(NOTE: This is a first impressions examination of two series, one that is into the mid-forties in terms of issue quantity and the other that just had its second issue released)
Horror has begun to have a Renaissance in the comic scene over the last couple of years. With the extreme popularity of The Walking Dead, the floodgates for the things that go bump in the night have opened. Like every genre, horror has a variety of ways it can scare or entertain us. A writer that has shown variety in those flavors of horror lately has been Scott Snyder.
When you say that name, most comic fans think of DC Comic’s biggest franchise, Batman. With good reason, it’s consistently their highest selling book. But what we are going to talk about is Snyder’s two horror creator-owned books, American Vampire and Wytches.
American Vampire came on to the scene in 2010 with artwork usually by Rafael Albuquerque (Blue Beetle, Animal Man) and Dave McCaig (Gotham Academy). It is a story about a new breed of vampire whose origin is found in the heart of America (we have a title!) usually told through the eyes of two members of this new genus, the diabolical Skinner Sweet and would-be starlet turned protector of newborn vampires, Pearl Jones.
Now, trying to make a vampire story in this day and age is…difficult. Let’s face it; the modern zeitgeist has made the image of the vampire into something incredibly less threatening. “De-fanged”, if you will. However, Snyder is able to dodge the pitfalls that this subgenre has created over the years. Part of this I feel is because, well, these vampires are straight up killers. There is no mopey vampire “hotie” who pretentiously drinks the blood of animals because they oh-so-love the humans. This of course does not mean that all the vampires are one-dimensional monsters. Both Skinner and Pearl get massive amounts of depth to their characters as well as several others.
Another big aspect in American Vampire is American history and how vampires as a species have had a shadowy hand in manipulating and are in turn manipulated back. The series has gone through several time skips, sometimes forward, sometimes back. From the Wild West, to the Golden Twenties of Hollywood, to war-torn Pacific Islands to the most recent arc where the story is entering the era of the Cold War and Space Race.
The horror in American Vampire comes from a more open place. It is, and don’t think of this as a negative because it is not, a more over the top kind of horror. You had Skinner Sweet emerging from a lake, the first time in his vampire form, hideous and monstrous, looking for a piece of candy for goodness sake. But again, some of the over-the-topness actually works to the books benefit and makes some of the more terrible things that happen to people even more horrific. A part of me wants to compare it to the kind of B-Movie horror and violence, but I feel like most people will put a negative connotation to that, but that is not the intention. It can horrify, but it can also entertain as well.
Then we come to Wytches.
Wytches has Snyder team up with his Batman: The Black Mirror partner in crime, Jock (Hellblazer: Pandemonium, Savage Wolverine) along with colorist Matt Hollingsworth (Hawkeye, The Wake). It tells the tale of the Rooks Family and their encounter with these strange creatures of the forest.
On first impressions, Wytches has a much quieter, subtle approach to its horror. If American Vampire relies on open horror as the monster chaises after you, Wytches is like being stuck in a room with something that despises you in every conceivable way and the creature is right behind you and you can feel it’s cold, hollow breath on your neck and you’re getting more nervous but you’re too afraid to look because that will really piss it off.
Now, this isn’t to say that American Vampire doesn’t cross into the realms of the quiet disturbing. One of the more recent examples was in American Vampire: Second Cycle #5 (The series re-started it’s numbering after returning from hiatus. Comics are weird like that) used a combination of prose and comic paneling to let our imagination produce all the fear for us.
Part of the reason that I feel Wytches has managed to catch this kind of horror in a visual medium is the art work. Jock/Hollingsworth provide very murky, surreal images at times so we never get a full look at the creatures hunting the Rooks Family, even when the creature is right there full on panel. Combine this with plot points of the daughter, Sailor (yes that is her name), is seeing things other people aren’t. This kind of mind play produces its own unique horror and adds to the ambiance Wytches is trying to create. In comparison, Albuquerque and McCaig’s monsters are, while incredibly well designed and variety among the different breeds of vampires, more out in the open and straight forward.
Now, I’m not saying one type of horror is better than the other. Both styles have been used to both greatness and horridness. But it goes to show that when people say they want a “horror” book, some don’t seem to get how broad of a spectrum that covers. Even a horror book can be entertaining and even fun as we see the darkest aspects of our culture come to life or it can leave us with the feeling of being completely alone and miserable. It is great to see writers take such spectrum into consideration and I only hope the genre expands more and more in the comic medium.
American Vampire is released monthly through Vertigo Comics and Wytches is also released monthly through Image Comics and are both very much worth your time.