Stephen King and Vertigo dig into vampires

Oct. 27, 2009 | 3:02 p.m.

Skinner The vampire world just got a new addition to its clan. Edward Cullen, watch out.

Vertigo is launching a new monthly comic book series from short-story writer Scott Snyder (“Voodoo Heart,” “The Goodbye Suit”) and artist Rafael Albuquerque.

American Vampire” hits shelves in March, with a breed of vampire — more brawny and vicious — that has distinctly American characteristics. 

The series’ first story arc, to unfold over the course of five issues, will feature two separate stories; one penned by Snyder, the other by horror novelist Stephen King

Marvel has had success adapting King’s preexisting work such as the “Dark Tower” and “The Stand” mini-series. But this new series represents King’s debut in comic book writing.  He’ll provide the origin story of the first American vampire: Skinner Sweet, an outlaw of the 1880s.

“He really made it his own thing,” Snyder said in a phone interview. “It was really inspiring to watch him take these characters and make them and their stories so much better.” Snyder’s tale is set in the Jazz Age and centers on Pearl, who “frequents Hollywood’s speakeasies and dance-halls searching for her first big break, only to find something far more sinister waiting for her.” Hero Complex contributor Yvonne Villarreal spoke with Snyder about his new project. Read this brief Q-and-A as he discusses how the series aims to reinvent the idea of our fang-toothed friends.

YV: When people think of you, ‘comic book writer’ isn’t associated with your name.  What prompted this venture?

Snyder: Well, the idea … I’ve been sort of kicking around for a while. For the last couple of years, I’ve just been thinking of how I would do it.  Would it be through short stories or a book? I actually thought about doing it as a book for a while and then I happened to write a short story for an anthology that was about literary writers writing superhero stories and it caught the attention of an editor at D.C., Mark Doyle. He wound up approaching me at a reading for the book and asked me if I had anything I wanted to pitch for Vertigo DC. So I pitched him this idea and he really fell for it and it went into development pretty quickly. So we hashed it out together. That’s how — sort of from the production side — it came together.

YV: There’s no shortage of vampire-themed projects floating around. Did the idea come about pre-vampire craze?

Snyder: It was definitely pre-vampire craze…

…but I’m a fan of all that stuff.  We’re trying to do something very different from than what all those other things are doing and trying to do something on our own that’s exciting. It was definitely conceived apart from all those things. 

The general concept … the thing that we’re really excited about, is the series sort of centers on this notion of vampire evolution. What it imagines is vampires are [these sorts] of physiological creatures that have evolved over time so that their bloodline as it hits different populations at different points in history has mutated a little bit and evolved every once in a while into a different species of vampire.  And so some vampires have completely different characteristics, abilities and weaknesses than other ones.  And there’s sort of this secret genealogical tree that we have behind the scenes that sort of traces the vampire bloodline all the way back to pre-modern times and all the different branches and all the different species that have popped up. And, so, the fun of the series itself – or the reason it’s sort of American vampire — is that for reasons that are part of the mystery of the series for fun, there haven’t been any new species of vampire for a few hundred years. The dominant species — the only one that seems to exist anymore is the classic vampire that you’re aware of…the vampire that is burned by sunlight, has massive allergic reactions to certain organic materials, has small fangs and has this kind of anemic look; very elegant, aristocratic and so on…. That species has its own history of how it formed and why it now has become the dominant species. And so the series picks up with this guy. He’s this sort of a sociopathic outlaw out in the old west. Skinner Sweet, who is the character Steve writes about, who becomes by accident, sort of turned into a vampire and he happens to represent one of these sudden jumps in the evolution. He becomes this new kind of vampire that they call American vampire, the European predecessors and he have a completely different set of powers; we’ve been calling him the vampire 2.0. He’s thrives in the sunlight as opposed to being burned by it. He’s not vulnerable to wood; he has his own secret weaknesses that are immediately obvious. He has longer, bigger claws and fangs. He’s tougher and meaner so they’re sort of all trying to figure out what to do with them. Steve’s story is sort of the origin story of that character. My story follows the first person that he turns.  A young woman in the 20s who is trying to make it in Hollywood in the silent film era. So that’s the kind of general, specific…

Pearl YV: Do these story lines stem from a childhood fascination with vampires?

Snyder: I’ve always been a huge fan of Americana. In my fiction and the novel I’m working on, I guess I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of what makes us American.  I think I started thinking about it a few years ago when it was sort of— I think right now, especially, the reason we were all thinking about it enough to make the series is there’s so much changing in terms of the central idea of what it means to be American. Some people think it’s exciting and wonderful; other people think it’s terrifying and that everything’s going down the drain. Right now is such a fluid time for the American imagination — the American character — that we really felt it was a fun time to do this series. The idea itself came about pretty organically out of me thinking I’d like to do a vampire story that takes places in some of these locations that I’ve never seen historically. What would it mean to be a vampire during the Depression? The sort of other side of the series — the thing we try to do to make it more than just a popcorn horror story is that each cycle will follow a different decade; it follows the bloodline of Skinner Sweet.  The idea is that by following the bloodline, we’re also able to move from decade to decade and trying to explore a little bit what is vampiric or monstrous at that particular moment — or heroic — in the American character during the ’20s, during the ’30s; what makes us ‘us,’ for better or worse during those time periods. In that way, I think, it’s been a really fun thing to work on right now when I think the question of what it means to be American is something that everyone is talking about.

YV: Why did you decide to do it as a comic book as opposed to a novel?

Snyder: I was thinking about doing it as a novel but I think part of it was just that — I mean, I grew up on comic books and I love comic books to death. But, also, I think the way the series is structured; the way it suddenly became apparent we could do it when I was talking to Marc Doyle — the editor who helped me develop it — was that we’d be able to do these five or six issue arcs where we could explore different decades and pick up with sometimes the same characters and sometimes a new cast in serial way and it started to feel like this would be a really good organic match to sort of what this series is about: tracing this monstrous bloodline through different decades in American history. I was sort of struggling, trying to figure out if I should do it as a series of short stories taking place in different decades; it all felt almost too self-contained that way. This way is open-ended and fluid and fun and it’s completely visual. That’s part of the other thing. It’s one thing to describe the species of vampire and say, ‘He’s got these crazy fangs’…. But when you actually see Raphael’s artwork, it jumps off the page.  The sensuality of it and the immediacy of it was appealing right away to doing it as a comic book.

YV: This being your first comic book series, what were some of the challenges you faced?

Snyder: It was strange how painless it was and I really did sort of grow up around the comic shop.  The ones I remember being completely seminal were everything from “The Dark Knight Returns” … you know Frank Miller and Alan Moore’sSwamp Thing.” Frank Miller’s “Year One” also. Spider-Man, not to go over to Marvel. The things DC was doing with Superman at that time too – - The Man of Steel with John Byrne — all those things…. It was a great time to be a comic book fan when I was 9, 10, 11, years old. For me personally, comics have been a strong influence on my writing. Reading comics is not something I did as a child and stopped doing as I became an adult. So the transition in that way was not that bad at all. The thing that’s different in a surprising way, for me, is that … literary writing, as much as I love it, is very lonely. It’s just you being the writer, editor and artist for a long time all by yourself. One of the great things about this is working with Raphael and Mark; you collaborate for a good part of the day and they wind up bringing so many interesting creative ideas to the table that make the series so much better. It’s something that makes me feel like I’m part of something outside my computer. That was the biggest shock. I didn’t realize how collaborative it would be on a day-to-day basis. That’s been one of the most inspiring things about it.

YV: There’s obviously an audience in the vampire genre. How do you set yourself apart from the Twilights and True Bloods?

Snyder: I think each one of them bring something exciting to the table when it comes to vampires. This comic is supposed to follow the tradition of our favorite horror stories where the vampires are meant to be scary and adult. They’re not romantic figures the way they are in these other franchises.  They’re meant to be creatures that have been preying on humans for a long time and have their own history. We’ve been trying not to think of the audience that much, except to try and put out the best story we can for them to enjoy; one that people will love enough to open up a comic book and read. I’m hoping that the people that like those things will like this too. So far, we’ve just been focused on making our own favorite comic of the year.

Skinner_2 YV: How did Stephen become involved?

Snyder: I’ve been in touch with him for a long time. He wrote a quote for my story collection; I’ve been sort of closely in touch with him ever since. I sent the series for him once it was green-lit by Vertigo, just to get his opinion on it; to see if there was anything I could do better. Asked him if he was interested in giving me a quote at some point if it went through.  And he wrote back saying that he liked the idea enough that if we’d be willing to let him, he’d be up for doing a couple of issues. Of course, everyone was on board.  I made sure he was serious about it and he was. We went back to DC and Vertigo and they were really excited about it cause he’s never done an original comic before; he’s had things adapted but this is the first time he’s actually scripted one. So it was a new thing for him.

YV: Was there a lot of collaboration between the two of you?

Snyder: Originally, I had tried to make it really easy for him because I wasn’t sure how much he wanted to do. The characters were already developed. I wrote him a brief outline of what could happen in each issue. I told him, ‘Have fun with the dialogue; do whatever you want to do in terms of details.’ He got into Issue 2 and he wrote me an e-mail saying, ‘You mind if I go off the res a little bit?’ I was like, ‘Do whatever you want.’ And he wound up writing five issues where he took the story that I wrote so much further — to such a better place. He made up so many new things, added so many elements to the characters and story. There are so many twists and turns. There’s psychological layers to the characters; he really made it his own thing. It was really inspiring to watch him take these characters and make them and their stories so much better. I think people are really going to like it.

–Yvonne Villarreal

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Artwork: Vertigo. Photo credit: Los Angles Times archives

More in: Uncategorized, DC, Stephen King, Vampires, Vertigo, Yvonne Villarreal

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