Blood, White & Blue | Scott Snyder

The American Vampire author discusses the primal fear at the heart of the vampire concept, his collaboration with Stephen King, and his upcoming run on Detective Comics.
 

 

Scott Snyder is one of the newest talents in literature and comics today. He first appeared on the scene as the author of Voodoo Heart, which was shortlisted for the 2006 Story Prize. He has listed as an occupation: grad student at Columbia University (MFA in ’02), roller-skating janitor and Buzz Lightyear at Walt Disney World, published author, university Writing professor, and, most recently, comic book creator. Teaming up with Vertigo, Snyder is producing American Vampire, his first creator-owned series. He was kind enough to speak with me about vampires, writing, Stephen King, and jackalopes. | Elizabeth Schweitzer
 
 You have said that the “golden rule” you give to your students as a teacher at Columbia University is to write about what interests them—what excites or frightens them. So then: vampires. Exciting or frightening? Why are you a huge fan of them?
 
Scott Snyder: I’m a huge fan of them, vampires themselves are just so primally frightening. Their popularity can come and go, but, for me at least, the essential thing about them is that they’re people you know and love infected with something that brings them back when you’ve already said goodbye to them, and they come back as evil versions of themselves to kill you, or turn you into one of them. That’s one of the most primally frightening concepts in literature. I think that’s why you see the same kind of potency in zombies as well, and really a lot of things, like werewolves. At their best, the thing that’s interesting to me about them is that same thing: they’re people that you know and trust and they have an uncontrollable aspect to them that’s evil that suddenly takes over them. People that you trust suddenly turn into the monstrous things. That to me will never not be scary, and I think that’s why they’re so enduring. They’re always exciting and catching my imagination.
 
With vampires being so prevalent at present in movies and TV lately, what made you decide to try a vampire story now?
 
Well, I came up with it a couple of years ago, so it wasn’t really during this “vampire glut.” The funny thing about it is that I’m probably the first person to line up for anything new vampire or zombie, or anything with a classic monster. It wasn’t so much that I was trying to come up with a “vampire thing”; there were some vampire things out like Queen of the Damned and Blade III and all the vampires kind of looked the same. They were the same type of vampire and really the idea that got to me was their quality—they were “exotic” or magic in some way, or unfamiliar. They were people who seemed really, really alien in how they were presented. They weren’t people who were turned into vampires, they were already vampires from the beginning, like superhero vampires or something.
 
I thought it would be fun to create something that mimicked the vampires I grew up with like Salem’s Lot, people who you know who turn into vampires like in Lost Boys. So I started thinking, what if we made a new kind of vampire that could do stuff that we all are familiar with as Americans? Characters we can relate to that turn into these vicious things, but also characters that echo your cultural icons, like the flapper and the cowboy.
 
Since you said you wanted to try and take these iconic images—cowboy, flapper—and work with them, what made you want to begin American Vampire in the Old West as opposed to, say, the landing at Plymouth Rock or the American Revolution?
 
That’s a really great question! We actually have a number of stories that we want to tell that go further back into American history and explore America’s relationship to vampirism and whether there were any earlier American vampires, different species than Skinner that were born here. We’re really excited about tying the mythology to earlier seminal moments in history.
 
For me, I just personally love Westerns and that emblematic landscape of the West, and the wild violence of it just seems totally antithetical to vampires. The idea of actually having a frightening vampire seemed to turn on having the vampire being an entirely new creature, which was part of the excitement for me. It started as “Well, what if there was a vampire cowboy?” and then I was like “Aw, that’s kind of silly,” which then turned into “Well, what if he could actually walk in the sun?” And then it dawned on me that he might be a new species that was born here, and the concept of vampire evolution kind of blossomed in my head, and we went from there.
 
The reason to start in the West was because, if you’re going to have a new species then you should start in a place that’s just so wholly American—the kind of imagery and iconography of the West just seems so essential to it and so antithetical to the vampires who came before. It’s not nocturnal, it’s not sophisticated, it’s not elegant, it’s not cultured; it’s wild and rough and sunny.
 
Vertigo has mentioned that its roots are in horror; that genre supports a wide range of stories, from the merely unsettling to all-out gore. Where in that spectrum would you say American Vampire falls?
 
We’re pretty hardcore horror in that we want it to be really scary. In this cycle it’s really dark and there are some pretty scary moments coming up. We try to think of ourselves, the whole team—me and Rafael [Albuquerque, the series’ artist] and Mark [Doyle], our editor—had this idea that this is a series that will be a lot of fun and “popcorn” on some level, [with] a lot of plot twists and page turning.
 
But we also want to make each cycle about something we’re interested in, both historically and emotionally for the characters. For the current Vegas cycle, it’s about the city in the ‘30s, the moment this city has been given a second life—almost kind of vampiric itself!—because of the dam. It becomes this nocturnal thing that glows in the night in the middle of Death Valley. It became about how we can tell the best story from that. We focused on a character who is watching all this change and doesn’t know what to make of it [because] it’s frightening and over his head—and the character of Cash occurs. We’re trying to be scary—we’re definitely a horror series—but we’re also trying to be very personal to us, when it comes to the American character and history.
 
Well, I’ve gotta say I’m definitely enjoying the current Vegas cycle!
 
Thank you! I definitely think that issues 8 and 9 are my best issues so far, and I’m really excited for what happens in them.
 
Is there a definitive end to American Vampire that you’ve contemplated in the storyline?
 
Well, I know how it’s going to end; I know the final showdown of who it’s going to be and where it’s going to be. But, when it comes to when that ending is going to come in terms of how many issues, then I’m really not sure!
 
The fun for me has been discovering along the way that some characters who have been peripheral have some more life in them than I thought. I always planned for characters in this Vegas cycle to have a long life. Cash is going to play a very important part in the mythology of the American vampire and of course Felicia, Book’s daughter, is a major figure as well. But then there are other figures, minor characters who, when you get to thinking about [them, you realize] how much fun there is to be had [with] them after that story.
 
My hope is that we get a really long, healthy life. We definitely have a ton of stuff we want to explore already planned, like the big Pacific cycle, a big story that brings in all the major characters. At first, I was like, “Oh, there’ll be 50 issues for 50 states!” and then I said, “Well, maybe more like 76 issues!” But really, it’ll keep going as long as there are stories we’re excited about. I guess I never realized how broad a palette Vertigo would give me; I think I just assumed there would be a stricter leash. The great thing has been that they give you a tremendous amount of room! It’s been so fun trying to figure out where you’re going; you get to take some risks.
 
Now, Vertigo approached you during a reading of an anthology that you contributed to, which featured a superhero. After an on-the-spot grilling about what comics you were reading, they offered you a writer’s position when you said you had an idea to pitch. What was it like to be offered this opportunity? Did you have any clue about the opportunity you’d be offered when the Vertigo editor was asking questions?
 
No! I didn’t at all. There was a Marvel editor, too—they had read my story and came up to me individually. The Marvel editor mentioned to me they were doing a couple of one-shots that took place in the ‘30s; but [the Vertigo editor] had read my stories and wanted to know if I was really a comic fan—and I happened to have some comics in my bag, [but] they were actually Marvel, so I felt a little bad!—but I told them that I was really interested.
 
Getting to pitch to Marvel was really fun, but much more limited, doing a Human Torch story or any other that was already conceived. Going to Vertigo, I mean, they’ve played such a huge part in my collection of books. Everything from Swamp Thing to Sandman to 100 Bullets…over the years it’s been one after the other. I was really, really intimidated going in there, and then I met Mark, the editor, at a pizza parlor near the DC office. I think he expected me to pitch something much more quiet or memoir-ish or literary in the conventional sense, and I just came [out] with [American Vampire]. I had actually started thinking about writing to Image or whoever and saying “Hey, I’m a writer,” so when this [opportunity] came along I knew that this was it, so I just came out with, “This is what I want to do and here’s the outline.” And Mark really liked it!
 
You worked with Stephen King in the first five issues of American Vampire, which is interesting because your life seems to intersect with Stephen King a lot; he’s been a big influence for you since you were young, he picked Wreck and Dumpster Tuesday from Voodoo Heart for The Best American Short Stories 2007 shortlist—was that what made you tap him for a promotional blurb? Did you secretly hope he would jump in on your project?
 
Oh yeah! He was kind enough to blurb my [Voodoo Heart] collection when Random House sent it, and ever since I’ve been in contact with him, letting him know that I’m a huge fan. I literally just sent American Vampire to him for that one blurb, hoping he would give it to me, and he was just so generous. He read it and said, “Y’know, I might want to write an issue one day, if you want.” And I thought “Well, if I tell [Vertigo] that, then they’ll want it now,” so I was like “Well, I don’t know if they’ll want it,” but he agreed. And the funny part was that he was only supposed to write one issue, and then he just kept writing!
 
I’m just so proud of what he did and how much better the series is for his involvement. I was a little worried people would think the series had been sold because he was attached, but it had been green-lit before that. I wanted people to know that it could stand by itself no matter if he was writing or if I was writing it, on the idea itself.
 
How collaborative was your writing relationship with Stephen King? Did you work closely through the details, or did you just say “I need Skinner Sweet at this point in the story” and let him run wild?
 
Oh, it was very collaborative! It got to the point where we would be emailing every day. With the single issue he was initially supposed to write, I gave him a tight outline because I figured he wouldn’t really want to do a tremendous amount of work; the was just my assumption, that he would be really busy.
 
You can actually see where he veers away from [my outline] if you look at the book. I sort of wrote the outline of him being shot down and John Book and Skinner being boxed up—the origin, that was going to be Steve’s issue. But he just kept writing more and more and came up with the character of Will Bunting who was telling the story, and he developed Skinner’s reawakening. Once he started writing the scripts themselves, he realized he was going to do about five issues, so he wrote the first five and then said “I’m going to outline the rest,” and gave me a page breakdown. From that point on, we were emailing all the time. I showed him all of my scripts and he showed me all of his. We went back and forth editorially—he was extremely collaborative and his scripts are super-rich. Much more elaborate than mine! He was wonderful in that regard, he was really concerned with it being very strong.
 
I don’t know if we just caught him at the right time or if he’s just that extremely humble! [laughs] But he was very responsive to everything editorially and really, he was just such a pleasure to work with in that regard. And that’s not just a good PR thing or being diplomatic! [laughs] He really was just a superstar collaborator.
 
I’m glad you had such a good time writing, it sounds like a blast!
 
I want him to come back! I’m hoping he’ll come back for the ‘50s or the ‘60s [story arc], I think it’d be fun.
 
Would you like me to put that in? “Dear Steve, Scott says, ‘Please come back for the future.’”
 
[laughs] I’ve already said that flat out!
 
Now, one of the other things that contributes a lot to American Vampire is the artwork by Rafael Albuquerque. How did he come to be involved in the project?
 
He was one of the people that our editor, Mark, suggested early on. I knew his stuff from Blue Beetle and had seen it, [and] he sent over a couple of character sketches before Steve was involved. He sent back pictures of Pearl and Skinner which were actually used in some of the promotions, and they were just so spot-on. He really understands the essence of each character, so that Pearl looked kind of confident and bookish, and not flirtatious or superficial—very serious about what she does but still a little playful. And Skinner just looked so mischievous and gleeful and rebellious—it was just perfect! He was actually the first person that we looked at, and I told Mark really early that this has to be it.
 
The thing that sealed the deal is that I spoke with him on Messenger—I still do, almost every day now—and I told him how I wanted to run the series and what it was about, and I told him that what was key for me was working with someone who was collaborative. I’ve had experiences at Marvel—which I’m not trying to knock at all, they’re wonderful artists—where the artist had a different style of working. I was much more directorial, where I would send him the scripts and he would draw from that. For American Vampire, I wanted someone who would be much more of a co-creator and really collaborate, where I’ll give you a lot of room to flex your muscles, and if you think there’s a better way to do a page or a panel, let us know. Rafael was just 100% on board with it, and we’ve been working together ever since. It’s gotten to the point where he’s actually started contributing to the story! He’s really become a good friend: he stayed with my parents when he came up for New York Comic Con!
 
You’ve said that you always wanted to be a comic book illustrator up until college. Why not go for an illustration degree as opposed to creative writing?
 
Well, there were a lot of different things. I really started to fall in love with writing at the end of high school. I had a great class with this teacher, Miss Sherman, and she ran it like a graduate workshop. It was a total revelation. I just fell in love with the narrative aspect of it even more than I did the illustrative. When I went to college, I went in Providence so I could be near Rhode Island School of Design (RISDe), and at Brown they allow you to take classes as RISDe. I intended to do a lot of illustration and art classes, but what I didn’t realize was that the RISDe schedule was much different than Brown’s schedule, so I would have to make a lot of room in my schedule for any RISDe class. I tried it a couple times, and it just became very difficult when you were doing both, so I decided to just focus on the writing.
 
But now that I see Rafael and these guys, I’m so glad I didn’t do it because they’re so good! [laughs] I just don’t think I would have been good enough for it at all. I still have a fantasy about doing a variant cover at some point.
 
I think you’re entitled to that!
 
Yeah! But, that’s how I fell into writing. Plus, there weren’t that many opportunities in the art classes to pursue comic art. It was all about modern art or abstract art. So I’m excited, because I’m actually teaching a class on comic writing for the first time this year at college—Sarah Lawrence undergrad.
 
Most of your writing influences seem to be “traditional” literary authors, and your favorite comic authors run the gamut, from Frank Miller to Brian K Vaughan. But what first got you into comics?
 
My dad really got me into them when I was a kid. He used to read them to me, and when I started going to sleep-away camp when I was young, he would send me a canteen package every week that was full of comics. I always loved superheroes as a kid—all my pictures from when I was five and six I had my Spider-Man doll.
 
As I grew up, there were certain comics that were really seminal for me. I was really lucky when I was a teenager that all the big Batman books were coming out like The Killing Joke, Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, Arkham Asylum, all of these really dark Batman stories. And then Vertigo appeared, and then X-men in the ‘90s. They were books that really helped shape my writing in a literary way as well. My favorite ones work on the same premise as my stuff in the literary world does: you take a character like Bruce Wayne and explore what it is he’s most afraid of or excited about—the psychology of that. Those comic books taught me about how to challenge a character and not just put them up against a big monster that’s really strong. Instead you cut to the heart of their insecurity and discover the reflection of the things they’re afraid of in their own person.
 
Though the bulk of your comics work has been through DC, your first published story was in a Human Torch one-shot for Marvel. How did that come about?
 
Well, that Marvel editor came to the reading, remember? She said to me, “We’re doing a Marvel 75th anniversary where we’re going to do some of the original characters in the ‘30s, so would you want to pitch one of these characters?” And she listed Human Torch, which I’ve always really liked, the original one which was an android, so I tried to think up a couple and just kept writing her being like “What about this? What about that?” and she really liked one of the ideas.
 
And one of the things to know for anyone who really likes comics is that they’re really eager for new writers all the time! One of the ways to get noticed is to try and get stuff out there that they can see. I mean, I was already a published writer, but if you’re interested in writing for comics then do your comics independently. Even if it’s just a tiny thing, self-publish, but get them out into the world. People that troll for these companies can see, and they do notice when things come out that are quality, even if they’re a tiny presence.
 
That’s good to know! I think I’ll be hopping onto my computer later…
 
So, right now you said you’ve got an exclusive contract with DC—congratulations! As I understand it you’ll be writing Batman in Detective Comics. Can you give a brief preview of what we can expect from your run?
 
Yeah, sure! I’m really excited about it: it’s about Dick Grayson as Batman in Gotham. He’s been given Bruce’s blessing to protect Gotham. It’s a sort of back-to-basics book where it’s really like hardcore CSI detective stories with really cool tech—it’s going to be almost like Batman: CSI! [laughs]
 
But the broader concept I’m working on is that it’s really about Dick Grayson coming to terms with this notion that Gotham City might be more than meets the eye when it comes to Batman. Bruce’s enemies all seem to be this psychological funhouse mirror for him—it’s almost like Gotham will produce your worst nightmare for you personally if you’re Batman. And it builds so that, little by little, he comes to realize that the city is changing and that the villains that are appearing are really his villains, who really cut to the heart of who he is. It’s called “The Black Mirror,” and that’s the concept, you know? Can he survive his first year as the actual Batman of Gotham when people are coming out of the woodwork that are very particular to him? These are characters that I think are much more a part of Dick Grayson’s psychology and his life and history than the Penguin and the Joker. Those characters who I feel are Bruce’s enemies.  
 
Finally: Jackalopes—fiercer than Manbearpig, yes or no?
 
Jackalopes are the fiercest creatures in the American West.
 
I knew it!
 
The folklore when I was out there looking for them and getting mine was that their blood is the Fountain of Youth. So, they will keep you young.
 
So are we going to see any jackalopes in American Vampire?
 
You might see one hanging on the wall, actually! [laughs] Yes, I promise I will include a jackalope at some point. I really will!

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