Readers of writer Scott Snyder and artist Rafael Albuquerque’s ongoing Vertigo comic “American Vampire” know the style of the decades-spanning series can change with each new story. However, in the wake of this week’s issue #21 — the final chapter in the “Beast In the Cave” story — and the recently wrapped WWII miniseries “Survival of the Fittest,” a whole new style is coming to the book both in the art on the page and the culture of the cast as the series hits the 1950s with a story called “Death Race.”
“It introduces this new character and revisits a bunch of old characters as well,” Snyder told CBR News of his big plans for the series, which will also involve more supporting miniseries later in 2012. “Where we’re seeing the series go brings a lot of surprises for us as well. There are stories we’re discovering that we want to do that are kind of peripheral that have still become very important to us. But at the core of the series, the House of Book and the House of Sweet are deeply tied together and will filter down through the series as the story progresses — through the Vassals and their children and characters like that. The legacy aspect of the book is hugely important, and the characters we introduced in the very first issues will have a power over the series and the things coming back in a big way later on.
“None of the characters you’ve met in cycle one, whether it was Hattie or even Felix the deputy of Book or Jim Book himself… how they play in might surprise people,” Snyder continued. “Those things are going to echo down through history and have a very big impact on what happens in ‘American Vampire.’ One of the reasons we wanted to do the [‘Beast In the Cave’] arc was to show the history of Jim Book and Skinner Sweet and really show a rivalry between the Book family and Skinner. That’s an important part of where we’re going.”
Of course, the current story details the past of Skinner Sweet and his former friend Jim Book, but with that glance in the past wrapped, things are moving forward at high speeds in January’s “Death Race.” “This is the start of a new chapter in ‘American Vampire,'” Snyder promised. “It’s the start of the second half of the 20th Century and brings a lot of the stories we introduced in the first 20 issues to a close. We wanted this to be the beginning where we can introduce new young characters and a new feeling to the series so should Skinner ever reappear, he would be changed. When you do see Pearl again, she’ll be different from the last time you saw her. It’s the same with Henry or Felicia — the old characters are going through things that make them fresh and new because they’ve got problems they never had to deal with before.
“We’re also introducing a group of wilder, younger new characters who in some ways are not particularly respectful of what came before both in the vampire world and the human world,” the writer continued. “What ‘Death Race’ is about for me is introducing a character Rafael and I have had in mind since the very beginning of the series. He’s our version of Van Helsing — a rockabilly teenage escapee from a mental institution who is one of the best vampire killers out there who’s also completely rogue and independent from the Vassals of the Morning Star. He drives a hotrod and puts in his wooden teeth when he’s about to kill a vampire because he likes to bite them back.”
This rogue slayer goes by the name Travis Kidd, and while the creators are excited at the prospect of building up the cast in a slick new way, Snyder said the stories won’t lose site of the core of what’s been happening from day one. “On the surface, this is about the introduction of Travis and characters like him that we’ve wanted to introduce for a while, but underneath the surface there is a sea change as well which is that a lot of the characters that came before are wrestling with the changes that came with the ’50s. It’s essentially the sense of the war being over and a new chapter in life beginning and a fear of what that brings — a sense of getting older and feeling mortality. ‘Death Race’ is the first of two big arcs we’ll be doing in the ’50s, and it has some pretty big shocks.
“His history ties to a previous arc of ‘American Vampire’ in an interesting way too,” Snyder continued. “We’ll also catch up with Calvin, the African American character from the WWII arc ‘Ghost War’ that became an American Vampire in issue #18, and then the second ’50s arc will bring us up to speed with Pearl and Henry.”
The writer also has plans for the fallout of the “Survival of the Fittest” miniseries which focused on the rough WWII exploits of the Vassals of the Morning Star — the human organization charged with keeping vamps in check. He revealed that moving forward, more of the human side of the “American Vampire” world will play out in supporting minis. “For me, that series was really supporting the concept that we’ll always be doing miniseries to go along with the main book in the summers,” he said. “In terms of what eras to pick, we wanted them to always be relatively concurrent with what’s going on in the main series. So the next one that we’re planning is going to be concurrent with the ’50s stuff. It’ll be called ‘Lord of Nightmares’ and it concerns who you’d consider to be the greatest or at least the most terrifying and powerful vampire of all time. And the Vassals mission to contain him and their history with him will play in. It will involve characters I think people have really come to like from that group — both Felecia and Hobbes — as well as Cash McCogan’s young son Gus who’s been growing up under Felecia’s care since the end of ‘Survival of the Fittest.’
“The idea of the miniseries is that they’ll always be from the human perception or the Vassals perception of the vampires. They’ll be the place to go so you can learn a lot more about the mythology as its understood by humans as well as the history of vampires. All the secrets you’ve been wondering about and the history when it comes to vampires that exist in our world of ‘American Vampire’ will happen there. Those series have the biggest reveals, the biggest shocks and the biggest ideas about the genocide that occurred between the Carpathian or Dracula species of vampires and the rest, the origins of vampirism, how long they’ve been around, what species they may have broken off into and different reveals about how the species may have evolved further into different things. That’s stuff we always wanted to contain within the miniseries, so it’ll be from the Vassals point of view.”
But before that hits, “Death Race” will drive forward, though Snyder wouldn’t reveal if Skinner Sweet may be making for a return in the story. “Skinner is obviously a part of the life blood of the series,” was all he would say before flipping focus back to his new hunter. “Travis Kidd is introduced at a time when the older characters feel like they’re being replaced by younger characters. His narration is all about youthful rebellion. He has no respect for authority, and that includes the Vassals. He’s been approached by the Vassals to join on numerous occasions, and he basically gives a big ‘Fuck You’ to them every time they ask. We’ve approached each era with new things we want to fit in there and address like the Blacklist or Doo Wop music or Rockabilly or hot rods and things that are more semantic. But what we do with them each era is think about where the characters are and how to get at their emotional material in the most potent way. The ‘Death Race’ arc really is about Travis and where he is feeling invulnerable and then pitting him up against the likes of Hobbes and where the vampire war is at that particular moment.
“The last thing we wanted to do was just go ‘Hey, let’s do a ‘Mad Men’ thing because it’s the ’60s. We can put Skinner in a suit and try to figure out a story for that!’ Instead, we try to do the reverse where we ask ‘Where would Pearl or Henry or any of the cast go in this decade? Given that, what makes the most sense to build a context to speak to where they are emotionally and psychologically?'” Snyder continued. “In the ’40s, we had Henry go through a midlife crisis as his wife stayed young as he grew older. So we put him in a front of the war — the Japanese islands — that were so isolated that they were a reflection of what he did emotionally. The historical context works more organically.”
For art on this arc, Albuquerque is also changing up his approach, and Snyder was both surprised and gratified by the results. “Rafael is my brother in arms. In terms of creators, he and Jeff Lemire are my closet friends in the business,” he said. “In this story, he wanted to do something more like a Geoff Darrow where the details are all throughout the background and define the era of the ’50s. The appliances and the cars and the homes and all that Norman Rockwell stuff all fit into the background. It’s always there. So his art is much more detailed than you saw before. It’s not the watercolory stuff in grey wash you saw in World War II. It’s all hard inks, crystal clear. And the covers were all his ideas, too. I had wanted to do something like Pearl serving up a severed head at Thanksgiving dinner like Norman Rockwell, and he said, ‘Why don’t we do all the covers like ads?'”
Fans can check out the results in this story and see what “Death Race” holds when it shops to comic shops starting in January’s “American Vampire” #23 from DC/Vertigo.