Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialog about religion in this column. Be warned, if you haven’t read the comics discussed below, you might want to go read it and come back, as this column may contain spoilers!
Among the Eisner nominees for best new series is rightfully Vertigo’s American Vampire by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque, with some assists in the first five issues by horror legend Stephen King. I just recently picked the first hardcover up at the behest of many great reviews, most especially Aron White’s ravings on Tales From The Water Cooler. I have to say that this is one of the finest reads of the year for me, and I’m officially jumping on the bandwagon to see where Snyder and Albuquerque take this fantastic cast of characters.
American Vampire, for the uninitiated, centers on the rise of a new breed of vampire making waves around the turn of the 20th Century in America. Vampires of the European nature are deeply entrenched in the inner workings of the burgeoning culture of that time period, including being on the cutting-edge of gold rush towns in the Wild West and early film making of the 1920s. These European vampires, with representatives from Russia, France, and Germany, have lots of power and lots of control over the early days of American culture. But all of this begins to change when a psychopathic outlaw accidentally becomes a vampire himself, infected by one of the European vampires. The outlaw Skinner Sweet becomes a new kind of vampire – an American vampire – who not only changes the regular concepts of the strengths and weaknesses of vampirism, but becomes a parable for the changes in American sensibilities throughout this important and unique time period in history.
Whereas a European vampire can be killed in sunlight or by wood, an American vampire thrives with sunlight, making them stronger, faster, and more brutal than their vampire forebears. An American vampire’s weakness rather than wood, is gold. Thus, the American vampire becomes quite a threat to the traditional vampires of yore, which sets up a pretty exciting metaphor for American culture as a whole.
Writer Scott Snyder says in the afterword in the first hardcover, “[American Vampire] is a story about us, about Americans, about what makes us scary and admirable, monstrous and heroic.” Certainly he has crafted an intriguing look at American sensibilities by using folklore, fantasy, and horror as a way to explore and critique. The basic elements of the vampire evolution in the book and what an American vampire can do speaks to the mindset of our culture that says Americans are stronger, faster, and more dangerous. Our weakness as Americans certainly has been gold, and capitalism has arguably been a great boon, yet a great burden to who we are on the world stage. We crushed European influence during the Revolutionary War and created our own innovations in art, science, and military power. Despite even a civil war in our country, we emerged stronger with a new resolve for that which makes us a world power. Throughout all of American history, even in our brief time as a world culture, we meet tragedy and triumph and move forward, just like the characters of Pearl Jones, Jim Book, Henry Preston, and even Skinner Sweet, who meets such struggle with an opportunistic point of view.
American religion has met with the same paradigm as it has evolved over the course of history. Most of our founding fathers were good Englishmen, many of whom were faithful Anglicans (of which yours truly is a priest). However, with the evolution of reasonable faith and the development of freedom of religion, the landscape of religious thought became as varied as the people who flooded the “land of opportunity.” With them, they brought new cultural perspectives, and a new American religious perspective emerged.
If you look at the rise of Puritanism which eventually bred today’s neo-evangelicalism, you may see a parallel with Snyder’s book. Puritans rejected reason and the emerging religious milieu in America for a simpler faith that held the infallibility of the Bible above all else. This dynamic, along with the dynamic of American manifest destiny, conceived a new type of American Christian, one who was more conservative, more literal in their interpretation of Scripture, and one who was concerned more with the salvation of souls. In fact, today’s fundamentalist Christianity can be seen as a consumerist denomination, growing in souls saved as well as budgets and buildings. The rise of the megachurch speaks to American culture where members can get everything they need out of church without giving much back at all. In fact, this trend is giving rise to an even newer emerging Christian – one who is anonymous, not loyal to any one church, and uneducated in theological concepts.
On the other side of the token, religious freedom in America has also given way to an influence of multiculturalism in religion. Inasmuch as the conservative sect has evolved into a stronger, faster, even more political force in the country, there is just as much world influence on the more liberal side. The rise of human rights from civil to gender to sexual, points to a cultural understanding that rejects the traditional “this is how it’s always been” attitude in favor of a more compassionate and revolutionary type of religious American. The influence of other religions in the mix of Christianity has given way to increased pluralism and understandings, and has also allowed more people to remain Deists, or Agnostic, or even Atheist. The American culture has bred its share of apathy in the religious spectrum as well, making more people skeptical of organized religion than ever before. Consumerism has not only affected the evangelical Christian, but also the non-religious person, who would prefer to sit in Starbucks or chauffeur children to soccer games, rather than sit in a church or synagogue or mosque where they question the very fabric of reality.
In essence, American Vampire does hold a mirror up to all of us and shows us the distorted view of how we think we look, much like the character of Jim Book discovers when he is turned into a vampire himself. Instead of having no image in a mirror, like traditional vampires, the American vampire’s image looks like a fun-house mirror image, a symbol of how Book can’t even recognize himself any more. I wonder if all Americans feel the same way in our post-modern, post-9/11, and maybe even post-religious world. Americans seem more divided than ever on almost every topic from religion to art, from politics to sports. Yes, as a nation, we seem to be stronger, faster, more empowered by the rays of fame and fortune, even impaled on the stake of gold, unable to shake the hunger of life that comes with our accidental emergence. I look forward to seeing how Snyder and Albuquerque continue to trace the parallel of the American vampire to our American story, and perhaps more connections to our religious diversity will emerge as well.
As Skinner Sweet likes to say as he chews on his peppermint, like a good American, “Plans, plans. So many plans…”
*If you have other suggestions for future books to be featured in Comics Are My Religion, please e-mail me. Like American Vampire, they don’t have to have direct religious ties, but perhaps may have an influence on the way you look at life, religion, or God.