Shelby: Appropriately enough, I watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula last night. In the movie, Vlad the Impaler becomes a vampire after desecrating a chapel, denouncing God, and drinking the blood that pours from a cross he himself stabbed. That’s why crosses make them recoil and pieces of the Sacrament burn; their powers are derived from the Devil. Despite this connection, American Vampire: Second Cycle finds our blood-thirsty protagonist being hunted by the Devil himself. If you know the world Scott Snyder created with his first cycle of American Vampire, though, it’s not all that surprising. The American vampires have had a rebellious, outlaw streak in them ever since the first one came around.
Like Anton Arcane, May is now a mass of monstrous maws. Pearl tries to talk her down, but a fight ensues and goes poorly for Pearl. Luckily, our pal Skinner Sweet showed up just in the nick of time.
Last we saw Sweet he was flying away on a bus. Turns out, he and that bus was taken by the Gray Trader, and Sweet is pretty sure they were taken to Hell. He warns Pearl that the Trader knows where she is, and is coming for her, and then bails the next morning. Pearl is lured to the sunflower fields by the sound of her dead husband’s voice, and we all know what that means. She doesn’t fall for the Trader’s tricks, so he and his descend on her house in a twister form.
Last issue Greg argued the issue was an effective horror sequence bogged down by exposition instead of an overall horror fiction experience. We see a similar setup here, but I don’t dislike it. I’ve read the first trade of the first cycle of American Vampire; comparing the two, I can see where this title suffers a bit from exposition. At the same time, I recognize the tricky balancing act Snyder is performing with this title. He needs to appease long-time readers with the same sort of tension and horror they’re used to, while writing a story for people completely unfamiliar with the universe. For me, that tension was best seen in Sweet’s recounting of his trip to hell. A lot of praise for that tension is owed to artist Rafael Albuquerque and colorist Dave McCaig.
I love the way the black background resolves to be Sweet’s silhouette; it’s such an eloquent way to show the story unfolding as he tells it. The colors are so lurid and grindhouse-y, it perfectly fits the tone of the book.
I think what I like the most about this series is the way it both uses and upends traditional vampire lore. We’ve already seen it in the altered physiognomy of the American strain of vampire: they can walk around in daylight, they’re weakest when there’s no moon, they can be harmed by silver and especially gold instead of wood. But we’re also seeing it in the politics between the various factions at play. There are “good” vampires working for a monster-slaying agency to kill the “bad” vampires (Carpathians, so I’m guessing descended directly from Dracula’s line?), and regular humans working for the Devil, who for some reason has it out for his own spawn. I love that, normally in a vampire vs. human scenario, you’d be rooting for the humans; here, those humans are the agents of Satan, and it’s a damn good thing the vampire won. Even the depiction of the Devil seems both familiar and alien. He’s the Father of Lies, so his trick of using dead loved ones to seduce people to him seems as straight-forward as that can be. And yet, this Devil feels more raw, more base than the be-hooved, pitchfork-wielding imp we’re familiar with. This Devil is pure, undiluted evil essence, which makes him far more unsettling.
Snyder and Albuequerque have created an universe where you think you know what’s going to happen, where you believe you know the rules of the game. I feel like now we know that we can’t trust our assumptions of how things work; for me, that distrust is a big source of tension in the story. Drew, what did you think of this issue? How is Pearl going stand up to the Devil itself? Are you dying to know more about Pearl and Sweet’s history? He sired her back in the twenties, but that is all I know; I’m assuming there’s an intense love/hate thing going on, but you know what happens when you assume…
Drew: Shelby, I love your assessment that our ignorance of the mythologies rules are a primary source of tension for this series. That certainly may have something to do with our unfamiliarity with the first half of American Vampire (like Shelby, I’ve only read the first trade), but Snyder is certainly going out of his way to toy with our expectations.
I think part of what frustrated Greg last time is that many of the expository sequences could be effective horror scenes, but are deployed with an almost distracted indifference. Take, for example, Skinner’s story about his trip to hell. Snyder could have shown us those events as they happened, building tension as a school bus full of frightened children realize they’re on their way to Hell, stretching that story out to a full issue. Instead, Snyder opts to cram it into a double-page spread, told in a tension-deflating past tense. It would be easy to write that off as a ham-handed bobble, but for the fact that we know Snyder to be a master of suspense — and that he delivers remarkably tense scenes elsewhere in this very issue.
In my mind, the only reason to selectively ignore opportunities for tension is that this series ultimately isn’t about the tension, or the horror. Indeed, with Snyder’s fascination with history, I think it would be fair to say that this series is more about its mythology than it is about scaring us — effectively requiring that we won’t ever have a full picture of what’s going on until the series is wrapped up. In the hands of a lesser creative team, that might feel like a missed opportunity, but focusing on the mythology actually frees Snyder and Albuquerque to experiment with how they build tension.
Skinner’s story is a great example, but I was also struck by the way they cut away from the action with Pearl at the farmhouse.
It’s not totally uncommon to cut to a B-story as a kind of mini-cliffhanger, but to do so in the middle of a page, at a moment that is not particularly cadential feels intentionally abrupt. The effect is a split second of confusion, a kind of double-take that forces us to confront our expectations, and acknowledge exactly how disinterested Snyder and Albuquerque are in playing to them.
Again, that kind of willful defiance only works because Snyder and Albuquerque do it so confidently. Look at the first panel of that page. The blocking and acting tell us everything we need to know about what’s about to happen. Kill is terrified, but Pearl is too injured, too tired, to even feel that level of fear. It’s not hard to imagine her resigning herself to death in hopes of saving the children. In that way, cutting away from the action at this point actually makes a lot of sense — we can see what’s coming, so it’s not as important that we see it right this second.
Ultimately, trusting in Snyder and Albuquerque to deliver a compelling story in spite of their counter-intuitive choices is a bit of a leap of faith. As far as creators go, it’s hard to imagine two with more goodwill to cash-in on, but it still makes for an unusual reading experience. That may make my recommendation of this series more of a “wait for the trade” variety, but there’s no doubt in my mind that something special is going on here — even if we can only see part of it right now.
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?