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STEPHEN KING Brings an "American Vampire" Tale to Vertigo

By Vaneta Rogers
posted: 26 October 2009 09:06 am ET

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Stephen King's next writing project has bite, as the master of horror brings his take on vampires to monthly comic books.

Beginning in March 2010, "American Vampire," a new ongoing comic from Vertigo, will be released each month with two stories – one by short story writer Scott Snyder and the other by King himself.

"Steve's excited to say this is his first original comic," said Snyder, who first came up with the concept that King further developed in his story. "He came on board with this project because he really liked the character, and that's visible on every page of his five issues, how much fun he has with the character and how villainous and terrible he makes him, where every time you think he can't get any worse, he surprises you."

skinner

Skinner

The character King latched onto is Skinner Sweet, a bank-robbing, murdering cowboy of the 1880s who becomes a new breed of vampire. King's story of Skinner Sweet will be one half of the first five issues of "American Vampire," while Snyder's half will tell another story of a vampire in America during the 1920s. Both stories will be drawn by artist Rafael Albequerque, who will continue on the series with Snyder after King's story ends.

King isn't new to the world of comic books. Not only have several of his novels been adapted into comic books with his approval, but his son, novelist Joe Hill, writes the horror comic "Locke & Key." But with "American Vampire," this is the first comic book writing King has done himself, with a story based on original material.

King decided to work on the comic when Snyder sent him a description of the story and asked if he could provide a quote for promotional purposes. "He wrote back and said he really liked it and he'd be willing to do a blurb. But he said he'd also be willing to do a couple issues," Snyder explained. "Obviously, I said yes."

Karen Berger, senior vice president at Vertigo, said it was a pleasant surprise to get a writer like Stephen King involved in "American Vampire." "Stephen King is the master of modern horror," she said. "He put modern horror on the map. The fact that the first comic story that he's actually written, and the fact that he's choosing to write his first comic based on the strength and the power of Scott's concept, and the fact that it's for us, is just a huge, huge thing."

And what was originally supposed to be just two issues by King quickly turned into more. "He kept saying, 'Do you mind if I expand this a little bit?'" Snyder said with a laugh. "And he ended up doing five issues. He had such an exciting direction after the second or third issue. At that point, it's totally his imaginative baby. And the series is so much better for that. He added so many great things to the character and the storyline and the relationships. He brought an incredible A-game. It was awe-inspiring to watch him do it."

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Skinner

The idea behind "American Vampire" is that vampires can evolve, and because King's vampire was turned in the Old West, he thrives in the sunlight of the desert and has powers that are distinctly American.

"As the vampire bloodline, over the last couple thousand years, has hit different populations at different times, it occasionally mutates into a new species of vampires," Snyder explained. "And so there's this whole secret family tree of different species besides the dominant one that we're aware of – the one that is the classic, nocturnal, blood-drinking, burned-by-the-sunlight species that came to dominate Europe.

"[Skinner Sweet] has all-new powers and all-new weaknesses. This breed of vampire is fiercer and stronger and meaner," Snyder said. "He's in the desert and out in the sunlight constantly. He's more muscular and animalistic and feral. He isn't well-mannered. He's a creature who's more suited to the deserts of Las Vegas and California than he is to the urban, more elegant settings where you can operate by night and hide by day. His fangs are longer and snakelike, and there's a snakelike quality about how wide his jaw goes. And his claws are longer than the European vampires. So he definitely feels more indigenous to the American West, and the American landscape, than anything I've seen before."

But although Snyder invented the character, he said King's direction adds a whole new layer to the story.

"I provided him direction for the first couple issues, but when he ended up doing his own thing, the story actually got better," Snyder said. "He had this whole theme of fact vs. fiction, and legend vs. history He added characters, and severed heads being sent via Pony Express, and all kinds of crazy stuff.

"It was funny because I told Steve that I thought of Skinner being like Joker in some ways and that he was just such a bad-ass and was terrible. And he said, 'OK, I think I've got it,'" Snyder said. "And I was wondering if he would make him bad enough. But then it was like, wow, I didn't even realize the bottomless pit of evil in this character until he took him over."

While King will tell the origin of the new vampire bloodline through Skinner Sweet, Snyder's half of the comic will concentrate on a character named Pearl Jones who is turned into a vampire during Hollywood's silent film era of the 1920s.

"She's out there living with her best friend, struggling to make it in the film industry. She winds up becoming the victim of this vicious vampire attack by the old-school, European vampires," Snyder said. "And Skinner Sweet just happens to be around when that happens. And so her life as an American vampire takes off from there. It's a classic story of revenge on her part.

"There is a bit of a Hannibal Lecter/Clarice relationship between Pearl and Skinner. There's a secret as to why he even creates her in the first place, and a twist to his motivation. But for the most part, there's a righteousness to her mission," Snyder said. "There's a lot of discrimination toward women in 1920s Hollywood, and my story is about these dominant vampires who are secretly running the film industry. And Pearl is someone you root for, because she's creating a sense of fairness and destroying the system where she was tricked into a casting couch room and killed."

And although both stories are being drawn by the same artist, they have very different visual tones. "Rafael is doing this gorgeous 1920s style for my story that has a really different feel from what he's doing for Steve's story," Snyder said. "It's amazing the work he's doing on these issues. It really brings you into the stories and makes them feel real."

Besides being what he calls a "huge, huge vampire fan," Snyder is also a "humongous comics fan." In fact, it was his comics knowledge that landed him the job writing "American Vampire" for Vertigo. After he wrote a short story about a superhero for an anthology called, "Who Can Save Us Now?," a Vertigo editor showed up at a reading for the book.

"They asked all of us up there during the reading, is anyone a serious comic fan? And I got up and said I was," Snyder said. "I think it was kind of a stress question where he asked what I was reading. It had this pop quiz feeling. At that time, I was reading comics like "Final Crisis," and I was reading "Secret Invasion." I think that made them think I wasn't a phony. So they asked me if I had any ideas I wanted to pitch to Vertigo. I think originally they expected me to pitch something more literary, and I came in all about this vampire thing. I've had this story in my head for awhile, and it ended up being something they loved."

"Vertigo's roots are in horror," Berger explained. "It makes sense for us to do a vampire series. But if we do it, we have to do it in a fresh and exciting way. And that's exactly what 'American Vampire' is all about."

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