Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s American Vampire: The Long Road To Hell #1 and Batman #21. Written by Scott Snyder (Batman, Swamp Thing) and Rafael Albuquerque (Blue Beetle, Batman) and drawn by Albuquerque and Greg Capullo (Spawn, Haunt), these two issues spotlight the strong chemistry Snyder has built with his artistic collaborators.
Over the past three years, Scott Snyder has gone from a relative unknown in the comic-book industry to one of the top writers at DC Comics. An endorsement from Stephen King and a serialized back-up story by the novelist gave Snyder’s 2010 series American Vampire the momentum that made it the last big Vertigo launch, and Snyder rode that success to a run on Detective Comics that established him as a rising star of superhero comics. He brought Swamp Thing into the mainstream DC universe for The New 52, has taken over Batman storylines that have influenced all the Bat-titles, and launches Superman Unchained with Jim Lee this week, just in time for Man Of Steel’s release. (For a full review of Superman Unchained, see next Tuesday’s Comics Panel.) DC has put a lot of faith in Snyder, who has mostly delivered—Swamp Thing and Batman hit some rough spots—but none of his superhero work has quite matched the atmosphere, emotion, and thrill of his breakthrough Vertigo book with artist Rafael Albuquerque.
Skinner Sweet is the central figure of American Vampire, the first of a new breed of vampire that walks in the sunlight and can only be killed by gold. The storyline begins in the 1920s, and the series has explored major eras of American history through the trials of Skinner and his victims, enemies, and allies, taking a horrific trip down the darkest roads of the country’s past. American Vampire is on hiatus while Snyder works on Batman, Superman Unchained, and The Wake, but this week’s The Long Road To Hell and an upcoming anthology special will make the wait for the last half of the series a little easier. The first half ended in 1954, and The Long Road To Hell picks up five years later to check in with the book’s resident heartthrob, greaser vampire-slayer Travis Kidd.
Travis is the embodiment of early-’50s “cool”: He rides a motorcycle, wears a leather jacket over a white T-shirt, and kills vampires with a samurai sword and wooden fangs. If James Dean and The Bride from Kill Bill had a kid and raised it to kill vampires, he would be Travis Kidd. Yet while the cover of this one-shot spotlights Travis, the leads of the story are two young lovers in Nebraska who find themselves pulled into the slayer’s orbit when they’re turned into vampires after a dance. A tragic “live fast, die young” romance with a chilling horror bent, The Long Road To Hell is a fantastic done-in-one, made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s Albuquerque’s first time scripting American Vampire.
Rafael Albuquerque’s artwork has been an integral part of American Vampire’s success, showing an eye for design and cinematic staging that beautifully captures the reality of the characters and different time periods. He’s clearly done a lot of research into the fashion, vehicles, and architecture of each era, making the story’s leaps in time immediately noticeable in the visuals. Dave McCaig’s evocative color palette helps dictate the tone of individual scenes by blanketing them in specific hues, and he understands that Albuquerque’s artwork pops when the colors are concentrated and not overly textured. The linework creates most of the definition for the characters and the surroundings while the color is primarily used to show how light affects the objects in the scene. Albuquerque has recently started writing his own stories with a short piece for DC’s Legends Of The Dark Knight anthology, but The Long Road To Hell is his first time writing American Vampire, a task he accomplishes with style and ease. Snyder helped develop the plot, but this is the most control Albuquerque has had on the book, showing the exceptional results that can come from a singular writer-artist’s vision.
In both the script and art, Albuquerque balances the horror shocks with nuanced character storytelling, creating a fully realized romance over 64 pages that is invigorated by concentrated moments of violent terror. At the start of the story, lovers Billy Bob and Jolene justify pick-pocketing dancers by saying that the cash is for their wedding, but when they’re turned, they face a much more dramatic moral dilemma. A victim of sexual and physical abuse as a child who ran away and sold her body to survive, Jolene has set herself on the path of righteousness as an adult and she’s going to prove that she can be the type of woman her dead mother would take pride in. That becomes difficult when she becomes a murderous vampire, but meeting a strange young boy with the ability to detect “bad” people gives Billy Bob and Jolene the opportunity to sate their bloodlust without the guilt. Their plans are shot once they cross paths with Travis, but their story riles the slayer’s romantic side, leading to a finale that is more heartwarming than spine tingling.
The Long Road To Hell isn’t the only book Snyder, Albuquerque, and McCaig are collaborating on this week; the three creators team with writer James Tynion IV for a back-up story in this week’s Batman #21. Serving as the first chapter of the 10-part “Zero Year” storyline, #21 jumps back six years in Bruce Wayne’s history to tell the Batman’s definitive New 52 origin. The back-up goes back even further, checking in with a 19-year-old Bruce Wayne as he helps the police capture a notorious car thief by racing through Rio De Janeiro. Car chases are one of the hardest things to pull off in comics because cars are difficult to draw and don’t lend themselves to dynamic movement in still images (for an amazing example, check out Powers Vol. 1 #18), but Albuquerque’s experience drawing the vehicle-heavy “Death Race” arc of American Vampire makes him the perfect choice to fulfill the story’s need for speed. It’s an exciting short story that is representative of the recent change of tone for Batman, which hasn’t been as bleak and depressing in recent months despite a recently killed Robin.
Batman has been on an upswing after the conclusion of the overbearingly dreary “Death Of The Family” crossover, with the recent Clayface two-parter taking inspiration from the DC animated universe for a story that had elements of darkness but found the fun in being a superhero. “Zero Year” gives Snyder the opportunity to move away from all the sadness that has plagued Batman’s recent history to present a more idealistic version of the hero, and this first issue strongly justifies another Batman origin story. After a prologue revealing a city in ruins with a dirt-bike-riding Dark Knight as its sole protector, the story jumps back five months to show an impulsive Bruce Wayne facing off against the Red Hood. This Bruce is still able to make a daring escape, but he’ll also flash the bad guy his middle finger after he makes his getaway.
Batman’s artwork is normally covered in shadows, but “Zero Year” is filled with blue skies and richly colored landscapes, immediately establishing a lighter tone for a more innocent time in Gotham’s history. Greg Capullo’s work on the series has been some of the strongest art of The New 52, and the recent addition of inker Danny Miki has only made his linework sleeker. The opening pages paint a portrait of a crumbling city on the verge of darkness, a dying metropolis where thugs stalk through tall grass to attack starving children who are forced to fish in subway stations full of water. When Batman arrives, his design makes him look like a masked soldier instead of a superhero, creating the image of a man who isn’t just fighting some costumed freaks but going to full-on war. A major part of Snyder’s narrative is to follow Bruce’s transition from the optimistic crime fighter of five months prior to the hardened badass of the prologue; the first chapter ends with a foreboding image that suggests things aren’t going to remain very bright in this story for long.
Scott Snyder’s comic-book work has used narration to provide details and create atmosphere, but his more recent writing has toned down the narration and put more weight on the dialogue and artwork. It’s improved the pacing of his stories considerably, and this week’s issues of Batman and The Long Road To Hell prove that Snyder’s collaborators are more than capable of handling the extra responsibility. In the case of American Vampire, Snyder has found an artist that not only has an ideal aesthetic for the story but also an intricate understanding of Snyder’s narrative style, creating a partnership that pushes both creators to new heights. The Long Road To Hell is a great omen for the second half of the series, telling a story that reminds readers that they should be very excited for American Vampire’s return from hiatus, whenever that may be.