American Vampire 9
Martin Skidmore — 10-Dec-10
I sometimes struggle to see the point of Vertigo. I guess it wants to be seen as DC’s serious, arty line, far from the superheroes, for intelligent adults, equating to indie graphic novels. Trouble is, it always seems to me to be kind of like a DC comic but with more violence and swearing and stuff like that, and rarely any more genuine intelligence or substance, mostly just the trappings of those kinds of values. Maybe I’ve read the wrong ones, but almost everything I’ve read has struck me as the epitome of the kinds of comics that get gigantically overrated, and by now Vertigo kind of symbolises that in my head, the imprint carrying a dead weight with it.
This was one of those ‘tell me what to buy’ comics. I’ve not read the series before, so I can only judge this one issue, which appears to be just about self-contained. Basically it’s Tomb of Dracula for the modern age: the main character is the American Vampire, an extra-powerful one who some young people who might as well have names like Harker and Van Helsing, but don’t, obviously can’t kill. This issue is set in, at a guess, the 1920s (it’s perfectly possible that others aren’t), but in Nevada that appears to equate to the late Wild West.
The writer has some real skill, but he annoyed me. The conversation between the young human male and a vampire is far too literary and careful to convince, the kind of thing people might write if they are more concerned with being precious and neat than making you feel it – no one ever comes remotely close to speaking like that. The twists are really annoying too – the first is too obvious to be a twist, in that it amounts to ‘turns out you can’t trust the inhumanly evil monster, after all!’, and the second, an apparently clever ploy, clearly hadn’t been told to the artist (we must have Marvel-style scripting here) so he draws panels that prove it simply isn’t the case. I don’t suppose Vertigo gives no-prizes for someone coming up with a clever explanation for a blatant continuity fuck-up. Actually, even the ploy isn’t that smart, in that there was absolutely no reason for the wait necessitating it.
Artist Albuquerque (I suppose it’s a good name for drawing something that in this issue at least might as well be a western, but I keep thinking of Bugs Bunny losing his way) is sort of interesting. His faces tend to be distorted in quite ugly ways, but he can give you strong expression, and there’s a forcefulness and grit to a lot of his drawing that I like. Has he drawn, say, Jonah Hex? I can imagine him working well on that. If he worked more closely with the writer on this issue, it might help – there’s a bit on page 4 where I think he has simply not drawn what our young hero is asking about. Maybe a writer could help him tell a story, too – once it gets to action, I simply had no idea what was happening. The two characters on the right of the central panel on page 10: surely they are the two who were hiding behind a rock? Why would a clash of two bunches of vampires make them step out, of all things? How can the bottom three panels possibly all happen before the leaping vampires reach their destination, a few feet away? How am I supposed to know how to read the first three panels on the next page in the right order? Has the colourist fucked up in the last panel, and should that be the guy with Reed Richards white bits in his hair? I guess it’s him getting killed on the next page, in that he never appears again, but can’t we have a better clue than that? Yes, he is named in the next panel, but since that is the only time that name is used, it doesn’t help me, and since his companions show no interest in his death after the fight is over, he obviously isn’t a regular who I would know if I were a repeat buyer.
I could honestly go on and on about this, citing plenty more cases where I was bewildered. I’m not an idiot or new to reading comics, and I don’t want or need to be spoon-fed. I’m not demanding that everything be as clear as a Carl Barks Donald Duck comic, but I’d like some fucking clue as to who is hitting whom. I can’t get any excitement out of action if it seems like a bunch of random images that tell me very little of what is going on. I’ve looked through that sequence three times, and it still makes no sense to me in a bunch of places. This strikes me as absolutely basic craft, especially on an action-adventure comic, whether one with Vertigo pretensions or not, and this comic fails dismally on that count.
And at least one failure, a few pages later, seems to have more to do with nerve or taste or something. I’m unclear where the eponymous vampire gets a syringe of blood in the climactic scene, but I deduce from context that it’s his own, and he is threatening a pregnant woman with it, talking about having a child, clearly by infecting the foetus. At the clever-ploy moment I mentioned above, he says he’ll do it and she says “Ow!” and then our heroes rescue her in a way they could have done way before, and she afterwards says she’s not okay. We are not shown what he has done, so I had little idea whether he just moved to start doing it but was stopped or he succeeded completely or partially – perhaps he infects her? Actually we are told in the coda, but why did they choose not to show this? In a story with lots of deaths, was an injection too distasteful? Did they just want to leave us in suspense for a few pages? If so, looking back, the hero’s reaction is completely wrong for what happened, vastly too weak, and it makes his hanging about to chat with the vampire even more inexcusable on any level.
Admittedly, perhaps half of my problem here is that I don’t give a fuck about vampires. Those who know me may think “Isn’t Buffy like your favourite TV show ever?” Yes, it is, but that is despite, not because of the vampires. Most of the best stories are either not about vampires, or the vampires are mere maguffins. I’d happily never read or watch another vampire story – well okay, bar more Buffy, and I do mean to pick up the last of the Mick Farren series sometime… Okay, I’m not consistent, but bar a couple of favourite creators, they strike me as having been played out long ago, and any new angles are just dreary tweaks. At least this doesn’t succumb to the infinitely tedious romanticisation of them – Anne Rice was bad enough, the whole Twilight thing incomparably wetter and worse – but really this comic is just Tomb of Dracula with a more aggressively nasty tone and vastly less excellent art. Also, more surprisingly, it has less to say, less thematic weight, at least based on this little story. I dare say there will be comments telling me I am judging it unfairly based on one story, perhaps one that fills in some backstory somewhere or acts as a one-act diversion between longer, weightier epics, but I won’t be here to find out if that’s the case.