To celebrate Halloween this week, The Comics Observer presents a pair of reviews by Bree Todish, a writer and voracious reader being introduced to comic books. Come back Wednesday for the second half.
Way back in the mid-aughts, Marvel comics revived an adaptation, begun in 1974, of quite possibly the most-adapted work of all time: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There have been a not-small number of appearances and reimaginings of Dracula in comics (especially in the Marvel universe), as in all forms of entertainment media, over the decades but no one ever really tried putting Stoker’s iconic novel in comic form until this point. The result is an effort certainly of devotion to the original story (though not always as faithful as purists might hope) in an artistic, albeit extremely dated, manifestation.
Seeing as the image to the right was the visual reference from comics to that point, I can see how they were simply staying on trend, especially with what Marvel had already established as their Dracula model. Still, that collar and flowy cape aren’t exactly going to instill a lot of fear, not to mention a widow’s peak Eddie Munster would be proud to sport.
I’ll be upfront here: I’m not a comics expert, by any means. I’ve dabbled a bit over the years and this past year have made a concerted effort to once again understand the appeal of the comic medium. It’s not that I have anything against it; it’s just never struck my fancy. I prefer my reading experience to be heightened by my own mental pictures, not someone else’s. However, as a storytelling medium and as an artform I do appreciate comics. They’re just, as I said, generally not my thing.
Dracula on the other hand is utterly my thing. Use whatever term you prefer: nerd, geek, fangirl, aficionado, obsessive, passionate, creepy… alright, I prefer you not use creepy. Nevertheless, these all are applicable for describing my association with Stoker’s novel. I could go on for hours about what this incredible piece of Gothic Victorian literature has done to shape my view of fiction, and how tremendously misunderstood it is by the bazillion interpretations given to it by film, television, books, culture and, yes, comics. That would take pages though, so I think ‘voracious intellectual fangirl’ about sums it up.
So how well does Marvel do at delving into Stoker’s world and crafting something unique while not mussing up the original story? Pretty well, actually. All the major characters are included, which doesn’t typically happen, and they are more or less transposed faithfully. There are some early thoughts by Dracula’s captive solicitor, Jonathan Harker, which diverge from the text. It’s a rather jarring departure from the naivety Harker expresses in the books in that this version has some distrust of Dracula pretty much from the start. Stoker’s Harker is more accepting of Dracula in the beginning because he’s, well, pretty naive. Also, Stoker’s Dracula might seem a little off, but he doesn’t exude Vincent Price-esque creepiness from the get go like Marvel’s Dracula. On Harker’s first night in the castle, Dracula seems “almost to merge with the fast-fading shadows,” and disappears with the dawn. Harker thinks his mind is playing tricks, but it soon becomes obvious that subtlety is not a word known to Marvel’s Dracula.
Overall, possibly the biggest point of suffering for those looking for a faithful graphic novel adaptation is the blatantly over the top style illustrations. Considering the concept was originated during the 70’s it makes sense to a point. However, much of the true horror and suspense associated with the book is lost when the characters are drawn as exaggerated, campy versions of themselves. I mean, we’re talking about a story where the most noble man to ever leave Texas sometimes sounds like he came out of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and a brilliant Dutch neuro-para-psychologist cannot comprehend ship-hands’ frequent use of the words ‘bloody’ and ‘blooming.’ Yet one of the most absurd moments in the comic is Dracula turning into a swirl of mist that looks like Edward Cullen exploded in a tornado. Blissfully, however, that’s about the only connection one can make between this adaptation and Twilight.
In the end, however, I’ll take some very dated artistry when the writers stick (pretty much) to not only the spirit of the novel, but the plot. While Mina and Lucy’s looks are reversed (a very common issue in adaptations), their characters are neither flitting, sultry, fantasy fodder nor ridiculously hypocritical, over-feminist depictions who despise all the men around them except Dracula and his sexy European accent. (Though I admit there is one instance where Lucy is splayed out on her bed, almost dead, and while her face is horrified the position in which she lays caused me to remark, “Oh! My terrified boobs!”) Dracula, while preening around like he belongs on Dr. Tongue’s 3-D House of Raised Collars making his goal of blending in with Victorian society a bit difficult, is not seeking love or redemption or acceptance. Van Helsing is appropriately cryptic in the beginning yet powerful in his faith and reason by the end. Even the death of Dracula himself is illustrated accurately, and the sacrifice of Qunicey Morris is not ignored or demeaned by changing the other characters’ motivations throughout the story.
For a graphic novel interpretation of this classic tale one could desire more contemporary illustrations that play up the Gothic and the real horrors, and play down the Hammer-style theatricality. However, from the perspective of the story and characterization (even with the title character being a brasher, bolder villain than in the original), no film has done as worthy a job of interpreting the realm Stoker created as Marvel Comics have.
Bree Todish is a Writer, Michigan ex-pat, obsessive and voracious reader, devourer of pop culture, adorer of music, highly opinionated trixie little pixie. You can see her talk a bit about the vampires in popular culture here, or follow her reviews, rants, and pep-talks on pop culture and life here.
Smart comics publishers and creators are (finally!) aggressively pursuing digital platforms for their comics. Right now it’s mostly as another form of distribution – you can get your comic books and graphic novels at specialty comic shops, book stores, libraries, oh yeah and also on your iPhone or iPad and online. There’s still quite a lot of toe-dipping but that will change the more it’s acknowledged digital comics are the only growing sector of comic sales right now. *
It’s great to have a digital replica of print, but there’s also a lot of room for experimentation to create a new experience. Some are already starting to surface.
Graphic.ly started with a focus on recreating the comic shop community atmosphere by allowing users to comment on specific comic pages and panels within their digital comics reader. That’s an interesting start, but what has me excited is seeing a couple of new apps launch with very creative uses for integrating digital aspects into a story without losing the sequential art part of comics (the reason I think motion comics aren’t working).
Ave! Comics has released a digital version of the biography graphic novel Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness by Reinhard Kleist, originally published to decent acclaim last year by Abrams ComicArts. It does what has become the standard panel-to-panel “guided reading” animation thing on your iPad or iPhone, but it adds a soundtrack to the reading experience. Tracks from Johnny Cash’s stellar catalog, including the legendary At Folsom Prison, come in and out of the story as you arrive on certain pages. The trick is that the app searches for specified songs in your iTunes library. If you don’t have them, you can buy them for 99 cents through iTunes or just read without them. So there’s the potential for hidden costs (unless you happen to have a very extensive collection of Cash songs on your iPad or iPhone, which I suppose isn’t entirely out of the question if you’re buying a biography of Johnny Cash). Despite that, it’s still a very cool idea. On the iPhone, it’s broken up to 3 separate apps for $1.99 each but the iPad’s HD version is one $4.99 app for the entire story. The soundtrack-less print edition is $17.95. Here’s Ave! Comics’ demo video (don’t be scared by the French iPhone used in the video):