SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers through Volume 6
By and large, I consider myself to have good taste in entertainment: books, graphic novels, movies, you name it, I have good taste. Usually, I look for things with interesting and complex characters, excellent writing, and complimentary and technically beautifully art. And then sometimes I love shit like American Vampire.
American Vampire is a comic by Snyder Scott and illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque about Skinner Sweet, the first American vampire (as we will learn several volumes later, this is not entirely accurate, but everyone mostly ignores that side story, probably because it’s about a Native American and, well…). Skinner Sweet was this asshole desperado who would stick up banks and kill people with a smile. Then one day, he fucked with the wrong railroad company and was caught. Unfortunately, the railroad magnate was a vampire and, when Sweet tried to escape, they fought, and the vampire’s blood went into Sweet’s body, transforming him into the first American vampire. And let me tell you, American vampires are pretty badass. They’re basically indestructible. They actually seem to gain power from being out in the sun. They’re stronger and faster than almost any vampire (though Asian vampires seem to beat them in speed and sharpness). Their only real weaknesses are during the new moon and gold, which will cause some problems later on down the road but are still manageable.
Also prominent character in the series is Pearl Jones, the second American vampire whom Sweet turns after she’s attacked and almost killed by a horde of Hollywood executive vampires (I shit you not). She survives to kill everybody, including her traitor best friend Hattie, and then settles down with a nice ex-Marine musician named Henry Preston, and they have a lovely life together that is occasionally interrupted by vampires and wars and such.
The series is sort of episodic in nature so there are a lot of other side characters, but Sweet and Pearl are really the ones you have to keep your eyes. Everyone else – Agent Book, Agent Hobbes, Travis Kidd, Felicia, and Cal to name a few – are important for certain arcs and are a lot cooler than Sweet, but they come and go during the series.
To be honest, American Vampire is a dumb series. In the first volume, when Sweet is trapped in an underwater coffin, he bursts out screaming, “Hello, motherfuckers, got any candy?” and then immediately lays waste to a candy shop when he gets out (Oddly enough, old Sweet has a sweet tooth.). When Pearl is on her murderous rampage, she attacks a Hollywood star with the cute line, “Hey, you’re Tad Chesterfield! The movie star! [In the flesh.] I always hated your fucking movies!” When Pearl “kills” Hattie, she does so by shoving a gold star through her mouth because Hattie essentially betrayed her to become a Hollywood starlet. Later in the series, we meet Travis Kidd, the teen who spent years in shock treatment because no one would believe his parents had been killed by vampires, and he likes to bite vampires with fake wooden teeth. Dumb actions and cheesy one-liners are ubiquitous in this series. Want Nazi vampires? Got it? Want racist werewolf vampires? Got it. Want a smiley Dracula servant from Dayton, Ohio? Got it. There’s nothing too silly for this series, which is why I love it.
However, there’s also a great deal of racism and poor character development in it, which are things that I hate. Snyder tones it down in the following volumes, but the first one especially is rife with racial slurs, Sweet calling Mexicans “beaners” and “taco benders” with impunity. One could argue that 1880s was not a time of great sensitivity towards Mexicans and that Sweet’s character is an asshole so it would make sense for him to say these things, but that doesn’t absolve Snyder of all responsibility. Too often, writers seem to think they can say whatever vile things they want because the character could plausibly have said them, but the fact of the matter is that you can show someone is a horrible person without throwing five slurs per monologue. Hell, Sweet poisons the wife of the man who caught him just because he could. He kills an entire town of people, including children. He pikes the decapitated head of his enemy’s father and positions it so it’s the first thing the man sees. The reader understands that Sweet is a horrible human being – racial slurs aren’t necessary.
Later on in volume 4 when Cal, the first black American vampire, gets his own character, we see racism dealt with a bit better. Cal’s inner monologue runs throughout the arc, and dealing with racism, prejudice, and abuse are pretty par for the course for him. He even says, “What the taxonomist sees is the same ugly animal he’s seen before.” It’s 1954, and Cal’s been alive for at least 45 years at this point, so he’s experienced prejudice. There’s a weariness to him that breaks your heart, and the art is rendered so that we can see how hostile the average person is. It’s an important arc for Snyder, though we should also note that Cal is basically the only black person in the series with a speaking part – and he’s not even introduced until volume 3. Other black people are background characters or extreme side characters who get a few panels and then fade away. A lack of diversity is clearly a problem.
So is poor character development, especially among women. In the first volume, we have two female characters, Pearl and Hattie. They’ve been best friends for about six months, maybe closer to a year. They’re both trying to be Hollywood starlets, and they’re both pretty broke. However, they’ve very close and supportive, and when Hattie is held captive, Pearl immediately goes to try to help her, even though it’s the new moon and she’s vulnerable. But then, surprising really no one, Hattie betrays her by literally stabbing her in the back and showing that she’s stolen Pearl’s blood and transformed herself into a vampire. This betrayal was sudden and completely unexpected and only served as a vehicle for a revenge plot. It also contributes to the idea that female friendships can’t last, that we’re all constantly about to betray each other for a man or money. And then Pearl immediately goes out and starts a life with a man she’d never looked at twice before. Thanks for the feminism, Snyder.
However, that’s not the only example of poor character development. The second Pearl becomes a vampire, she becomes vindictive and crazed. She not only attacks and kills others, but she does so creatively and with pleasure, all of which seems completely counter to her initial personality. When she is human, she is sweet and thoughtful, but the second she becomes a vampire, she is aggressive, overly sensitive, and as much an asshole as Sweet. One could argue that all of these traits are the influence of her vampire blood, but no other vampire in the series is so completely schizophrenic. Others might hide their true personality to get ahead, but in private scenes, they are always consistently themselves. Sweet also undergoes numerous personality changes, sometimes being altruistic, sometimes a complete monster, sometimes weary, and sometimes tender, depending on what the story needs. I suspect that Snyder would says that’s his chameleon personality, and given that he’s been alive almost 100 years by the end of volume 6, it’s understandable that he would undergo some changes of heart, but they always seem inauthentic and are never fully explained. Despite the fact that Skinner is essentially the main character of the book, we seldom get arcs that delve into his personality, his background, or the way he changes perspective. Instead, we just skip ahead a decade at a time, find him in a completely new situation, and are expected to shrug and get on with it. It seems lazy and cheap.
The great redeemer of the series is Rafael Albuquerque’s art, and when he periodically bows out to pursue other work, the series suffers. Rafael has excellent command of blocking, such as with this beautiful scene of Pearl staggering through the desert (How did her friends know she was there? -shrugs-). His covers are consistently beautiful, adding much-needed culture and depth to the series. He does struggle to make characters that actually look different and culturally appropriate, but his beautiful art can distract you from it. Pairing him with colorist Dave McCaig, who has a masterful eye, was a stroke of genius.
I confess that I read the first six volumes within a week. I also confess that I loved it. As stated above, I kept running into problems that really made me question my judgment, but I don’t think having a diverse, complex series was really Snyder’s intention. I think he wanted to do something fun and light. I think he wanted to get a character out of his head and onto the page. I think he wanted to explore the mythology of America through the lens of a European folktale. And in all those respects, he succeeded. He’s created something interesting and fun, a guilty pleasure for those of us who “know better” to enjoy and another high-energy asshole for people to applaud. It’s not a great series, it may not even be a good series, but it’s a fun series, and I will keep reading it. And sometimes that’s just fine.