We’ve had to wait a year, but American Vampire is back. Broken Frontier finds a story filled with tension, horror, sadness and beauty – all the things that readers have come to expect from an award-winning series that uses death to teach us about life.
We are now at 1965 in the history of Pearl Jones and Skinner Sweet. Jones has returned to her Kansas home and turned it into a refuge for child vampires, while on the Texas/Mexico border, Sweet is back to the bandit life, raiding trucks and dealing arms.
However, in a characteristically ‘Snyder-ian’ flashback to 1811, we are given a glimpse of something: a deadly god-knows-what that wreaks a terrible death upon a group of native Americans in Arizona. Inside Pearl’s refuge, an infant vampire shows her kindly rescuer her horrible scars. And when Skinner finds a school bus out in the desert, he is confronted by something so bad that it terrifies even him – something that bears a resemblance to that deadly god-knows-what in 1811.
If you asked me to sum up this issue with one word, I would choose ‘sadness’. Pearl’s husband died at the end of the last series, and now she makes up for her loneliness by looking after child vampires. Skinner Sweet hides out underground in a train car – a relic from his old days in charge of the gang, when he was still human. He talks to ghosts and skeletons about the futility of his previous attempts to avoid his true self – the man to beware.
So here we have the two greatest characters in American Vampire, Pearl and Skinner, forever linked by virtue of being maker and made but separated entirely. The distance between them seems to mean something, as their stories are told side-by-side, in a way not seen in other issues.
There is enormous tension in the tale, emphasised by the use of children throughout this issue. The reader frets over the protection of the innocent – the residents of Pearl’s refuge and Skinner’s find on the school bus. The entity which appears is something new but old – something outside the realms of the vampire clans about which Snyder has taught us. Whatever it is, it is nasty, coming for everyone. If it scares Skinner, then it has to be bad.
There are all the usual horror flourishes that we love about American Vampire: a talking head in a bag, ghostly wings that seem to exist in mist. Both Pearl and Skinner show their menace. Their edges have not been dulled by a year’s absence; their actions are still blade-sharp, deadly. She brandishes a gun in defence of her homestead, while he chases gun trucks on a Harley and bares his fangs. It all makes you do a little clap in pleasure at seeing the two of them at it again.
Although other artists have contributed beautifully to the American Vampire canon over its many issues, it is Rafael Albuquerque who is the most ‘AV’ of them all. He seems to own the trademark on Pearl and Skinner. The eyes that turn from black to yellow to red according to the moment; the shift from murderous intent to sexual embrace; the terrified faces of the Native Americans as they are scooped up into the snow-filled sky at the beginning – the comic is as lovely to look at as it is to read.
So yes – American Vampire has returned, and it has returned to where it has its greatest power: to Albuquerque; to Pearl and Skinner; to America.
Scott Snyder (W), Rafael Albuquerque (A) • Vertigo Comics, $3.99, March 19, 2014