This article was originally published at DC Infinite on March 20, 2014.
It has been more than a year since the first half of American Vampire concluded with some sweeping changes to its status quo. It has been more than ten years since Pearl and Skinner Sweet parted ways at the end of “The Black List”. That time — both inside and outside of the story — has allowed Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque to refocus the comic and start its second half in an exciting and accessible manner.
Like most previous arcs in the series, Second Cycle #1 spends much of its time reestablishing itself in a new setting. Both of the series protagonists have found new, different places for themselves in the last decade. For longtime readers, their changed circumstances make perfect sense. Pearl’s locale and vocation, in particular, reflect the lasting effects of American Vampire #34. For anyone new to the series, both of their characterizations are clear. Pearl is fiercely protective and clever, creating an underground railroad for vampires. Skinner is the same outlaw he has always been, finding pleasure in robbery and murder. Their two stories are told in tandem throughout the first issue, seemingly unconnected, except for the smallest of hints. Neither story suffers as a result of the other’s interruption though. Both protagonists are compelling enough that readers shouldn’t desire to return to one narrative at the expense of the other.
The new status quo also creates increased accessibility for a series with a sprawling narrative and enormous mythos. Albuquerque is called upon to provide a sense of history for both protagonists using two page murals, which fit between narrative panels above and below. The murals provide hints at what has come before and hit the most important defining beats for each character. Nothing is spelled out, but enough details are given that new readers should find the issue coherent on its own. They’re very effective visual reminders that fit naturally into Albuquerque’s compositions.
The (re-)introductions of these characters are effective as well, but utilize page space less efficiently. Both Pearl and Sweet are first seen in splash pages, pointing guns at dangerous men. These pages are set up by introducing the characters they threaten first. Although their poses and the panel angle are almost identical, their situations are not. Pearl is using a gun to defend a young girl, whereas Sweet is attempting to rob two men. One is a defender, the other a predator. Each of them is dangerous, but they use their shared nature in two drastically different ways. The splash page is unnecessary, though. There is little in the way of background, especially in Sweet’s appearance, and their introductions are hardly the most impactful moments of the comic. Fans of the series will appreciate the reappearance of both characters, but the story does not bear the weight of these large pages. Both could have been done just as effectively in a half-page panel.
Overall, the comic does a very good job telling its story visually. The action sequences are tightly written. Albuquerque’s long, tight lines ably convey the speed of vehicles and power of the vampires. The horror elements engage his tendency to exaggerate form beautifully. When all of the children show their teeth, each is distinctive and unique. Anatomy is not a primary concern, but the feeling of anatomy is. Dave McCaig’s colors are a perfect fit for Albuquerque’s art. They are expressive and moody, consistently focused on the interplay of shadow and light. Whether it is from the torches of a mob or a Texas sunset, the source and direction of light is always clear.
The pacing is slowed by exposition in both Pearl and Sweet’s story when they explain either to themselves or their companions what they are doing and what drove them to do it. It may be a necessary evil in crafting an introduction for new readers, but it still slows the quick action pacing of a highway shootout or the ominous hints at a larger threat at the beginning and end of the issue. Those moments of foreshadowing effectively accelerate the pace again, so the exposition never becomes too grating. Both the introduction and conclusion of the Second Cycle #1 should leave readers with a fear of the unknown that no amount of exposition can erase.
American Vampire is back and as good as ever. Snyder and Albuquerque have a clear grasp of what worked in the original series and have continued to build on those elements. Any pacing problems are an effect of creating an introduction to a series with such a large history, which should leave the reader with nothing but a sense of optimism about where this comic is going. The characters should be a bit more pessimistic though…