A couple of weeks ago, we told you about American Vampire, next year's Vertigo series about the newest breed of bloodsuckers. We talked to the series creator Scott Snyder about what to expect — and how Stephen King got involved.
So what is American Vampire?
The series follows, and is focused on, the concept of vampire geneology and vampire evolution. It reimagines vampires as these creatures that have evolved as the bloodlines hit different populations at different times, so there's different species of vampires, like there are different breeds of dogs. So there's this whole hidden history, this whole secret family tree. But the thing that it's about specifically is, there hasn't been a new breed of vampire in a couple of hundred years for reasons that are part of the fun mystery of the first couple of [story cycles]. There's only this one dominant species, and it's the one that's the classic, Euro-centric, nocturnal, stake through the heart... You know, the vampire that, when I conceived of the series, we were all a little sick of. The star of the series is the bloodline, this new breed of vampirism. The forward-moving part of the series, the part that's most exciting for us is, we have new characters with each cycle, with big parts played by favorite characters from the past, but we'll also be revealing parts of the secret history and how the world of vampires came to be the way it is. And also, the brewing tension between all the breeds of vampires that exist now.
So there's a big, behind the curtain, story that we're working on as well [as the individual story arcs].
So how did it get started? Did you pitch it to Vertigo?
I came up with it as a concept a few years ago, actually - I don't know how interesting this is, it's kind of a boring story, but I was in one of those model shops, like Warhammer shops, down in the West Village and I saw one of those figurines, and it was a zombie confederate soldier. I just started thinking about how, in so much vampire material at the time - and this was before Twilight, more around the Queen of the Damned time - vampires were always nocturnal and aristocratic and elegant and it just seemed so out of place, and out of touch with any straight-up American iconography that I could come up with, or my favorite genres, like westerns or 50s sci-fi and all that kind of stuff. I was like, how come we never see vampires in these kind of places?
I started to develop the idea back then, and I thought about doing it as a series of stories, I thought about doing it as a book, and at one point I was going to do it as a screenplay with a friend. But basically, I started doing some comic work on the side about a year ago, and I got the chance to pitch it to Vertigo last summer when an editor at Vertigo called Mark Doyle, who's since become one of my closest friends, read one of my stories in an anthology of literary writers coming up with new superheroes. He actually approached me at a reading for the book and asked if I was a serious comic fan, or just moonlighting for the purposes of the story. I told him I was, I'd always been, and I feel like he gave me a pop quiz; he was all, Well, what're you reading right now? And at the time, it was Final Crisis and Secret Invasion and everything like that. I think he was convinced, and he asked me if I wanted to pitch something. So I went there and I think he sort of expected me to pitch something more literary, but I was like, Hey, what about this vampire thing?
I'd been thinking about doing it as a comic for awhile, and thinking about approaching people who do more horror comics, like IDW or whatever, and then this came along and he really flipped over it. Once we got it on the table, it went pretty fast through development there. It was pretty much greenlit when they asked if there was anyone that I knew who from the writing world who might be interested in giving it a quote or a blurb. I knew Stephen King from before, so I asked him if he would be willing to do it. He read the pitch and decided that he really liked it and said, I'll do you one better. If you want, at some point, I'll write an issue for you. It's pretty funny; I called Vertigo on, I think it was a Friday afternoon, and left a message saying that Steve was interested - By the way, he makes you call him Steve, I don't want to sound like an asshole going "Steve, Steve" - I left a message on Friday afternoon pretty much when the office was already closed saying that he was serious about wanting to do an issue, and it was Monday morning, 9 in the morning, I get a call and everyone was there, and they're all "Did you say Stephen King was interested in doing an issue...?" [laughs]
Once he was involved we wanted to [work out how best for him to write an issue or two]. The characters were all developed, I had the seasons mapped out from the pitch. Steve wanted to write this character, who was planned for the second cycle, but Mark and I came up with the idea of doing it like an eight-page, or a teaser, at the end of each issue, to show a glimpse of Skinner, who's the first American vampire. He started writing it, and then he wrote me an email two weeks into it and asked if I'd mind if he went off the reservation a little bit. I was, like, go ahead, do whatever you want. He wound up writing five episodes of sixteen pages, doing so much better than I could've ever done. It really does raise the bar for the series, and he introduced so many big ideas about what the American West means to us, and all these questions about fact and fiction and legend versus history, and all this stuff that really enriches it. Not to mention, he just makes it really scary and vicious.
How did Rafael [Albuquerque, series artist] come aboard? His preview art is beautiful.
Oh my God. I promise you, this guy is incredible. He came in and did some sketches to see if he got the characters, based on the scripts, because the scripts were done, and he just nailed it immediately. It was, that's our guy. The funny thing is, some of the promo art, the sketches of Pearl...? That's from his audition, those're some of his first sketches. That was the first thing I saw from him, and I thought, that's my character. That's exactly her. She's a little bookish, independent, a little quirky. He's been such a creative force on the series, he brings so much to it.
Rafael, when he read the scripts, was like, Why don't I do the different cycles in different styles? So he would up doing Steve's cycle - which is the origin story of Skinner, who's the first of the new American vampire species, born of this random mutation - in these beautiful washes, so it has this painted, antique quality to it, as well as a creepiness. And for mine - which takes place in the 1920s and picks up on the second American vampire, the first person Skinner turns, who's this young girl and a struggling actress in the silent film industry - he did it in this precise inked, art deco style. I can't reiterate enough how amazing he has been on the book. He's enhanced it, he's been a total superhero himself on it.
It sounds like this a really big story.
I'm so excited for the places we're going to go. We're already mapped out through the first twelve issues. The next cycle is already page broken, after these first five issues, and after that, the next cycle is pretty much thought out. And after that, I know what decade it's taking place in. It's fun with all of the press it's getting, the fun of introducing [the concept]. There's something sexy about an American vampire, because "It's American!" [laughs]. It's an interesting time to be American. Part of the series is about investigating what's horrific about the American character, and what's heroic about it, and the difference of that in different periods. But we're really way ahead of the game in terms of giving ourselves time to do eight or nine drafts of the scripts, because, believe me, no-one is more aware of a potential vampire backlash or the pressure once Steve is not on the series. We believe in it a lot.
American Vampire seems to be more than just a title, it's a statement of the book's intent, the American versus European...
Well, it's a fun hook, and there's a kind of, I guess, patriotic thrill in introducing a vampire that's supposed to be American and is stronger and more vicious and so on, but the story isn't about cultural stereotypes. The idea is that the bloodline mutates randomly at various times, and some of the characteristics of the person are adapted into that vampire. So it's the characteristics of a person, of Skinner, rather than a nationality, because otherwise you get into the specifics of, what makes us African-American, what makes us... It's person-to-person. Every once in awhile the bloodline will jump, not with every new person it hits, but every once in awhile, the blood will make something new with someone.
We're trying to keep it geneological, but the vampiric qualities have an American characteristic, because it comes from the character of Skinner and he is a character that's iconographic to the [Old] West, where he's this vicious snakelike outlaw. He has this desert quality, but they're based on him, based on a broad cultural assessment on what makes us American.
But what we are starting to do is explore the idea of American identity through the different time periods. With the first issues, it's a little tough, just because of the format, sixteen pages of story for Steve and sixteen for me, so there's a tightness to it that works really well for the way they double as stories. But there's more breathing room, I think, for exploring the decades once we get past the first cycle.
Pearl seems as iconic in her own way as Skinner.
I can promise you that the way they come across on the page, they're not someone you've seen before. Skinner is not The Man With No Name, in the same way that Pearl is very much her own character while keeping that quality of the "20s Girl." She's someone who's more fish out of water, she's a lot more bookish and isn't caught up in the glamour. She loves acting for her own reasons, and a lot of it comes from her upbringing. We try to flesh the characters out so that they're more than just their iconographic selves, especially these two. Pearl and Skinner are two opposing forces early on the series. Skinner is anarchy and violence and fun, and has the opinion that what makes us American is what keeps the west wild, and that we should be wild, and the taming of the west he sees as a feminization, an imposition on the American character. You can imagine how that works itself out in different time periods, where there's prohibition, or the construction of Las Vegas.
Pearl, on the other hand, is ethical and struggling to be someone who carries the best qualities of what we would think as American. She has a more hopeful and optimistic belief.
Is this going to be a series where there's a lot of jumping around in time periods, as opposed to telling the story chronologically?
Yeah, each one is going to approach a different decade, at least at first. Each story will pick up in a different decade but the same bloodline in surprising ways, so there will be some chronological jumping.
Are you watching True Blood, reading or watching the Twilights?
I'm a huge fan of True Blood. Some things I've not caught up with... I read the first Twilight - my wife has actually read all of them - but my feeling is, each one of them brings something different to vampire lore. I've never seen vampires as teen heartthrobs the way that Twilight does it, or the reimagining of vampires as a sociological underclass and the Southern Gothic elements of True Blood make that really fresh. For us, we're trying to bring something new to the table too. American Vampire wasn't conceived as the tale end of a trend. It definitely, for me, predated both of those, so I'm hoping that - When each one of those came out, we were all, Oh, it's just part of the trend, but the better stuff comes out in the crashing of a wave and you're like, That's awesome! We're hoping that we have that kind of response.
We really have put a lot of sweat and blood into it about making it something different and high quality, so that if there were no other vampire things around, you're look at it in the same way. I was thinking about it, but other than Bram Stoker's Dracula, I haven't seen a vampire comic since the peak of 30 Days of Night. For us, it's great not to be on TV with Vampire Diaries or True Blood, and we're not a movie, so hopefully it'll stand apart as a good read.
American Vampire debuts in March from Vertigo.