Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The American Nightmare: Examining America's Monsters in "American Vampire"

"Every age embraces the vampire it needs.” –Nina Auerbach
            More than most works in the vampire genre, writer Scott Snyder and artist Rafael Albuqueque’s comic book series American Vampire embraces the concept of vampires changing to match the needs of the society they are in. Explaining the changes in vampires as new species emerging, Snyder explores what America needs in from its vampires across several decades and areas. In the 1880s in the wild of Colorado, in 1925 in the emerging media capital of Hollywood, in 1936 crime-ridden Las Vegas, and in the Pacific front of Taipan in 1943, each presents a new strain of vampire and the new ways that they prey on America.
            The first five issues of the series feature the origins of Skinner Sweet, the first American vampire. A notorious outlaw of the wild west, Sweet was just as much a vampire to society before even being bit. He is a noted murderer, thief, rapist, and glutton. An interesting thing to note is that of all his crimes, his gluttony—manifesting as a “sweet tooth”—is the thing that is his nickname. This focus on gluttony betrays his biggest crime: that he always hungers for more. During his arc, he comes into conflict with a cartel of European bankers that are vampires. During this time, the west was being settled, and America was trying to distance itself more and more from the European powers that once claimed dominion over the continent. America was busy forging its own identity and getting out from the older nations’ shadows. So, this is the time when the new American vampire emerges and separates itself as a newer, stronger breed than the Europeans he comes into conflict with. Skinner is the first American vampire because he is from a time when America needed its own monsters. Holding onto Europe wasn’t good enough anymore. Pear asks Sweet in the third issue, “I’m a vampire? Like them?” and he replies, “Oh, no, Dolly. You’re a vampire like me. And believe me, there’s a big difference.”
            The next time to be explored is 1925 in Hollywood, California. This era was the birth of the movie star. Hollywood was just starting to become the center of the motion picture industry, and gaining the grandeur and mystique that came with it. In a way, Hollywood is becoming the capital of “The American Dream,” a place where anyone can go and make it big. However, the Dream isn’t so clean-cut all the time. As the vampires in this arc show, there’s an ugly side to the American Dream. The vampires are portrayed as the producers and directors and big shots at the movie studios. They’re the ones in charge of saying who does or doesn’t get to experience the Dream. They prey on the naiveté of the Americans who buy into the Dream, and this is exactly how they lure Pearl in to devour her. They seduce her with a chance to meet someone who can help her “make it,” but she ends up having Hollywood drain the life from her instead. As the vampires say in issue five, “A young actress, plucked from obscurity and given her big chance? It plays directly into the great national fantasy…the fantasy that everyone counts equally…It’s a country of Grand Delusions.” However, this isn’t the only vampire that Pearl finds in Hollywood. The very nature of the American Dream and of Hollywood makes it extremely competitive and cutthroat, an atmosphere that can create monsters out of formerly good people. Pearl’s best friend Hattie purposefully transforms herself into a vampire because she wants to have an edge over Pearl and an “in” with the vampires in charge. She knows the dark and nasty nature of what she’s turning herself into, but she betrays Pearl anyway, and all for her own Grand Delusion. The American Dream is the real vampire in this story.
            Starting in issue six, the narrative moves to 1936, Las Vegas, Nevada. It’s the height of the Great Depression for the rest of the country, but Vegas’ economy is booming thanks to the construction of the Hoover Dam, the biggest construction project in American history. A mantra repeated forebodingly by many of the citizens is “Bless the Dam”; a sentence with clear double meaning. We are introduced to a character named Cashel McCogan, who is the chief of the Vegas police force, and is tasked with trying to control the crime running rampant in the town. For the first time, prostitution and gambling has been legalized, but with it comes murders and other violent crime. The owners of the casinos are vampires, and so is the local whorehouse, owned by one Skinner Sweet. The vampires have taken advantage of the thousands of construction workers living in the area now by creating all of the entertainment they could want. However, in true vampiric fashion, they are draining Vegas of its morals and disease and crime are ravaging the city. The vampires are using their influence to bring out the worst in the people of Las Vegas, including Cashel’s father, a man belonging to an ancient breed of vampires. He hasn’t killed a man in over 700 years, but when the newer vampires come to town and exploit the city, they draw out the ugliness in all of the people there, and Cashel’s father reverts to his old ways, and is eventually killed for it. The true vampire here is the desire for money, sucking the moral blood from the city.
            Finally, in issue thirteen, we are taken to Taipan during the Second World War, where a squad of vampire hunters has been sent on a special mission to find a rumored nest of Japanese vampires. When they find the vampires, they are faceless and more like animals than any other breeds seen so far in the series. They attack in waves of hundreds and retain none of their personalities. It is soon discovered that the Japanese have been breeding them purposefully, transforming their own villages into weapons. This is a metaphor for a problem that the American military faced in WWII when facing Japan. The Japanese were willing to sacrifice themselves meaninglessly and freely to hurt the enemy, and the government was content treating their soldiers less like humans and more like weapons, a practice shown in the use of kamikaze pilots and banzai charges. These purposeful suicides and tossing away of life was a hard thing for the average American soldier had a hard time wrapping his head around. The breeding of faceless vampires to use as weapons is just a fictional extension of the war ideology that Japan was using at the time. The monsters, ironically, were the ones encouraging the practice, not the vampires or kamikazes themselves.
            Whether it’s forging a new American identity by creating our own monsters in the wild west, the vampiric draining nature of the American Dream, the unchecked desire for wealth sucking our morals dry, or the disregard for life in war, Snyder and Albuquerque’s American Vampire uses Nina Auerbach’s theory and weaves it beautifully into the ongoing narrative of the series. By making us take a good long look at our monsters, American Vampire forces us to take a look at ourselves as well.

I originally wrote this paper for my ENG 256 class.