In his foreword for the first American Vampire volume, Stephen King outlines what kind of vampire/story/America the series will be tracing. He calls vampires “Midnight America,” and says that Scott Snyder’s “ambition for the continuing story of Skinner Sweet [the first American vampire] (and his victims) was awesome: nothing more or less than to trace the emergence of America through the immortal eyes of a new kind of vampire, one that can walk in the sun… There’s a subtext here that whispers powerful messages about boundless American energy and that energy’s darker side: a grasping, stop-at-nothing hunger for money and power.” In his afterword, Scott Snyder expands on that, calling American Vampire “a story about us, about Americans, about what makes us scary and admirable, monstrous and heroic.”
However, the fact of the matter is that both authors focus less on America’s energy, heroism, and admirable qualities and instead celebrate hurting others as the ultimate personification of American freedom. They paint a whitewashed view of American history where triumph comes through horror rather than in spite of it and seem to be overtly criticizing what some might call “bleeding heart liberalism” and “the PC police.”
But let us look at the first American vampire (that the series is named after anyway): Skinner Sweet. His origin story begins in 1880 when he’s getting on a train after being captured by a member of the Pinkerton detective agency, a private security and detective force made famous in the 1860s when they supposedly foiled an assassination plot against then-President Lincoln. Its members show up in key moments in history, especially in the lawless frontier, and they were known for being about to track down and apprehend the most hardened, uncatchable criminals. So we know on page one that Skinner Sweet is a bastard of the first order, a far-thinking mastermind, and a public menace.
Skinner’s death and reanimation are suitably flamboyant, involving a train wreck, a shootout, a bare knuckles brawl with a vampire, extreme patience, and a dramatic reveal with the tag line, “Hello, motherfucker! Got any candy?” His subsequent first act is to lay waste to an entire town complete with a stream of slurs against Mexicans. What had once been a desire for action, adventure, and complete freedom now turned into a psychopathic desire for revenge and mayhem that would go unchecked for decades.
So this is our American vampire, a foul-mouthed racist with no impulse control and an insatiable desire to rape, kill, and loot as many people and things as he can. He has no real desire for anything, not a criminal enterprise, not money, and maybe not even notoriety (though we will find out in subsequent volumes that he’s aware of his reputation and approves). He is better than Europeans, specifically the Russian and German vampires that try to rein him in – stronger, faster, less vulnerable, more energetic. This is our personification of America.
Snyder and King work from two fallacies: one, that the spirit of America started in the Wild West, and two, that America was built on and prospered because of reckless, bloodthirsty men, who are admirable in their desire to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences.
While post-Civil War era did see a marked separation from European trends and tastes, the reality is that the American race (for lack of a better term) started over a century before Skinner was captured with the creation of American colonies. One of the most poignant lines from the movie/musical 1776 comes from Benjamin Franklin when he says, “We’ve spawned a new race here, Mr. Dickinson. Rougher, simpler, more violent, more enterprising, less refined. We’re a new nationality. We require a new nation.” This line perfectly encapsulates the American identity, which is more straightforward, quicker to anger, but full of hope. It also points to our desire to separate ourselves from others, especially those we find unacceptable or antithetical. Finally, it brings up our feeling of entitlement. Dr. Franklin’s short, declarative sentences cannot be argued with because they are fact. They are Truth. And they are prophecy.
A brief scan of pre-Revolution America lends credence to the idea that the American identity began long before the American Revolution. What of John Winthrop’s 17th century quotation reading, “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us”? What of the half mythologized tale of John Smith and Pocahontas and how it pointed to America’s understanding and treatment of people of color? What of Benjamin Franklin’s words, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” and “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote”? What of George Washington’s staunch Presidential defense of isolationism and his caveat against the party system? What of John Adams’ vocal condemnation of King George, exemplified with such words as “The right of a nation to kill a tyrant in case of necessity can no more be doubted than to hang a robber or kill a flea”? The men and women of early America were no shrinking violets and their actions for good or evil fundamentally shaped the course of this nation.
Meanwhile, the Wild West was both an embarrassment and not even a particularly American one. Any time a nation extends its borders, it creates conflict and corruption. When Rome expanded its empire in the first century under Emperor Trajan, it created just these problems, which necessitated a pushback from the indigenous people that resulted in the complete sack and disintegration of the Roman Empire less than three centuries later (preceded by a great deal of economic, territorial, and cultural loss). In the meantime, there were constant raids by the Celts, Gauls, and Visogoths, and local officials were taking advantage of the populace. For the mother city, it was an exciting time full of patriotism and grandiose public and private works, but for the people on the frontier, it was hell and one that they were constantly struggling to get away from or improve.
The fact of the matter is that the Wild West was a symptom of American expansion and it needed to be cured. The Wild West was an unsustainable era that only flourished because the US government didn’t have the resources to stop it and US society didn’t have the desire to. This is a mindset we’ve carried with us to this day where if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind, and if the victims are in any way less than perfect, it’s their own fault and they should fix the problem itself.
American history has always been a struggle between two perspectives: one, do whatever you want and two, create a better future. The argument could be that Skinner encapsulates the first perspective, but where is the second one? Because that’s what’s helped make our country successful and what is directly responsible for its past and future greatness. It is the desire to create a better future that led to an influx of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries and which still resounds with oppressed and hopeless people worldwide. It is that desire which led to the founding of the Pinkerton agency, the building of the Hover Dam, and the struggle for equal rights. Yes, doing whatever you want has financed many of these endeavors, but such an attitude is neither sustainable nor admirable and our ironclad defense of this behavior is what is causing so many problems today. We consider ourselves free when we don’t have to think about how our actions affect others when in reality we are retarding progress and hastening our own demise.
What Snyder and King wanted to do was write a shoot-‘em’-up with vampires and then sell it to the public as a defense of the American way of life. They thought they could trick people into approving of the series by tying it to our sometimes blind love of our country. But I don’t see anything American in Skinner or in American Vampire. Skinner is a sad, lost man forever looking backwards and raging at others for slighting him. He actively seeks his own destruction and the destruction of everything around him. He resists change. He resists friendship. He resists ambition. He resists introspection. He sees progress and lifting others up as weakness and would probably complain about trigger warnings, liberal agendas, bleeding hearts, and the PC police as much as many modern Americans do today. He and his creators are relics of a bygone era when desperados were romanticized – until one met them and understood them for the degenerate sociopaths they were. He embodies another John Adams quotation that reads, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Skinner Sweet is not the America or democracy I see around me. He is not the people fighting against police brutality. He is not the people of color and queer people struggling for equal rights. He is not the people protesting in the heat, rain, and snow because their community has been wronged. He is not the teens fighting to have their voices heard in their schools. He is not the doctors, researchers, and writers fighting against illness, ignorance, and prejudice. He is nothing but a thug, a bully, and an opportunist, and American Vampire is not my America.