Scott: Horror is a difficult genre for me. I have a tendency to avoid it because I don’t like gore. It’s to my own detriment, I’ll admit, since I love the tension that only comes from good horror stories. I love that sense of dread, that pervasive fear of the unknown, the idea that something — anything — could emerge from the dark at any moment. That sort of tension is interesting to me, because it doesn’t imply that anything scary is happening, or even will happen, just that it could, at any moment. I swear there’s an episode in the final season of Breaking Bad with a low, ominous tone running through the whole thing, start to finish. It’s almost comical, really, but it made for a damn compelling hour of TV. Tension like that has to be earned, and when it is, it’s the best. American Vampire: Second Cycle 2 is at that level. For my money, this is as good as horror gets.
The issue begins at a country music concert. Pearl is meeting with Calvin, who has procured passports for three of the runaway children Pearl has been hiding. The performer is Hope Gentry, a VMS informant, and his orange suit is a coded message: something very bad is on its way. That’s not the only bad news, as the bite marks on young May’s back are badly infected, and only getting worse. After some research, Calvin calls Pearl with some disturbing information — the Gray Trader whom May spoke of might be the carrier of the original vampire infection. May could well have been infected by the Devil, which would explain her appearance at the end of the issue.
Good Lord! Last month, Patrick discussed the juxtaposition of cute kids turning into horrifying vampires. It really puts us in a tight spot as readers. On the one hand, I want Pearl to send that hideous devil back whence it came. On the other, I’ve seen May as a sweet, scared, innocent little girl. That monster isn’t her. None of this is May’s fault, so I can’t root for her to suffer some grisly fate. Making the monster a little girl is a brilliantly effective move by Snyder. As it stands, I’m looking at an enormous, devilish monster clutching a little boy, and I feel bad for the monster.
This issue builds slowly, with the long opening scene in the concert hall, which grows more ominous each time Gentry plucks a string. From there on out, the book is relentlessly terrifying. Rafael Albuquerque and colorist Dave McCaig seem to have the perfect recipe for a scary-as-shit comic book. Their backdrops always fade into darkness a little too quickly, so you can never be sure who or what is lurking just out of sight. I haven’t mentioned the issue’s most chilling sequence, in which Pearl’s neighbor Bob is approached by a dapper silhouette (seemingly the same guy who watched Skinner fly away on a school bus at the end of the last issue). This well-dressed man is actually the most terrifying monster anyone has ever seen. It speaks in the voice of Bob’s son, Peter, and, amazingly, convinces a weeping Bob to “come inside.”
I hadn’t read any of American Vampire before last month. Just two issues in and I’m already hooked on the mythology of the series. Vampire stories are a dime a dozen these days, so for one to stand out, it has to offer something totally original. Snyder is taking concepts like unjust persecution and purely evil, bloodthirsty monsters — two familiar vampire story tropes — and combining them in entirely unique ways. The idea that the VMS, a de-funded vampire hunting agency, is now hiring “good” vampires to hunt “bad” vampires is just plain awesome.
Snyder has managed to make this an easy jumping-on point for new readers. He’s offered glimpses of Pearl’s history, with this issue touching briefly on her marriage to Henry.While I’m sure their relationship was explored more deeply and rewardingly in previous arcs, I appreciate that Snyder works in these moments of character development. This series had been on hiatus for a while, so such details work equally well as refreshers for returning readers and needed background for newbies.
Greg, are you as impressed as I am with this issue? It’s about as thoroughly tense as any comic I’ve read. Also, I’m wearing an orange shirt today. Should I be worried about what sort of coded warnings I might unknowingly be sending to strangers?
I, unlike you, seek out horror with the ferocity of a vampire after some good AB negative. I love the genre, took classes on it in college, and have a sense of what I think signifies “good horror.” Like you say, good horror thrives on dread, which stems from fearing the unknown. In many ways, then, the more we know contextually about a “monster”, their “background”, or their “rules”, the less purely scary the result is. To provide anecdotal examples from film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the purest horror experiences I know because we never quite find out why this horrible family behaves the way they do; the film goes so far as to cruelly cut to black mid-action instead of any reasonable resolution or explanation. Conversely, once recent film Mama takes the time to explain its ghost’s backstory, the film becomes less terrifying and more oddly poignant.
I also think the most genuine sources of terror spring from a primal well of real emotional pain, trauma, or anxiety. The Shining is creepy not just because of unison twins or bears giving BJs, but because we all, deep down, worry deeply that our most trusted and loved ones will one day snap and abuse us, rather than love us back. With these two thoughts in mind, I regret to say that this issue serves not as a consistently effective slice of horror fiction, but instead as one effective sequence sandwiched by two slices of over-written bread.
I love the sequence you highlighted involving Bob, his son Peter, and the Akira-esque monster that seems to (again, only seems to, as the true origins and mechanics of this creature are left tantalizingly ambiguous) absorb human beings and lure other humans in with powerful, borderline exploitative evocations of real pain. Bob, like all of us experiencing loss and separation, genuinely wants the reconciliation with his son that seems to be impossibly offered by this monster. It would, despite the horror of being swallowed and absorbed by this bit of grotesquerie, on some base level feel good. This study in contrasts, this push-and-pull, this engaging with what is societally understood as being “wrong,” “monstrous,” or “evil” is truly captivating and engaging.
The opening and closing sequence, however, nearly lose me entirely. When the issue gets bogged down in color-coded shirts and character backstories, with text taking up a hefty chunk of the page, it becomes an arduous task to keep paying attention. And while it does provide new readers like me with a sense of orientation, it does so at the cost of propulsive storytelling and retaining tension. Hopefully, going forward, Snyder allows the power of his primal ideas to do the heavy lifting, without propping them up with unnecessary help.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?