Return of the Vampire

While most comic book fans are captivated by zombies, another classic monster is making a comeback.  Or coming back at least.  Three vampire comics returned from hiatus in the past month, introducing new situations and storylines. 

American Vampire is the pinnacle of vampire comics.  Writer Scott Snyder and artist Rafael Albuquerque wanted to return the sense of menace to the vampire mythology, after decades of water-downed bloodsuckers in bestselling books and blockbuster movies.  They introduced a new breed of vampires, the American Vampire, with rattlesnake fangs, long claws and the ability to walk in daylight.  Skinner Sweet was an outlaw before he was turned into the first American Vampire.  He was absolutely ruthless afterwards.  Pearl Jones was an aspiring actress before Skinner tried to turn her into his protégé.  She became a vampire, but she didn’t become his companion.  Their stories and adventures crisscrossed over the decades as Snyder and Albuquerque explored the Old West, the Gilded Age, the Great Depression, World War II and the Red Scare.   

For its Second Cycle, American Vampire jumps forward to the Sixties -- 1965, to be precise.  Pearl is hiding out in the American heartland -- Kansas, actually.  In this first issue, Pearl rescues a young, African-American girl from an angry mob.  It’s a nice nod to civil rights era but this is a horror comic and things are not what they appear to be.  The young girl is a vampire and Pearl has apparently become the den mother to an Underground Railroad halfway home for vampires.  Meanwhile, Skinner Sweet is doing his best imitation of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, running guns along the Mexican border. 

Both storylines suggest that this is only the starting point.  Skinner is on the trail of something bigger than smuggled guns and he has the name of a kingpin to track down.  Back in Kansas, the young girl tells Pearl about a villain who can give even vampires nightmares, the Gray Trader.  There are indications that both Skinner and Pearl are about to be pulled into a much larger web of intrigue.  Pearl may have a vision for the universal brotherhood of bloodsuckers but not everyone agrees with her.  The various bloodlines are getting ready to clash and there will be blood.

Snyder and Albuquerque have built a world of vampires that is simultaneously classic and new.  This Second Cycle is a welcome return, with familiar characters and new threats.  It’s intimate, intense and always surprising.  

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the standard bearer in pop culture for both vampire stories and empowered women.  The newest volume is Season Ten and it’s the third season to appear exclusively in comics.  Season Eight was a wild ride as Joss Whedon and his stable of writers ran away with their imaginations, freed from the constraints of budgets and special effects.  They introduced giants, robots and giant robots.  It was a blast.  But some fans -- and apparently Joss himself -- felt they went too far and lost the personal focus that was part of the show’s identity.  Season Nine was therefore a stripped-down version in a world that had lost its magic, though not its monsters.  For me, Season Nine wasn’t nearly as memorable.

At the outset, Season Ten looks like it will strike a happy medium.  Buffy is back to slaying vampires in a small California town, instead of running a worldwide agency of slayers as in Season Eight.  However, magic returned to the world thanks to events at the end of the previous season. 

Season Ten has a real nostalgic feeling going for it that should appeal to fans of the television show.  Buffy has gathered a group of allies to help her slay a new breed of vampire.  This new set of Scoobies, if you will, contains some familiar faces in Spike, Willow, Xander, Dawn and Andrew plus a new one in Billy the Vampire Slayer who was introduced in Season Nine.  There’s also a wonderful reunion with the recently resurrected Rupert Giles.

The creative team is both new and familiar.  Christos Gage and Rebekah Isaacs were the writer and artist team on the previous volume of the companion title, Angel & Faith.  Gage has a clear feel for these characters.  He dials down the snappy Whedon patter, but there’s enough humor to keep things interesting.  Isaacs is a great fit.  Her characters are recognizable without being photo-realistic.  Plus, she does a great job of conveying emotion through expressions. 

This new season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the closest that the comics have come to the feel of the television show, though there are enough new elements that it doesn’t seem like a rerun. 

Angel & Faith is also labeled Season Ten to indicate that it’s a companion to the main Buffy title, though it’s really the seventh season for Angel (five television seasons and now two in comics).  Season Ten brings a new creative team and a new status quo.  Victor Gischler is the new writer, though he has plenty of experience with vampires.  He’s written a series of vampire novels and a vampire story arc for Marvel’s X-Men plus he contributed a story arc to Buffy Season Eight.  Will Conrad is also a partially familiar face as the new artist.  He’s a comic-book veteran who previously worked on Joss Whedon’s Serenity comic book. 

In the previous season, Angel had committed himself to resurrecting Giles.  The quest seemed impossible considering that magic had been removed from the world, but it gave Angel & Faith’s Season Nine a sense of focus that was missing from the concurrent Buffy title.  In order to resurrect Giles, Angel first needed to restore magic.  And he did.  But there’s always a law of unintended consequences.  In this case, the new magic spilled uncontrollably into the surrounding neighborhood, converting part of London into a magical ghetto. 

In this season, Angel has appointed himself as the guardian of Magic Town.  (Yes, Angel has always been a little full of himself, claiming mantles and mandates like that.)  However, Angel is not the only claimant to the title.  There are some would-be rulers who want Angel out of the way and they’re not afraid to spill blood to make their point. 

As with Buffy, this new season of Angel & Faith is both fresh and familiar.  It’s reminiscent of the early seasons of the Angel television show when he declared himself the protector of Los Angeles, only to be opposed by the powers of darkness.   Yet it’s a new location with new friends and new foes. 

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