By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
The comic-book series American Vampire started small, with just one bloodsucker in the Old West. But now, as is evidenced by the recently released third hardback collection, it has expanded to include a burgeoning cast, a vast back story and genuine historical sweep.
American Vampire is the brainchild of Scott Snyder, a writer whose credits include Batman and Swamp Thing. In a phone interview, he described the series premise, of a world where vampires have always existed but vary in powers, weaknesses, intelligence and appearance.
“Part of the fun of the series for us is really developing new species, both ancient ones and brand new ones, as bloodlines evolve,” he said, “that really sort of take each other by surprise and are game-changers in and of themselves.”
One such game-changer launches the series. American Vampire begins in the Old West, where a new breed develops in the form of outlaw Skinner Sweet. Sweet is faster and stronger than other vampires, most of whom are of the Carpathian bloodline (the familiar Dracula type). In the 1920s he infects an actress named Pearl Jones, who – unlike the deviant and destructive Sweet – tries to settle down with her human husband Henry and live a decent life. These two very different American vampires are the twin pillars of the first two volumes of the series.
“The two of them really, to me, represent different sides of what I consider important facets of the American character,” Snyder said. “Skinner has this sort of rebellious attitude – never confined, never civilized, a love of mayhem … the wild frontier, all of those things that I think are really part of a certain kind of iconography of the American imagination. Pearl, on the other hand, is that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, be a good person – that sort of determined, tough, modern girl, which is also very iconic.”
The first two volumes also introduce the mysterious Vassals of the Morning Star, an organization that is dedicated to wiping out all vampires. And we’ve followed the Books and McCogans, two Western families that have been forever scarred by encounters with Skinner Sweet.
Most of these stories come together in a satisfying one-two punch in America Vampire Vol. 3 ($24.99), which takes place during World War II. It reprints American Vampire #12-16, where Skinner and Henry find themselves on a Pacific Island dealing with a new kind of vampire bred by the Japanese. It also reprints the miniseries American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest, where Vassals agents Felicia Book and Cash McCogan search for a rumored vampirism cure in Europe – and find not only vampire Nazis, but older breeds which suggest a much bigger picture.
Speaking of Snyder, he is not a vampire, but his enthusiasm is just as infectious. Despite two stories coming to a close in Volume Three, he promises plenty more American Vampire to come.
For example, he plans “a lot” of stories about Felicia Book, the reluctant Vassals agent whose father was infected when she was conceived. “I love characters that are flawed and conflicted and sort of exceptionally human in that way,” he said. “And for me she’s someone who is sort of terrorized by this notion that she’s been born with this vampire blood running through her veins. And it’s not only that, but it’s the blood of the man who killed her father, and whom her mother hates. So she has this conflict raging inside her forever, where she despises the part of herself that’s vampiric, and yet, at the same time, it’s part of who she is.”
He says a two-parter coming up will focus on Calvin Poole, the African-American vampire introduced in “Survival,” an introspective former science teacher who is now what he hates most.
He plans to explore the pull Pearl feels toward Skinner “by the dark undertone of blood,” despite her love for her husband, who is growing old without her. There’s also Gus McCogan, a child who was infected in utero. And there are the strange, ancient vampires seen in Survival, which looked suspiciously like other kinds of monsters.
That latter is “definitely something we’re going to play with,” he laughed. “Vampires are a species [whose] root classification is Homo Abominus. There’s no ‘Vampire’ in there. It doesn’t say ‘Vampirus.’ … We wanted to leave room also for a bit of mystery for readers.”
It’s a big, bad world out there. And with American Vampire Volume Three, the American Century is just beginning.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at email@example.com.
1. American Vampire Volume Three reprints two separate stories featuring different factions of the sprawling cast. Courtesy DC Entertainment Inc.
2. American Vampire #25 comes out this month, and features vampire hunter Travis Kidd. Courtesy DC Entertainment Inc.
3. American Vampire #26 comes out in April, and features African-American vampire Calvin Poole. DC Entertainment Inc.
4. American Vampire #27 comes out in May, and features the second half of story starring African-American vampire Calvin Poole. DC Entertainment Inc.
Full Scott Snyder interview
Feb. 24, 2012
Captain Comics: Why break out Survival of the Fittest into a miniseries?Why not just run it as a story in the American Vampire title?
Scott Snyder: We thought it would be a lot of fun to be able to do something that happened simultaneously with the main series, so when I came up with the idea and I submitted it to my editor, Mark [Doyle], and to [artist] Rafael [Albuquerque], then we all discussed it, we thought it would be fun to be able to do something that showed two sides of the same story. So in “Ghost War” [American Vampire #13-16] you’re really dealing with the characters you’ve been following from issue one, with Skinner and Pearl and Henry, with these sort of big, epic consequences in the Pacific theater during World War II. Then in Survival of the Fittest we wanted to do something that really showed the sort of underbelly, the kind of secret missions, sort of black ops, you know, a story that also dealt with World War II, and happened almost the same time but would be in Europe, as opposed to the Pacific theater. So we thought it would be really fun for an era that had such -- you know, appropriate, I guess -- for an era that had such global consequences, in terms of what was happening at the time, to be able to expand the scope of our world and our story and do something that wasn’t just one linear narrative.
CC: Sounds great, and “fun” alone would have been sufficient answer.
SS: [Laughs] yeah, and it will be fun!
CC: Felicia Book is an exceptionally well-developed character …
SS: She’s one of my favorites. I’m very excited – she’s someone we have a lot of stories for. So I’m really excited for her.
CC: How would you describe her? How do you see her in your head?
SS: What’s fun about writing her for me, is she’s so conflicted. I really gravitate towards characters – obviously my favorite DC character in the superhero world is Batman. I love characters that are flawed and conflicted and sort of exceptionally human in that way. And for me she’s someone who is sort of terrorized by this notion that she’s been born with this vampire blood running through her veins. And it’s not only that, but it’s the blood of the man who killed her father, and whom her mother hates. So she’s sorta has this conflict raging inside her forever, where she despises the part of herself that’s vampiric, and yet at the same time it’s part of who she is. And that was the fun of the arc in Survival of the Fittest, you take two characters, her and Cash, who both are plagued by the vampire virus in a way that is essentially – they see it as a virus – they’re both plagued by it because Cashel has a son, who's infected, a baby boy, who was infected by Skinner Sweet, so he’s a little baby vampire, and [Cash] is looking for a cure. And [Felicia] is looking for a cure for herself. And so she’s a character who I adore and I love writing, because I think it makes her all the more heroic to have these kinds of inner demons and conflicts to overcome, like all of us do.
CC: With the ending of Survival, with the "cure" angle, you seem to be bringing the story of the McCogans and Books to a close. But I assume we’re going to see more stories with some of these characters?
SS: With her? Oh, absolutely. I can’t say exactly what yet, but they’re already in the works. She’s going to play a very big part in the mythology of American vampires, as is Cashel’s son.
CC: Moving right along, in "Ghost War" the vampires of Taipan seem able to hurt Skinner worse than other breeds of vampire. I’m not sure what was going on there. Did they just cut him worse, or was he unable to heal, or what?
SS: We wanted to create a world where different species of vampire are vulnerable to each other in different ways. Skinner is one of the most powerful vampires on earth. He’s faster and stronger, and he injects this venom from his fangs that paralyzes you. He’s not particularly vulnerable unless it’s a moonless night, when there’s sort of such little solar light on the planet, that he’s sort of much more tender, his skin and everything, and he’s much more capable of being hurt. But at the same time, we wanted to say, ‘Look, here’s a type of vampire he’s never encountered’ and their claws just ripped through him. We don’t know why – is it because they’re made of a certain type of material, like a certain kind of bone? Is it just that he has sensitivity to them because they have some sort of gold dust inside of them? We don’t know at that point. I mean, we know internally [laughs], but we wanted to see that vampires are surprised by each other. And here you might be very, very good at tearing down all the classic European vampires, the Carpathian species, the Dracula type. But part of the fun of the series for us is really developing new species, both ancient ones and brand new ones, as bloodlines evolve, that really sort of take each other by surprise and are game changers in and of themselves.
CC: I’ve really enjoyed how you’ve shown how the Carpathian vampires – who are used to being cock of the walk and masters of all they survey – are surprised by American vampires.
SS: Their whole history, too – that whole story of why they became the dominant species is something we’ve hinted at, as part of one of the mysteries of the series, is something we’re going to explore in these upcoming issues, very prominently, in the upcoming arcs. The idea of how and why they’ve gotten all these that came before them on the run.
CC: Speaking of different vampire species, the older breeds of vampires that were brought back to unlife in Survival of the Fittest – the giant, the werewolf-looking thing, the bat-looking thing – that kinda suggests that some of our other myths and legends that we don’t normally associate with vampires were in fact inspired by vampires. Like the Cyclops, werewolves, etc. Is that something you’re going to explore?
SS: It’s definitely something we’re going to play with. In fact, in issue 26 and issue 27, we’re going to do a story with Calvin, the African-American soldier who becomes an American vampire at the end of "Ghost War," and in that two-parter we’re going to explore that idea quite a bit. I don’t want to give away what the connection is, but it’s something we’ve had built into the outline and the mythology from the very start.
CC: My brain went into overdrive seeing that giant, thinking of all the previous myths and legends involving giants that could easily have been vampires.
SS: Right. We’re excited about that. The idea is that the vampires are a species [whose] root classification is Homo Abominus. There’s no ‘Vampire’ in there. It doesn’t say ‘Vampirus.’ So, as seen in the root, then it kinda splits into Homo Abominus Americana this, and so on. We wanted to leave room also for a bit of mystery for readers, to see that it doesn’t just say vampire. It says a bloodline has bigger implications. It is something that dates back in a way that you know goes to ancient times in ways that would be surprising for people to discover that it’s not necessarily limited to what we consider vampires nowadays to be.
CC: Speaking of Calvin, he’s the first African-American vampire. Was his race a deliberate choice, or is that just a natural consequence of our melting pot?
SS: Well, it was more a consequence of the story, but then I started thinking about it, and to be honest, there were a lot of issues and a lot of stories we wanted to tell that had to do with civil rights. And he seemed like a great figure based on the fact that I love writing him as a character to give the most breathing room. We also intended on bringing him back. We brought him back pretty fact, actually, in issue 27, because I really loved writing him and I also loved his point of view. He’s someone whose history we don’t know. But he’s very dedicated to the cause essentially of wiping out vampires. He’s also extremely sensitive. He’s very, he’s the kind of guy who, he’s sort of a … he’s introspective, he’s not sort of this big, brawling, tough type of vampire killer. And he used to be science teacher, a high school science teacher in a black neighborhood before whatever terrible thing happened to him to turn him into who he is in terms of being a member of the Vassals and having this dedicated mission, happened to him.
CC: Now he’s got a big conflict, given that you like writing conflicted characters, in that he’s a vampire killer and a vampire.
SS: Yeah! Believe me, all of those things … there’s stuff coming up that’s gonna be a lot of fun with that in terms of people of conflicted nature that I think Pearl has been representative of since the beginning, where she’s someone who wants to be a good person, and is a good person, yet feels this dark undertone of blood. One of the things we wanted to introduce is that different species have bloodlines that change people in different ways once you’re infected with them. Some of them turn you into a mindless monster like on Taipan, other ones turn you into a version of yourself where you don’t have much pull toward the dark. Other ones, like the Carpathian line, do pull you very close to the dark. So we really wanted it to have the bloodline itself create the conflict. And that conflict in Pearl I think from the very beginning, about being a good person and trying to live a good life, and yet feeling these sort of desires that the American bloodline sort of brings up. I find that endlessly interesting and also … she’s probably my favorite character in the whole series.
CC: Do you see American Vampire as Pearl’s book? In the beginning I assumed it would be the story of Skinner Sweet, but she seems to have taken over and become the star. Is that how you see it?
SS: It’s hard to say! I think they’re twins in that way. I think they’re definitely very tied together in my mind, more than any other two characters in the series, except for maybe one other, who I don’t want to name. … He’s gonna be another pillar in the series in the future. But the two of them really to me also represent, in the very beginning they represent different sides of what I consider important facets of the American character even though they were really individuals and flesh-and-blood people to me. They sort of also were hallmarks of different things. Like Skinner has this sort of rebellious attitude, never confined, never civilized, love of mayhem, that sort of sense of rebirth through destruction and violence, and the wild frontier, all of those things that I think are really part of a certain kind of iconography of the American imagination. Pearl, on the other hand, is to me that tend to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, be a good person, that sort of determined, tough, modern girl which is also very iconic. They represent two different things to me. They are also very drawn towards each other, both because of the link they have through the blood, but also because as much as they hate each other, I think they also kind of love each other. And she’s always pulled between him and Henry. I think in some ways things are going to be really rotten there in stories coming up.
CC: With "Ghost War," Henry has aged maybe 15-20 years beyond Pearl. Obviously, this disparity will only grow. Is that a plot element, or we should just accept that their love can overcome it?
SS: No, it’s a big plot element. In fact, I just handed in issue 29 – issues 28, 29, 30 and 31, not to get too far ahead – those are stories that feature these characters too, and it’s a major element. Because one of the things I love about the two of them is that they’ve made a pact that maybe she will turn him into a vampire, but they’ll never do it out of fear. They’ll never do it out of fear that suddenly that they’re going to lose one another. They’ll make a decision together that they want to have this second life. But that also puts them in a lot of danger, because if something terrible happens to Henry before they do that, then Pearl will be left alone. Those are big story elements coming up, and we wanted to treat that pact they made very respectfully, because I find that, to me, one of the most heroic and interesting things in the series between characters. I love the idea that he’s growing old and when we get to the ‘50s you’ll see people think that he’s her father, and that she’s taking care for her father, and it becomes more of an element that she’s moving through time unchanged, and he isn’t.
CC: Do you have an ending in mind for American Vampire, or will it keep going indefinitely?
Pamela Mullins (DC Public Relations): Never! It’s like vampires, never-ending!
SS: I do have a really big ending in mind actually that’s been written in from the very beginning when I pitched it to Vertigo, and Rafael knows it, and Mark and even [Survival of the Fittest artist] Sean [Murphy]. Who I love, by the way, and I want to say nice things about. … I want to also say how grateful I am that I’ve gotten to work with both of them artistically, they’re just terrific and Dave McKean on colors, and Dave Stewart. I have such a great team. But that ending, yeah, it’s known to all of us and it’s something that’s lets me know why certain things happen now, not just in plot but in character stuff I’m building towards. It’s a big finale. The funny thing is as we’re going forward though we keep finding these stories we want to tell on the way there. It’s kind of like a road trip from one side of the country to the other, then you keep discovering strange attractions along the side of the road you want to explore.
CC: When will we find out why the Vassals of the Morning Star are named that?
SS: Oh, well the Vassals of the Morning Star are a major part of the series. All of the miniseries we do will be from their files. We wanted to create a place with them where you would learn the history, the deepest stuff about the mythology of our series, the history of vampires, the sort of evolution of vampires, that’s in their files. So in their stories that’s where you’ll learn those things. And you’ll also learn about them and where they came from. So you could look for it in the miniseries as we do more. And also you’ll see more of it, it creeps out, little by little, but they have their own history that I think will be a lot of fun once we get to some of the milestone books, to give some of the big shocks and reveals about where they come from, who founded them, and why they were founded and how they’ve changed over the years. Because you’re also going to come and clash with a lot of things in the twentieth century as we move into the second half of that century and the American government and the idea that America is very emboldened at that time in the postwar world. And, even though they’re trying to adapt and set up American bureaus, they are sort of a very Old World, old European institution. And they find themselves very at odds with this young and brash government.
CC: I always knew “Morning Star” could refer to Lucifer, but I looked it up and found references to Jesus, Mary, ancient Babylonian kings, even phosphorus.
SS: I don’t want to give anything away, but they’re founded in a certain way around certain ideals, but those ideals I think will be surprising to people when they see the history of the series, and to really bring it back to the idea of original evil and ancient evil. What is evil, when you’re talking about science, when you’re talking about evolution?