This title went on a hiatus a year ago in order to allow writer Scott Snyder and artist Rafael Albuquerque time to take care of some outstanding prior commitments (see: Snyder on “Superman Unchained” and “The Wake”) and to pursue other opportunities (see: Albuquerque on “Animal Man”). I thought it was a good idea because the last thing I want to see for any creator-owned title is to see it spiral off into the special kind of scheduling hell that Bendis’ titles have fallen into over the years. Though it appears that even after taking this out of the equation, Snyder’s titles have run into some nasty scheduling problems of their own. But I digress -- and in order to make sure that nobody forgot about their signature work, Snyder and Albuquerque worked together and called in some friends to put out two issues during the hiatus to keep the home fires burning? Now that they’re collected here, I find myself appreciating the intentions behind their actions as opposed to the end result.
“The Long Road to Hell” is first up and it’s very much in line with what we’ve been getting from the main series, save for one small yet critical change. That would be the fact that Albuquerque is the driving force behind this one-shot as he not only illustrated it, but co-wrote its story with Snyder and provided the script himself. The series has provided ample proof in regards to the man’s artistic skill, so I went into this in the hopes of being similarly wowed by his prowess with the written word.
As it turns out, the snap and style of Snyder’s dialogue is pretty distinctive after all as longtime readers will likely notice immediately that something is off in this 1959-set tale of lovers on the run. Billy Bob and Jo are a couple of rednecks in love, pickpockets and petty thieves by trade. Things go bad for them one night when Billy Bob, in true slasher movie style, goes off to help a girl with her car only to find out that he’s been lured out by a vampire. He and his girlfriend are turned and brought before one Oscar Brood who declares them to be his minions. Before the couple can be made to kiss his ring, more vampires break in and demand to know about a cure for their condition that can be had in Vegas. In the ensuing fight, Billy Bob and Jo escape -- with Brood’s ring -- and make their way as fast as they can to Vegas. Yet not fast enough to avoid getting thirsty…
Though I wish that the series would set its sights higher than simply re-treading the genres of the various decades it inhabits, it still makes for entertaining reading most of the time. That’s due in no small part to the fact that Snyder not only knows his way around the material, but also how to add the right twist at the right time and create interesting characters as well. Albuquerque isn’t on his partner’s level and the end result is that we get a standard issue chase story with some vampirism added in for effect. Oh, there’s a bit more to it like the kid Jasper who has a knack for lying and will clearly be Of Some Significance to the story later on. We also get the return of a certain vampire-hunting greaser, even though his role here feels more like fanservice than anything else. I won’t say that the story is actively bad, but it never really displays anything more than competence in its execution.
I can’t say that about the art, as it’s as good as we’ve ever seen from Albuquerque in this series. It’s big, expressive, dynamic work that makes even the little things like the over-the-shoulder shot of the vampire woman revealing herself to Billy Bob stand out. Of course, when the big things arrive they’re just that much more impressive. Seeing Oscar’s final moment in all its full-page glory, and Billy Bob and Jo’s frantic plea for Jasper to get the hell out of their car are some of the most visually striking moments I’ve seen in this series. It’s just a shame that they’re shackled to such familiar, straightforward material.
That’s also the fate of much of the art in the “American Vampire Anthology” as well. Given the talent involved, I was expecting this to be completely awesome from start to finish. What we get is standard issue anthology unevenness, but of a very pretty variety.
Jason Aaron and Declan Shalvey are first up with “Lost Colony,” a story that takes its cues from the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Roanoke colony. It’s basically Indians vs. Vampires and not quite as fun as you’d expect such an outlandish concept would be, coming as it does from Aaron. Shalvey’s art gets the job done, with a couple memorable visuals as well.
Albuquerque shows up as a writer again on “Bleeding Kansas” with a story that tries to mix slavery, abolitionism, a couple trying to make a new home for themselves, their impending parenthood, and vampires all together. Any one of these “and vampires” would’ve been enough for a decent short story. Trying to cram them all into eight pages is a mistake. Though the art from Ivo Milazzo is certainly distinctive, his loose linework and slapped-on watercolors make it look incredibly sloppy to my eyes.
Trying to take a story called “Canadian Vampire” seriously may seem like a tall order, but Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes pull it off. Lemire makes ex-Mountie bounty hunter Jack Warnhammer into a certifiable badass and Fawkes uses his linework and watercolors in a way that effectively capture the cold emptiness of the Canadian wilds. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before but the execution is just right.
The upward trend continues with Becky Cloonan’s “Greed” which features Skinner Sweet, stuck in Death Valley, coming upon a film crew who set up shop nearby. Not only does Cloonan have Skinner’s voice and manner down well, I’ve always enjoyed taking in her art and its’ in fine form again here. As for the story, it seems to exist mainly to give Skinner a reason for setting up in Hollywood back in the first volume. It’s harmless fun in that regard.
Francesco Francavilla delivers a short that’s much like his “Black Beetle” miniseries in “The Producers.” That’s to say that it’s long on visual style and not so much on dialogue or plotting. Still, the man’s style is such that it has no trouble carrying the story for eight pages.
“Essence of Life” features some very nicely rendered and shaded art from Tula Lotay. It also has Gail Simone showing us Hattie Hargrove’s first shot at the big time in Hollywood and her first encounter with the “casting couch” as well. It’s a nasty piece of work where bad things happen to good and bad people and sadness gives way to something far more sinister in the end. I loved it and Simone also gives us the most inventively gory scene in the entire book as well.
Given that “Last Night” is from Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon it should’ve stood out as one of the best tales in this collection. Regrettably that’s not the case as the story behind their short is so threadbare that you get the feeling they did this solely to draw a 1940’s jazz club and get paid for the experience. It’s a very nice-looking jazz club, as are the events that take place inside of it, but the short has nothing more to recommend it beyond that.
Greg Rucka and J.P. Leon close out the anthology with a tale that brings us back to familiar territory for the former in “Portland, 1940.” It involves a sick, homeless man who complains about “leaking out for years” whose fortunes go from bad to worse as he winds up being prepped for sale as slave labor on a ship. The story is most interesting for the way that it directly ties into the main “American Vampire” storyline, though perceptive readers will likely be able to guess who this guy is before the big reveal happens.
These eight stories are bookended by a framing sequence, “The Man Comes Around,” featuring Skinner from Snyder and Albuquerque. It’s all style and shows the character at the top of its game while also demonstrating that the series is at its best when Snyder is doing the writing and Albuquerque is doing the art. This volume was an okay diversion from that template, but one that left clear room for improvement if they decide to give us more in this vein. I look forward to seeing things get back on track when the title’s “Second Cycle” gets its first collection.