First, some history: writer Scott Snyder had first envisioned the concept for American Vampire during a glut in the speculative fiction market, at a time when it was impossible to escape “sequels to Blade and Underworld and Queen of the Damned.” In an interview with Hans-Åke Lilja of Lilja’s Library, Snyder confessed to some frustration over this earlier incarnation of vampire: “All with that same look to them – the Matrix-style, sunglasses at night, leather trenchcoat, super-slick style, like they're going to some club that's too cool for you.” Snyder’s concept was to change the rules, develop an entirely new sort of vampire, a uniquely American species, as removed from the Old World vampires as possible. Vampires who can walk in the sun, for starters, or those that can be killed by ordinary means during the New Moon.
Snyder and illustrator Rafael Albuquerque brought Stephen King along for the first set of American Vampire stories (not the worst bit of name recognition when you’re trying to break into any aspect of the horror field), and King wrote the Western-horror origin story of Skinner Sweet, the forerunner of this new breed of vampires, over the first five issues. These were interpolated with tales of Pearl Jones, an aspiring actress/recent vampire in 1920s Hollywood, penned by Snyder.
The book was a hit; those weary of the word "vampire" were pleasantly surprised. King left the book after the first arc, but by then, Snyder himself was a known quantity when it came to comic-book horror writing (his subsequent dark work in DC’s Detective Comics, Swamp Thing, and the flagship Batman title only strengthened his reputation). Rafael Albuquerque is half the book’s success; while his style is distinct and scrappy, his illustrations are always accessible, capturing the sweep of American history as it marches closer and closer to the present day, and his vampires – elastic, gape-mouthed horrors with saber-tooth tiger teeth – are terrifying, miles from the sparkly, weepy, love-struck vampires of teen horror romances.
In the collected hardcover volume of the first story, Stephen King contributed a brand-new essay titled, of course, “Suck On This.” Here, he hints at some of American Vampire’s subtle undercurrents: “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.”
That boundless American energy – both the light and the dark – is at the center of the new American Vampire Anthology #1, the first entry in the American Vampire canon since the series went on temporary hiatus in January. While Stephen King (and Albuquerque) have written stories for the comic in the past, this anthology presents the American Vampire universe as a shared-world conceit – writers and artists from all walks of comicdom contributing to tell new, more intimate stories. Perhaps most intriguing about this anthology is that it mirrors the intent of the ongoing series in miniature. The “American” in American Vampire has never been incidental, and as the series proper aims to tell the history of the US in long, decade-centric chunks, the anthology offers parallel vignettes, the smaller stories lost in thrust of the main storyline.
We start earlier, too, centuries before Skinner Sweet’s Wild West origin story. Many writers have tackled the story of the 1588 disappearance of the settlers at the Roanoke colony, but none have quite attempted what Jason Aaron and Declan Shalvey have achieved here. Ivo Milazzo’s rough, light art lends humanity to Rafael Albuquerque’s story of Pearl Jones’ parents; now we know where she gets her tenacity and survival instinct. It’s not the first prequel: Ray Fawkes’ stunning watercolors combine beautifully with Animal Man writer Leff Lemire’s delve into Travis Kidd’s bloodline in “Canadian Vampire.”
Skinner Sweet is too attractive a character to leave alone, and we get a few glimpses into his long history: Greg Rucka and JP Leon’s “Portland 1940” finds Sweet teetering on the brink of actual death, and Becky Cloonan’s hilarious and fun “Greed” presents him as a body double in a Western. “Greed” isn’t the only Hollywood story here, either: Gail Simone and Tula Lotay give us an extremely graphic look into the tragic life (and unlife) of Pearl Jones’ former roommate, Hattie Hargrove, in “Essence of Life,” while the incomparable Francesco Francavilla (Afterlife With Archie) offers his vintage style and classic horror sensibilities to “The Producers.” The meat of the book rounds out with “Last Night,” by Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon, a short, shocking story that, like the main book’s Nocturnes storyline, both draws attention to the race divide in American history, and underlines importance of period music to this comic’s ongoing legacy.
The American Vampire Anthology #1 is bookended by a new wraparound story by Snyder and Alberquerque, set in 1967 and starring Skinner Sweet, once again up to no good. “The Man Comes Around” points toward the end of the comic’s hiatus and the beginning of stories set during the latter half of the 20th century. The title also evokes one of Johnny Cash’s last recordings before his death; fittingly, the song comes from Cash’s American Recordings album series. It’s a story of legends, and the truth lurking behind legends. “All the stories told,” Sweet muses, “they’re just a fraction of it … of the bigger thing. Because there’s a bigger story happening here.” Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for it.
American Vampire Anthology #1 is on sale at fine comic book purveyors everywhere for $7.99. It features stories and art by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, Jason Aaron, Gabriel Bá, Becky Cloonan, Ray Fawkes, Francesco Francavilla, Jeff Lemire, JP Leon, Tula Lotay, Ivo Milazzo, Fábio Moon, Greg Rucka, Declan Shalvey, and Gail Simone.
Kevin Quigley wrote in-depth about comic books and Stephen King in his chapbook, Drawn Into Darkness, available at CemeteryDance.com. His website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several other books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and Stephen King Limited, and co-wrote the upcoming Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming.