I sometimes feel that American Vampire doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves. Oh, it’s hardly some criminally overlooked obscurity, given that the series has enjoyed critical acclaim and awards, and the graphic novels are regularly on best-seller lists. But still, it seems to fly under the radar. Amidst the undeniable ascension of Image over the course of this year and its wealth of exciting new projects, I’ve seen many talk about how “this is what Vertigo USED to be like” or “it’s a shame Vertigo don’t make great books like this any more,” and I want to bludgeon them to death with an American Vampire hardcover. How can Vertigo’s best days be behind them when one of their best new titles in years is still ongoing? Not that I’m immune either. I write a lot about how excellent Scott Snyder’s Batman run has been, and from time to time I’ll comment on the virtues of his Swamp Thing, but how often do I acknowledge the brilliance of the Scott Snyder comic I was reading before any of these others? Perhaps it’s because American Vampire is so consistently strong that we’ve begun to take it for granted. If that is indeed the case, American Vampire #33 should be the remedy for that, presenting a climactic issue that foregrounds the full dramatic weight of the series thus far.
To give you a quick “story thus far” rundown of “The Blacklist”, the major storyline which comes to its thrilling conclusion in this issue, it has featured our vampire protagonist Pearl Jones teaming up with her old enemy, the inscrutable anti-hero Skinner Sweet, to take out the vampires responsible for attacking her human husband, the aging Henry. Things took a shocking swerve a couple of issues back when the Big Bad behind this newly-invigorated Carpathian coven turned out to be none other than Hattie Hargrove, the villainess from the comic’s first ever storyline who has been lingering behind the scenes ever since, waiting to spring back into the story like Chekov’s Gun. Last issue left us hanging with the revelation that Hattie sought to take a very personal vengeance on Pearl, with Henry’s life once more hanging in the balance. Which brings us screaming into this issue. With so much coming to a head – not just Pearl’s long-simmering bloodfeuds with Skinner Sweet and Hattie Hargrove, but the hanging question of whether Pearl would turn Henry into a vampire like her or if their days together were numbered – and a return to the Hollywood location of the beginning of the series (not to mention largely cutting everything back to focus on the characters who were players in that first storyline), this feels like the climax of not just “The Blacklist”, but the entirety of American Vampire up until now. And boy does it deliver.
As is always the case when reading a new issue of American Vampire, the first impression the reader gets here is how utterly awe-inspiring the art of Rafael Albuquerque continues to be. Since the very first issue, American Vampre has been one of the best-looking comics on the stands, and this issue is no exception. A great test for how well an artist is doing their job is to look through the issue without reading any of the dialogue, and see not only how much of the story you can follow without the words, but how much of the emotion, and how much of the characters’ personality, is deliniated by the artwork. Albuquerque excels on this front. In particular I love his depiction of Hattie. Snyder gifts her with some deliciously nasty dialogue, but just look how much personality Albuquerque gives her, that glint of pure malevolence in her eye. Albuquerque handles eyes better than just about anyone: you’d be surprised how hard it is to capture a glint of emotion in something drawn in pencil and ink, but Albuquerque’s characters are gloriously expressive, doing fantastic “acting” that really helps to hammer home the ideas in Snyder’s script.
And this brings us to another of Albuquerque’s atributes: just howdiverse he is. This issue is just about equally divided between frenetic action and quiet emotional moments, and both are handled seamlessly. You could write a study on the way Albuquerque frames his pages, how in action scenes he has panels overlapping while other explode from their border and positions the “camera” either claustrophobically close at askew angles to create this sense of being in the thick of the battle, and then how in the more dramatic scenes he might pull the “camera” back to enhance a character’s sense of isolation. This emotional shift is also aided immensely by colorist extraordinaire Dave McCaig, perhaps the unsung hero of American Vampire. Look at how the issue’s color pallette shifts from orange to blue as we transition from one phase of the chapter to another.
That’s a lot of gushing about how fantastic the art of American Vampire is, and when a comic looks this lovely it can be easy to overlook the writing. It’s a good thing then that Scott Snyder’s writing more than holds its own. I think Snyder does a commendable job of slipping strong characterisation into the ambitious, high-concept, plot-driven narratives of Batman and Swamp Thing – there’s an emerging argument to be made that his whole run on Batman thus far is a character study on Batman’s hubris coming back to haunt him in various ways – but I would venture to say that American Vampire and its tie-ins are his most character-driven works, where the most central stakes usually seem to be emotional ones. Tellingly, the big battle set up in the previous issue is over by a little over halfway through, and it’s the emotional fallout that serves as the arc’s true climax. Over the course of 30+ issues, we’ve really come to know and relate to Pearl, and Henry, and even Skinner. And Snyder cruelly exploits that intimacy he has generated here, as the storyline comes to its heartbreaking, yet ultimately inevitable conclusion.
Pearl’s characterisation is illustrated to us two-fold here. First, through the portrayal of Pearl herself, haunted, driven, and more compassionately human than many humans. But also through the depiction of Hattie, who in many ways is a funhouse-mirror image of “Old Pearl”, the wannabe Hollywood starlet. Pearl, though physically the same, has grown and matured so much in the decades since that first storyline, going through the darkness and emerging on the other side stronger and better for it, much as she might be loathe to admit that herself. Hattie, however, is presented to us as stuck in arrested development, forever dwelling on the old grudges and dreams she had back in the 1920s, a representation of Pearl’s old naive optimism rotted on the vine and turned into festering resentment and inflated entitlement. In Hattie, we see everything that Pearl is not, and so it is underlined just how much Pearl has changed over the course of the series.
Henry’s role is smaller here, but in what we get of him he demonstrates to us the warmth and nobility that have made us buy so wholeheartedly into this relationship, even as vampire/human love stories make us roll our eyes elsewhere. Skinner Sweet, meanwhile, remains one step ahead of the rest of us, his motives continually muddy. Snyder continues to masterfully maintain a balance act of having us be never quite sure when Skinner Sweet is lying, even to himself. By all accounts he’s a horrid character that we should detest, but buried deep down that spark of heroism still seems to flicker away almost in spite of itself. I still don’t have a clue if Skinner Sweet will be seen as the hero or the villain of the series, once it’s all said and done.
“Once it’s all said and done.” That brings us to the question of what lies next. It’s no secret that after the next issue, American Vampire will be going on a hiatus of several months, marking what we are told is roughly the halfway point of the series. Really, if this issue here had been the end of the series (thankfully it isn’t, and there’s more to come!), it would have made for a satisfying conclusion. As addressed earlier, everything comes full circle, and some of the biggest storylines running through the series thus far come to a head. If we weren’t getting any more issues after this, you could argue that Pearl, Henry and Skinner got fitting send-offs. Indeed, so much is satisfyingly wrapped up, that I’m genuinely curious to see where things could go next, and how this can truly only be the halfway point in the saga. I imagine the next issue will do the job of setting up what lies ahead.
I might have an idea already, though. See, I’ve thought quite a bit about the trajectory of American Vampire, and originally I considered that this vampire story was being set against the backdrop of the history of 20th Century America. But “The Blacklist”, with all its references to Hollywood, has gotten me thinking that, more specifically, this vampire story is being set against the backdrop of the history of American cinema. Those early Stephen King backups were, obviously, a Western. The original arc that ran alongside them was, in its perverse way, an ode to the early studio films of the Hollywood Golden Age, the sweeping, epic romances of the likes of Cecil B. Demille and the grand emotion of silent cinema. “Devil in the Sand” channels film noir. “Ghost War” is, of course, a war movie, albeit one with a vampiric twist. “Death Race” plays like a crazed pastiche of Rebel Without a Cause and similar “teen pictures” of the 1950s. And “The Blacklist” seems to owe something to the spy pictures that came into vogue in the 1960s. Is it really a coincidence that we enter into this hiatus, the first “phase” of the series coming to a close, at a point in the timeline where the studio system was done and “New Hollywood” was on the rise? As the 1970s saw the rise of the anti-hero in cinema and murkier, more psychological narratives, are we going to see American Vampire take a similar dark turn? Now that the grand Hollywood romance is over, what new genres wait to be explored through the American Vampire looking glass?
During the hiatus, I think I might try a marathon readthrough of all 33 issues, see how this saga reads as a whole. And if you don’t read American Vampire, if you say you’re a Scott Snyder fan but just stick to his Batman, now is the time to amend that and play catch-up. I don’t know what lies ahead for this cracking series. But I can’t wait to find out.