This article was originally published at DC Infinite on April 16, 2014.
The impact of horror stories often hinge on their ability to create tension. The pressure carefully increased over the course of the story allows for a release which can make a reader feel simultaneously relieved and terrified. Without the strain, the scares or reveals of a horror story lose their impact. American Vampire: Second Cycle #2 constructs tension perfectly and then releases it to great effect. It shows why Scott Snyder is renowned for his work within the horror genre and how Rafael Albuquerque translates his concepts into very effective, very scary comics.
The opening scene is surprisingly subtle in how it evokes a sense of mounting terror. It opens with the re-introduction of Cal, one of the series few returning characters, and the the laying of basic groundwork. It’s a scene focused around exposition, exploring the new status quo for Pearl, Cal, and the Vassals of the Morning Star. It’s loaded with visual subtext that only becomes clear on its final page. The color orange lies beneath the panels of each page as flashes of The Signalman performing. His presence is slightly predatory, as panels focus on his teeth and the sharp shine of his guitar pick. The compositions alone are enough to create a general sense of unease. When the meaning of his orange suit is revealed, the previous pages gain a menacing significance. There is a large unknown threat and it is lying directly beneath the panels on every page, behind the scenes just out of view.
The subtly mounting tension of the opening sequence is turned into something much more visceral in the following one. Panels from this sequence are not included because to see them out of context would be to ruin the effect. The sequence reveals a mysterious monster, a strain of vampire not yet encountered in the series. It approaches a lone man and reveals its horrific face. It then speaks using the voice of the man’s son, but the voice actually belongs to his (now deceased) child and it speaks at length with his father. The final panel of the sequence is so creepy, laden with an overwhelming sense of inevitability that it must be experience first hand.
Albuquerque’s art is the key to the sequence’s effectiveness though. It is deeply expressive and dark, his linework exaggerated just enough to bend reality in a believable manner. The concept of this monster is scary on an existential level, and that fear is fully realized on the page, whether it’s in the monsters gaping jaws or the quietly crying face of a farmer accepting his death. Every image expresses the inherent wrongness of what is occurring.
The face of the monster serves as a perfect mid-point to the comic as well. It represents the climax of the issue. Something hidden and mundane is revealed to be horrific and threatening. It comes from an unexpected place and its power is overwhelming. If there were a theme to Second Cycle #2, it would be that what we don’t know about can hurt us in unexpected and vicious ways. This moment captures that concept perfectly.
This all leads to the final pages where chaos breaks out. Cal is attacked in his hotel room by a well-armed conspiracy and Pearl discovers that one of her wards has transformed into a gigantic monster. Despite all their caution, both characters have been attacked where they believed they were safe. The attacks are almost a relief after the preceding pages of threat and menace. They were inevitable, with the only question being what form they would take. The effectiveness of the scene is that readers will be attempting to take a deep breath, just as the action begins.
The kicker to this entire sequence is that the process of building tension begins again when it concludes. A hand belonging to person unknown hangs up Pearl’s phone. The newly revealed monster in the other room is merely a distraction. Far worse creatures still lie in wait, just outside of the panel, just out of view.
Skinner Sweet is notably absent from this issue and it is probably for the best. The division between two stories in American Vampire #1 worked to re-establish the story, but never gave either plot enough room to accomplish anything significant. Given an entire issue to focus on Pearl, Snyder and Albuquerque craft a story that will stick with readers until the next issue.
Second Cycle #2 is a masterclass of tension and horror. It uses each scene to make the reader feel more trepidation, until it unleashes the monster that has been hidden the entire issue, then starts the process all over again. American Vampire is typically used as an example of how the horror genre can be effectively utilized in comics. Issues like this are the reason why.