American Vampire: Volume 1
Review by Mike Finkelstein
It isn't easy to come up with a new idea when it comes to vampires. Bram Stoker essentially defined the genre with his novel Dracula, codifying the myths and legends from across hundreds of years into a single work of fiction. The rules for vampires that Stoker set out became what the whole of the genre has stuck to, more or less, since 1897. While other myths do get blended in, grabbing from the vampiric myths of other cultures, the Stoker Vampire, the Eastern European version that the author wrote about, is the standard for vampires.
The question posed by American Vampire is a simple one: what if the ground you were buried in, the land of your "birth" so to speak, defined the kind of vampire you became. Stoker clearly set out that a vampire's burial ground was sacred to them, a required part of their resting ritual if they were to recharge and be ready to rise again the next day. This comic series, then takes that thought a step further, looking at what would happen if the vampiric strain were spread on American ground. What kind of vampires would you get from that sudden new birth?
Set out in American Vampire: Volume 1, we meet two of the first "American Vampires" ever: Skinner Sweet and the first woman he ever turns, Pearl Jones. Pearl, an aspiring actress in the 1920s, works three jobs, one of which is acting as an extra in epic silent films. She gets wrapped up in vampire business when she's invited to the mansion of the star of her current movie, but when she goes to the party she finds not a group of people interested in helping her find her stardom but a pack of ravening vampires wanting nothing more than to drain her dry (I'm sure there's a metaphor for Hollywood in there).
Hours earlier Pearl had met Skinner Sweet who, as it turns out, was the first American Vampire ever. Via his back-story we learn that when he was killed and buried, the land around him changed his turn, making him a different breed of vampire. Instead of being weak to wood and damaged by the rays of the sun, Skinner found himself a day-walker, weakened only on moonless nights, with his one and only weakness being gold (again, a nod to California and the Gold Rush of Skinner's birthing time period, the 1880s). When Skinner finds out about Pearl and the European vampires that attacked her, he gives her his blood, turning her into one of the few vampires like him. But make no mistake, this wasn't a kind gesture; Skinner is an outlaw, a very bad kind of man, and his change for Pearl is entirely motivated by his own desires.
Bouncing between 1925 and the 1880s, this first book (co-written by Scott Snyder and, for just this one volume, Stephen King) acts as a kind of double origin story, both for Pearl and Skinner. Where Skinner is very much a bad guy of his own story, made only "redeemable" at all by the fact that there are even worse vampires out there (the classic, European kind), Pearl is as close as an innocent a vampire can be. She's sweet and kind, only forced into this life (or unlife) by forces outside her control. Where Skinner revels in being a vampire for Pearl it's much more of a curse.
These traits for the characters only slowly become evident as the book plays out, mind you. As a long-form comic story (which stretches over several dozen individual issues), the story of these characters is setup to grown and expand as the series stretches on. Although its clear the creators have a plan in mind for these characters and the path they're headed on, it's also obvious that no one book will tell their whole story or show the whole growth of the characters. Skinner and Pearl will be our main characters throughout, sometimes as protagonists and at other times antagonists, but we'll only really get to know them completely as the series continues on.
My first time reading through this book, back when it originally came out, I did like Pearl a lot more than Skinner. She's our lawful good character thrust into a position of chaos, forced to come to grips with a new reality. She has to go on a path of vengeance, not because sh wants to kill other vampires (although she does) but because if she doesn't go for them they'll come for her and everyone else she cares about. It's a hard position for her, but a relatable one, and it make her story in this book (and those beyond) a solid through-like of the tale.
That said, this second time around I had a much greater appreciation for Skinner. He's a very bad man but he does revel in it, and while he isn't the star of either half of this book (Pearl is our protagonist in the Snyder-written portion while lawman Jim Book leads the Skinner Sweet tale written by Stephen King) he does steal the show. There's a certain gleeful madness to the character, a trait that once again shows that the best villains are the ones with big personalities given time to develop. He turns Pearl not out of a desire to help her but to hurt others, however the carnage she causes earns his respect, which is about as close as he gets to caring about anyone. It's interesting.
Artistically, Rafael Albuquerque nails the look and tone of this book. Despite coming from a DC imprint, Vertigo, this comic doesn't have the same glossy lines and colors of DC's superhero books. It's a little sketchier, certainly darker, and more artistically interesting. Superhero books have their place, and I read plenty of them, but it is cool to see what other artistic influences can come in with an artist is allowed to move past superhero spandex. American Vampire doesn't have the traditional Gothic style of other vampire books, as it's not a traditional vampire book in any way, but there is a horror quality that works well, balancing between western illustration and blood-drenched thrills.
What's most interesting to me, though, is the idea of the book, that there can be vampires other than the traditional types that we're used to. This is an idea that Castlevania has flirted with, powers that are shared along bloodlines and different vampires having different distinct demonic forms. This book takes that kernel and runs in a different, and quite intriguing direction. The book has momentum, and the promise of stories to comes back this first volume intriguing on its own. Pearl and Skinner are solid here but it's the idea that could come next that keep me truly hooked on the series.