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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Scott Snyder: AMERICAN VAMPIRE Graphic Novel Series (Cycle #1)

Writers:  Scott Snyder (Vol. 1-6) & Stephen King (Vol. 1)
Primary Artists:  Rafael Albuquerque
Series:   AMERICAN VAMPIRE Graphic Novels, Cycle #1
Plot Type:  Horror
Ratings:  Violence5; Sensuality4; Humor2 (but the humor is very, very dark)
Publisher and Titles:  D. C. Comics; Vertigo
        American Vampire, Vol. 1 (10/2010)
        American Vampire, Vol. 2 (5/2011)
        American Vampire, Vol. 3 (2/2012)
        American Vampire, Vol. 4 (10/2012)
        American Vampire, Vol. 5 (5/2013)
        American Vampire, Vol. 6 (4/2014)

     This post was revised and updated on 7/29/14 to include a review of  Volume Six of the hardcover book in this graphic novel series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of Volumes One through Five:  

             VOLUME 6: The Long Road to Hell #1 (1967) and             
             American Vampire Anthology #1 (dates vary)     
     This is the final volume of Cycle #1, and it gives us one full-length story; one two-part Skinner Sweet piece that book-ends the second section and gets us ready for Cycle #2; and eight short-short stories. The two-part Skinner Sweet pair are the only ones that advance the over-arching series story line involving Skinner and Pearl, and even then, the plot advancement is ambiguous at best.

     The first sectionentitled "The Long Road to Hell"tells the story of a pair of star-crossed teen lovers who seal their own fates when they meet up with a gang of vampires. This story introduces three new characters and revisits one strong character from an earlier volume.

     The second section—entitled "American Vampire Anthology"—contains a series of stories that are set in various parts of North America, including the Southeast U.S., northern Canada, Kansas, and Hollywood. The opening/closing Skinner Sweet scenes take place in 1967, while the remaining stories are arranged chronologically from 1855 through 1940. Some of them fill in back-story details about series regulars, while others take a broader look at the effects of vampirism on various American (and Canadian) historical events.

     If you haven't been keeping up with this series, the "Anthology" section will probably make little or no sense to you because it is a collage of slice-of-life mini-stories based on the unique American vampire mythology that is central to this series. Since some of the stories feature characters who are series regulars, if you haven't read their full stories, you won't have enough context to understand the significance of these small bits of back-story. 

     I've read a few reviews of this book and have noticed that the reviewers who like the book are series regulars, while the ones who don't like it are first-time readers.              

PART 1: The Long Road to Hell 
Story by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque         
Script and Art by Rafael Albuquerque 
Setting:  Nebraska, 1959
     Jolene Gibbons and William Robert (Billy Bob) Lee are an unlucky pair of hard-knock, teen-age thieves who meet up with a gang of vampires on the night they get engaged. The story follows them through their horrific initiation into vampirism, their escape to Las Vegas in search of a cure for their new condition, and their ultimate destiny. Playing important roles in the story are Travis Kidd (from Volume 4's "Death Race") and Jasper, a strange little boy who demonstrates some unsettling powers. It's great to see Travis againone of my favorite characters in the series. And what's up with the weird kid? I'm sure we'll be seeing him again in Cycle 2.  

Billy Bob and Jolene
meet the their first vamps.
     The writers make Jolene and Billy Bob the antithesis of Skinner Sweet. Even though they break the law and take a human life, they are essentially good at heart and are willing to accept the ultimate punishment if they can keep themselves from killing any more people. Unlike Skinner, they don't want to be the stuff of stories. They just want to be normal—to settle down, have a family, and make their imperfect parents proud.   

     As usual, Albuquerque's artwork is stunning. In the early, happy scene in which Jolene and Billy Bob dance to "their song," the colors are a relatively bright mix of yellows and browns, but as the thieving begins, the scenes fill with shadows and the colors get darker. The vampire scenes are backlit with a fiery red glow, emphasizing their horror.   

     Albuquerque is particularly good at expressing his characters' emotions through their eyes. Just look at the terror in Jolene's baby blues in the image above. And Jasper's eyesa pale blue-grayhave a spooky weirdness that tells you right away that he is not quite normal. That kid put me in mind of Haley Joel Osment's character in The Sixth Sense.     

     In the middle of the Jolene-Billy Bob story, the color 
palette turns brighter when the scene switches to our first meeting with Jasper. After another interval back with the teenagers, we see Jasper again, and this time there is a dramatic color changeto a very dark, greenish grayforeshadowing the violence that is to come.   

PART 2: American Vampire Anthology

Scripts and artwork by various writers and artists, as noted

Settings: Various times and places in the U.S. and Canada

     Except for the first and last stories, each selection is an eight-page mini-story, part of a chronologically ordered set that moves from place to place across two centuries and forms a patchwork history of American vampirism. Each entry  below includes the names of the writer and artist, a summary of the story, and a description of the artwork.

"The Man Comes Around Part 1"
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Rafael Albuquerque
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Steve Wands
Setting: 1967, on Route 77 in Southeastern New Mexico
     In this four-page vignette, Skinner Sweet stops at a tiny diner in the middle of coyote nowhere. As he approaches the place, Skinner muses that when he was young (a century ago) all he ever wanted were "people telling stories about me. Around campfires on the plains. Or at clapboard saloons, over hands of cards. Whispered in the beds of whorehouses…" Now, he says, he has changed and is just appreciating the simple things in life, like the fine licorice cake he will be picking up at the diner. Moments later, Skinner is betrayed, and he changes his mind once again. "Sometimes the stories out there about you, they take on a life of their own. Even when you think one is dead and buried, here it comes crawling out of the grave, like I did…evolved and reaching for your throat."  

     Skinner's words set the stage for the remaining stories, many of which also deal with stories and legends. The writers and artists imagine what would have happened if various legendary events had taken place in the American Vampire world.

"Lost Colony"
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Declan Shalvey
Colorist: Jordie Bellaire
Setting: 1588, the Lost Colony 
Chowanoke boys discover what really
happened to the white settlers.
     Did you ever wonder what the real story was behind the disappearance of Roanokethe Lost Colonyback in the late 1500s? According to Jason Aaron's alternate history, European vampires were directly responsible. This is a blood-and-gore-story that puts the Chowanoke tribe in direct confrontation with a gang of vamps as they learn how to use their native forest to fight foreign fangs. 

     The color palette runs from reds in the slaughter scenes to dark browns and grays in the aftermath scenes. Shalvey's faces are much less detailed than Albuquerque's, but Aaron's words get the emotions across. Shalvey's dark and shadowy drawings compliment the roughness of frontier life. The best are of the chief, who retreats into the woods for a chat with the spirits and comes back with a solution to his tribe's problem. 

"Bleeding Kansas"
Writer: Rafael Albuquerque
Artist: Ivo Milazzo
Setting: 1856, small-town Kansas"Bleeding" Kansas
Marie mourns.
     Pre-Civil War Kansas was a hotbed of bloody confrontations between pro-slavery and anti-slavery true believers. Marie and Gil Jones arrive from the East, filled with hope as they plan to make a new home in wide-open Kansas. Gil is an avid abolitionist who stirs up trouble by making public speeches against slavery. When the Border Ruffians show up, they are quite a bit more blood-thirsty than the ones described in your high school history book. Albuquerque plucks a true event out of American history and presents it quite effectively as a human tragedy on a very personal level. It's a nice combination of hope, frustration, and horror.

    Milazzo's artwork is much different from Albuquerque's and most of the other artists: white backgrounds, heavy use of bright blues and yellows, and very little red. Although his style is "sketchier" than most of the other artists, his characters' faces definitely show the full range of their deeply felt emotions.

"Canadian Vampire"
Writer: Jeff Lemire  
Artist: Ray Fawkes  
Setting: 1877, James Bay, the Canadian North
Warnhammer battles the vamps.
     In this story, set just a year after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Jack Warnhammer, ex-Mountie, is a bounty hunter tasked with finding some missing fur traders and ridding Moose Island of its First Nation population. Jack finds only one survivor, a young Cree boy, and you can guess what happened to the remaining human population. Lemire sets up an Old-West type of story in which a grizzled, bigoted frontiersman confronts a foreign, European scourge and allows his true, selfless patriotism to emerge in an attempt to save the life of an innocent.

     Fawkes' drawings are sketchier than others in this volume, but are smoother-edged than Milazzo's. His backgrounds are white and his color palette includes mostly shades of yellow and black with purple highlights in the vampire scenes. Clothing colors designate good and evil: The Cree boy is dressed in green to emphasize his ties to nature. Jack is all in whitejust like a white-hat Western hero. The vamps are mostly in black, as befitting their black, soulless existence.

Writer & Artist: Becky Cloonan  
Colorist: Jordie Bellaire
Setting: 1924, Death Valley, California
Skinner meets the film crew in the desert.
     This story explains how Skinner Sweet landed in Hollywood just before he met Pearl and Hattie. In the opening scene, Sweet leans against a desert rock next to his dead horse, pondering his next move. Then, he comes upon a movie company filming in Death Valley. When an actor falls ill (is it dehydration…or is it blood loss?), Skinner is tapped to replace him as a body double, playing a dusty, sweaty cowboy in a fight scene. As the director tells him, "I'm sure you'll do fine. You smell the part already." Although Skinner has no idea what's going on, he loves a good fight. 

     As the vignette ends, Skinner muses poetically on his Hollywood experience. "It tasted like sunshine, honey, juice and gold. Bright, yellow, hard and cold. The price of many crimes untold." (Love the poem!) Cloonan uses a particularly effective visual metaphor that compares Skinner to a rattlesnakesatisfyingly chilling. This story is the first of three in this Volume that take us back to the 1920s Hollywood that was portrayed in Volume 1 of the series. 

"The Producers"
Writer & Artist: Francesco Francavilla  
Setting: Begins in Hollywood in 1925; then moves back in time two years to the scene in which Chase Hamilton meets the European vamps for the first time; then moves back to 1925
Chase becomes a starplaying a movie vampire.
     This is Chase Hamilton's back-story as he gets into the movie business through the influence of his European vampire "producers." It begins as Chase stars as an on-screen blood-thirsty vampire and then takes a young wannabe actress to meet those very same producers. This mirrors what Chase did to poor Pearl back in Volume 1. Although the story has a repetitive feel to it, the drawing conveys plenty of horrific emotion. One of the Vassals of the Morning Star (VSM) makes a brief appearance that doesn't end well for him.  

     The artwork is done in shades of blood-red and deep blue with lots of black shadows and contrasts. Although the faces are plenty scary, some are strangely flat. Only Chase and the lead producer vamp are drawn with extensive facial details.
"Essence of Life"
Writer: Gail Simone  
Artist: Tula Lotay  
Setting: 1925, Hollywood, California
Hattie gets revenge.
     Here, we revisit Hattie Hargrove (from Volume 1) and get the story on what happened to her during the period just before she met Pearl. Hattie is working in a Hollywood flower shop when she meets a movie director who lures her to his home for a "date" that soon goes badhorrifically bad. Then, when she finally gets a screen  test, things go terribly wrong in a different way. Hattie details these heartbreaking events in a letter to Pearl, trying to explain why she decided that she had to become a vampire and closing with an advance apology for her future actions. We almost feel sorry for Hattie until we remember just what she is capable of. The story certainly explains the reasons for Hattie's violent actions back in Volume 2.

     The drawing reflects the stylized art deco designs of the 1920s. The director and his friend, in particular, look as if they stepped out of The Great Gatsby. The bright blue robelooking so misleadingly elegant and civilizedstrikes just the right note of horror as it emphasizes the sordidness and brutish nature of the scene. The final page is one of the goriest in the bookand satisfyingly so.

"Last Night"
Writers & Artists: Gabriel Bá  & Fábio Moon  
Setting: 1940, New York
On stage at the Playhouse club
    A newspaper reporter is interviewing a jazz singer about a vampire attack on her singing group that occurred the previous night at the Playhouse Club. She has tried to tell her story to the authorities, but no one believes her, so the reporter is her last hope.

     The stage scenes are done in shades of brown with a sepia background, while the foreshadowing scenes with the reporter are very darklots of black with some deep blues and greens. Naturally enough, the vamp-attack scenes explode with shades of red. The lead characters' faces are drawn in detail, while the remaining characters, even the vamps, have a more sketchy feeling to them. All in all, this is a successful combination of story and art. The final shot of the reporter is chillingly creepy, bringing the story to a quick, unhappy end. This is a top-notch story told in classic end-with-a-twist fashion.

"Portland, 1940"
Writer: Greg Rucka  
Artist: John Paul (J. P.) Leon  
Setting: 1940, Portland, Oregon
     This one is a lost adventure featuring Skinner Sweet as he stumbles into Portland muttering, "I'm leaking'…Leakin' for years…Since Las Vegas." When some street thugs take him for a vagrant and he gets shanghaied onto a ship, Skinner takes matters into his own hands and deals out his unique form of justice for all. Let's hope that this story gets fleshed out in Cycle #2 so that we can find out who shot that gold bullet into Skinner years ago in Las Vegas. 

     The artwork is close to the traditional American Vampire style in its shadowy shades and tones of color, but not so much in the depiction of the faces, which are, for the most part, roughly drawn. 

"The Man Comes Around Part 2"
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Rafael Albuquerque
Setting: 1967, on Route 77 in Southeastern New Mexicoaftermath of the explosion
       This two-page vignette finishes the scene that began many pages ago, back at the beginning of this section. It's a testament to the fact that Skinner Sweet always survives to take revenge on those who trespass against himkind of like that Energizer Bunny, if the bunny had a mean streak, a taste for retribution of the darkest kind, and a pair of long, sharp, bloody fangs

     Sweet ends with more thoughts about stories told: "All the stories told they're just a fraction of it…of the bigger thing. Because there is a bigger story out there." And I for one am looking forward to hearing it.
     I'll let the authors explain their AMERICAN VAMPIRE world in their own words:  In an interview with John Geddes in USA Today, Scott Snyder explains the premise of the series: "The story is based on how vampires have evolved in different ways in different areas; how they've evolved into different species of vampires. Each species has different powers and different weaknesses. The series picks up with the first new species of vampire to have evolved in centuries. It just happens to turn up in America's Old West and just happens to be a much better killing machine—a vampire 2.0." (Click HERE to read the entire interview.)  

     One of the characters in Volume 3 explains some of the differences among the various vampire bloodlines: "Different bloodlines infect in different ways. Certain lines, most of the European ones, like the classic Carpathian, they destroy parts of the host's personality, but leave others intact. Most bloodlines leave you a predatory cold version of yourself....A few bloodlines, mostly ancient ones, leave more of the host's original psychology intact. You're a vampire, but you're still yourself." 

     The big news about the series is that Stephen King co-authored the first volume with Snyder, with each writer contributing five chapters. King writes the origin story of Skinner Sweet, the first truly American vampire, and Snyder writes the story of Pearl Jones, who is saved from death by Skinner and turned into the second American vampire. In his preface (entitled "Suck on This"), King talks about his taste, so to speak, in vampires: "Here's what vampires shouldn't be: pallid detectives who drink Bloody Marys and only work at night; lovelorn southern gentlemen; anorexic teenage girls; boy-toys with big dewy eyes. What should they be? Killers, honey. Stone killers who never get enough of that tasty Type-A. Bad boys and girls. Hunters. In other words, Midnight America. Red, white and blue, accent on the red." King goes on to talk about the "American-ness" of the series: "There's a subtext here that whispers powerful messages about boundless American energy and that energy's darker side: a grasping, stop-at-nothing hunger for money and power."

     The American vampires, who are classified as Homo Abominum Americana, are in constant conflict with the old, traditional Carpathian vampires, who consider their American cousins to be true abominations. What the European vamps don't realize—at first—is that the new breed of vampires has different characteristics than they do. For example, the new vamps can walk in the sun with no problem, and in fact, are stronger in the sun. The American vamps keep their weaknesses hidden, so the Carpathian vamps try every trick in the book to figure out how to kill them. Beginning in book 2, a group of vampire hunters enter the story, and they, too, want to learn the American vampires' weaknesses. Their organization is called Vassals of the Morning Star (VMS).

     Be prepared for graphic violence on almost every page. As King says, these vampires are not gentlemen; they not civilized. Instead, they are monsters who behave like monsters—all day, all night, all the time. This is a powerful series—both the artwork and the stories—and I recommend it highly to readers who are looking for a fresh take on the vampire mythos and are not bothered by a high level of violence.

            VOLUME 1 (Issues 1-5):  1925, with Flashbacks to the 1880s            
Writer: Scott Snyder   
Artist: Rafael Albuquerque  
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Steve Wands
Chapter 1: "Big Break," by Scott Snyder & "Bad Blood," by Stephen King
Chapter 2: "Morning Star" by Scott Snyder & "Deep Water," by Stephen King
Chapter 3: "Rough Cut," by Scott Snyder & "Blood Vengeance," by Stephen King
Chapter 4: "Double Exposure," by Scott Snyder & "One Drop of Blood," by Stephen King
Chapter 5: "Curtain Call," by Scott Snyder & "If Thy Right Hand Offend Thee...," by Stephen King

     The book is formatted in alternating story lines. Snyder tells the story of Pearl Jones, a wannabe movie star who is attacked by a group of Carpathian vampires and is then changed into an American vampire by Skinner Sweet, the on-going villain (or anti-hero) of the series. King tells Skinner's story, beginning back in the 1880s when Skinner was the leader of a gang of bank robbers. Skinner is evil through and through, and when he gets turned into the first American vampire, he gets even darker. We also meet several important supporting characters in this book:
Henry Preston: Pearl's human boyfriend (and then husband), a guitar-playing musician who backs Pearl up as she battles the bad vamps 
Hattie: Pearl's best friend and roommate in her pre-vamp days, who later becomes her bitter enemy 
James (Jim) Book: A Pinkerton detective who captures Sweet in his pre-vamp days and is eventually turned into a vampire by Sweet. (Picture a cross between Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves and Clint Eastwood in any of his westerns.)
Abilena Camino: Goddaughter of Jim Book. She has a daughter with Book and takes his name after he dies. She becomes a member of VMS.
     You can read the book straight through, moving back and forth between Pearl's story and Sweet's story, or you can read Pearl's story and then Skinner's. I did both: first straight through, and then the separate stories, and both worked for me.

     This is a great introduction to the series, laying out the characters with considerable depth. The artwork is beautifully done as it changes tone from Pearl's story to Skinner's. Pearl's pages, especially the early ones, are full of bright, crisp color, while Skinner's pages are ink-washed and darker—full of grim brown, grungy gray, dark-blood red, and deep, sinister yellow for his creepy eyes.

               VOLUME 2 (Issues 6-11):  1936              
Writer:  Scott Snyder       
Artists:  Rafael Albuquerque & Mateus Santolouco      
Colorist: Dave McCaig           
Letterer: Steve Wands    
"Devil in the Sand" (Parts 1, 2, 3 & Conclusion)
"The Way Out" (Parts 1 & 2)

"Devil in the Sand"
     This book takes place eleven years after the stories in Volume 1. "Devil in the Sand" moves between two story lines: In Las Vegas, Police Chief Cashel (Cash) McCogan is faced with a series of exsanguination murders of the top investors in the Hoover Dam project. Soon, two federal agents show up to assist Cash on the case, and one of the agents is Felicia Book, daughter of Jim Book and Abilena Camino. As you will recall, Felicia was conceived after her father had already been turned into a vampire, so her blood carries the vampire taint. She is not a full vampire, but she's not entirely human. When the feds admit to being VMS agents and claim that the killer is a vampire, Cash at first thinks that they're crazy, but he soon changes his mind. Skinner Sweet (now going as Jim Smoke) turns up as the owner of a brothel, and he also gets into some vamp-killing action later in the story. Both Cash and the feds at first believe that Sweet is at the root of the murders, but the identity of the killer turns out to be a real shocker.

     The second story line brings us up to date on Pearl and Henry, who are now married and living quietly in California. Well, they're living quietly right up until the point that Abilena Book and her VMS partner show up demanding that she confess what her fatal weaknesses are (i.e., gold bullets and the darkness of moonless nights).

"The Way Out"
     "The Way Out" also has two story lines. The first brings us back to Hattie Hargrove's story. If you thought that Hattie died back in book 1, then you're in for a big surprise. This brief tale follows Hattie as she escapes from her imprisonment by a Carpathian vamp who is experimenting on her in an attempt to figure out her fatal weaknesses. Then, she's off on a revenge mission to hunt down her former roommate (and now nemesis), Pearl. The second story line keeps us up to date on Pearl and Henry's idyllic life in the California countryside. When Henry gets back into the musical world, things get even happier until the couple runs into a vamp blood-collecting gang and their lives get complicated—and bloody—all over again.

     This is another great plot with more terrific artwork. We have two artists in this book: Albuquerque does the "Devil" story, and Santolouco does "Way Out." Both use plenty of dark, shadowy colors, but both use brighter, lighter colors to capture the few happy moments of Pearl and Henry's life.

            VOLUME 3 (Issues 12-18 +"Survival of the Fittest"):  1940s            
Writer:  Scott Snyder
Artist: Rafael AlbuquerqueSean Murphy, & Danijel Zezelj        
Colorist: Dave McCaig & Dave Stewart
Letterer: Steve Wands & Pat Brosseau 

"Strange Frontier" (Zezelj,)
"Ghost War" ( Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, conclusion) (Albuquerque)
"Survival of the Fittest" (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, conclusion) (Murphy)

"Strange Frontier"
     Set in the 1919, this story serves almost as a preface to this volume as lollipop-licking Skinner Sweet destroys a Wild West show that inaccurately dramatizes his long-ago showdown with Jim Boot and then says good-by to an old girlfriend. As the brief story ends, Sweet hops on a barn-storming Curtis Jenny bi-plane and heads for the west coast, presumably looking for Pearl. In an interesting side note, the Jenny became famous when its image was inverted on a single sheet of 1918 postage stamps. The stamp became the rarest in the world, with an individual stamp selling in 2007 for close to one million dollars. The history of the stamp seems to fit right in with the upside-down morality tales in this series: bad guys winning, good guys dying, and everybody out for the biggest buck.

     The rest of the book covers World War II, first in Japan and then in Germany. 

"Ghost War"

     "Ghost War" begins in Hawaii in 1943, where the U.S. is preparing for the invasion of Japan. Mr. Hobbes of the VMS shows up to convince Henry Preston that he should join the cause by helping to decimate a gang of weird and powerful vampires living in caves on the island of Taipan, a fictional island in the Marianas southeast of Japan. These vampires are completely, mindlessly feral, and the change from human being to feral monster takes place almost instantaneously. The Japanese have an evil plan to cover the world with these vamps, and it's up to the good guys to stop them. Skinner Sweet is along for the ride (hoping to get rid of Henry once and for all), and he gets heavily involved in all the action, as does Pearl when she shows up on Taipan late in the story.

"Survival of the Fittest"
     The final section takes us to an isolated castle in Romania where a botanical scientist is working on a cure for vampirism. He is under the control of the Nazis, who have developed the beginnings of a vampire army. This part of the story is so familiar that it comes across as a complete retread. The good guys here are Felicia Book and Cash McCogan. Cash has turned to the VMS for help in dealing with his vampire son. (To review: In Volume 2, the baby was changed over when Skinner Sweet injected him with vampire blood while the baby was still in the womb of Cash's late wife.) Felicia and Cash go undercover, posing as wealthy American investors who want to stay on the good side of the Reich. By the end, Cash meets one fate and Felicia and Cash's son meet a very different one. This Nazi vampire plot is the most predictable plot line in the series so far, mainly because we've seen most of it so many times before. 

     For me, the best story is "Ghost War," which ends in a cliffhanger as an ancient statue comes to undead life as a vampire and calls Felicia the "chosen one." "Strange Frontier" leaves an unresolved story thread for one character.

     The artwork is great, as usual—brilliant, bloody reds contrasting with dark, crisp shadows and silhouettes. Zezelj evokes a time-gone-by feeling by using a yellow-tan background that gives the pages an ink-washed, sepia effect. 

               VOLUME 4 (Issues 19-27):  1950s              
Writer:  Scott Snyder 
Colorist: Dave McCaig

"The Beast in the Cave" (Parts 1 & 2) (Bernet)
"Death Race" (Parts 1 - 4) (Albuquerque)
"The Nocturnes" (Parts 1 & 2) (Cruz & Burcielli)

"The Beast in the Cave"
     "This is an origin story that details the childhood relationship between Skinner Sweet and Jim Book. Back in 1863, Book's family essentially adopted Skinner after the death of his parents in the early days of the Civil War. Even back then, Skinner was showing signs of the cruelty and fearless love of danger that mark his adult years. The story then jumps to the New Mexico Territory in 1871 where Jim and Skinner, both U.S. Army soldiers, are with troops who are tracking a group of Apache warriors led by their chief, Hole in the Sky. Skinner wants to set fire to the dry juniper growing all over the ridge behind which the Indians are entrenched, no matter that there may be women and children among them. Meanwhile, Hole in the Sky summons an ancient Indian spirit—actually a smokin' hot, naked, female Indian vampire called Mimteh. Hole wants Mimteh to kill the white soldiers, but she just wants him to go away. The story breaks away for a brief flashback showing how Mimteh went from human to vampire. Jim, Skinner, and the soldiers never actually see Mimteh; only the Indians get that dubious pleasure, and they reap the consequences. 

     The best part about this story is that it fills in some gaps in the backstories for Jim Book and Skinner Sweet. Bernet's art nicely captures the green countryside of Missouri and the dry, brown desert country of New Mexico.  At the end, one brooding panel succinctly foreshadows Jim and Skinner’s future as Skinner stalks away from his adopted brother while a cloud of vultures circles over the pair.

"Death Race" 
     Now we jump to a terrific story set in the 1950s, where we meet Travis Kidd, a 19-year-old greaser who has a score to settle with our old friend Skinner Sweet. (Did you really believe that the seemingly unkillable Skinner died back in that battle on Taipan ten years ago? Think again!) The story follows Travis as he and Sweet drag race down the highway in a flash of fins, chrome, and exhaust fumes—lots of vrmmm, vrmmm. 

     The story cuts back and forth between flashbacks of Travis' early life, which was spent being medicated and electro-shocked in a mental institution because he wouldn't stop talking about vampires. Albuquerque's artwork includes the traditional 1950s color spectrum, from the pink and gray outfit of Travis' wannabe girlfriend to Skinner's cherry red Fairlane and Travis' shiny black Cadillac. Travis is a typical 50s dude, looking just like a snarling James Dean in his Rebel without a Cause persona, with an upturned collar on his black leather jacket and a slicked-back DA haircut. He’s got a little bit of Elvis in him, as well. At one point, he shouts, "Let's rock and roll!" as he slams into a room filled with vampires. Skinner is portrayed anachronistically as a grunge-rocker type, a la Kurt Cobain, with nondescript clothes and long, disheveled hair. Hobbes, the VMS agent, makes an appearance in this story, once to save Travis and once to get bested by him. 

     The epilogue—just four pages long—jumps completely to another place—La Mesa California, where Henry and Pearl are still trying to live normal lives. This little tale, though, doesn't have an HEA. This is a great story, with lots of action, particularly when Travis uses his favorite weapon—the set of wooden fangs that he wears just for fighting vamps—what a great innovation!

"The Nocturnes"
     This story brings us up to date on the life of Calvin Poole, the African American taxonomist of vampire species who was on Cash's VMS team in Volume 3's "Ghost War." At the end of that story, Cal was accidentally infected by Pearl's vampire blood, and now we see how he's been dealing with that. Cal is the third of only three known members of the newest vampire species, the Homo Abominum Americana. Technically, he's the offspring of Pearl, who, in turn, is the offspring of Skinner. The story line follows Cal as he visits small-town Midway in pre-Civil Rights Alabama. As Cal explains, a taxonomist is trained to look at the details, and when Cal does that in Midway, he uncovers a new breed of vampires. The doo-wop club scenes are nicely written and drawn, with the bright blue tuxedos, the synchronized back-up moves, and the simple, rhyming lyrics—all stylized, yet true to their roots. In the final scene, Pearl calls Cal for help, signaling the content of the a story yet to come.

    This is a strong entry to the series, beginning with the fascinating prequel and getting even better in "Death Race." "Nocturnes" gives the reader a chance to catch his or her breath before jumping into a terrific vampire battle and a sad-news ending. 

            VOLUME 5: Lord of Nightmares (1-5); Issues 28-34:  1954            
Writer: Scott Snyder   
Artists:   Rafael Albuquerque Dustin Nguyen
Colorist: Dave McCaig John Kalisz
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher Steve Wands
Chapter 1: "Lord of Nightmares," (London, France, Germany, the Black Sea)Nguyen 
Chapter 2: "The Blacklist," (California)Albuquerque
Chapter 3: "The Gray Trade," (New Mexico)Albuquerque

    In the world of the mid-1950s, the Cold War was at its height, the U.S.S.R. was at the peak of its powers, and the Red Scare was sweeping the U.S. Now add some terrifying new vampire threats to the mix, and you have the basis for the plots explored in this book.

"Lord of Nightmares"
     In the first long chapter, vampire hunter Linden Hobbes (head of the Vassals of the Morning Star—the VMS) is in London, where a powerful, ancient vampire has been imprisoned deep underground for decades. This vampire (they call him Dracula) is the first of the Carpathian line, and his vampirism has mutated to terrifying proportions. When an explosion frees Dracula, Hobbes tracks down Felicia Book in Paris, where she is trying to live a normal life with her son, Augustus (Gus). Hobbes talks Felicia into helping him recapture Dracula, who is now in the custody of the Russians. The story follows their adventures as they attempt to catch up with Dracula and his new handlers, who have no idea just what kind of a monster he is. Dracula has the power to command all Carpathian vampires with just his thoughts, even thousands of miles away, so the world is in dire jeopardy if he ever gets free.

"The Blacklist"
     In the second chapter, the story moves to California, where Pearl and Henry Preston have also been trying to live normal lives. Unfortunately for them, vampires keep hunting them down and trying to kill them. When Henry is badly injured in one of the attacks, the VMS agrees to help him if Pearl will come to work for them. It seems that a coven of vampires has taken over the movie industry behind the scenes, being sheltered in the homes of Hollywood power brokers. Pearl agrees to help out, but then is shocked to learn that her partner will be an old nemesis—her maker, Skinner Sweet, who has been forced to work with the VMS because they have found a way to control him. As Pearl and Skinner eliminate one vampire after another, they develop a new relationship—one that you would never predict. Near the end, another old nemesis shows up to add to Pearl's troubles. This is the strongest story of this book, with unexpected, but believable, relationship developments and a heartbreaking ending.

"The Gray Trade"
     The very short third chapter stars Felicia's mother, Abilena Camino Book, who is living a reclusive life in Cruces, New Mexico. With just a hint of a plot, this piece is more like a tantalizing taste of a story yet to come.

     Once again, the artwork is magnificently gruesome, with wonderfully vicious monsters who grow more and more horrific from one frame to the next. Albuquerque uses color quite effectively to differentiate the emotional content of various scenes, from the dark blue/green of Henry's scenes to the fierce red/orange scenes of the vamp battles. Skinner Sweet is my favorite among Albuquerque's character drawings, with his ironic, toothy grin and ever-present lollypop stick hanging from his mouth, he's a character for the ages. For me, Nguyen's most chilling character representation is Glass (aka Renfield), particularly in the opening scene with Hobbes and in the scene where he chases down poor little Gus on the ship. That creepy grin is menacingly memorable. Nguyen's portrayal of Dracula is also outstanding as he maintains the monster's mysticism while giving him a concrete physical shape (the long, stringy hair is a nice touch)—a black silhouette against dark red backgrounds and terrifyingly topped off by the beast's gleaming yellow eyes.

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