Chris Sims Trolls the Classics in ‘Dracula: The Unconquered’ [Interview]
You might think you know the real story of Count Dracula, but how much can be certain when our only account of the legendary vampire is a composite of multiple persons' different points of view? Who's to say Jonathan Harker wasn't a vicious liar? How do we know Van Helsing wasn't fiercely insane? Those are among the highly dubious positions CA writer Chris Sims has taken in order to create Dracula the Unconquered, a new comic book series that has the audacity to put forth not just the real story of Count Dracula, but also tell us what happened next. Spoiler: it involves a certain amount of rising from the grave, a certain amount of all-ages adventure, and a certain amount of vampires from other classics of literature.
Illustrated by Steve Downer, Dracula the Unconquered is a digital comics series whose first issue went on sale today for $1.00. Given that today is Halloween, it seemed like the perfect occasion to put Sims in the hot seat and ask what's the meaning of this? We demand satisfaction after the cut.
Longtime ComicsAlliance readers may recognize Sims from his occasional contributions to the site, including such features as Great Comics That Never Happened, Cinematic Batmanology and War Rocket Ajax, but what some of you may not know is that in addition to his comics journalism Sims is also a comics author. Awesome Hospital and The Hard Ones are two of the titles Sims has co-created as part of his Action Age banner, but Dracula the Unconquered marks his first ongoing series. In addition to good taste and decency, Sims is also defying convention by making his vampire adventure an all-ages affair and available as a DRM-free digital download at the bargain price of $1.00. We spoke about these things and more in what CA readers will no doubt remember for years to come as one of our most hard-hitting interviews.
Andy Khouri: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today, Chris. I know you're very busy watching movies and reading comics.
Chris Sims: No problem! I'm very excited to be featured on the site that set the standard for two-time Eisner-losing comics journalism.
AK: I'm sure this interview will go a long way towards making that a threepeat. Now, in preparing for this discussion I came across something that surprised me: you didn't actually create Dracula. It seems he appeared previously in a Keanu Reeves movie.
CS: That's true! The character of Dracula was actually created in 1897 in a novel by Bram Stoker, and was loosely based on a 15th century Prince of Wallachia. But thanks to a loophole in copyright law, the source of all great comics, he's been in the public domain ever since he was created. My version is just the latest in a long string of adaptations in movies, video games and comics.
AK: Copyright law is of course something we've written a lot about on CA in light of the recent court decision that denies the heirs of Jack Kirby any share of the characters he created for Marvel Comics, and of course the discovery of the original check written by DC Comics for the purchase of Superman from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Given all that we've learned from those and other contentious copyright and creators' rights cases, do you have plans to compensate the heirs of Bram Stoker?
AK: Very good. Now, When most people think of Dracula, the first thing that comes to mind is Blacula. But what's your take on this iconic figure of horror literature?
CS: William Marshall's iconic performances in Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream are definitely huge influences, but my version is actually an attempt to bridge a lot of different pop culture takes on the character to the original novel. We have this collective image of Dracula as the Lord of the Undead, like in the Marvel comics, or as this ultimate supernatural force, like the Castlevania games. In the original novel, however, he's a far more pathetic and in some ways sympathetic character, even while being a ruthless villain -- probably because all the humans in that novel are total bourgeois jerks that I wanted to see vampire murdered within pages after they were introduced. So if all of those things are equally valid versions, then there needs to be some kind of unity with them, which is what I'm trying to explore.
AK: Are you proposing some kind of mega-continuity by which all Dracula stories are canon?
CS: Not necessarily all Dracula stories, but the feeling they all have, yes.
AK: Give me an example of how that outrageously non-canonical concept is deployed in Dracula the Unconquered.
CS: For example, I love the Castlevania games. In those, Dracula is basically Satan incarnate. He's killed so many people that Death itself is his sidekick. His sidekick! But in the novel, he's living in a ruined castle because the local population despises him and knows how to protect themselves, and he's pretending to have servants to impress Jonathan Harker. He's Dracula, the guy we think of as the greatest of all vampires, and he's cooking a dude dinner so he doesn't find out that he lives alone except for three women, the Brides, who don't really seem all that attached to him. He goes to England as a last-ditch effort to rebuild himself, and he fails. So if both of those ideas are true, than that original novel represents a low point for him. How did he get there? What stopped him from being the force that he was, and can he become that force again? That's what I find really interesting.
AK: It's also a really great way to troll hardcore Dracula fans.
CS: Oh, totally. I expect to be able to fill a vault with the hate mail I'm going to get for saying that Stoker's Dracula is exactly as valid as Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse and swim in it like Scrooge McDuck.
AK: Now that we've got a pretty good picture of this recklessly non-canon world you've created for Drac, where does your story begin? What's Dracula actually up to in Dracula the Unconquered? Presumably, he hasn't been recently conquered.
CS: As our story opens, it certainly seems that he's been conquered, but Dracula the Allegedly Conquered didn't really fit in the logo. It opens up with [Dracula's new sidekick] Thalia removing the stake from his heart and bringing him back to life in the Tower of London, which should be a pretty major clue for the readers that the events of the novel didn't quite pan out the way the cast wrote about them. It's 1901 - about ten to twelve years after the novel - and Dracula's been "dead" for a decade, which means there's a new Lord of the Vampires: Varney, very loosely inspired by James Malcolm Rymer's Varney the Vampire. He wants Dracula to aid him in waging a war against humanity as his lieutenant. So in the first issue, Dracula's must decide if he'll join up and serve someone else, or remain his own man and be put in the position of defending the same people he once tried to destroy himself.
AK: Whoa whoa whoa whoa. Varney? A vampire from another book?
CS: Yeah. I wanted to head off accusations of ripping off Hellboy by going ahead and ripping off League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, too.
AK: Can we can expect to see more pilfered characters from vampire literature as the series progresses?
CS: There's at least one more coming in the first arc, Carmilla, and I've got a few ideas for some others, like Graf Orok, but nothing beyond a few vague sentences in my notebook.
AK: It sounds like you've done a lot of research.
CS: A little. Mostly it's--
AK: Because I've been to Transylvania. I didn't see you there.
AK: Go on.
CS: ... mostly it's drawing on just being involved in pop culture and picking things up. Varney, for instance, has almost no resemblance to the original character at all. I'm just using the name and the meta-story of the two characters in history. But I did do a fair bit of reading, particularly with Leslie Klinger's New Annotated Dracula, a fantastic resource.
AK: I'm confident that I'm speaking for a lot of CA readers when I say that the only Dracula story I've ever read in my life is Batman/Dracula: Red Rain by Doug Moench and Kelley Jones, probably the most significant Dracula story simply by virtue of the fact that it has Batman in it. Will I also need to be familiar with the material you've researched so copiously in order to enjoy Dracula the Unconquered?
CS: Not at all! In fact, it might even help in some cases, since I'm being pretty loose with the things I adapt. There's a huge discrepancy between what happened before the events of Dracula the Unconquered and what happened in the actual novel by Bram Stoker. It mainly comes down to the fact that since Dracula is an epistolary novel, I can blame my own desire to change things up on the characters lying to make themselves look better. And it's totally believable, too: Harker knows his fiancee is going to read his diary, so he's totally, "...and then I saw Dracula's three brides, and baby, they weren't attractive at all. You know how I hate those girls that have unearthly beauty and don't wear a lot of clothes! I'm way into Victorian Schoolmarms!" Even the best character in the novel, Van Helsing, comes off like an absolute crackpot who thinks it's a good idea for three different guys to give a girl a full transfusion over the course of a weekend. So you can basically take everything they say and throw it out the window in favor of creating "what really happened."
AK: It's clear you are completely obsessed with Dracula and vampires. Have you always been so goth?
CS: Much like you, I am very much a fan of The Cure. I will say, when we were drunk in San Diego and you told me that you once looked into rib-removal surgery so that you could be more like Marilyn Manson, I thought you went a little far with it.
CS: I'm sorry, what were you asking? Oh, right. As for being a fan of vampires, I'm not sure that's really accurate. I mean, I like vampires as fictional constructs in the same way that I like ninjas or robots, but I'm not super into them. I went through that phase that I think a lot of kids went through where I would check books on vampires and wolfmen and Frankensteins out from the library and read up on the legends behind them, which is what I really found fascinating. I really just like stories and symbolism and what different things signify that can change over time. So I'm not all that into vampires, really, but I do love Dracula. There's just so much that's been done with him that I think he's a fascinating character.
What are some other vampire stories you're ripping off? What are some of your favorite vampire stories?
CS: I'm a big fan of Marvel Comics' 1970s Tomb of Dracula series, which I think is going to be pretty obvious for people who read Drac the Unconquered. I just love how [writer Marv] Wolfman gives him that grand Doctor Doom dialogue where he calls people cretins and throws them off buildings. The Hammer movies, particularly Taste the Blood of Dracula and Dracula 1972 AD, are definitely favorites. I'm not the huge fan of the franchise that some people are, but I like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer a lot too. Well, five sevenths of it, at least. That last season was so rough that I never made it through.
AK: Vampire stories of recent years have depicted the characters almost uniformly as very young, impossibly beautiful, often shiny but also quite often decomposed, largely undressed and having graphic sex with each other and humans and other species pretty much ceaselessly, and typically in the most depraved fashions imaginable. Really, the f***ing seems crucial. Your book is obviously very different. What kind of reader do you imagine for this kind of anarchic adventure story take on the literary classics?
CS: I'm doing my best to make it an all ages book, which is probably a pretty dumb move since there aren't a lot of eight-year-olds with credit cards to buy things online, but there you go. I'm not specifically aiming it at kids, but I want to make an adventure story that anyone can enjoy, along the lines of Raiders of the Lost Ark or the comics I read when I was growing up.
AK: You're joined on Dracula the Unconquered by illustrator Steve Downer.
CS: He is the latest in a long line of suckers that I have conned to bring my ideas to life, and he is absolutely phenomenal at it. A lot of our readers have probably seen his work before as a colorist, he's worked for HiFi, so his work has appeared in Marvel and DC books like Booster Gold, and he'd done a lot of solo work for Boom! Studios. He's been coloring their Elric book, I believe. Beyond the coloring, though, he's an extremely talented artist in his own right, and I love the look that he's bringing to the story. He gives this great cartoony character to everyone, and he's added in the nice touch of drawing the sound effects into the art, something I always love in comics.
AK: You're self-publishing Dracula the Unconquered digitally and charging just one dollar per copy, which frankly I see as a petulant slap in the face to all the enormously successful comics publishers out there who offer extremely equitable arrangements by which they handle absolutely everything for you for just 50% of the rights or, if you're lucky, total ownership. What gives, Sims? You think you're better than everybody?
CS: I think my interactions with readers over the past seven years have shown that yes, I do think that. But with as much as we've talked about digital comics, they really seem like where the future of the industry is going, and I wanted to experiment. I love the idea of doing single issues - that's the format that I grew up with and as much as I love graphic novels, that's the format I really love - but as a self-publisher, it's almost impossible to do them in print. With digital, it's so much easier and you can reach so many people. And since everyone seems to agree that $1.00 is what digital comic book issues should be priced at, that's what we're offering it for. For that, you get a full 24-page, full-color story in PDF or CBZ. No DRM, no app to bother with, just a file that you can put in whatever device you'd like.
AK: So you're setting aside Harker and Van Helsing's dubious and prejudicial accounts, introducing a plucky female sidekick, setting up a power struggle for goth scene supremacy with other vampires from literature, and re-imagining the Dark Lord himself as a bloodsucking Scrooge McDuck. It almost sounds as though Dracula the Unconquered is unlike any other vampire story people have read before.
CS: You certainly don't see Dracula as an all ages adventure hero with his teen sidekick a whole lot.
AK: Thanks ever so much for speaking with us today, Chris.
CS: Thanks for having me, Caleb. Give Pearl the pug my love.
Dracula the Unconquered #1 is on sale now.