Monday, April 16, 2012

Recommendations: American Vampire

I thought I'd try a full week of daily blogging, to make up for the relative lack of posts in recent weeks.  And of course, as soon as I sit down, absolutely nothing worth writing about comes to mind.  So we'll try this: a week of me recommending various things, from various media.  Frankly, though, I suspect some will be less me recommending things and more me conducting a run-by analyzing.  Still, as the boy with the TNT plunger said, this might be fun.   Today's recommendation: the comic book series American Vampire, by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque.

It hasn't been so long since my last graphic novel recommendation, to be honest. But DMZ is a very different from American Vampire.  DMZ, from its beginning, had a message and a direction to it.  American Vampire is more rambling, more adventure-driven--though I suspect it has more depth to it than might be suggested at first glance.  To understand American Vampire, you need to pay attention to both words in its title, the American as much as the Vampire.  I've said previously that magic in fantasy literature is always a metaphor--the same holds true for supernatural creatures in general, and the vampire in particular.  In fact, the vampire has been one of the more heavily hit beings in recent popular culture memory, thanks to Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and, of course, Twilight.  But at the same time, the core associations of what a vampire means haven't really changed that much since Bram Stocker's Dracula: it's about blood, life-force, forbidden desires, and unnatural perversions.  Twilight directed the desires onto high school romance, True Blood mapped the perversions onto sexuality directly ("God Hates Fangs" as it says in the opening sequence), and Vampire Diaries... well, I've actually never seen Vampire Diaries.  Anyone want to fill me in, there?  The point is, American Vampire does something a little different. To the usual list of vampire symbolism, it adds one more: vampire as a metaphor for American history.

Plotwise, this happens fairly simply.  The power and genus of a vampire, in this story's fictional universe, depend on the region of the victim is from.  Japanese vampires depict a power set that's different from the Haitian vampire that's different from the European vampire.  And the story begins with the creation of Skinner Sweet, a Western outlaw that finds out he's got all the strength and speed of vampire without that pesky sunlight problem.  The first story arc alternates between Sweet in the Wild West, when he was originally turned (and it should be noted for horror fans that these portions were written by Stephen King), and the 20th century dawn of Hollywood, when he recruits his first accomplice.  Note that both of these time periods feature events that quintessentially American, that couldn't have occurred anywhere else but America.  Other arcs follow this pattern, taking place in the construction of the Hoover Dam in Nevada, and the German and Japanese fronts in WWII.  Sweets and his vampiric descendents are there to witness it all, and by their very presence, they construct an alternate view of American history, one based on vice and violence and bloodshed.

The metaphor is never the forefront of the plot; rather, it's the setting that adds local color, or at most drives the characters' motivations.  But it gives American Vampire another level of depth beyond the surface adventure stories, something that makes it stand up as more than either just another vampire story, or just another action comic book.  It's bloody, it's unflinching, and it's worth a look.

Later Days.

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