Politicians and Other Blood Suckers
| The newest installment of American Vampire takes us to the country's Bicentennial, via 2020 politics. |
American Vampire has always used American history as the backdrop for its monstrous horror: the wild West, the roaring '20s, the Red Scare, McCarthyism & the Hollywood Blacklist, the Cold War and nuclear tensions... American Vampire 1976, the last chapter of the series, engages the Bicentennial celebration of the United States of America as a plot device. In a very National Treasure or Sleepy Hollow-style historical-conspiracy twist, the key to arcane secrets is supposed to be hidden in a draft of George Washington's farewell address, which is on an old train hauling historical ephemera across the nation as a moving Bicentennial museum.
These kinds of stories offer allohistories - alternative perspectives on how history may have unfolded differently than suggested by the historical record. It's a successful formula in fiction, offering readers a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: a treasure hunt, or an apocalyptic race against time, or biblical battle against shadowy forces, filled with conspiracies, secret codes, and enough historical markers to make it seem plausible. It worked in The Da Vinci Code, in The National Treasure franchise, in television's Sleepy Hollow, in the Rough Riders comics, and in The Jekyll Island Chronicles graphic novels - to name a few.
Allohistories use conditions of the present to re-imagine the past. Their stories ask, and sometimes attempt to answer the question of what sort of world would exist if all things were possible. They challenge not only the historical record but also the accepted limits of both the physical and social worlds. They interpret our present condition by understanding our relationship to the past - as is very evident throughout the pages of American Vampire 1976 which launched in October 2020, just one month ahead of the contentious and controversial 2020 presidential election.
Despite being set in 1976, the introductory narration, written by Scott Snyder, in issue #1 was apt for 2020:
The world hates us. The president turned out to be a criminal. The economy's in the shitter. China's gaining on us. Russia's handing us our balls.
Everyone's going crazy. Joining cults. Carving up their neighbors. Kids going missing. Folks kissing the Devil's ring instead of the Lord's feet...
All that hope and love from a few years back? Long curdled, sour and black.
And it isn't long before "Mex" and "Negroes" are maligned as criminals by the book's less reputable characters.
The White House figures prominently into the monstrosities set to befall the United States, though President Gerald Ford is neither complicit nor clueless. He knows that "the state of the Union is not good" (#1) and he recognizes "the anger out there... There's no bridge anymore. We're enemies with ourselves. Explosions waiting to happen" (#4). He just doesn't know about the demonic forces at work in that scenario.
In the story, demons are corrupting Americans by poisoning the public "the Beast's milk in the water [...] in the fluoride" (#2). This plays on decades' old fear of fluoride as a tool of a malicious government plot. The 1964 dark comedy film Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, for example, alluded to/mocked the idea that fluoridation was a conspiracy designed to weaken the U.S. to make it more susceptible to a Communist takeover.
Recent years have seen an increase in horror narratives blended with political dramas in which demonic, supernatural, or extraterrestrial forces are working within the government: the novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2010) and its subsequent movie, the Nathaniel Cade book series that began with The President's Vampire (2011), and the short-lived television show BrainDead (2016) are a few examples. Comic books have been a particularly rich area for such stories: President Evil (2009), Army of Darkness: Ash Saves Obama (2010), Saucer Country (2012), Army of Darkness: Ash for President (2016), Z-Men (2015), Citizen Jack (2016), Saucer State (2018), and assorted American Vampire chapters are prominent titles. (For more on these comics, see the forthcoming Politics in the Gutters, also my chapter "UFO Sightings" in Monstrous Women in Comics.)
These stories can be seen as a result of or response to the contemporary political climate in the United States - anxiety associated with terrorism, police violence, and economic hardship engendered by a political discourse that eschews reason in favor of emotion. The contemporary horror genre recognizes violence, instability, and futility as constituent features of daily life and political horror takes for granted the government’s complicity in the violence, instability, and futility, whether through corruption, conspiracy, or carelessness. At the heart of political horror is open distrust of politicians and the government. The genre allows audiences to express and face their fears, but by raising politicians to supernatural, and therefore superhuman, status they become unstoppable, thus freeing citizens and voters from any responsibility in monstrous abuses of government power. For additional discussion of political horror, see my chapter "The American Nightmare" in The Politics of Horror or my online note about BrainDead.)
The combination of horror and allohistory in American Vampire 1976 looks at the present political moment both in a mirror and through a microscope. Book/issue #4 asks,
What do we do when history is out to get us?
When our legends aren't what they seem, and a reckoning is coming as the whole damn Earth hurls up our secrets?
These questions are worth considering as society debates what to do with statues to people who maybe didn't deserve statues, and considers what to do about an impending climate crisis, and grapples with the realization that the sexism, racism, classism, and other -isms we thought were addressed through earlier civil rights efforts are resurfacing...
American Vampire 1976 suggests that we are all part of one story, but for a long time, most of us were only participating in a piece of it.
~Christina M. Knopf
22 January 2021