October 22, 2011

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10 Days of Halloween Horror 1: American Vampire Volumes 1 and 2

 Welcome to day one of the 10 Days of Halloween Horror 2011!  We'll be featuring horror-related reviews right up until the big day!  You can find the Halloween Horror posts for Panel Patter here, and don't forget to check out the Book Stew for book-book horror, too!

Written by Scott Snyder (w. Stephen King Vol 1)
Illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque (and Mateus Santolouco Vol 2)
Vertigo

I'd been hearing good things about Scott Snyder from a few people here and there, but I hadn't gotten around to this series yet.  Since I knew good or bad it would be perfect for the Halloween season, I decided to give it a shot.

Oh wow.

It's always a great time when you find a new favorite writer, and boy did I ever!  Scott Snyder knows how to write comic books, both in the single issue and trade-arc forms, combining dark humor with strong pacing, plot, and characterization.  He's aided and abetted here by Stephen King (perhaps you've heard of him), making his comic book debut.  (It's a little hard to believe that King hasn't written a comic before this in all his years of writing.)  While King's parts are not as sharp as Snyder's, they are a solid effort from a rookie writer.  Unlike many other novelists who take a shot at comic writing, King tries hard to take what he does best--snappy dialog and a folksy storytelling style from a first person perspective--and make it work with the visual storytelling of a comic book.

The result has a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it in King's case, with the story having some echoes of the 1950s EC horror comics that I'm sure he grew up with, but given an updated look and feel.  Snyder's take is far more modern, but the switching between the two styles works a lot better than I expected it to.  Snyder is not afraid to use the old ideas of good versus evil and finding nobility within monstrosity, though in his case, there's an air of cynicism that, say, an old Marv Wolfman horror comic might lack.

The basic premise of American Vampire is that a low-life criminal is tainted by the blood of an Old World Vampire, part of a clique of creatures of the night who came to the American West in order to capitalize on its riches (a nice allusion to real-life robber barons sucking the life out of ordinary people).  For some reason, not yet explained, this American Vampire is different than those who created him.

Now Skinner Sweet is a threat to both ordinary people and his monstrous cousins, living large in an America that's expanding and growing beyond all expectations.  We first meet Sweet in 1920s Hollywood, where he decides to throw a monkey wrench into the plans of the old vampires and create a new vampire just like him.Meanwhile, in the King-written arc, we learn the origin of Sweet and how his legacy is even more twisted than we previously thought.

As Sweet's actions start touching more and more people, we see that the morality here is just about as gray as anything I've ever read.  One of the neat parts of this concept is that there really are no pure actors in the picture.  It's easy to root against the European vamps, but Sweet is so completely amoral that taking his side is just as wrong.  Pearl might be a viable option, but for how long?  I find it impossible to believe that Snyder is going to let anyone stay innocent, based on what I've seen so far.

The second book moves into the 1930s and the city of sin, Las Vegas.  It makes perfect sense that vampires would gather here, as the vices created by gambling and prostitution are a breeding ground for the type of crime in which a vampire can safely hide.  Sweet now runs a house of ill repute, but is he also in the business of killing investors in the Hoover Dam?  That's the mystery that an honest cop in a corrupt town must figure out.  But how do the old vampires and Pearl fit into the picture?

As with the first trade, Snyder makes each issue readable on its own but links the pieces together by the time we get to the finished story.  He's particularly adept here at linking threads from the first story arc into this one, with the only obvious moment being the introduction of vampire hunters.  Of course they exist, because what is Dracula without his Van Helsing?  I'd have preferred a bit more of an obvious introduction to them, but it's a minor complaint.

This trade really starts to expand on the world of the new vampires, as we see Snyder's world-building talent on display, all while the pieces fit together neatly.  I like how certain players weave in and out of the narrative, showing that nothing has been shuffled to the side, and everything we've seen so far has a point.  It's extremely talented writing from Snyder, and something we do not see very often these days.  This is a writer who plans to be on a title for some time, not just until the contract runs out.  (Granted, I realize this is a creator-created title, but I've even read some of those where it's clear the plan is to write for a bit and move on to something higher profile.)

While I really do like the story of American Vampire, I can't say that I am in love with the style of the two artists that Snyder has been paired with so far.  While they do compliment each other, which I thought was a solid editorial choice, I think their style is a bit too rough-hewn.  Like other projects I've read and enjoyed the story but thought the art was just okay, it's as though they've skipped the extremely important step of inking.  I am not a fan of going pencils to coloring, and have yet to see an example of that style which I actually liked.  There's a lack of depth and shadow as a result, which I think is a big mistake when you're drawing a comic about vampires.

Another issue I had with the art was the posing of the characters within the panels.  I feel like the characters are far too stiff, like they are posing for the camera rather than moving naturally.  Close-ups seem to be at the wrong angle, or in a manner that doesn't put the best visual with the dialog.  I like my heroes and villains to move dynamically, and they just don't do that here for the most part.  While this is not a superhero story, we are dealing with monsters and the supernatural, and so I think the same storytelling elements apply for the artist.

It's not that the art is bad so much as just that I think it could be so much more.  Given Snyder's careful crafting of the world and plot, it seems a shame he's not given an art team that reflects that care.  Even with the handicap, though, this is a solid new series from Vertigo, which makes me happy because I've been a bit worried about the imprint with all of DC's recent contractions.  Scott Snyder is a great addition to their line-up, and I hope he writes this series for a long time. If you haven't read this one yet and are a fan of horror comics, what are you waiting for?  This is a great addition to the genre, and definitely one of my favorites!