Comics greats Matt Wagner and Kelley Jones are gearing up to release a new series of graphic novels that will offer stories of Dracula like readers have never seen before. Starting with Dracula: Book I—The Impaler, they plan to explore the secret history of Vlad Țepeș, the historic figure who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The series will fill in the gaps between Vlad and Stoker’s Dracula. Book 1, in fact, reveals Dracula’s tenure at Satan’s legendary seminary of the dark arts, the Scholomance. Readers will learn what led Vlad to seek out “Satan’s tutelage,” something not fully explored in Stoker’s Dracula.
Wagner is of course known for the long-running Grendel series, and Jones illustrated tales including Batman and Dracula: Blood Rain and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Season of Mists.
This Dracula series is being launched under a new publishing imprint, Orlok Press.
“Dracula: Book I—The Impaler achieves what seems impossible: to present the vampire in a fresh way that is at the same time deeply rooted in its true bloody origins,” said colorist José Villarrubia of looking at the book. “Wagner and Jones are pulling no punches here, with an aesthetic harking back to the giallo films of the sixties. Prepare to be amazed!”
Wagner and Jones fielded a few Wicked Horror questions about the series recently. You can read more about the project on the official Kickstarter page. Read on for the full exchange.
WH: Dracula and his inspiration Vlad Țepeș are definitely intriguing figures. In shaping this series, did you find you were working with themes similar to Grendel? What about Batman?
Matt: Well, obviously, I’ve got more than a little experience in portraying an unrepentant villain over the course of an epic, centuries-spanning saga. My longtime fascination with Dracula undoubtedly influenced various scenarios in Grendel…most obviously, the vampires that eventually plague Earth’s future. And, of course, that influence works both ways. But whereas the Grendel saga started in the present (the 80s, which were contemporary for me at the series’ creation) and then progressed far into the future, our Dracula graphic novels start in the 15th century and gradually work their way through centuries of narrative. In the former, I get to make up any aspect of the futuristic world that I like but, in Dracula: Book I—The Impaler, I have to apply a historical reality that fits with the time period. Motivation-wise, Dracula as a character bears little similarity to Batman but…they are both isolated creatures of the night, living in remote castles and seeking to impose their own brand of morality on the chaotic world around them.
WH: How did you tackle research on the historical aspects of this project and what were you looking for as you explored Vlad the Impaler’s real life?
Matt: Research for our Dracula series begins with the source, the original novel by Bram Stoker. Like I said, Dracula is such a compelling character but he’s off-stage for a lot of the active narrative. That itself lends proof to how powerful and magnetic his character is portrayed…even from the shadows, he’s captivated audiences for over a hundred years. We’re taking all the cryptic details Stoker unveils, filtering those through thousands of years of vampiric folklore and, of course, leavening it all with the many different incarnations of Dracula that have appeared on screen over the years. In addition to the fact that the original novel has never been out of print since its original publication, the character himself is of the top three or four literary personas ever portrayed onscreen. But then, of course, there’s an historic source for Dracula as well…a 15th century eastern European warlord who was renowned for his ambition, his cruelty and his favorite grisly method of executing his enemies—The Impaler! One of the things I find compelling about the character of Dracula is that he started out as a man…a man who becomes a literal monster. And our version of him is definitely monstrous…not the more romantic version that has been so popular in a lot of the screen depictions.
That whole reincarnated love motif always leaves me cold. I want our Dracula to be as frightening and feral as Count Orlok in the original film adaptation, Nosferatu, and yet familiar to readers in that his motivations are human and understandable. Every great villain needs to reflect a bit of the darkness that all of us fear resides inside ourselves. And I used certain events in the real life of Vlad III to help inspire this depiction. All of these factors have figured into the creation of our version of the infamous vampire lord.
WH: Fans on Twitter, or X, have been seeing some of your favorite screen Draculas. Do you have an absolute tip-top of the impaling pole fave and what do you find most compelling about that portrayal?
Matt: I do have certain favorite screen portrayals of Dracula but I’d have to say that none of them fully satisfies my interpretation of the character. I think Murnau’s Nosferatu is one of, if not the seminal film of the silent film era. I have a soft spot for Lugosi’s classic portrayal even though I don’t think the 1931 adaptation is a very good film. Christopher Lee’s iconic portrayal in the Hammer Films series is the first time we get a really ferocious version of Dracula but, sadly the quality of those deteriorates pretty quickly as Lee grew tired of being locked into the role. I like Jack Palance in the role for the mid-70s TV adaptation; that one features a screenplay by the amazing Richard Matheson and gives us a very physical take on the character. I like the faithfulness of the adaptation for the BBC’s Count Dracula just a few years later but Louis Jordan’s short stature and contemporary hairdo don’t really capture Stoker’s imposing vampire. I like a lot of the drama and staging of the 1979 film, but Langella’s romantic take on the character and his blow-dried coif are, again, out of sync with the original novel. But there’s some great imagery in that film. And I have a real love/hate relationship with Coppola’s 1992 adaptation.
I think the casting in that film is absolutely terrible (not just Keanu!) and, as I’ve said before, the reincarnated love part of the story is just bullshit for me. The scene where Gary Oldman is heart-broken and sobbing because Mina has left him to go marry Jonathan Harker is just ridiculous. Dracula doesn’t fucking weep! And yet..I adored the art design and film-making in that film. Even though Dracula’s appearance in the early parts of the film doesn’t match up with the novel, it’s a bold and dramatic attempt to add something new and evocative to the legend. Coppola’s refusal to use CGI and rely entirely on old-school cinematic effects are incredibly atmospheric and effective. So…as you can see, I’m pretty critical of the way the Count has been portrayed and adapted over the years. Which is certainly a huge factor in my wanting Kelley and I to do our version of the character…all the while sticking as close as possible to the original novel’s specifics. And I want to make it clear… this isn’t yet another retelling of the novel in comics form. We’re bringing you the never-before told stories behind the story…the sinister tales hidden in the shadows of the original novel.
You mentioned the “tip-top of the impaling pole”…in the course of absorbing as much Dracula in as many different forms as I could for this project, I stumbled upon a real intriguing film version. It’s a Turkish film from 2018 called Vlad the Impaler and it’s about the historical Wallachian warlord…but it presents him as a villain (which, arguably, he was…albeit he’s considered a Romanian national hero) who tortures and executes members of the Ottoman empire. There’s even a team of Turkish warriors, each of whom have a particular battle prowess, who form the 15th century version of a super-team to combat his menace. Now, that’s a real interesting take on the story!
WH:You’re no stranger to putting Dracula on the page. How did you set about making Dracula—Book 1: The Impaler its own visual universe?
Kelley: Matt’s script let my imagination soar. I wanted to create a world that was captivating and dark whether we told a vampire story or not. A world of thick forests and bloody ambitions just lends itself to a captivating and haunting tale of horror. Add Dracula to that mix and the damn thing practically draws itself.
WH: Shadows, blood and general darkness all come to mind when thinking about horror comics, but are there special flourishes that go into making a graphic novel scary?
Kelley: The atmosphere of a horror story doesn’t depend solely on shadows and blood. It’s the characterization and the motivations that really bring a horror story alive. Do you care about the character even if they repulse you? That’s the real challenge of good horror…and Matt’s script totally captures that duality—making us fascinated with a monstrous man who then becomes a man-shaped monster.
But then I also love lots of shadows and blood so, in this case, it all comes together so perfectly for me. I want real pain. I want it to look like it hurts…and that it has consequences. I want death to be terrifying and awful. I want the terror to be that you know it’s coming but it still shocks you!
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WH: You’ve stated Matt told his story to you much like a ghost story between friends. It’s kind of fun to imagine you guys sitting beside a fireplace with cognac glasses, but seriously what excited you most about the possibilities as he expressed ideas with words?
Kelley : When Matt first told me his thoughts on Dracula, it made me think of the new possibilities I had never thought of before with the character, and I thought I knew them all! It was so ripe with horror—and yet it felt like such a new approach but was also so, so familiar. I knew I had to do it. This project really is the perfect collaboration between him and I. And it’s funny that you should paint that scenario of him and I by the fireplace like that. When this whole process began, Matt bought us both a pair of Dracula embossed whiskey glasses and, when the book is finally out, we’re going to toast the occasion with some damn fine bourbon!
Watch for the release of the new tale soon. The Kickstarter for Dracula: Book I—The Impaler can be viewed here.