine in the desert makes the ravaged body of Pearl that much more powerful and horrific. The realistic nature of the art facilitates this horrific response from the reader, making them care about what has happened to Pearl. The inking is less heavy and ominous, making it seem as if it’s happening in real time, compared to the murky past of Skinner’s tale. Another scene with great use of inking and color is when Henry and Pearl are about to have sex in a car. The inking of their faces is dark, yet the expressions on their faces are still clearly visible and full of emotion. McCaig’s use of yellow, once again, illuminates the scene, painting one that is full of love instead of horror.
The art in King’s story is in direct opposition to that of Snyder’s half of the tale. Albuquerque’s inking here is murky, dank, and downright dirty. When Skinner enters the town of Lakeview, Colorado to exact his revenge on those who’ve wronged him, the sky turns dirty shades of gray, green, orange, and yellow. The inking of the sky seems to be done in watercolors because of the murky, haphazard quality that the inking conveys in this scene. This attribute brings out the suspense and adds to the horror of the story being told by King. The sky and its hazy quality is throughout each of King’s parts of his story, lending an ominous quality that is consistent throughout the book. Consistency is something that Albuquerque brings to his art, always using his art to contribute to the heart, horror, and ambience of the entire saga within this volume. He and McCaig can also bring their “dirty” style to aquatic scenes, as in the splash page where Skinner bursts out of his coffin underwater in all his vampiric glory.
Albuquerque instills personality and humanity in the characters, through facial expressions, body language, and their overall design. He also draws a truly terrifying vampire. Pearl bites her lower lip in embarrassment a few times throughout the book, as when she’s being groped by an overly-touchy patron at the nightclub where she works. Little physical personality traits like this contribute to creating unique three-dimensional characters that make them more relatable to the reader. The tears and expressions of terror on Pearl and Hattie’s faces throughout the book also contribute to the way the story makes the reader fear and care for the characters. Albuquerque’s art exudes humanity and each character is unique and lavished attention upon, making the tale and it’s consequences that much more powerful. Mention must be paid, rightfully so, to the truly terrifying and unique look of Albuquerque’s vampire design. When we first see a vampire in the book, it’s of Pearl ready to attack. Her fingers become exaggeratedly long and nail-like, with her fangs protruding in an exaggerated manner. The veins in her neck pop out, with the neck growing in muscular size, as if it’s ready to manage drinking a gallon of blood. We expect the exaggerated quality because, in real-life, vampires would not have neat little fangs and the same “clean” face as their “human” form.
Stephen King, through Will Bunting’s voice, recapitulates the essence of Snyder and Albuquerque’s “American Vampire” saga when Bunting tells his audience, “There are monsters out there. Real monsters that walk the roads and rails of this country. But there are also heroes…”. This book is one of horror, but also one of hope and humanity mired in the muck. Pearl and Skinner are two opposing characters going through the same horrors and navigating a new world that is rapidly changing before them. Not only have they been reborn into a new body, but they have also been reborn into a society that is transforming at a rapid pace before their very eyes. It’s a new dawn and a new day for them and their country because they are a new breed that can greatly affect not only themselves, but those around them. Not only will they be on the hunt to quench their thirst, but they (especially Skinner) will be hunted for the wrongs (real or perceived) that their kind has inflicted on others. Bunting’s words are apropos for Skinner and Pearl, with one being a monster and the other being a hero. Only time (and lots of it) will tell what horrors they will have to endure in order to survive in a country and world that justifiably fears them.
American Vampire: Volume 1
Written by: Scott Snyder and Stephen King
Art by: Rafael Albuquerque
Colors by: Dave McCaig
Letters by: Steve Wands
Published by: Vertigo Comics
Originally published: 2010