Looking for a vampire story with some real bite? Then, boys and girls, Scott Snyder has a comic book for you. His American Vampire series debuts in comic shops today, and Snyder’s taking literary royalty along for one bloody good ride. The master of horror himself, Stephen King is writing a backup story in each of the first five issues of the Vertigo Comics title, which introduces the first American vampire: an ornery outlaw from the Old West named Skinner Sweet, who’s a far cry from the likes of Twilight’s Edward Cullen. Featuring art by Rafael Albuquerque, American Vampire will follow the bloodsucking bloodline as it moves through U.S. history, one decade at a time, in each multiple-issue “season”: The locale for Snyder’s main story over the first five issues is Jazz Age Hollywood, where an up-and-coming starlet named Pearl in the 1920s runs into the wrong sort of folks. “The idea of the series is to try and investigate a little bit what is heroic and monstrous about the American character at different points in history,” Snyder says. “It will trace the bloodline up to present time, and also go back and explore why these vampires we’ve become so familiar with – the nocturnal, Eurocentric ones — has become the dominant one.” I talked with Snyder about American Vampire, working with King and what kind of horrors pop culture has been missing, so read below for the Q&A.
Art courtesy of DC/Vertigo Comics
How did you hook up with King for this project?
I sent it to him on a whim after Vertigo greenlit it as a series, and they asked me if there was anyone I knew who could do a quote or do an intro if we did a trade [collection]. I sent it to him basically just to see what he thought, and he wrote back saying he’d actually be willing to do an issue or two. I told him that if I told them that, they were going to jump on it. He was actually sort of surprised because he’s never written a comic. He was like, “You really think they’ll want me to write one?” “Yeah, I think they will.” I left a message on like Friday, and Monday I got a call from the whole office being like, “Did you say that Stephen King said he would write an issue?!” The series is definitely exponentially better for his involvement. It was amazing to watch. He’s definitely a genius and watching that was inspiring and intimidating. [Laughs]
What’s the best thing you’ve learned from working with him?
He likes to say that imagination is as common as table salt – which is funny, because his imagination is certainly not as common as table salt. But his work ethic is something I’ve really taken to heart. What he’s taught me is not to be afraid of writing something bad. And not because anything he’s written is bad, but that’s the biggest obstacle to getting anything done: waiting until you feel inspired and you feel like you’re going to write something good. If you do that, you’ll never finish anything.
Will Pearl and Skinner hang around for a while past the first five issues?
We have it pretty much planned out for three or four more seasons, and in some seasons, they play major parts, and in other ones they come in and influence things and hover in the background a little bit in cameos — the way Skinner comes in mine really simply and leaves. In a different cycle I’m working on now, he plays a major part.
When did you hatch the concept for American Vampire?
It started during the last vampire wave a few years ago, when the sequels to Blade and Underworld came out. All the vampires wear leather, they look lie they’re out of The Matrix, they’re always squatting on a gargoyle in the rain and look like bad club-goers. It made me really miss the vampires of my youth that inspired me, the ones from Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, The Lost Boys and Salem’s Lot. They were essentially scary, feral creatures, and mostly they weren’t figures who were sleek and cool and romantic. I started thinking, “Why don’t we have any of those?”
Why vampires as a focus and not werewolves, zombies or mad scientists?
Well, I have ideas about werewolves and zombies as well. [Laughs] What’s so scary about vampires is that they are the same people — they just come back from the dead and they have this infection, this abomination of the blood that makes them into something that’s unnatural. For me they were always the scariest creatures for that reason. Scary zombies are sort of No. 2, where your father can come back and try and kill you. Vampires come back and are actually knowledgeable. It was the people around you turned into these monsters — the people you trusted like your neighbors in Salem’s Lot, or the people who live in the trashy trailer next door in Near Dark, or the kids you look up to in Lost Boys. It’s that idea of someone you care about or somebody you trust coming back and being this evil version of themselves that Stephen King does so well. That’s why I love his stuff so much: He takes the thing we trust the most, from the family dog to your favorite car or your dad, and he makes them basically want to murder you.
What was the first Stephen King story you ever read?
I went to sleepaway camp when I was 7 or 8 for eight weeks, and I hated it. It was this super-athletic sports camp, and you can imagine how a kid who wants to be a comic book writer/illustrator does in that sort of environment. [Laughs] It was very Lord of the Flies. It wasn’t a wonderful summer, but I had this counselor Greg who read to us from The Eyes of the Dragon every night, and he mapped it out so that he started one of the first nights of camp and finished it one of the last nights. That was probably one of the things that made me fall in love with storytelling — I just looked forward to that so much, getting into my bunk and hearing him read a chapter of that with Roland and Flagg and all of those characters. That was the first really big Stephen King influence.
What do you think of the current wave of vampire popularity?
There are some that I really love. I watch True Blood pretty religiously with my wife, and she really likes Twilight.
Did your wife get you into Twilight?
[Laughs] I read it because I was getting ready to pitch American Vampire as a comic when Twilight was at its boom. I’ll admit, I was impressed with what a good, wholly realized vision it is. It’s exciting seeing all of these new takes on vampires – the idea of seeing a vampire as a teen heartthrob/pinup/boy-band person is really new and interesting and exciting for people. Subjectively, in terms of my tastes, I happen to like my vampires a little scarier than that. I admire the originality of that take, the same way in True Blood it’s really interesting to see them as an oppressed social class trying to integrate culturally and have it be this political issue. What we’re going for is much darker, and in some ways, it’s as different and hopefully as fresh as it is something traditional, at least in the way it imagines vampires as essentially scary. When you see Skinner turn into a vampire, you don’t want to kiss him or go on a date with him. You want to run away.