Best Shots Extra: AMERICAN VAMPIRE, HEADACHE

Best Shots Extra

 

American Vampire #14

Written by Scott Snyder

Art by Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig

Lettering by Pat Brosseau

Published by Vertigo

Review by David Pepose

One of the toughest things about reviewing comics, for me at least, is remembering that not every book is for me. There are certain books that, well, are a matter of taste -- while I can argue (rightly) that they don't hook me until the cows come home, there's also an audience that does appreciate said book for arguably some of the same qualities that turned me off in the first place.

American Vampire is one of those books. Part of it might be a read-for-the-trade instinct -- this book opens up with "sometimes you're just too close to something to see it clearly," and maybe waiting four to five weeks between each installment is exactly that. But after reading this book, I'm still wondering -- is it just a matter of taste? Or are there some actual structural issues to this book as a whole? Let's discuss.

After reading -- and rereading -- this book several times, I think what's holding me back is that I didn't connect with the characters. This is a war comic with vampires, but aside from the plot moving forward -- Pearl discovers Henry is gone, Henry and his team find more vampires, and Skinner moves like a shark towards his prey, all in the span of 20 pages -- I didn't get that investment, that human resonance, that keeps me interested.

Part of this comes from Rafael Albuquerque's designs -- no matter what kind of backstories Scott Snyder writes for Henry's troupe of vampire slayers, Albuquerque's artistic strengths seemed to become his weaknesses in this regard. He's got that smooth animated style with just that hint of a beautiful sketch, which is great to look at… but all the characters looked alike to me. There's a bit of a litmus test for strong characters, and that's whether or not you can tell which character is saying something in a darkened room. But these guys are fighting in daylight, and outside of a truly funny gag about Henry discussing his marriage to a vampire, it's hard to tell them apart, let alone bond with them as striking characters with different tactics and approaches to life.

But at the same time, part of me had to wonder -- well, if I didn't like this book, is it just a matter of the artistic choices not working for the story, or just for me? Certain parts of the book's general premise -- namely, Skinner Sweet trying to ruin every good thing in Pearl's life -- adds a bit of tension, although I'd also say that a first-time reader of this book probably wouldn't catch that kind of menace. At the very least, showing American history through vampire eyes clearly has its own kind of appeal, just from a high concept perspective -- and from a plot construction perspective, it makes sense to show how deep in over his head Henry can get before someone has to bail him out.

It's funny, because I recognize the impetus for this story -- namely, Henry feeling impotent because he's getting older, while the love of his life isn't -- but I don't see that playing in this particular issue. And while Snyder does give a little bit of backstory to some of the vampire-hunting grunts, I can't tell if it's the disconnect with the design or a lack of reliability that doesn't grab me. Perhaps it's a question of theme, characterization and design not quite hooking me, despite the gorgeous-looking art and the unquestionable sense of mood: People can be murdered by vampires as much as they want, but without me being able to connect and identify with these victims, they just become snuff drawings.

Now, will there be plenty of people who do like this issue of American Vampire? Absolutely -- Snyder's writing style evokes his background in both prose and his growing comfort with sequential art, and Albuquerque's style with Dave McCaig's art is a consistency you don't see too much of in comics these days. But there are people out there who are still unconverted, and I know that this concept, these characters, this breadth of storytelling potential can grab them. In the end, maybe that's what you can take from this review -- this is a series I want to read, want to love. But with this arc, I'm just not feeling it.

 

Headache

Written by Lisa Joy

Art by Jim Fern and Manuel Martin

Letters by Bill Tortolini

Published by Kickstart Comics

Review by Erika D. Peterman

In Greek mythology, the gods are as petty as they are powerful. Jealousy, lust, self-absorption, and revenge are recurring themes on Mount Olympus, making those ancient tales grand-scale, supernatural soap operas. It’s storytelling gold, and writer Lisa Joy puts that capital to good use in Headache, a highly entertaining, sharply written tale of gods on present-day Earth.

The central character, 19-year-old Sarah Pallas, first appears institutionalized and heavily doped up. However, the drugs and deception don’t suppress memories of her former life in Ancient Greece, where she witnessed her mother’s murder. When a malicious visitor shows up and confirms that Sarah is really the half-deity Athena, she quickly proves she’s no cowering mortal. Resourceful and hardcore (she breaks her own hands to free herself from chains) the hunted Athena escapes and finds her way home — home being the upper-middle-class house where her dad, Zeus, and his testy wife, Hera, reside. One heck of a family reunion awaits.

Joy’s writing has a dark-humored zing, and that’s no surprise considering her credentials as a writer on TV shows like Burn Notice and Pushing Daisies. Take Hera’s internal monologue as she prepares a "pre-Armageddon" dinner for her fellow gods and goddesses:  “Marriage made me a new woman. No more flaying and castrating. Now I’m into cooking, cleaning … and needlepoint.” Or Zeus’ admission that he finds the Internet’s omnipresence threatening. “It makes me feel redundant.”

By the way, the Olympian dinner table is a riot. Aphrodite wants a quickie with Ares, and her husband, Hephaestus, glumly tolerates the blatant cheating. Hermes complains about failing his drivers exam again, and Poseidon is (naturally) a laid-back surfer dude. And though this should have been obvious, who knew that Hades hated his job as a River Styx crossing guard? They’re all so colorful and witty that Athena eventually becomes the least interesting character in a book that revolves around her. Her quest fuels the narrative nicely, and it's always great to see a formidable young heroine in a lead role. Still, whenever she took the spotlight, I was impatient to get back to the juicy subplots and fascinating supporting players. Even without the fate of mankind possibly hanging in the balance, Joy’s material is rich. I’d love to see an ongoing, Fables-style series about these deities making a life below the clouds.

Jim Fern’s illustrations are clean and pleasant, and close-up emotion is his strength. Hephaestus' anguished facial expressions convey just how deeply wounded he is by Aphrodite's infidelity, and Fern draws Athena with the right mixture of innocence and steeliness. The gods are appropriately haughty and excessively attractive. However, the action panels — and there are many — have a stiff, flat quality. The color palette is also oddly muted and dreary, and it's frustrating that the art doesn't have the same sizzle and energy as the script. But despite the visual shortcomings, Headache is a book with style and substance, and it’s another winning book that bodes well for Kickstart’s future.

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