A new undead for a New World: American Vampire

American Vampire Volume 1,

Scott Snyder, Stephen King, Rafael Albuquerque,

DC Comics/Vertigo

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Scott Snyder has really established himself as major comics writing talent in the last few years, not least with his highly regarded Batman run for DC’s New 52, but arguably it was his and Rafael Albuquerque’s American Vampire which first seriously established his credentials as a new writer to watch out for, and the fact that the first volume includes work from no less a literary luminary than Stephen King doesn’t exactly hurt. I’ve a long fascination for vampire and Gothic tales, but it’s not an easy genre to do something new with. Every now and then someone reworks the genre and shakes it up – Stoker took the earlier 19th century tales and crystalised them in Dracula, Anne Rice revamped (pardon the pun) the genre in the 70s with Interview With the Vampire, Twilight brought romantic vamps to a mass teen audience while Niles’ 30 Days of Night made them gut-wrenchingly monstrous and terrifying once more. It’s one of the reasons the genre refuses to lie quietly in its coffin, but always rises again in one form or another, to stalk our nightmares, the vampire mythos is, in the right hands, endlessly elastic and able to be refitted to suit so many cultures and times. And here, these are the right hands.

The first volume is split into two linked tales, switching back and forth between them, and it isn’t titled “American Vampire” for nothing – these two settings are ones which strongly evoke a sense of Americana from their respective eras, periods most of us would associate so strongly with the US, the final decades of the Old West in the 19th Century and the early days of the silent movies as they establish themselves in a booming LA in the Roaring Twenties. Cowboy gangs and vengeful lawmen on horseback (hell, there’s even a train heist thrown in!) on one side, the glitz and sleaze of early Hollywood and Flapper girls trying to make it in the big city on the other. They’re well chosen eras that ooze the sense of the period, even now, and Snyder, King and Albuquerque use them to give their vampires a uniquely American personality and setting. Yes, there are more traditional European vampires here, hiding in dark corners, away from the sun, greedy, decadent, self-satisfied Old World monsters, much like the east coast wealthy elite who, for all the republican nature of the US in the 1800 and 1900s, were Old World style aristocracy in all but name.

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Skinner Sweet, 1850 –1880, Outlaw, Killer, Defiler of Women, Born in Kansas, Burns in Hell,” inscription on Skinner Sweet’s grave in the local Boot Hill, in finest Western tradition.

But this is America, the land of opportunity, where you can arrive with only a dollar in your pocket but build yourself up, or at least so the myth that everyone can make it goes. And here that seems to apply to the undead as well. And when a hard-nosed lawman tracks down and captures the infamous Skinner Sweet (a gang leader with a real sweet tooth) at the behest of a wealthy banker (whose banks Skinner robbed), it sets up a chain of events none of them could have foreseen. The wealthy banker is in fact secretly an Old World vampire, here to mine the Western Frontier for new wealth, but when Skinner’s gang ambushes the train carrying him, in a rescue attempt, a fight ensues, and while the lawmen are distracted the vampiric banker attempts to deal with Sweet himself, but Sweet doesn’t die easily and wounds the vampire, his blood falling onto Sweet’s open wounds. Forced to flee he doesn’t realise at first that this has transformed Sweet, but when he does suspect he arranges for a dam to be built and buys up the local town before it is flooded – thus drowning the cemetery in which Sweet lies. Vampire or not, he can never rise now, or so they think…

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But this is, as the title implies, a new type of vampire – somehow the alchemy of the change brought on by the vampiric blood causes something different in this New World, creating different vampires, with different powers and weaknesses, and Sweet does eventually rise, and soon discovers his new powers. He doesn’t need a gang anymore, not with his abilities, he can tear a place apart all on his own. And he does. But when he surfaces again in the 1920s, despite still being a killer, he seems to have his own agenda, and he actually warns two naïve young actresses, Pearl and Hattie, about attending a party thrown by one of the major studio heads, but they don’t listen to him, and at the party Pearl is taken to a private room, where it turns out more of those in power are also Old World vampires, eager to use and abuse her before dumping her body in the desert. But like Skinner, she doesn’t die and instead transforms, desperately trying to figure out what has happened to her, what these new impulses and abilities are, and as she comes to terms with them, determining to take vengeance on the powerful men – these smug, wealthy, Old World vampiric elite – who did this to her.

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You, Pearl Jones, are a different kind of vampire… Just picture it in automotive terms, Bloch and his kind, they’re like old, broken-down European clunkers, okay? But you and me, Dolly? We’re like shiny, new 1926 Fords, top of the line, just rolled out onto the showroom floor.” Skinner explains why he and Pearl have different abilities from the Old World vampires.

It’s a hugely compelling read, and a great twist on the old vampire mythos, and it really does give it a truly American identity. Both story arcs plunder their periods for detail and atmosphere, and Albuquerque does art duty on both, handling Old West and Roaring 20s Hollywood with equal dexterity, giving us cowboy raiders attacking a train, or riding into a sunset on one chapter, or a Flapper Girl making her way in this brave, new post-war boom world of the big city, the bright lights (and dangers), and the lure and magic (and hidden darkness and sleaze) of the emerging magic factory that was Hollywood in the 20s, going from a wonderfully demonic grin on Skinner’s face in his Boot Hill coffin to Model T cars chugging along 1920s LA’s boulevards. Both periods, which could so easily have clashed, dovetail nicely, and of course in the real world the tail end of the Old West did indeed overlap with the early years of the movies, with genuine Western characters moving to LA and taking part in Hollywood’s early “horse operas”, so they’re a good choice for linked tales, and they are eras we’re all used to from a thousand films and books (and as I said, also suitably, iconically American), so we instinctively recognise the styles and tropes of those historical periods.

And it mixes well with the great American myth of itself which grew up during that great Westward Expansion and carried into that new modern, 20th century era (building bigger, better, smarter, always upwards, onwards, boudless optimism), but here translated to brash but bright, eager, capable new energies of new kinds of vampires, evolved to suit this New World (and totally vulgar to the sensibilities of the Old World vamps). I’m always impressed when someone can do something fresh with the vampire myth, and here King, Snyder and Albuquerque have done just that, giving horror fiction terrific new characters in Skinner Sweet and Pearl, in a book dripping with period atmosphere and style.

Comics: the Wake #1

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog:

The Wake #1
Scott Snyder, Sean Murphy
DC/Vertigo

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Two of the hottest properties in DC’s table, Scott Snyder (some stunning Batman work among others) and Sean Murphy (the brilliant Punk Rock Jesus – reviewed here – and Joe the Barbarian – reviewed here) working together on a new Vertigo title? Yes, I was curious and naturally I picked it up among this week’s crop of new releases. I was not disappointed – The Wake #1 is pretty much what you want from a first issue, intriguing, setting up some scenarios but only giving glimpses and tastes so you know you not only want more, you have to have more…

An opening prologue sees a woman on an advanced hang glider soaring among once towering skyscraper, now architectural islands projecting from the rivers of what were once streets, a drowned city. Landing she confers with a cybernetically enhanced dolphin before it alerts her to an incoming tidal wave which they try to flee…

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And then after those few pages we’re back, some two hundred years previously we’re told, to what looks like our own present, where Doctor Lee Archer is studying whales, in a beautiful scene where one of those magnificent, gigantic ocean mammals surfaced right by her small boat and even allows her to touch him, while her estranged son talks to her on a video communicator. Her ocean studies are about to be disrupted though; through her camera her son can see a helicopter approaching swiftly behind her. Enter Agent Cruz of the Department of Homeland Security.

Archer, it seems, has a previous history of government secret work and they want her services again, despite her previously leaving under a black cloud (at the moment unspecified). She’s told that they picked up a strange sound in the ocean off Alaska, almost whale-like but distorted and odd, so they need someone with Cetacean interests and an espionage background. The carrot dangled is the classic one – help to get custody of her son back. Of course, you know there is a lot more to this than she is being told (Cruz will tell her several times later he didn’t lie to her, he just didn’t mention certain aspects of events).

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As I said at the start this does exactly what a first issue does – introduces main characters and set up (handled with great economy and efficiency), tickles our curiosity with a barely glimpsed mystery and promise of much more to come so you know you will have to pick up the next issue. Murphy continues to be one of the hot new comic artists to watch and I’m increasingly enjoying his style, not to mention some neat little touches, such as Doctor Archer wearing a Flak Jackets cap (Chris’ band from Punk Rock Jesus). This looks like a pretty intriguing new Vertigo title: a bit of mystery, some relationship problems, a touch of science fiction and even a secret underwater base – a good mix! Well worth getting in on the ground floor on this one, I reckon.

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DC 52: Batman #1

Another review I penned from the huge DC relaunch of 52 of the main DC Comics titles for the Forbidden Planet Blog:
Batman #1

Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion

DC Comics

Gotham is...”

Opening with an impressive triple panel of Gotham we get three fractured glimpses of this troubled city, from filthy, rat-infested Crime Alley to a towering, modern (and yet still with gloomy, brooding, Gothic overtones) business block and finally an ornate, vast mansion (presumably Wayne Manor). One city, but a town broken up, fractured, haves and have nots thrown together often quite closely and a city that should be a powerhouse and yet feels broken, damaged; welcome to Gotham City. Over-running this a voice over from the Batman – the Gotham Gazette for many decades has asked Gothamites to complete the phrase “Gotham is…” in three words or less. The more optimistic responses of yesteryear are drowned today by negative, despairing replies – “Gotham is damned”, “Gotham is cursed”, “Gotham is Bedlam”. Others respond with the names of the multitude of bizarre villains who plague this troubled city: “Gotham is Killer Croc”, “Gotham is Two-Face”.

Some others respond slightly more hopefully – “Gotham is Batman”. “Answers I’m partial to myself” the Dark Knight comments, dryly. It’s a nice moment, having its cake and eating it, explaining the complex nature of Gotham, those who menace it and those who defend it to the new reader, but at the same time it is also subtly pointing out that the two – supervillain and superhero – seem to go together, leaving you wondering if perhaps the poor city might be better off without both sides of that coin… This voice over takes place against an enormous brawl – there’s been a mass break out at Arkham Asylum and the Batman is faced by a whole ensemble of his most famous enemies (a neat way for Snyder to introduce them rapidly), save for a certain chalk-faced Clown Prince of Crime. Batman is holding his own to begin with, but the numbers are slowly taking their toll when finally his most famous nemesis makes his appearance – The Joker. Except the Joker appears to be fighting on the side of the Dark Knight against the other Arkham inmates – what is going on?

Cut to the roof of the police headquarters after the battle and Batman is filling in Commissioner Gordon on events. It wasn’t a break-out after all, he tells him, the cells were opened deliberately by a guard who was on the take, realised Batman was on to him and released the inmates in a desperate attempt to fend him off from himself. Which guard, Gordon asks. Dan Matthews, Batman replies. Gordon can’t believe it – he’s known the man since he was a young police cadet, an outstanding and honest man, he can’t understand who even someone as good as he was can succumb to that rot of corruption that so riddles the city. Expensive divorce pending a fling with a woman (with a criminal record), mounting health bills, he was desperate, he took dirty money… Gordon sighs in despair.

Dan Matthews on the take at Arkham… There’s nobody the scum of Gotham can’t get to, is there?” asks dejected Gordon

I wouldn’t say that,” answers the Batman, getting almost a smile from Gordon.

And again it is a nice touch from Snyder, just a few panels, but it establishes for the new reader just how endemic the corruption is in Gotham, what an uphill task both these men undertake and also nicely reminds us that Gordon is, in his own unassuming way, a real superhero himself. He doesn’t have a cape, or hi-tech lair, but he fights the good fight and doesn’t give in to the easy path of looking the other way, he chooses to take on those who poison their society head on. And the Batman knows it and with this short compliment he’s letting the other man know how much he trusts in him.

Back to the Batcave, which reboot or not is still instantly familiar to older readers – the giant coin, the enormous Joker card, the T-Rex, multiple Batmobiles and other items. Batman is trying out a new optical interface, special contact lenses which let him receive a feed from the Batcave on the go – he intends to try them in his Bruce Wayne role at a society fundraiser in his own home. As he changes into evening dress he is joined by the Joker, who it turns out was actually Dick Grayson using a special digital mask. You left me in Arkham an extra day, he complains. You looked tired, I thought you could use the rest, Batman replies. Only you would think a night sleeping in Arkham was a day off, Dick responds with a wan smile…

The two head up to the Manor above where the meet Damian Wayne (yes, he is in the new continuity) and Tim Drake. The contacts feed Bruce the names and details of everyone of his guests at his fundraiser where he announces massive Wayne Corp investment in Gotham’s future to reclaim the city and asking other rich Gothamites to join him, alogn the way being introduced by Vicki Vale to another wealthy Gothamite with a record of philanthropy and a desire to run for mayor, Lincoln March – is he as decent as he seems or is that a front? Such is Gotham that the reader is never sure if they should take such a character at face value and I’m sure that was quite intentional – I imagine Lincoln will show up again in later issues with more of a role to play. The special contact lenses also function as a quick way to introduce characters like Grayson, Damian, Vicki Vale and so on to new readers, although to be honest I thought, although a different way of doing the necessary introductions, it became awfully repetitive as a device after the first few uses.

Of course no social event ever ends with Bruce enjoying himself among friends and true to form we see him observing Gordon being called away urgently and soon enough he has made his excuses, left the party and in cape and colw once more is following. There’s a nice scene where he materialises from the gloom right behind eternally downbeat but honest Gotham detective Harvey – when Batman does the appearing silently behind him Harvey doesn’t start, doesn’t even blink, he knows only one man can creep up on him like that and merely asks him what took him so long. It’s a nice little character scene handled in just a couple of frames. The crime scene reveals not only a gruesom and rather convoluted murder but an almost invisible message which only Batman notices at first. It declares that Bruce Wayne will die tomorrow. No chance, says Harvey, no-one could get through Wayne’s security – not unless they had an inside man, someone who would have to be very close to Wayne…

And I’ll leave it there rather than blow the ending, but it’s a good one and does make me want to read the next issue. The only problem I really had with this was that, as with Detective Comics #1, this doesn’t feel like a reboot. But as I said when reviewing Detective Comics Grant Morrison was asked about this at the recent Edinburgh Book Festival and replied that yes, in most reboots over the years it was true that Batman really doesn’t change much, but he was so well put together to begin with that you simply can’t change too much of him or his world without ruining the character, so yes, although it doesn’t feel that different from previous Batman I see his reasoning and to be honest I think he’s right on that score. But the story is solid – not remarkable or brilliant, mind you – but good, introduces a number of comrades and opponents quickly and showcases the relationship between Batman and Gordon rather nicely, as well as leaving you thinking you need to know what happens next.