Remember when creators Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque put this series on hiatus for a year so that they’d be able to work on all of the issues together and have them come out on schedule? Yeah, that worked out real well. It took Snyder and Albuquerque over a year to put out the six issues collected in this volume and now they’re putting it on hiatus again while they work out their respective schedules and work on other projects. It’s a tough time to be an “American Vampire” fan with all this going on is what I’m saying here. At least the goings-on in this volume make for a decent read as always, except I’m firmly convinced that it’s never going to get back that special flair it had in the beginning to make me think that it was more than just a clever horrorshow. Fortunately, the narrative manages to avoid most of the silliness I was expecting from its “VAMPIRES IN SPAAAAAAAAAAACE!” storyline.
That’s right, the events of this volume wind up taking Calvin Poole and Skinner into near-Earth orbit as they have to sabotage a Russian satellite to prevent WWIII from starting over the disappearance of an anti-vampire weapon. I’m getting ahead of myself, though, as Pearl, Cal, and Skinner all wind up back in the employ of the Vassals of the Morning Star and under the supervision of someone we haven’t seen in the main series for a very long time: Felicia Book. She fills them in on the nature of the threat they face with the Grey Trader and about the one weapon that will hopefully put an end to his schemes. While Cal and Skinner take a rocket to disrupt the Russian’s satellite surveillance of said weapon, Pearl and Felicia are headed to Area 51 to secure the weapon.
If you’re wondering if just one of these two groups is heading into a trap, or if they both are, I’ll spare you the trouble. The answer is “both.” That’s not a spoiler. You shouldn’t be surprised by this development as things going bad like this has been a staple of the series since its beginning. No points for guessing if there’s another traitor in the Vassals’ ranks this time out either.
Yet even if the nature of the conflicts in this volume play out pretty much as you’d expect, Snyder and Albuquerque still dig into them with gusto. Once the action gets going, it keeps moving at a frantic pace until the end. At which point we’re greeted with a couple of game-changing revelations for the series. One of these involves some big-headed silliness, and the other I’ll discuss obliquely in a bit. Albuquerque’s art, in particular, is on fine form here as we get to see some memorable new monster designs and some real momentum in the truck chase sequences towards the end of the volume. It may have taken him longer than usual to serve up the art for this volume, but Albuquerque delivers once again.
I also have to give Snyder some credit for subverting my expectations after the last volume. Where I was expecting some very silly creationist legends, the story of the Gray Trader and the dragon is scaled back quite a bit. To the point where it becomes standard-issue fantasy fodder. I’m not complaining here, as the conflict now feels within the title’s established scope. However, it would’ve been nice if this could’ve been communicated without a large expository infodump from Book.
Then you have the business with Skinner, seen in the previous volume to have been infected by the Gray Trader. While we’ve seen this kind of “turning” storyline in zombie fiction before, things didn’t play out as I was expecting here. I won’t go into too much detail, save to say that Skinner’s “turned” look is truly fearsome, he continues to not be a fan of being told what to do in this state, and it all comes to an unexpected conclusion upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. For a plot thread that I wasn’t expecting much from, Snyder actually managed to make it into one of the volume’s more memorable and entertaining parts.
Which also brings me to another complaint. By the end of the volume, Skinner is left… diminished in a way that we haven’t seen before. I’m sure the nature of this change has some part to play in the title’s climax, but it just feels depressing to see right now. In fact, it also makes me think about how Skinner has been kept on some kind of leash after being left to run free over the course of the first two volumes. He’s always been the series’ main source of fun with his anti-authoritarian ways and knack for turning a clever or cutting phrase. Pearl may be “American Vampire’s” emotional heart, but there’s no denying that things pick up noticeably whenever Skinner is on the scene.
That’s why it bothers me to see Snyder keep trying to find new ways to keep a good vampire down. Whether it’s having a bomb implanted in his chest to make him play nice with the Vassals, making him suffer through the Gray Trader’s infection, and then this final twist at the end of the volume, it’s like the writer is deliberately trying to sabotage the appeal of the most compelling character in this story. Even in the subdued form that he’s in here, there are still enough moments — usually involving loss of blood or life — that make for a convincing “Let Skinner Be Skinner” argument. Unfortunately, it would appear that there’s precious little time or opportunity left for that to happen in this series.
It hasn’t been stated when the “Third Cycle” of “American Vampire” will kick off and bring this series to a conclusion, but we can at least hope that it’ll happen later (much later, likely) this year. Even if this series turned out to be a series of genre riffs with vampires instead of a tour down the dark side of this country’s history (with vampires), it’s still a decent enough read to keep me in for the long haul. This volume is a good enough setup for its end, now it’s just a matter of waiting for its creators to get their act together and deliver it.