In an era where one of fiction's most famous monsters is best known for for its connection to teen romance, DC's Vertigo label is setting out to give the vampire its teeth back with horror's arguably biggest name riding shotgun. Hitting shops in March, "American Vampire" is a new ongoing series conceived by writer Scott Snyder, drawn by Rafael Albuquerque, and, for its first five issues, will be co-written by award-winning author Stephen King. Stretching from the days of the Old West through the subsequent decades of America's rapid ascension to becoming the world's most powerful nation, Snyder told CBR how the series aims to reinvent the idea of bloodsuckers, with the requisite amount of shocking violence removed from many of today's vampire hits.
"I'm a fan of a lot of those vampire stores. My wife and I watch 'True Blood' with that great Southern Gothic romance with the socialogical aspect to it, and 'Twilight' is fun romance stuff. But for us, we're trying to bring it back to a basic 'vampires are frightening, feral creatures' and give it a new twist that's a uniquely American spin," Snyder said.
"The concept of the series, and what makes it exciting to us, is that it's really centered on the concept of vampire evolution -Â that vampires are physiological creatures that over time have evolved into different species as the bloodline has hit different populations at different times throughout modern history. Every once in a while, the blood will create a mutation that branches off into a different species of vampire with different attributes. There are vampires with different characteristics, different weaknesses, different looks and that kind of thing. For a few hundred years, there have been no new species, for reasons that will be revealed over the course of the series. There is a secret mythology and background to how we came to understand the vampire we all know: the anemic, aristocratic, elegant, burned by the sun, stake through the heart vampire. How that dominant species came to be is part of the secret of the series, and [it is] cool conceptually, but the really fun thing is to see this new kind of vampire that's born in the American West, almost a kind of Vampire 2.0. He's stronger and has these unique characteristics that make him thrive in the sunlight and have different claws, different fangs and different abilities and weaknesses, which are mysterious during the first issues as well."
That first American Vampire - the rugged wild man called Skinner Sweet -Â will be the focus of King's story, which will be written solo by the horror icon in 16-page installments, while Snyder will craft his own five-part serial set in the 1920s, telling the tale of flapper turned fang-bearer Pearl: the first woman to be turned vamp by Sweet. Snyder said that, despite the friendship he had with King after the novelist selected two of the stories from his prose collection "Voodoo Heart" for praise in the 2007 "The Best American Short Stories" volume, even he was surprised that King was interested in joining him to launch "American Vampire." "I was lucky enough to be able to get my book to him through a mutual connection - I'm friends with his son, Owen - but I didn't think he'd actually read it! I mean he's Stephen King!" laughed Snyder. "Apparently it's his first original comic. We're excited about it. It was funny, because I didn't realize how humble and flexible he would be going into it. I've known him, and he's a great guy, but he was so eager for notes and for edits and that sort of thing. He did such a terrific job with this.
"The way he got involved was that I pitched this series to Vertigo, and they were in the process of green-lighting it, and they asked if there was anybody I knew who could blurb it or give it a quote. I didn't want to say that I knew Steve -Â he makes you call him Steve, though I know it sounds like kind of an asshole thing to just say it. He makes you call him Steve! But I sent it to him, honestly, just for a blurb, and he wrote back saying he really liked the Western [part.] He really loved that character, the villain heart of the series called Skinner Sweet. He said he'd be willing to do a couple of issues sometime if we wanted, and I was like, yeah 'if we wanted.'"
Giving equal time throughout the first story cycle to both Skinner and Pearl means that readers will have two outlets to tap into the larger idea Snyder is building: his own classy horror tale set in the decadent era of the '20s or King's solo origin of Skinner's evolution. "Skinner has this great belief that the West should never have been tamed and what it means to be American is [to be] wild. Then there's the other side in Pearl...with her best friend in the series, they're sort of two girls against the world at that time. She works these three jobs, and you see in the first pages of the first issue some of the obstacles she faces. There is a sociological aspect. It's hard, because the stories themselves are also 16 pages instead of 22 pages, and I think you get a lot of bang for your buck that way. But we tried really hard to incorporate it [so that] Steve's is very much about legends versus history and fact versus fiction - the way the Old West gets mythologized. He put a lot of wonderful stuff about that iconography in there. For me with the '20s, I tried to do a bit of that too with the gender issues, and there's also the sense of optimism that was there at the time -Â the bubble before the burst."
To match the dueling stories, Albuquerque shifted his art to give both Skinner and Pearl palettes unique to their own historical trappings. "Rafael has been an incredible creative force with this series," Snyder said. "From day one, he's been really involved with character design and style design, and he got it immediately when we said each story should have its own distinctive look because it represents a certain iconographic decade. The way it's going to look is that he actually did my story in the '20s in hard inks and pencils, so it's a very art deco, roaring '20s look. For Steve's, he came up with the idea himself to do it in gray washes and inks with a beautiful painted quality that has a kind of antiquated quality with still this gritty realism. And some of the characters overlap in the cycles, but to look at them on the page, you can see both stories are Rafael, but he's varied it to have something different in each story visually. It was one of the things I was most excited about. The book is exponentially better thanks to his involvement."
And while "American Vampire" will be his first foray into ongoing comics work, Snyder explained that beyond already having scripted the "Human Torch Comics" 70th Anniversary issue for Marvel, he grew up a died in the wool fanboy, name dropping his local comics shop, 4th World Comics in Smithtown, New York, and crediting his reading habits with opening up work to him. "I feel like I honestly would have gotten into it no matter what, because I was such a fan, but I don't know why it didn't occur to me to try to get into comics," Snyder said, adding that his connection to Vertigo came when editor Mark Doyle saw him read from the superhero-inspired anthology, "Who Can Save Us Now?" "I guess [my short story] was one of the few straight ahead superhero ones, where the others were tongue-in-cheek, and Mark asked if I was into comics, or if it was just a lark for a thing, and gave me one of those sort of pop quizes where he said, 'Well what are you reading right now?' I was reading 'Final Crisis,' so he saw I was honestly into it and asked if I wanted to pitch something to Vertigo.
"We had lunch, and then I think he expected me to pitch something a bit more 'literary' or something along the lines of Jonathan Ames' 'The Alcoholic,' but I came in [with 'American Vampire'] and said, 'This is something I've been thinking about for a long time, and I want to tell you about it.' He dropped that pretense too and said, 'All right! Let's focus on this.' And then we figured it out, and he brought it to his bosses, and they've all been great. Vertigo's been like a dream."
Snyder expressed nervousness at finally making the shift from comics fan to comics writer, but seeing that King was traveling the same path for the first time, the process was made easier. "It was intimidating. There have been so many comics that have been big influences on me. I was very intimidated by the form at first. And as I got into it, I was trying to do more directorial stuff. Some of the scripts I'd seen from DC [were] by writers who are really great in giving detailed directorial advice like 'high angle this' or 'pull in tight.' Meticulous notes. When they said the artist was going to be Rafa, and I started talking to him, it became much more fun for me to give me skeletal directing notes and talk to him saying, 'What do you think is going to look best?'"
And with that collaboration in mind, the writer is already building plans for a long string of vampire stories set throughout American history, mutating off from his two main characters at each new turn. "Every decade gets the vampire story it deserves in so many ways, and the reason I think there are so many vampire stories right now is because of who we are and the American character being argued over as very fluid. It's an exciting time to be American with all this change going on that some people think is great and some people think is terrible. There's so much reinvestigation of our favorite monsters. For us, one of the things we're aware of and enthusiastic about is exploring what's monstrous about the American character in each of these different decades. We will follow the bloodline of this uniquely American creature through different decades. I'm working to finish the second one that takes place in the '30s, while my first one is in the '20s and Steve's is in the 1880s. Part of the fun of the popcorn part of the project, beyond lots of scares and blood and guts, is to be able to look into different times and see what's big and frightening about America - what's vampiric at certain times and what's heroic -Â taking each decade as it comes, as its own material."
Check back to CBR later this week for an interview with "American Vampire" artist Rafael Albuquerque.