Snyder Sinks His Teeth into "Fittest"

A castle high in the mountains of Romania hides a scientific breakthrough, two undercover vampire hunters, and Nazis -- some of which are also vampires. With these elements, Scott Snyder's new "American Vampire" miniseries at Vertigo promises to start off with a bang, as well as tie up loose ends from the main series' previous arcs.

For those who have not read the Eisner-nominated series, "American Vampire" follows Pearl, a flapper and actress who just happens to be a member of a brand new species of vampire. Created by the undead outlaw Skinner Sweet in the 1920s, both Sweet and Pearl are more powerful than any vampire ever before, including the traditional Count-Dracula European vampires who would love nothing better than to kill them both. Winding through important periods of American history from the Wild West of the 1880s to the beginning of World War II, the latest arc in the main "American Vampire" series sees Pearl's human husband, Henry, on a secret mission in the Pacific tangling with a new set of bloodsuckers.

Tying into the ongoing is "American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest," written by creator Scott Snyder and drawn by Sean Murphy, artist for Grant Morrison's "Joe the Barbarian." With "Fittest" Snyder sets out to expand his world even further, bringing back human characters from old arcs and introducing brand new characters -- both human and vampire -- into the mix. CBR News spoke with the writer about his miniseries, due out in June, as well as how it ties into the main series and what to expect from future "American Vampire" issues (two words: Rockabilly Vampires).

CBR News: Both the ongoing "American Vampire" series and the miniseries are currently set during World War II. What can you tell us about the events of the miniseries, and how does it relate to the ongoing?

Scott Snyder: Well right now the main comic is on issue #13, the start of our second year, and it's a really big issue for us. We're making a push to get readers onboard with a recap at the beginning of the issue, an extra two pages that gives you a mini story that sums up a lot of what's happened so far in "American Vampire." This big six-issue arc we're doing right now called "Ghost War" is all about the main characters that everyone who has been reading the series has come to know -- Pearl and Henry and Skinner -- involved in this epic story that takes place in the Pacific theatre during the second half of World War II, 1943.

For anyone who hasn't been reading us, Pearl's a vampire and Henry, her husband, is human, and they've been together since the first issue, from 1925. Now we're up to the mid-1940s, so Henry is older and Pearl isn't. They've been doing OK but he's starting to feel his own mortality, and so he really wants to enlist in the war. He was in World War I so he enlists, but they reject him because of his physical injuries (from fighting vampires) and his age. It really sets him off on this self-destructive path until he's approached by Linden Hobbes, who is the head of the human organization we introduced recently, The Vassals of the Morningstar. It's this secret group that goes back to early modern times and has essentially been hunting and killing vampires in all different forms. Hobbes offers Henry a place, saying we're going to this island off the coast of Taipan -- which is based on a conglomeration of the islands Americans really fought on -- the American troops are going to invade soon and we have on good authority that there might be vampires. We're going on our own mission to clean out any nest before troops land on the island.

That is a whole epic story with Henry joining up with this "Dirty Dozen" group of soldiers in a secret vampire war going on off the coast of Japan, and the story quickly involves Pearl and Skinner and gets them all up and fighting.

And Rafael [Albuquerque] is back, he's now officially listed as the co-creator, which is really exciting to me. Nobody deserves it more than he does.

With the miniseries, what we're trying to do is create a whole broad world for "American Vampire." So while you are reading the main series, which takes place in the Pacific, we wanted to do a series that was simultaneous with that, took place in Europe during the same time period during the war, and shows a different front on the vampire side of the war. This one really focuses on the human organization, the Vassals, and it shows you their headquarters in their first issue, which is drawn by the amazing Sean Murphy. And it picks up with characters we were really fond of: Cash McCogan who is the sheriff from the Las Vegas story we did and his vampire son, and Felicia Book who is the daughter of Jim Book, the guy who caught Skinner Sweet and was shot down in the first ongoing series arc. She's part vampire.

That story really focuses on the secret mission the Vassals go on when they hear there might be a scientist in Nazi-occupied Romania who claims essentially that he's developed a cure for vampirism and he wants to be extracted from the headquarters he's being kept in by Nazi forces in the mountains in this castle. So they send over Cash and Felicia and this Vassal named The Vicar, who is a big Eastern European guy with a wooden arm. They go over in disguise as American sympathizers with the Nazis, pretending to fund their research. Meanwhile they are sneaking around the castle trying to figure out what's really going on. That series is going to be a ton of fun and Sean is almost done with the first issue; the pages are incredible, I can't say enough good things.

The other fun thing with that one, not only does it take place during the same time-period and show you a different angle, we wanted it to be a series that focused on a different subject matter. There are no protagonists who are full vampires; it is this human organization that hates vampires. With both Cash and Felicia, all they want is to rid themselves of this vampire presence in their life. Cash wants to cure his son and she wants to get rid of the vampire part of herself, so they are really desperate for this cure. It gives you more about vampire history and mythology than we've ever shown. There's a lot of secrets about where vampires came from and the genealogy of really old vampire species that really come into play in a big way in that cycle.

Is the tone of the miniseries more cloak and dagger than the ongoing?

Yeah, they do have slightly different tones because we didn't want them to be the same thing. The miniseries really is a dark, black files sort of mission, with Cash and Felicia dressed up like wealthy Americans, which was a lot of fun seeing Cash in a white tuxedo and [Felicia] in a gown in this Nazi castle! There is an element of thirties pulp to it. It takes place in 1939 at the beginning of the war, whereas the other story takes place in 1943, a little later on and is more of a war story. We try to use different American story forms in each one -- not in big self-referential ways, but just because we love those things. In the '40s one, it's done in washes by Rafael and its has this real sweeping epic feel with the stakes being very high by the time the whole thing is over, and a big Hollywood budget sort of story, where the miniseries is more cloak and dagger.

As much as the ongoing "American Vampire" is a superatural comic, it is equally infused with a sense of Americana. Is exploring the American mythos part of the reason you decided to set both series in WWII?

Yeah, there is an element of that. My grandfather was in World War II from the beginning to the end, and he was in Pearl Harbor before the war started, and at Midway, and all of these big battles. So I grew up hearing a lot of stories about the battles in the Pacific especially. It's something I wanted to do because I feel like a lot of my storytelling inspiration came from spending a lot of time with him and my grandmother. It has a certain importance to me to use, and if we're going to be doing a series about American history, to leave it out feels kind of criminal.

On the other hand, we didn't want something that's preachy or about the horrors of war, just because there are books and movies and things that do that a lot better than we can. What we were really trying to do, and what we try to do with every historical period we decide to use, is to avoid using the period as just style and try and use it to both challenge the characters emotionally and be a projection of what they are going through. This cycle in a lot of ways is about Henry wrestling with his own mortality and thinking that going away and fighting is going to give him a sense of purpose. He's in his 40s, the feeling was he's going to be in this age, it makes sense to put him in the Pacific -- as opposed to the front lines in Europe because we'll put all that ocean between him and Pearl and have him on a remote island trapped with the vampire surprise there, and he'll see the error of his ways, and that what gives life meaning for him isn't necessarily the battle between good and evil. It becomes about using the historical period as the best substitute for a stage for the characters and what they're going through at that moment.

That's why for the miniseries I wanted to use Cash and Felicia. They both have this vampire blood plaguing them, so why don't we do something that involves creating the possibility of the cure. Well then, why not then create a character that is sort of a Nicola Tesla? So it develops that way: begin with the character and where they are emotionally, the kind of story you want to tell to get at the stuff you love about them and is challenging to them, and figuring out what you want to use from that historical period rather than using it to make a historical point, or using it just as style. We try to go somewhere in between that, that deals using it as a kind of way to digging into our characters.

It's interesting that part of the reason you choose these historical periods is to develop the human characters, whereas vampires Skinner and Pearl feel like literal embodiments of the time periods they come from. While the human characters get to change and evolve with the times, are the vampires sort of stuck in the mindset of the era they hail from?

I think Pearl has changed significantly, at least in that her current ambitions and her hopefulness have darkened quite a bit. But her love for Henry and her faith in their relationship and the small pleasures in life are very important to her. So her being a part of something big and grand and important in the '20s is not so much a part of her anymore. She's a little bit more worldly or mature.

But you're right in the way they probably grow a little bit slower emotionally than the rest of us. One of the things we're really starting to play up here is the separation between Pearl and Henry because of those things. Something that we've been working on that's going to come into play in a very big way after these arcs are exactly what you're talking about, the feeling of what if Pearl and Skinner do start to feel more out of touch with humanity? More out of touch with the people who tie them to being close to the human race, at least for Pearl. They change more slowly, it's a little bit more graceful with them, whereas the human characters have a fraction of that lifespan so they better change faster!

Since this miniseries will expose more secrets about the history of the vampires, will it also delve into the history of the Vassals of the Morningstar?

Absolutely! In this upcoming miniseries you are going to see their base, how they operate, the kinds of battles they've been in before, you'll hear personal stories -- it really is about them and this fight they've carried on in this determined way over the years. And the discoveries that they've made and new ones they'll make along the way in the series itself. And Hobbes is a character whose history is going to be explored very soon after these arcs in his own small story. When we do fill-ins, I have a whole history for that which involves turn-of-the-century London.

It's funny because when we started I remember thinking, It'll be Pearl and Henry and Skinner and it will 30, 40 issues at most because we'll get to the end, we'll catch up to present day. And along the way there are all these characters that we've fallen in love with, me and Rafael both. And we started saying, "Oh, we should do a story about this one or that one!" It's been a great ride in that way so far, in that we feel the world has opened up even more than we hoped it would.

You said in the miniseries that Felicia and Cash both have their reasons why they want the cure to work. Is that part of the reasoning behind the miniseries' title, "Survival of the Fittest?" Are you playing with their vampire genealogy with this very Darwinian phrase?

Definitely! We try to use it in a number of levels. The series is about the way Felicia and Cash had to be stronger than most people in the world. Cash to be able to deal with the death of his wife and a kid who is a monster. He has to have a spine of steel to hope he'll be able to cure his kid, which would have broken a whole lot of people. For her, I think it's similar in that she has this hopefulness of getting rid of this vampire part of her at some point. Both of them are characters that I think are extremely tough and are about to be tested in a big way.

On the other hand we really want that idea and that title to have a lot to do with what's going on at the macro-level with vampires. The series is built around a lot of ideas that have to deal with the vampires at war with each other as different species and a secret history of genocide against the vampire species. Plus we wanted to touch on the idea that the European vampires, the Carpathian vampires, believe themselves to be the dominant species, the chosen species, and should be the only one. And that has echoes of Nazism in it too. We wanted it to have, not in a big political way, but to draw a connection to why they might be allies. It's no secret, if you look at the cover you see a big Nazi vampire on the front! Nazi vampires will appear in the series!

That's a phrase you don't hear often!

Somebody tweeted it already! They were like, "When are the Nazi vampires coming?" Because they thought it was in issue #13 of the ongoing series. I said, "No, these are actually vampire kamikazes!" and he was like "Vampire kamikazes! Yes!" [Laughs]

Will we see Cash's son?

The first issue, right up front, you'll see exactly what happened to him and how he's doing. To me, he's the scariest character in the whole series so far! I was explaining this to Sean, because Sean was like, "God that's so creepy. You sure?" and I said, "Absolutely!" He is going to be the scariest thing we introduce in the series. It's Cash's worst nightmare. He can't sugarcoat it. You'll see; you don't get too close to that kid, you leave a goat chained up for that kid in a cage!

WWII is an area a lot of media has explored, and occult Nazis are often used by a lot of genre writers. While working on the miniseries, did you treat writing the Nazis like writing just another kind of monster? Or are you trying for a more realistic depiction of them?

To be honest, in the series the Nazi presence is in the background. They're enemies, but there are even scarier enemies in that castle. So they are like supporting enemies. The main characters in the series -- the guy who is running the show -- I tried to make him, not more humane, but so philosophical as to be removed from the terrible things he's doing in his own mind. Meaning, what he sees as this sort of greater picture in his mind that has to do with curing the world of vampirism. If the Nazis are going to fund his research, that's fine, because the evil that's plagued humanity since the beginning of time is this absolutely black-blooded monster to him. So he sees it as the lesser of two evils. I hope he's more complicated than just being a mustache-twirling villain! At the same time, I can't make any apologies for the bad portrayal of Nazis in the book! [Laughs]

How much research did you do on World War II for the miniseries?

I tried to do a significant amount. Again, a lot of the Pacific stuff I tried to use the stories my grandfather told me. I've always been interested in that period, I took some classes on the war on both fronts, and so I felt relatively prepared. But I went back and watched some of the documentaries like "Victory at Sea" and "Iwo Jima" and "Black Sand, Red Sun." For the series in the Eastern Mountains I actually did more research on the science of the 1930s and the stuff like the Tesla inventions, because the main character there is a scientist whose research was a few years ahead of anything that was possible then. So the research is more scientific on that level than it was about the war itself.

I'll give you a little spoiler, the castle that it takes place in is actually based on the Castle Dracula, the actual one. So we did more research on that and the region and kinds of things you might find architecturally and the villagers in town than we did on the war. It is really the beginning of the occupation.

You're a writer who is very specific about which artists you work with. How did Sean Murphy get involved in the project? Did you have to get into another drinking contest, like you did with Jock?

[Laughs] No! I met with him a few times before to see if we got along, and I think he was testing me out more than I was testing him. I was extremely honored that he wanted to do the series.

The funny thing with him was, when I was explaining the basic idea he said, "Well, there's a couple things I'd like to draw. One: Nazi vampires." I was like great! They are in there! Perfect! Then he was like, "I also want to draw a castle." I was like, you got it, a castle! Totally! Originally it was going to take place in a base in the mountains, but I was like no, that's perfect! A castle! So it worked out great: he got his castle, there are Nazi vampires, and they look incredible.

I'm joking a little bit about him, but his pages are so good. I feel like the luckiest guy with him and Rafael on the series, it's been amazingly, mind-blowingly gratifying. They are both superstars and it's a huge honor.

I liked his stuff from "Joe The Barbarian" and before. When we started talking about doing a miniseries he was one of the first people Vertigo and I brought up together. He was the first choice for the mini, his style is perfect for the 1930s. They love him at Vertigo and I was a fan already, so we went out to talk about it months and months before it got approval. We've been friends now for well over a year.

Is Skinner involved in the miniseries at all?

Skinner is pretty entrenched in the ongoing, but he does make a surprise appearance and he will be in it briefly. I don't want to lead people on to think he is a major player in it because he's not; it really focuses on the humans. We love the miniseries characters and think they can carry a story without the main characters. The closest we came to that was the cycle in Las Vegas. We wanted to see if we could expand the horizons a little bit.

Skinner plays a huge part in the ongoing. Henry, Pearl and Skinner have top billing in that one. They have a grudge also. Henry, behind Pearl's back, gave away the secret weakness of the American vampire to the Vassals in exchange for protection for him and Pearl. The Vassals would help cover the records of their life together so they wouldn't be as easy to find for vampires who were aware of Pearl. So Henry snuck out and told the Vassals that gold hurts the American vampires the way wood does for the Carpathians. Skinner has a serious bone to pick with both of them, but especially with Henry.

You also write "Detective Comics" and many have drawn similarities between the Joker and Skinner Sweet. Do you think they are similar villains?

The Joker has a similar ideology in at least some incarnations. Like in the movie, "Dark Knight," he is chaos. But Skinner to me isn't just chaos. He's selfish, he's motivated because he has a tremendous ego and he's extremely vain. But he's someone who believes in not being constrained by social convention, he's the eternal rebel in his mind. He's not as unhinged as the Joker. He's not trying to prove a big point the way the Joker is. He operates the way he operates and makes life fun for himself, in a way that can be extremely malicious, and other times you can see where he's coming from. He is a fun villain to play against people you really don't like. Issue #12 of the ongoing series is probably the most sympathetic you see him, when he comes across the Wild West show where a lot of the people he used to know are performing their old identities in this lame way. He finds out this woman he used to know whom he really had a thing for is the person who turned him over to the authorities in issue #1, which begins the entire series. When he goes to get her, if he was a true villain all around it wouldn't be fun to see what he does.

The Joker is terrifying in his complete lack of self. The Joker is all about chaos, madness, and proving a point to Batman. He has no ego beyond that. He's a force of nature. He's all about showing Batman there is no order or reason to the world. To me, Skinner is a lot more self-motivated. It's not that he thinks the world should be chaos; he just doesn't like the idea of things being civilized and what he considerers feminized, or the Euro-centric way of dressing things up. All social conventions are false and beneath it is the real America, the Wild West -- you forge yourself through violence. I don't know if he'd articulate it as philosophically as that, but he isn't a Wild West vampire Joker.

Because he's such a product of the West, does the WWII mindset and ideology clash with Skinner's own ingrained beliefs?

He cuts his hair! That's a big deal! He cleans himself up for the era. He clashes constantly with the conventions socially of the country, and I think he would in any situation, even in the west. I mean, he's an outlaw in the Wild West. One of the secrets to him is if he gets what he wants he'd be bored! I think he enjoys having someone to rail against -- the law and sheriff and later on the Vassals and the FBI -- and he just loves a challenge. He'll always go against any sort of social order he sees as constrictive.

Is there a period of time in American history you haven't explored in "American Vampire" but want to?

Oh sure, there are tons! We can't wait to get to the '50s, which will be hot-rods and rockabilly and races and Sputnik and all kinds of stuff! And there are characters who spin off from the '40s who will be important later, and characters you didn't know were important from the '30s come back in big ways. As long as they give us room to play, we'll do it.

You've explored different species of vampires -- will there be other species of supernatural creatures?

Well, we make a point to steer clear of that just because I feel the great potential we have in the vampire mythology with evolution to create different powers and looks. With werewolves and all that I haven't really been into the idea, just because it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. We have "The Vampire Diaries" and "True Blood" -- and I like "True Blood" -- and "Twilight." That "oh, she' in love with a vampire and a werewolf!" whole trope I'm sick of.

It's a tricky question. On one hand the series mythology is expansive enough that it takes those creatures into account. On the other hand, we don't have any plans right now to use conventional versions of those creatures.

We've been thinking about it and there will be revelations in the mini-series that will give a broader definition of vampire history and bloodlines. So if you're interested in other monsters or how varied vampires can be, that's the place where we start that line of thinking.

You mentioned originally you thought you'd end in the present day -- is that still the plan?

I do have an end in mind in my head, story-wise. I don't know when we'll ever get to it! [Laughs] I keep thinking it's 20 issues away, and then it's 50 issues away! I do have an end-point in mind, I do know how it's going to finish up and I do see it finishing in the present. I don't think it'll catch up to the present in a direct way given what's happened so far. There's a lot that I want to explore in history and European history in America. Was there a vampire before Skinner in America? There are all these things we want to explore before we move too far forward.

Are you thinking of stories set in America before it became America? Or does that run counter to you exploring American culture in "American Vampire?"

The series really is about identity and American history, but to me that doesn't mean it begins with the founding of the country. It begins with all the things that shape that and are part of that -- the cultures that came before, here and overseas. Part of the fun for us is not to say that America begins here and ends here. It's about the way all of these things echo down through history and shape the characters and the sense of America. Short answer is absolutely; I have some ideas for stories that are pre-1776.

Although, 1776 would be a lot of fun now that I think of it! A really good Revolutionary War vampire story would be great, I'd love to do one of those! [Laughs] Maybe we'll do that.

With all these different time periods, do you have any plans to introduce another vampire who embodies the cultural ideas and fears of contemporary times?

Absolutely! I mean, I'm really hoping Pearl is individuated enough, and Skinner is too, to go beyond that archetype. We tried to make them detailed and human and richly complicated. But we do like the idea, like I said last time, that what makes vampires cools is the fact that they are scary. What makes them enduringly so to me is that they are people that you love and know come back to kill you from the grave. It's not romantic or exotic -- your brother, your girlfriend, your kid comes back with sharp teeth to turn you into one of them. That's what makes those classic monsters so frightening to me, the fact that there's something really familiar, the thing that makes you feel safe turns into this murderous version of itself.

For us we like to apply that concept to what we think of as American archetypes. Skinner is that Wild West outlaw, but beyond that we wanted to make him an individual. We wanted Pearl to be this 1920s flapper, but from there we tried to build her into a character that was complicated. We have plans for characters that are other archetypes along the way. One of my favorites is coming in the '50s. There's going to be fun rockabilly vampire killing coming up! But the hope at the end of the day is that we are creating compelling individual characters people relate to and like.

That's our goal, beyond playing with the iconography. We really want you to like them and enjoy following them, because that's the way we feel about them.

"American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest" #1 comes out June 8.

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