In his introduction to the first volume, Stephen King says the intent of American Vampire is to “reclaim” the vampire as a monster and a villain rather than a misunderstood hero. Well, mission accomplished. Mostly.
The story opens in 1925 with Pearl Jones, a wannabe actress who works three jobs and invests her hopes in the future. When a lucky break takes her to a big Hollywood producer’s party, she learns the dark truth that underpins the false glitter of Tinseltown.
We then go back a few decades. Skinner Sweet was a monster before he became a vampire. A callous murderer and opportunist, Sweet is pure, guiltless evil. After an initial defeat, he bides his time under the earth and waits, until the greed of the Old World vampires inadvertently releases their New World creation and engineers their own destruction.
The American vampire is a new breed- more powerful than those of the European bloodlines and unencumbered by the staid tradition of back room deals and power games. Strengthened by sunlight, only a moonless night can make him vulnerable, and even the weakness of mortality can’t hinder his thirst for vengeance. When he gives his “gift” to a disillusioned Pearl, it plays into his plans to destroy the old guard, but also creates a new cycle of death and revenge. The horror begins in the unbridled frontier of the Wild West, and slowly shifts to the glitter of Hollywood. It is a story of American ambition and American desire- and the twisted underpinnings of the American Dream.
Returning to that “mostly,” I would say that, as far as horror, Skinner Sweet is a success. He’s disgusting and repellant, but strangely charismatic; a vampire through and through. Pearl, on the other hand, is more in keeping with our modern notions of a vampire- a victim and a force for the revenge of shattered innocence. So King’s intention to work on a project that returns to the roots of the vampire as monster is met and not met, but the juxtaposition adds layers to the story that a battle of good vs. evil- or cowboys vs. vampires- needed to succeed. The “heroes” of the story were much less developed than the vampires; their lives were mostly uninteresting and their various tragedies carried less weight than I think was intended. Some of this was the sheer force of Sweet’s presence, and the desire to root for Pearl, and some of it was the distancing effect of the frame story of the novelist “revealing” the truth about vampires to an unbelieving audience. This was just the first volume, so I’ll be curious to see if the vampire as anti-hero emerges, rather than vampire as pure antagonist.
I’ve noticed lately that I rarely talk about the art in the graphic novels that I review, and that isn’t very helpful. The art in American Vampire was, overall, very good. I wasn’t especially swept away by it, but there were some images- like Sweet emerging as a vampire underwater- that were pretty blood chilling. The layouts were varied and generally pretty interesting, though occasionally confusing. The only major complaint is the lettering of signs- they were obviously computer generated instead of hand-lettered, and they were poorly done and jarring and more prevalent than you would think.
I picked this up on a whim at my used book store- mostly because of the cover and Stephen King’s name being attached- but I’m interested enough by this entry that I think I will try to get my hands on the second one, especially since this one ended on a bit of a cliffhanger.
(Cross-posted at Goodreads: American Vampire Vol. 1)