Vol. 2 of this series was just about everything you could ask for in a second volume, and that’s why I picked it as one of the best comics I read last year. It clarified the title’s direction and purpose, introduced compelling new characters and gave depth to the established ones, and set up a slew of interesting plot points to be followed up on later. While I bought the first volume in hardcover mainly to commemorate Stephen King’s first major work in comics, series creators Scott Snyder proved with vol. 2 that he can do just fine when his friend isn’t involved in the storytelling. Regrettably, all of this is what makes it painful to admit that vol. 3 isn’t in the same league. Here, the idea of seeing the rise of America re-interpreted as a clash between vampire races is essentially cast aside for B-movie thrills and killing off interesting characters.
It doesn’t start off that way, as the story that opens the collection shows the series at its best. “Strange Frontier” has original American Vampire Skinner Sweet attending a Wild West show and marvelling at the gulf between the presented legends of its stars, and the reality that he witnessed. Coincidentially, it also stars one of Skinner’s old girlfriends who is revealed in short order to be the person who turned him over to the authorities. It’s a great tale about how the past rarely stays dead for those who have left their distinctive mark on it, and it also shows us another side to the legendary vampire. Though there’s plenty of his gleeful cruelty on display here, we also find out that Skinner can also be merciful in his own way.
Then we move into the next story, “Ghost War,” and things start going downhill. Now Snyder is a skilled enough writer that he can invest certain worn-out tropes with enough vitality that they can still hold your interest. I know this because there are a metric assload of them present here. It starts off with Henry Preston, significant other to the “other” American Vampire Pearl Jones, feeling old and useless at the fact that this WWI vet is now a mailboy in Honolulu while WWII rages on around him. Naturally, he gets a chance to get in on a different kind of action when the Vassals of the Morning Star contact him about a special operation they’ve got planned for the island of Taipei which is thought to be the site of a vampire infestation. Robert accepts their deal and one little lie to his wife later, he’s on his way... with Skinner Sweet tagging along for reasons of his own.
From there, we see Robert getting to know his veteran partners, entering into a devil’s bargain with Sweet, Pearl finding out the truth, and vampire fights that have more in common with “Aliens” than anything else. All of this is perfectly readable, but the thrill of the new is gone. To use another worn-out comparison, “It has been washed away in the sea of predictability.” It was compelling to see Sweet’s hand in the origin of Las Vegas, and I was expecting to see something equally interesting here as he left his mark on WWII. That’s not the case here as their contribution to this era is as nothing more meaningful than a weapon. It makes for an okay read, but not much more.
That’s also the case of the second story collected here, “Survival of the Fittest.” It wasn’t serialized as part of the main series, but as a mini-series that ran concurrently to it. Now if you’re thinking that because “Ghost War” took place in the Pacific Theater of Operations, this arc will focus on the European front and therefore allow for “Nazi Vampires!” then you get a gold star. In the long years since the death of her father Jim Book, his daughter Felicia has become one of the most valued members of the Vassals of the Morning Star. Though her vampire heritage allows her to sniff them out and even fight them on their own terms, she regards it as a curse more than anything else. So when word reaches the V.M.S. about a potential cure for vampirism from a scientist in the hands of the Nazis, she finds herself on a plane along with Cash McCogan, whose son was turned into some kind of vampire spawn in vol. 2, into enemy territory to get it.
Felicia and Cash are both interesting characters and I enjoyed the chance to learn more about what makes them tick in this story. We also get some juicy tidbits about the hierarchy and history of vampires, as there are some interesting statues underneath the castle where most of the action takes place. However, this arc feels even more like a B-movie than the previous one as the action sequences are much bigger and, in the case of the one that closes things out, more ridiculous. “Survival of the Fittest” feels like the allure of “Nazi Vampires!” was too much for Snyder to resist, and that if he was going to do a story that involved them then he would have to go all in. Despite the appeal of the characters and the tidbits of information about the series’ mythos, the arc comes off as more silly than anything else and establishes itself as the weakest one in “American Vampire” to date.
On the plus side, this volume boasts uniformly strong art from all three contributing artists. Danijel Zezelj illustrates “Strange Frontier” and his dark, impressionistic style makes the story work even better in broad daylight. Regular artist Rafael Albuquerque once again proves adept at bringing great detail and emotion to whatever scene he draws, whether they involve vampire gunfights or a tearful commiseration on a hospital bed. Sean Murphy handles “Survival of the Fittest” and even the story he’s asked to draw isn’t that great, the man still goes at every scene with gusto.
Though this volume won’t deter me from picking up vol. 4 later this year, it does temper my enthusiasm for it a great deal. Not helping matters either are the deaths of two characters here which I felt had a lot more to offer the series. I’ll admit that I can understand why it happened to one of them, but the other... Let’s just say that I’m hoping, just this once, that Snyder takes a cue from superhero comics to reveal that it was all a hoax and that this individual will be back with us soon. Hopefully as soon as the next volume.