The Conversation on The Dissolve
Avathoir and wallflower Discuss American Vampire, Volume 1 (Skinner)
(Warning: Like all Conversations on the Solute, this Conversation contains spoilers. Read at your own risk).
Installment 2: Pulp Fiction
(Volume 1, Skinner’s Arc)
Avathoir: For those of you who haven’t been following the scheduling on the Dissolve, welcome to our conversation of American Vampire on The Solute, where wallflower and I will be talking about the first “Cycle” (6 volumes) of American Vampire, Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque’s Vertigo comics series, volume by volume. We’re starting with Volume 1, and this is a unique enough volume, so bisected down the middle, that we’re going to have two conversations on the two stories within. We began with the first protagonist of volume 1, Pearl Jones, and now we’re moving on to talk about the other one, Skinner Sweet.
wallflower, how are you doing today? Since I recommended the series to you based on the fact that I thought you would find Skinner a fascinating character, similar to Dudley Smith or the cops on your beloved The Shield, I have to know like RIGHT NOW if he lived up to your expectations.
wallflower: He did. A phrase often used as insult is “comic-book character”; it usually means someone shallow, one-dimensional, and often someone stupid. I consider it a compliment. Our great comic-book characters–Superman, the Joker, Death, so on–will endure. They are characters that tap into archetypes and can move across time and cultures. Comic-book characters go back to the Greek ideal of characters as embodiments of values and ideals; they go to the idea of characters as something that transcends human life. (Neil Gaiman takes this idea about as far as possible with the seven Endless in The Sandman.) The goal of a comic-book character isn’t to have depth; it’s to be remembered by all of us.
These characters are not deep, nor should they be; our modern conception of “depth” as a virtue for characters probably derives from Shakespeare and Freud. Shakespeare gave our culture the dramatic value of reflection; Freud gave it the character who doesn’t fully know himself. Comic-book characters aren’t much for reflecting (and many of them are strongly self-aware, and thus don’t need to reflect), they act. Comics, with their bold outlines and sense of motion, are the right home for these characters, and so is film. It also helps if you’ve got some kind of signature phrase or action to identify the character, like gouging out your own eyes or “I am fortune’s fool!” or the three words that end the next-to-last episode of The Shield. “HELLO MOTHERFUCKER! GOT ANY CANDY?” isn’t in the top rank of these, but it’s a great attempt at it.
Avathoir: As much as I adore that line and that moment, you’re right that it’s not Skinner’s defining moment. In the Cycle, he really doesn’t have one, and that’s actually appropriate for his character, strangely enough.
Skinner is so fascinating for me not because of who he is or what he does so much as his fundamental unknowableness. The only real thing we learn about Skinner’s past in this first arc is that his mother was a prostitute, and even though in future installments we’re going to cover two moments that delve into his past and personality, we come out of it knowing maybe even less than we already did. Even something as major as what we’re going to cover in Volume 4 tells us less about who he’ll one day become then to suggest that Skinner is ultimately a mystery.
We sort of got into a discussion on Skinner at the tail end of Installment 1, and you compared him to Daniel Plainview, and while I agree with that statement, I’d also compare him primarily to the titular character of Naoki Urasawa’s manga Monster, in that A. Skinner basically does whatever he wants, and B. They share the same goal and desire to always outlast everyone else, to be the last one left.
We also talked in the first installment about how much setting enhances this story. Pearl wound up in a Bram Stoker tale as written by Nathaniel West, and now we get into something like a Near Dark Vampire western, purely of that time period, unlike Bigelow’s set in what was then modern times film (though how fucking awesome would it be for this arc to be adapted with Bigelow directing?). How much of this effects the story, be it in the idea of America overcoming Europe, to character psychology, to the same things that have been on Snyder’s mind, though now written by Stephen King (Though he’s writing under Snyder’s orders). Also, what of William Bunting, the man who survived when Felix, Henry Finch, and Jim Book did not, only to suffer perhaps the cruelest fate of all, or at least the most personal?
wallflower: One of the most effective things about Skinner is the time he spends at the bottom of a man-made lake, Rip Van Winkling his way through modernity. If you missed out on the years 1880-1905 in the American West, you missed the transition from a frontier, agriculture-based society into a modern one. (It’d be like falling asleep in Deadwood and waking up in The Day of the Locust.) That also furthers what you observed–Skinner’s fundamental uprootedness. Part of what makes our fictional monsters so monstrous is that they have no origin, they’re just there, malign and incomprehensible. Skinner has no home because his home has been wiped out by America’s progress, and he’s just fine with that. It’s maybe the fundamental characteristic of modernity, forgetting the past. (Whether or not you can actually do that drives some of our greatest stories of modern America, including The Great Gatsby and Mad Men.) I’m curious to see if Skinner can in fact get away with that.
Will Bunting has already become one of my favorite Stephen King characters. He needs to let himself do more comic-book work, because he does have a talent for these kind of archetypal-verging-on-cliched characters. Bunting survives because he’s the writer, the witness; the one who stays on the side of the action but nevertheless gets to shape the official memory of it. He feels a lot like Saul Rubinek’s W.W. Beauchamp in Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and he gets an even more effective Fuck You from Skinner. Writers like Bunting are outside the kind of moral judgment that captures Jim Book (perfect name, that), but they suffer the fate of all writers: they will die before their words will.
So far, we’ve been talking about this as the work of Snyder and Albuquerque. What do you make of Stephen King writing this story? As I said before, Skinner is so much like The Stand’s Walkin Dude (Randall Flagg) that I was genuinely surprised to find he was invented by Snyder. As a Stephen King story, Skinner’s arc fits in just fine. There’s gore and there’s an elemental moral conflict. Some of King’s weaknesses become strengths in the medium of comics; his kind of deliberately odd dialogue feels so good in speech balloons. And his biggest problem–finding a good ending–isn’t a problem at all when he can just hand off the story to someone else. (The end of Skinner’s arc plays exactly like the end of Kill Bill v. 1.) Does this belong in the King canon?
Avathoir: This totally belongs in the King canon, though I’m not versed enough to place it accurately.
I’m really, really hoping that when Snyder wraps up his story (Snyder has said that this first Cycle is the halfway point, so we have about six volumes left after we wrap up Volume 6), that King comes back, because I can’t at all imagine anyone else writing The Last Song of Skinner Sweet now. King has, for me, always had a little bit of hokiness mixed with pulp, which is what I would use to describe a good chunk of comics I’ve read over the years, and a lot of ones I’ve loved. The medium also really suits King: for all his talents, he’s a story and a character guy, not a prose stylist. He’s never going to have a horror story that is something like Javier Marias’ “No More Loves” in his work, where the pleasure doesn’t come from the four pages of story but in the elegant, perfect language he uses to describe so much of the human condition (and all in third person omniscient narration!), or something like the opening of Lolita. But Marias and Nabokov couldn’t create Pennywise or Randall Flagg.
We’ve talked about how Snyder told King what to write, but I’m wondering how much of King’s voice crept into Snyder’s plotting. Skinner, like I said before, treats Pearl differently from everyone else he’s met before (the only ones he shows a modicum of respect for besides her are Jim Book, and Henry Preston, and he puts both through hell over this story). A part of me believes King injected a darkness into Skinner that he sorely needed, as he only is a wisp in Pearl’s story, until he comes roaring back in the coming volumes. And really, who besides King could have written the perfect moment where, after Percy tries to get Skinner on his side, cuts IMMEDIATELY to Skinner dragging him into the sun to his death?
The last real question I have for this volume is about the final fate of Jim Book. Poor, poor Jim. He’s got for me the second saddest story in the entire series (you’ll know who the first one is at the end. You’ll know). Skinner takes everything away from him but his life, and its up to Abilena to finally put him out of his misery. Will watches it all, and records it into Bad Blood’s final chapter, and it seems like that story will survive, both through Will’s book and the existence of Felicia, but can he really be at peace? King, with Book, tells something approaching a Greek Tragedy, and those stories tend to echo very, very far into the future. Jim is dead, but is he really gone? And what will that mean in as this story continues?
wallflower: Jim is someone necessary to this story: the defeated good man. The weakness inherent in a lot of pulp fiction is wish fulfillment, the idea that no matter how great the evil, you can always be strong enough to defeat it. Jim can’t, because that kind of evil can’t be defeated. What Jim can do, what Jim is strong enough to do, is stay human, even with his own blood trying to get him to be otherwise. That’s so powerful, and so necessary to the horror genre. The action genre gives heroes who are able to use their resources and strength to win, but horror (as King well knows) gets to much older ideas and fears. And of course volume one ends with a sense that the story isn’t over, it’s just going to have resolution far in the future, far past the end of Jim Book’s life. Again, that’s powerful material for fiction.
As we finish up the first volume (and this is a tricky question for someone who’s actually read the series), what are your hopes for future installments? One of the things I like about this is the way Snyder and King inject Skinner into American history without reducing history to a series of well-known events on a timeline. They’re picking points that are archetypes in the development of America–the Old West, Hollywood, the Hoover Dam in volume two–and I hope they can continue that, much the way James Ellroy rewrote the history of the 1950s and 1960s in the LA Quartet and the Underworld USA trilogy, respectively (and seems poised to go after the 1940s with Perfidia). I don’t want a story where Skinner Sweet killed Kennedy, I want to see him pay a visit to Patty Hearst in her closet, with Randall Flagg hanging around outside giving details on pipe bombs. This is about the underside of America, and it should follow the underside of history.
Avathoir: You will get no argument from me about Skinner killing Kennedy (For the record, the latest issue has them in the Eisenhower 50’s, and there’s been no indication that Snyder is having them drift into higher politics): Skinner’s interesting because he’s not really interested in gaining power and rising rank. In a way, all he want, is to be left alone. That’s why even though he’s a genius, Skinner never becomes a true legend even after his death: ambition doesn’t matter to him. All he wants is total freedom.
As for what my hopes are for future installments: even though Skinner is the title character, I hope Snyder continues to focus as much on what he affects as much as what’s going on with him. We’re going to see that with Felicia for certain, and I won’t spoil the other people who are going to start gunning for Skinner. It’s going to be fun revisiting this and seeing what’s in store. Though, as we’re going to see just as much (especially for a certain somebody), incredibly tragic.
Anyway, that’s all for this Conversation. Tune in next time for Installment 3: Viva Lost Vegas!