‘Anno Dracula 1895: Seven Days In Mayhem’ Brings Action And Adventure To A Complicated World
I don't want to oversell it or anything, but Kim Newman's Anno Dracula novels are pretty much everything I want out of literature. They're set in a world where Dracula's victory doesn't just have the immediate effect of leading the Count to control over Britain, but leads vampirism out of the shadows and into everyday life, transforming Dracula into the driving force of the 20th century. He's rarely seen himself, but his influence is everywhere, manifesting in thrilling and compelling ways.
But really, that's only half of the appeal. The novels take place in a world where Dracula isn't the only source, a literary mashup with everything from classic literature to The Rockford Files to Blacula to Jack Kirby's Fourth World. And honestly, that's what made me a little nervous about experiencing it as a comic.
I have, after all, been burned before. When you're dealing with this kind of universe, a tapestry sewn together from references to and twists on other works, it's easy for those references to become the focus, overpowering the story in a way that detracts from it instead of adding to it. I mean, we see that happening all the time in superhero comics, so you can imagine how bad it can get when the continuity you're drawing from includes the entirety of literature.
Newman has done a good job of avoiding that trap in the novels over the past 25 years, but one of the luxuries of prose is that you have the space for asides. That's how a lot of it tends to work, actually. While the books have a pretty broad cast of major roles, the main characters tend to be Newman's own: Charles Beauregarde, from his Diogenes Club series, and Geneviève Dieudonné, an alternate-continuity version of a character he created for Warhammer Fantasy novels.
Even Kate Reed, who's in the spotlight here and has a major role throughout the series, is a character who was in an early draft of Bram Stoker's Dracula but didn't make the cut for the published version. At this point, that's functionally indistinguishable from an original character anyway.
With that being the case, and with the space that's afforded with prose, a lot of that background tapestry is weaved together with asides and cameos, especially once the story progresses into the modern era and out of the public domain. You end up having characters who, by necessity, are referred to in ways that file off the serial numbers, like the scene set in the '70s where a vampire is confronted with a gang of vigilantes that features Ms. 45, Frank Castle, Blade, Shaft, Charles Bronson from Death Wish, and Shaggy and Scooby-Doo.
And incidentally, that comes into play here as well. One of our major characters is the daughter of a Certain Notorious Chinese Crime Boss who, due to legal reasons, can only be referred to here as The Lord of Strange Deaths. Which, to be fair, is the only name I'd go by if it were an option.
With comics, you don't really have that luxury. Even if a book starts with a text piece to give context --- which this one does --- all the space that you have in a novel to do that weaving is gone, compressed down into just what the reader can see in the page. It's a tricky balance to pull off, especially since a move into a new medium is bound, at least theoretically, to bring in readers that might not be familiar with the novels.
As a fan of the novels, that's what worried me most going in, and there was a moment right at the beginning where I thought the comic was going to devolve into the kind of overpowering reference trainspotting that eventually killed my love of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Yet Newman and artist Paul McCaffrey manage to land the transition in the first issue of Anno Dracula 1895: Seven Days In Mayhem. And they do it in a way that ties in pretty closely to the ongoing saga of the novels, in a really interesting way.
That's not entirely unexpected --- the story weaves its way through short stories and additional material pretty frequently, and when the novels leading up to Johnny Alucard got new printings a few years ago, each one came with an additional novella thrown in for good measure --- but the way that Newman and McCaffrey present it here touches on some fascinating stuff.
I'm particularly fond of how McCaffrey draws the flashback for new readers, giving a weird, almost cartoonish take on Dracula's bloody rise to power. It's a great visual example of how we're always one or two steps removed from seeing him for what he is.
By the time Anno Dracula starts, Dracula's been in power for a few years, establishing a police state in Britain, and stocking the government with his own handpicked vampire lieutenants, which also serves to spread his own particular cursed strain across the country. Also, in one of my favorite bits, he establishes prisons for political dissidents, including Sherlock Holmes --- because, as Newman has admitted, having Sherlock Holmes around makes trying to write a murder mystery without anyone figuring it out for a couple hundred pages pretty difficult.
The unspoken question, then, is why the rest of the world allowed this to happen. I mean, it's friggin' Dracula. If that dude is installing himself as the unquestioned commander of one of Europe's major powers, how did that even get past the first year without everyone else showing up to take him down? And if nothing else, where was the homegrown resistance in the years before Charles and Geneviève finally got the job done?
That first question is answered in the opening pages of the comic, and the second is what the rest of the series is set to focus on.
The thing is, it certainly doesn't get away from that tapestry of references that make up the background. Far from it, in fact. The Council of Seven --- itself a notion drawn from GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, from which Newman's Thursday, Gabriel Syme, is also sourced --- is stocked full of references to literature and history, almost all of which relate to 19th century anarchists and terrorists.
Alexander Ossipon is drawn from Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, Christina Light and Paul Muniment from Henry James's The Princess Cassamina, and Peter "The Painter" Piatkow was a Latvian radical who may or may not have actually existed in London circa 1011.
There's a lot of research to do if you're curious (or if you're Jess Nevins, I suppose), but honestly, none of comes off as distracting. By letting us see this through Kate's point of view, we get the same kind of introduction that we'd get to any new team in comics. It's established and then made useful in the story, while we also focus on the real business of the plot. Which, in this case, involves Fu Man--- er, the Lord of Strange Deaths, Dracula's Tin Jubilee, and the impending threat of a World War.
In short, it works, and while I can't speak to how new readers might find it, it's exactly the first issue I wanted as a die-hard fan of the novels.
And it's also the place where I found out that the next one is called Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju, which is pretty exciting.
Anno Dracula #1 will be released next Wednesday, March 22, from Titan Comics.
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