REVIEW: American Vampire #33

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.

My Week in New York: Saturday

I got up even earlier on Saturday, setting my alarm for the scary time of 6am, and was down at the Javits Center by around 8:30am.  I think that’s as much a testament to how slow I am in the mornings as it is to my earliness.  Even at this time, however, the queue outside the building dwarved even the big line from the day before.  I could tell that Saturday at New York Comic Con was going to be crazy.

Joe arrived early with a fresh shipment of stock, which was appreciated, as we were starting to run down.  Indeed, by Friday night we’d sold all the stock of Red Ten and Scam we had, which I suppose is a good problem to have!  With the increased Saturday traffic, we managed to get a lot more people at our table and looking at our stuff, but we were still having some trouble really hooking people and closing the deal.  Joe and I couldn’t help but throw Glengarry Glenn Ross references at each other: “Coffee is for closers!”  “A.I.D.A.!”  It was also really interesting observing how master pitcher Tyler would alter and adjust his pitch for each book depending on who he was talking to.  To read about his technique, and more notes from New York Comic Con, be sure to check out Tyler’s awesome ComixTribe column here.

One great moment of the day came from meeting Stephen Blaha, who I’ve known for years as Superferret on Superhero Hype.  He bought copies of The Standard #1 and #2, and we chatted for a bit about forum and RPG stuff.  One of the great things about travelling to comic cons in America in recent years has been being able to meet these people I’ve known for ages through message boards, but finally being able to put a face and a voice to the username.

I took a minute to do a bit of shopping.  Well, I say “took a minute”, but with how insanely packed the show floor was on Saturday, a brief journey to nearby stalls that would have only taken a few minutes before all of a sudden required a commitment of quite a bit of time.  From the Midtown Comics booth, I picked up a few gifts for friends back home, the first volume of the Starman Omnibus for myself, and a copy of Voodoo Heart, a collection of short stories by Scott Snyder.  This was the prose novel that first brought Snyder to the attention of the comics world, and though it’s not readily available in the UK, I was keen to pick it up and check it out.  Plus, I could add it to my hefty pile of signing material for Scott Snyder, as I already had samples from just about every other project he’s worked on.

Scott Snyder has quickly become one of my favorite comic writers, and he was one of the people I was most excited to meet.  I had been periodically checking his Artist’s Alley table over the first couple of days of the con, but he never seemed to be there.  And on Saturday, he’d left a note at his table saying he wouldn’t have time to be there much, and the best place to find him would be at his designated signings.  The first one was at the DC Comics booth.  Foolishly, I headed over to that one – clutching my pile of Snyder books –  a mere few minutes before the signing was scheduled to start.  The line was already massive.  And, in a bit of a dick move, the guy about 3 people in front of me let me and a few others wait and talk amongst ourselves for several minutes before turning around, shouting “SURPRISE!” and flashing his I AM THE LAST PERSON IN THIS QUEUE sign, saying no one would be seen after him.  So, that was a near miss.

I only had one panel to attend today, which was the DC Dark/Edge panel.  I’m not reading many of the Edge comics, but for me, the Dark titles have been the highlight of the DC relaunch, and so I was really excited to find out more about what was coming up from them.  I was lucky enough to get a seat in the front row for this one, which was an added bonus.  Before the panel started, I spotted Joshua Hale Fialkov milling around, so I ran over to say hello.  He kindly agreed to sign my copies of Tumor and Echoes, as well as I, Vampire #1.  When you read how screwed up the protagonists in his books are, you may be surprised to learn that Mr. Fialkov is a warm, personable guy, and we chatted a little bit about the British NHS and the history of the I, Vampire franchise.  I must say, getting the Fialkov books signed would be a big weight off my shoulders.  No, I mean literally: I would no longer need to carry around two hardcover graphic novels in my satchel bag each day.

I spotted someone else before the panel started: Scott Snyder!  Perhaps a bit rudely, I shouted, “Oy, Scott!” to get his attention.  You can take the Glaswegian out of Glasgow, but you can’t take the Glasgow out of the Glaswegian, it would seem.  I asked him if he had any plans to be at his Artist’s Alley table that day, as I’d just missed him at his DC signing.  He said he’d be at a signing at Midtown Comics later in the day, but if I just had a few things he could sign them now.  I told him I had a big pile, so it would probably be better waiting for the Midtown Comics signing.  He complimented my (Swamp Thing!) shirt and asked me my name, and I was left very happy at having met Scott Snyder, who came across as just as friendly as he does online and in interviews.

A blurry photo of an Animal Man #3 page by Travel Foreman that you've probably already seen in hi-res.

The panel itself was great fun, as we got treated to glimpses of art – cover and interior – for a whole range of quality titles.  Scott Snyder gave us a teaser of a villain who shows up in the next issue of Swamp Thing who sounds really great, and an ideal foe for Swamp Thing.  Apparently it’s a guy with control over decay, who can find any small piece of decay in someone – even a bit of rot in a tooth – and make it grow and spread throughout that person’s whole body.  Plus, he’s allergic to chlorofill, so has to wear an oxygen mask at all times.  Sounded really cool.  Some problems with dodgy mics up on the stage caused some delays, though, so by the time we’d gotten through everyone and their books there wasn’t much time for questions..  But still, a really fun panel.

Learning my lesson from the last attempt, I headed straight from the panel to join the queue for Scott Snyder’s Midtown Comics signing, a good 20 minutes early.  The queue was still sizable, and with the way it stretched out across the con floor, we were causing a bit of a fire hazard, and we constantly had people having to break through the line to get past us.  But I did get talking to people in the line, so the time went by quickly enough.  However, my heart sank when I neared the front of the line, and the moderator informed us we could only get 3 items maximum signed.  I looked down with sadness at my pile of 10 books, and with great difficulty, chose 3 titles – American Vampire #1, Batman #1, Swamp Thing #1 – for Scott to sign.

When I got to the table, Scott not only recognised me, but remembered my name.  That amazed me, as I was hopeless at remembering the names of even the handful of repeat visitors at the ComixTribe table, so given how many fans Scott must have met, that was quite a skill.  Living up to his reputation as the nicest guy in comics, Scott recalled that I’d had a big pile of comics I wanted signed, and said I could leave the rest of my stuff with  him, and he’d sign it all at the end.  This was a really nice gesture that was very much appreciated.  I gave him copies of The Standard #1 and #2 as well, thanked him again, and made my exit with my three signed comics, happy at meeting one of my fave writers twice.

Returning to the ComixTribe booth for a little while, I was pleased to meet Cesar Feliciano, the artist of The Red Ten, who had stopped by our table to help out for the day.  He also drew up a great artist edition cover of The Standard #1, which I was very pleased with!

Heading back to the Midtown Comics booth, a little after the end of the signing, I figured Scott would have left my comics behind the table for me to collect.  But to my surprise, he was actually waiting on the floor for me to come back to give them to me himself!  Again, the guy’s a total class act.  He rummaged through his backpack, and produced my pile of books – Voodoo Heart, Severed #1, Severed #3, Swamp Thing #2, Detective Comics #871, Detective Comics #875, Detective Comics #879 and another copy of Batman #1 – all signed.  In a funny moment, he almost accidentally gave me a copy of Batman #2 a week before its release, and had to take it back upon realising his mistake.  To be honest, I kinda regret not really saying anything to him but “Thanks” a few times when I could have been asking all kinds of questions about what lies in store in the future for some of my favorite books – I’d had a question all prepared about his future plans for The Joker that totally slipped from my brain – but I was just too chuffed for anything to come to mind.  Scott told me he’d read my comics, we said goodbye, and I left VERY happy, having met one of my fave writers thrice!

Perhaps I was energised by my shamanic encounter with Super-Snyder, but whatever the cause, when I returned to the ComixTribe booth, all of a sudden I found that I’d at last got into a proper selling rhythm.  Things started to take a real upswing where, after a quiet stretch, I picked a random person passing by through the crowd, pointed at them, and shouted, “YOU!”  I asked them to come over to the table, and we ended up selling them a ComixTribe package.  But the real turning point was a seemingly small detail, where I found that moving from sitting behind my table to standing in front of it made a huge difference.  Perhaps it was a body language thing, where I was now more closely connected to the passing trade, but for whatever reason, all of a sudden I was much more successful in grabbing people’s attention and bringing them over to the table.  And we started getting a much higher ratio of people actually buying something once we’d attracted them to the table.

Tyler, Joe, me (in a pose oddly like a Vegas showgirl) and Cesar.

Something that I discovered was a real boon to my salesmanship was my Scottish accent.  Tpically, I hate my voice, and I have come to accept that in America a lot of people just won’t understand a word I’m saying.  But it seemed to really work a charm in getting people interested in our comics.  I joked that it was because people couldn’t hear me when I said, “Hey, want to check out some cool comics?”  As a result, they’d come closer and get me to repeat myself, by which point I’d reeled them in and had them in position to get a closer look at my comics.  Whatever the cause, people seemed more interested because I was Scottish, and I started playing up that Scottishness more in my pitching, starting to make a bigger deal of showing people the pages of The Standard #1 featuring The Frying Scotsman – which always seemed to get a laugh.  Even more shockingly, my accent seemed to get me some kind of sex appeal!  Apparently my grating Glaswegian brogue sounds exotic to New Yorker ears, and it seemed like the number of women we sold books to surged on the Saturday.  I was getting the flirty body language and everything – is this what it feels like to be a “playa”?  At one point, I gave the whole ComixTribe pitch to one young lady, and when I was done, I asked her if she was interested in any comics, but she say, “No, I just wanted to hear you talk for a bit.”  Oh my!

In a way it was a bit infuriating, business really getting going once the con was more than half over.  But better late than never!  After being absent for much of the first couple of days, and underwhelming in my selling to the point of practically being a cooler while I was around, I was relieved that I’d found an approach to selling that worked for me, and helped me to start pulling my weight at the table more.  I even earned the nickname “The Sellin’ Scotsman” from Tyler, which was nice.  I was really pleased to start seeing copies of The Standard shifting en masse, and I managed to sell people on the other titles on the ComixTribe lineup as well.

Towards the end of the con day, I took a walk down to Artist’s Alley, and met Greg Capullo.  I’ve been a big fan of his work on Batman, but my main incentive for introducing myself was my knowledge that Capullo is the hero of Jonathan Rector, my friend and artist of The Standard.  I got Greg to sign two copies of Batman #1 – one for myself and one for Jon – and gave him copies of The Standard, explaining how much the artist was a fan of his work.  So perhaps Greg Capullo is now a fan of your work too, Jon!

I’m pleased to report we were selling comics right up to closing time, and a little beyond.  Saturday was a huge success for ComixTribe, and the best day of NYCC thus far.  My one disappointment of the day was not getting into the after-hours Black Dynamite panel.  Infuriatingly, there was a Dragonball Z panel in the same room immediately after it, so I arrived to a massive queue, populated mostly by young anime fans who quite clearly had no interest in Black Dynamite.  I was in line with a couple of other Black Dynamite fans, and once it became clear that we weren’t going to get into the panel, things started getting nasty.  These other guys started getting into a confrontation with one of the NYCC volunteers, who didn’t help the situation much by replying with, “Well, if you wanted into this panel you should have been queueing from Avengers this afternoon.”  In my repressed British way, I wasn’t up for getting into a fight when it was quite clear that no amount of shouting would get me a seat in this panel, so I told the increasingly flustered NYCC rep that I appreciated it wasn’t his fault, and dejectedly left the Javits Center.

After grabbing a quick Subway for dinner (so much for making the most of New York’s cuisine) I met up with Joe, and we headed out to the Indy Comics After-Party, an invite-only event at Blaggards Pub we had managed to score invitations to.  However, we didn’t see anyone there that we knew or recognised, and with a live band playing, the music was even louder than at Tempest a couple of nights earlier, so loud neither of us could hear a word the other was saying.  After a while, Joe and I gave up and headed out, relocating to the quieter, nicer Twins Bar and talking about politics and other subjects for a bit.  Oooh, I’m such a party animal!

Of course, Spider-Man loves NY.

Overall, Saturday was an amazing day.  I got to meet some great comics people, ComixTribe and The Standard really started to gain momentum, and the whole day was just good fun.  I was already starting to feel sad that the con – and my time in New York – would soon be over.

NEXT: An ode to cosplayers.

REVIEW: I, Vampire #1

And to think, at first I wasn’t even going to get I, Vampire.  Amidst all the DC Dark titles unveiled as part of the DC Relaunch back in June, I, Vampire stood out as one comic I definitely had zero interest in getting.  I didn’t like the cover, and the concept suggested in the solicit for the first issue just didn’t appeal to me at all.  It seemed like another soppy vampire romance to appeal to the Twilight crowd, and I figured that so long as the excellent American Vampire was going strong, surely any other vampire comic would be utterly redundant.  I know I’m not the only person who reacted that way at the time, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who still think that now, and as a result have decided not to pick up I, Vampire #1.  That would be a terrible mistake.

Based on some stunning preview art from the book released a little while back, and the generally high standard of the other titles released under the Dark banner thus far, I decided I’d give I, Vampire a go, at least for an issue.  It wasn’t a series I was particularly anticipating, with Justice League Dark being a title I was much more excited for amongst this week’s offerings.  But, though Justice League Dark was also great, I was shocked to discover that I, Vampire trumped it.  In fact, based on the disparity between where this title ranked on my personal hype list and its final standing among how I’d rank all the #1s I picked up this month after reading them, I, Vampire #1 might stand as my biggest sleeper hit of the New 52.

I had zero awareness of the previous incarnation of I, Vampire under the House of Mystery banner, as written by J.M. DeMatteis back in the 80s.  As far as I was concerned, this was not a relaunch, but the launch of a brand new series, introducing new characters and mythology into the DCU.  And, for someone coming into the comic with that perspective, I, Vampire #1 works very well.  We are efficiently introduced to our two key players.  Andrew Bennett, our hero, is a very old and powerful vampire who has retained his humanity, and so has devoted his eternal life to slaying his own kind.  Mary Seward, our villain, is Andrew’s great love, and also his greatest enemy and weakness, a vampire who shares much of his power but none of his love for humanity.  At this early stage in the narrative, we only get hints of their relationship and their shared history, but it’s a testament to the immense skill of writer Joshua Hale Fialkov that these both feel like rounded, real characters with their own nuanced personalities even without us having to immediately get exhaustive biographies explaining in detail exactly who they are.

Instead of starting with an origin story or exposition, Fialkov throws us right into the thick of things, juxtaposing the horror and piled corpses of the morning after with the battle of wills and sexual chess games of the night before.  Both prove equally engrossing.  The former shows Andrew’s power, but also the compassion and humanity that Mary intends to cruelly exploit, while the latter shows Catwoman #1 how to portray intense sexual chemistry between two adversaries without it feeling overblown and tacky.  I’m currently reading Tumor, an earlier work by Fialkov, and that too plays with chronology, jumping back and forth.  But while in Tumor there is an in-built, character-driven justification for these time shifts, here it feels largely like a stylistic choice, and while the unusual structure does make for a slick narrative, it did create the odd moment of confusion about what was going on, or when it was going on.

As I touched on above, one of the big questions for me going in is what a new vampire comic would do to stand apart from American Vampire.  And the niche that I, Vampire finds is that this isn’t a Vertigo title: it’s a vampire mythology entrenched in the DCU.  Though none of the famous superheroes actually show up here, they are mentioned, and how a vampire mythology might match up against them creates an interesting dynamic.  Andrew fears vampires declaring war on humanity because it might result in the superhumans wiping them out.  This is a world where vampires aren’t the heaviest hitters, so the question becomes, “How can they still pose a threat?”  The answer Fialkov comes up with to present vampires as terrorists: waging war on a human race they view as their oppressors, with Mary as their fanatic leader fighting for vampire supremacy.

Another thing I think Fialkov handles very well is the depiction of the vampires and their power sets.  Ironically enough, he is able to make Andrew, Mary and the rest feel different from a lot of the other vampires permeating pop culture nowadays by going back to the classic Bram Stoker breed: they can survive in sunlight, but are stronger at night, they can shapeshift into not just bats, but wolves and other creatures, and to kill them you have to not only put a stake through their heart, but also decapitate them. With how oversaturated vampires have become in all forms of pop culture these days, it’s hard for vampires to capture an enigmatic allure or a sense of menace anymore, but I, Vampire just about pulls it off.

I have a lot of admiration for the work Fialkov did in this issue, and it makes me keen to not just read the rest of Tumor, but pick up Echoes as well.  But I have to say, the true star of this comic is artist Andrea Sorrentino.  I mentioned earlier that I disliked the cover to this first issue when I first saw it, and I still don’t love it.  The Barbie doll figures with their pretty, pouting faces calls up that Twilight imagery that Fialkov’s storytelling inside does so much to dispel.  Also, as an interesting aside, it’s funny how I, Vampire managed to put a naked woman on its front cover (I don’t think tattoos count as clothing) without getting any of the sexism bad press other DC releases of recent weeks have got.  I think this demonstrates that the criticisms aren’t about readers being prudes, as some have suggested, but rather that sexuality and even scantily clad women is fine, but it’s the cheesecake fan-service depiction of it that’s tiresome.

But moving past the cover, the interior art is on a whole other level.  I described the preview pages released a while back as “stunning”, and “stunning” is the word that keeps on coming back to me whenever I try to describe the moody visuals crafted by Sorrentino.  Reminiscent of the work of Jae Lee or Tim Broadstreet, Sorrentino’s grounded, lifelike depictions of characters makes the monstrosities they turn into all the more creepy.  It’s also useful that he is his own inker, with the shadows around Andrew’s eyes seeming to become a seamless aspect of his base design, and some skillful use of full and partial silhouette at various key points in the comic.

Sorrentino is ably complimented by the colors of Marcelo Maiolo.  As mentioned above, this issue is very much a story of two halves: day and night.  And, appropriate for a tale where a vampire is the protagonist, the cool blue tone gives the night sequences a soothing, serene quality, while the stark orange glow of Maiolo’s sunlight makes the day feel harsh and threatening.  Elsewhere, Maiolo operates with a faded, washed-out pallette that brings out the deep blacks of Sorrentino’s inks, and together they manage to create one of the most intensely atmospheric comics of the New 52.

I also want to point out some cool work done by letterer Pat Brosseau, seeing that letterers don’t often get as much love as they should.  Notice how, in the space of a single issue, Brosseau establishes four different kinds of vampire voices through his fonts and bubbles?  In regular human form, the vampires speak in normal word balloons.  When Mary takes her glowing red “Queen of Blood” form, her dialogue boldens.  When a vampire is stakes, the font within the white balloon grows larger, turning red.  And when a vampire shapeshifts, their dialogue as a creature is spoken in a red balloon with white font.  Little touches like this further enhance the shifting identity of the vampires, so kudos to Brosseau too.

So, in closing, let’s cast aside the myths and the bad press.  No, this is not soppy, angsty teen love piffle like Twilight.  Yes, there is room for another vampire comic, even after American Vampire.  The Dark stable of comics have been among the biggest winners of the New 52, and I, Vampire is the perfect closing note to that trend.  I was initially hesitant about picking up issue #1, but there’ll be no such doubt about coming back for issue #2.

Comics Storytelling 101: Scott Snyder

Another writer whose storytelling ability has really impressed me this year is Scott Snyder, a relative newcomer whose first major comics work was Vertigo’s American Vampire, the success of which has landed Snyder the high-profile gig of writing for Detective Comics.

American Vampire is really impressive in its efficiency. No issue feels like it is treading water. It feels like every issue provides a new piece of information about a character or about the mythology of Snyder’s world. To add more to Steve Forbes’s “beginning, middle and end” point in his introductory “Bolts & Nuts” column, with American Vampire Snyder often uses his beginning to connect the current issue to what has come before and reward returning readers, the middle to work in content that makes each issue a worthwhile reading experience in its own right, and the end to leave a hook to bring readers back for the next issue. For example, let’s look at the latest issue, American Vampire #10, and how its 22 story pages are broken down:

BEGINNING
Hattie – a character from an earlier arc, thought dead -is revealed as still alive, but also given a piece of introductory narration to establish who she is and the role she will play for anyone picking up the series for the first time. (4 pages)

MIDDLE
The main body of the story, with two narrative threads. One concerns Hattie’s escape from captivity. The other concerns vampire/human couple Pearl and Henry, as we see them living their lives together in contented isolation, with dual narration showing the (often parallel) secret concerns and worries they are each harboring. Again, we are given (re)introductions to who these people are for those who do not know. What I think is important – and Snyder has done this in every issue – is that this main body of story would make a satisfying reading experience for someone only buying this issue of the series and none other. Of course, it’s made richer by knowing the wider mythology, but we’re given enough information to not NEED to be buying every issue. A lot of writers write in a way that caters to trade-waiters, so its nice to see someone who writes in a way that respects the serialised experience and the value of a single comic. (10 pages)

END
We learn that Hattie is going to hunt down Pearl in hopes of violent revenge. Henry is placed in a position of mortal danger. Both threads are left unresolved, encouraging readers old and new to come back next month. (6 pages)

So here we have a balancing act of rewarding and encouraging the returning reader by always bringing something new to the table, advancing the mythology and recalling what has come before, while simultaneously welcoming new readers with a story that is accessible.

Also notable is how Snyder used the considerable asset of a back-up story by Stephen King in the first 5 issues of the series. He could simply have had his story, then Stephen King’s back-up as a special attraction, but instead he ensured that – though his main story told a 5-part narrative and King’s backup told a seperate 5-part narrative – EACH ISSUE the Snyder story complimented and the developments of the King story, so that King’s story didn’t just feel like a special attraction to sell books, but rather an organic ingredient all but inseperable from Snyder’s central narrative.

The twin adherence to history and accessibility has also come into play in Snyder’s run on Detective Comics. In the first issue, he spends the first 5 pages doing something that many writers have overlooked or taken for granted was unnecessary: he introduces Dick Grayson, and tells us who he is, including what makes him distinct as Batman. But at the same time, the story is littered with nods and references to continuity – from references to the earthquake of “No Man’s Land”, to Gordon being surprised when he turns around and Batman is still standing there for once, to the return of a forgotten character from Batman: Year One – meaning that those well versed in Batman lore will find the story rewarding on a deeper level.

Also good is how, again, the main Batman story and the Gordon back-up feature interact, the events in one referenced in the other, so that the back-up doesn’t just feel supplementary and tacked on, but rather a worthwhile addition to the single issue package.

As with Kirkman, Snyder demonstrates throughout his work an understanding of serialised storytelling, skillfully building a mythology that helps regular readers feel like they are a part of something, while simultaneously recognising that every comic could be somebody’s first.  This was Snyder’s breakout year in comics, and as long as his storytelling foundations remain as strong, he surely has a bright future in the medium.

My Top Ten Comics of 2010

Hey all!

Been a while since I blogged, so I figured I’d post this up.  I’ve also posted this as part of my Comic Book Club column over on Project Fanboy, but I figured I’d post it here too.  Hope you all had a Merry Christmas, and have a Happy New Year!

2010 was an interesting year in the world of comics. As the new decade began, both Marvel and DC seemed set to be making a move towards more optimistic storytelling and more heroic heroes, with Dark Reign giving way to The Heroic Age and Blackest Night giving way to Brightest Day. There was also a stated intention to move away from company-spanning crossover events, focusing more on smaller events within individual franchises. Neither promise seems to have held on long, with Brightest Day being as gore-addled and grim as any DCU story of the past few years and Daredevil turning evil for a while in Shadowland, and with Marvel recently announcing their latest big crossover event: Fear Itself.

It was a year where the comic book movie craze seemed to falter, with Iron Man 2 proving a disappointment, and both Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim VS the World (undeservedly) underperforming at the box office. But on the other side, it was a year where a new frontier for comic book adaptation – television – began to be exploited more fully. The Walking Dead was one of the year’s biggest TV success stories, breaking viewing records for AMC by a substantial margin and already finding itself nominated for a Golden Globe. This has in turn paved the way for a glut of comic book TV projects, ranging from remakes of classic TV superhero shows of the past (Wonder Woman, The Hulk) to adaptations of thus-far untouched comic book properties (Locke & Key, Powers, Alias).

As ever, it’s difficult to provide a concise summary for the year in comics as a whole. There were a few great comics, some awful comics, and a whole bunch that fell somewhere in between. This list of mine is by no means all-encompassing. Instead, it is a deeply subjective reflection of my own limited, largely mainstream-leaning reading throughout the year. Graphic novels, mini-series’ and ongoing monthly comics were all eligible for inclusion as I put my list together. Here’s what I came up with:

HONORABLE MENTION: THOR

It’s been a turbulent year for Marvel’s god of thunder. After J. Michael Straczynski’s great run came to an abrupt, disappointing close, we entered 2010 with a sense of “Right, let’s hurry up and get on with Matt Fraction’s run, get Kieron Gillen in to tidy up Straczynski’s mess.” But then Mr. Gillen surprised people by coming onboard with a run that was very good in its own right, far exceeding the expectations of the transitional writer between two A-listers and in fact surpassing much of the latter part of the JMS run. Of course, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to those familiar with Phonogram or SWORD that Gillen would not disappoint. His first arc, “Latverian Prometheus” – in which hostilities between Asgard and Dr. Doom came to a head and Straczynski’s incomplete saga was wrapped up – was great fun, and delivered on both the action and characterization fronts. Arguably the high point of Gillen’s run came with the event tie-in Siege: Loki, which simultaneously explained some of Loki’s actions before and during the events of Siege and set up the next storyline for Thor once the event wrapped up, all while giving us a masterful insight into Loki’s motivations and treating us to some lovely art from Jamie McKelvie. It’s a shame then that the Siege tie-in issues of Thor itself were so poor they almost cost the title its place in the top ten. I don’t blame Gillen: the job of writing an arc set in Asgard where he couldn’t actually progress anything because the main activity was happening in the main Siege book, unable to even use any of the title’s main characters as they were also being used in Siege, was a particularly thankless one, which is probably why Straczynksi left the book in the first place. Thankfully then, Gillen got to end his run on a high note with an additional closing arc after finishing the grunt work that saw Thor and friends take a romp through hell. And now that Fraction is onboard (aided by some high-quality art by Pasqual Ferry), we’re getting the beginnings of what seems set to be an intriguing new era for Thor.

10. CHEW

After a stellar beginning that saw me rank the series at #8 in my top ten of the decade at this time last year, Chew seemed to falter slightly this year. Particularly at points during this most recent arc, “Just Desserts”, the series appeared to be lacking direction. But even in its weaker moments, Chew never fails to entertain, typically guaranteeing at least one out-loud belly laugh per issue. Rob Guillory’s art remains fantastic, giving the book its own unique identity, and with the last couple of issues it’s become apparent that John Layman has been carefully crafting a larger mythology, even when it appeared like the book was lacking direction. The stage has been set for Chew to reach new heights in 2011.

9. INVINCIBLE IRON MAN

Here we have another case of a title that reached heady heights in 2009 but couldn’t quite keep it up going into 2010. After the epic “World’s Most Wanted”, it appeared that Matt Fraction’s Iron Man saga had lost steam with both “Stark: Disassembled” and the current “Resilient” arc. With its almost-funereal pacing, Invincible Iron Man at times feels like one of the most decompressed comics on the market. But even when it’s at its most plodding, Fraction keeps things interesting, his mastery of Tony Stark, Pepper Potts and co so refined that he can make an issue of them sitting in a café drinking coffee compelling reading: and there were a couple of issues that weren’t too far off that. But when the action does come, its kinetic, in-your-face, thrilling; Salvatore Larroca’s art (long a weak point in the series) greatly improving over the course of the year. Compliments also go to the fantastic Invincible Iron Man Annual, which gave us a Mandarin who was delightfully vile and free of any redeeming qualities whatsoever. And even when the narrative is moving along slowly, you get the sense that Fraction knows what he’s doing, that he’s carefully setting the pieces in place for something explosive down the line. So Invincible Iron Man still has my attention, and my praise, going into 2011.

8. MORNING GLORIES

I almost didn’t include this in my list. This is in fact a belated edit, after finally getting caught up on the series. I blame the oversight on the frustrating lack of availability the series suffered in its early issues, what with all the quick sell-outs. I managed to get issue #1 on its third printing, but had given up all hope on getting issue #2, and as such had given up on the series altogether. But I finally managed to get a hold of that missing second issue, and now I’m fully onboard. Of course, the plus-side of all those sell-outs is that Morning Glories is positioned as the breakout indy comics smash of 2010, much like Chew was in 2010. But while it was the original high concept that initially sold Chew, with this tale of a group of 16 year olds trapped in a prestigious prep school with dark secrets, it seems like Nick Spencer is crafting the comic book equivalent of a water-cooler mystery more typically associated with television. I’ve seen many comparisons to Lost, but with its off-kilter weirdness, comically monstrous characters and constant sense of lurking dread, I’d say it bears closer parallels to Twin Peaks. In the first issue, Spencer introduces us to six new characters and within mere pages makes them all feel rounded and nuanced. Artist Joe Eisna, meanwhile, provides visuals that deftly shift back and forth from cartoonish to horrifying. Each issue deepens the mystery, offering more questions in place of answers. It remains to be seen whether – much like Lost – this approach stops being tantalizing and starts being infuriating, but for now this series is off to a highly promising start.

7. ACTION COMICS

Caught up in the tepid “New Krypton” saga for much of the year, it would have taken something incredible to hit Action Comics over the latter half of 2010 for the series to rank in this list at all. Thankfully, then, Paul Cornell jumped on as writer of the book, and made Lex Luthor the star. Each month, we see Superman’s arch-nemesis pit against another popular DC supervillain in his ongoing quest to unlock the secrets of the black rings last seen in Blackest Night. Witty, charismatic, even likeable, but also unquestionably evil, Cornell has made Lex Luthor into my new favorite superhero. And the Gorilla Grodd issue was surely one of the best single comics of the year. If the comic hadn’t been subpar for the rest of the year, Cornell’s run could have earned Action Comics a higher placing on this list. We’ll see what next year brings!

6. SWEET TOOTH

Once again, I find myself saying that a comic that was amazing in 2009 wasn’t quite as good in 2010: is that the theme of this year? Sweet Tooth had a brilliant opening arc, but the second storyline, “In Captivity”, didn’t pack quite the same emotional punch. There was one grim period where I briefly thought I had accidentally bought the same issue twice, as I read my new purchase and thought it was so incredibly similar to what I had read a month earlier, offering as little as it did in the way of plot advancement. “In Captivity” did, however, expand the mythology of the series, and introduce new characters to the mix. And despite not being quite to the level of “Out of the Deep Woods”, there was still plenty of emotional, heartbreaking story beats to be found. The current arc, “Animal Armies” has been a big improvement, and over the last couple of months Sweet Tooth has once again become essential reading. It’s just a shame the boost didn’t come earlier in the year, or Sweet Tooth could have cracked the top five.

5. KNIGHT & SQUIRE

I love this series so much. Three issues in, and I already feel totally immersed in this quirky, idiosyncratic and very, very British world that Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton have created. A spin-off using characters originally revived by Grant Morrison, Cornell has nevertheless made Knight & Squire feel totally his own. Each issue so far has been so dense with in-jokes and subtle humor that they benefit greatly from multiple readings, and I’ve reread these comics perhaps more than anything else on this top ten list. If I were to use any word to describe Knight & Squire, it would be nice. This is a nice comic. Whenever I’m done reading an issue, I’m cheered up, I feel that little bit happier for reading it. And with the dark, emotionally-draining stuff that’s coming up as our countdown continues, something bright and joyful that captures all the weird, silly stuff that makes comics so much fun is certainly refreshing.

4. AMERICAN VAMPIRE

This actually started out a bit lower on my top ten. But as I wrote this summary of its merits, I kept on nudging it up and up until it finally settled here at #4, making it the highest-ranked new series of the year on my list. American Vampire debuted with much fanfare, billed as the first original comic written by Stephen King – that’s what first attracted my attention. And yes, King’s back-up story over the first five issues proved that the man’s creativity and knack for characterization and the building of dread is not limited to the prose medium. But the true revelation came with the core creative team. Immediately noticeable is the work of artist Rafael Albuquerque, producing some of the most gorgeous interiors of any comic on the stands right now. But more and more I’m coming to appreciate the input of writer Scott Snyder. It seems like every month, he moves the narrative forward in some way, be it through shedding new light on a character or expanding the mythology. He really shows an affinity for serial storytelling, with each installment both serving as a satisfying read in its own right, while having a cumulative effect as it builds on what came before and sets the stage for what is to come. And in the vicious Skinner Sweet, Snyder has created arguably the year’s best new character: one of the comic’s great pleasures is the way we are continually lured into thinking the eponymous American vampire could grow into an anti-hero, only for Skinner Sweet to turn around and do something utterly horrible and monstrous and remind us of what a villain he unquestionably is. 10 issues in, American Vampire keeps on getting better and better.

3. BATMAN AND ROBIN

A list of 2010’s best comics could very easily have been dominated by Grant Morrison’s Batman output. But in the interest of fairness, I limited myself to only including a single Bat-title on the list, and the winner by a narrow margin was Batman and Robin. The book was consistently strong throughout the year, but what really put it above Batman Inc and even the ingenious Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne for me was the concluding arc of Morrison’s run on the title: “Batman and Robin Must Die!” Serving as a kind of sequel to Batman R.I.P., we got to see Dr. Hurt and Professor Pyg make their welcome returns, and Frazer Irving floored us all with some spectacular art. But best of all was the long-awaited return of The Joker, and in particular Grant Morrison’s Joker, given that the Scottish scribe writes the character better than just about anyone. Grant Morrison’s extended Batman saga has made for one of the definitive superhero sagas of the decade and one of the finest runs in the character’s history, and I’m excited to see its next phase with Batman Inc.

2. THE WALKING DEAD

Aw, you gotta feel bad for The Walking Dead. Two years in a row now, it has ranked at #2 in my top ten. Looking at the series as a whole, I’d probably rate it as my personal #1 favorite comic. But based on the 2010 output alone, there is one comic I’d rate even higher. However, having said that, 2010 has still been a stellar year for everyone’s favorite zombie comic. We saw a shift in the dynamic this year as our survivors settled into Alexandria, the long sought-after safe haven they desired, populated by a community of largely good people striving to rebuild a sense of normal life. But the tragedy explored through the plights of various characters this year was that many of our survivors are so damaged by what they’ve had to go through to survive that they no longer have a place in a “normal” world. The result of this conflicted dynamic has been the steady escalation of tensions between the established cast and the new characters resident to Alexandria, all the while distracting us from the inexorable arrival of the zombie horde that now surrounds this “safe haven” as we head into 2011. “No Way Out” seems set to be a major storyline for the months ahead. When also taking into consideration the huge success of the TV adaptation, then I’d say it’s a great time to be a fan of The Walking Dead.

1. SCALPED

I heard alarming news lately, that – in the wake of the recent wave of house-clearing cancellations – Scalped is now currently one of Vertigo’s lowest-selling titles each month. That’s a real shame. Because it means people are missing out on one of the best books Vertigo has ever produced, and what was in my opinion the best comic of the year. 2010 gave us lots of quality developments within the pages of Scalped. The first few months of the year brought the heart-rending conclusion of “The Gnawing”, the storyline that has marked arguably the high-point of the comic’s history thus far. From there, the book adopted a change of pace (brave considering the amount of momentum build up off the back of “The Gnawing”) and gave us a collection of stand-alone stories that helped create a more rounded picture of The Rez and some of its inhabitants.

First came “Listening to the Earth Turn”, a single-issue tale of an elderly couple struggling to make an honest living on the outskirts of the reservation. This was a wonderful little story that challenged some of the negative assumptions that have been tossed in the direction of the series: that it suggests reservations are nothing but cesspits of crime and violence (the protagonists here are decent, law-abiding citizens) and that it is relentlessly bleak and miserable (this story had a happy ending). After that was a two-parter with the tongue-twisting title, “A Fine Action of an Honorable and Catholic Spaniard”, in which we got a little into the mind of Red Crow’s right-hand man Shunka, long one of the most mysterious members of the comic’s ensemble. The full page reveal of his man-on-man kiss was one of the more genuinely surprising page-turn twists of the year. Finally, and perhaps best of all, was “Family Tradition”, a single-issue tale notable on two counts. First, because it marked Jason Aaron’s return to the Vietnam War, the setting of The Other Side – the astounding comic that first made his name. And second, because we saw R.M. Guera (whose work started strong and has been steadily improving over the course of Scalped) reach a whole new level of excellence, with him delivering career-best work.

And after that interlude, it was back at last to the ongoing saga of Bad Horse and co. with “Unwanted”. Here, Carol Ellroy and the significant females of the saga, past and present, took centre stage, with Carol – having discovered she was pregnant at the conclusion of “The Gnawing” – agonizing over whether to have an abortion or to tell Bad Horse he could be a father, and in the process embarking on one of the few genuinely redemptive arcs we’ve seen in Scalped thus far. These issues of parenthood were further explored with the return of Wade Bad Horse, Dashiell’s deadbeat father, and a look at his difficult relationships with both his son and Red Crow. After that, we wrapped up the year with “A Come-To-Jesus”, another one-and-done, this time putting a spotlight on bit-part player Sheriff Wooster Karnow.

The unifying element throughout the year of Scalped was the raw, powerful, exhilarating writing skill of Jason Aaron, possibly the best writer working in the industry today. He’s done quality work over in Marvel in 2010 too, but his crowning achievement remains Scalped. I just hope that 2011 doesn’t mark the title’s cancellation, and that we get to see this epic narrative carry on until its intended conclusion.

So there we have it. My top ten comics of 2010. But I’m sure there are plenty of great comics I’ve overlooked. So let me know – what were your top ten comics of 2010?