DRACULA UNCONQUERED! The Chris Sims Interview

Posted: October 7, 2011 in Braak, comic books
Tags: , , , , , ,

So, Chris Sims –of ComicsAlliance and Invincible Super-Blog fame — is working on a new comic called Dracula the Unconquered along with Steve Downer and Josh Krach.  The comic comes out at the end of October and, as a prelude to that, I — BRAAK! — was privileged to interview Mr. Sims and discuss some important issues.  Mainly about the comic, though, we didn’t talk about the merits of ontological determinism or anything.  Some good stuff, though.  Here is the interview!

(And some art, mostly pilfered from Steve Downer’s twitter feed — @downersteve)

Returned to life ten years after being chained in the Tower of London, the former Lord of the Vampires and his new assistant, Thalia, battle to stop their enemies from unleashing an undead army on the world. Action Age Comics proudly presents an adventure into the heart of horror: Dracula the Unconquered!


1.   Dracula is obviously a pretty compelling character — he’s one of the most adapted fictional characters in the English language — but what was it in particular that drew you to him?

Believe it or not, the biggest inspiration for Dracula the Unconquered was Uncle Scrooge.  I was reading through a collection of Carl Barks Scrooge stories, and I was thinking about how amazing they were because he’s such an adaptable character.  The only thing you need for a Scrooge McDuck story to happen is that there has to be something valuable somewhere — it can be anything, real or fictional, anywhere, and you have the ready-made plot device to send Scrooge and Donald and the nephews after it.  He works in any story as long as that’s the core of it, and I love characters like that.  It’s one of the reasons I love Batman, because he has that world-traveling history so that anywhere there’s a crime, he can go fight it.

So I was thinking about other characters that had that element to them, and what came to me was Dracula.  It’s exactly like you said, he’s been adapted so much that in pop culture, he’s completely gone beyond that original idea.  There are stories of Dracula in America, Dracula in the future, there were two comics about Dracula on the moon that came out more or less at the same time!  Even in that original story, he’s a world traveler who ditches Transylvania because the population is too wise to his tricks, so he goes to England to try it on the “modern” society that doesn’t have those superstitions that keep him at bay.  I feel like he’s a character you can do anything with, and because so much has been done, it’s all equally valid.

So for my take, I really wanted to do something I haven’t seen that often:  Dracula as anadventure hero.  The high concept is Indiana Jones starring Dracula, traveling around the world, battling bad guys, gathering up magic and artifacts that he can use against his rivals.  He’s definitely a good guy — I wanted to do a Dracula you’d like, that you could root for — but he’s also a guy with a very dark past.  He recounts a bit of what he did in the first issue, and, well, he’s a vampire, and you don’t get to be the Lord of the Undead without doing a lot of awful things.  But that’s an aspect that I find appealing, too.

As for the original novel, as much as it might annoy the purists, I’m far more influenced by the pop culture take than the original.  I told someone at San Diego that I’ve always loved Dracula, but I don’t really love Dracula in italics, you know?  The Dracula that I grew up with is the one from the Hammer movies and Tomb of Dracula, but when I knew I wanted to do this story, the first thing I did was read through Leslie Klinger’s Annotated Dracula, which is this wonderful book of annotations, written with the tongue-in-cheek premise that it’s secretly a record of actual events.  It was really informative, but I realized while reading it that I didn’t particularly like any of the humans in it, especially Harker and Seward.  Even Van Helsing seems like this crackpot professor, and it felt to me like the narrators of Dracula — Harker in particular — would totally be the kind of people who wanted to make themselves sound better than they actually were.  I mean, Harker actually does that in his letters to Mina about the Brides, he totally downplays that he thinks they’re hot to make himself sound more loyal to his girlfriend.  So there are things they record — and I don’t want to spoil what they were, but there’s a big one in Drac #2 — that didn’t happen the way they wrote down, particularly who actually dealt with Dracula, and why he wakes up where he does.

In fact, there’s a big element of the novel that Dracula the Unconquered is a direct response to.  When you first see him in Dracula, he’s a very pathetic, almost sympathetic figure.  His castle’s in ruins, he pretends to have servants but it’s really just him and the Brides — who seem to absolutely hate him and definitely don’t respect him.  For me, the scene that defines Dracula in the early part of that book isn’t his dramatic entrance, like it is in the Bela Lugosi movie, it’s Harker’s realization that there’s no one else in the castle, and that Dracula’s been secretly cooking for him, rather than some unseen servant.  The image of Dracula at a stove, silently preparing dinner for Harker so that he can pretend like he has servants is so at odds with what we think when we hear “Dracula,” and it really stuck out.  How did this guy that’s become such an all-powerful villain in pop culture get to such a pathetic point?  It’s something I wanted to answer.

2.  Speaking of, how much will we need to know about the character and his history to full appreciate the story?   Are there going to be in-story explanations for the events of the book and how Harker mis-construed them? (“Oh, I didn’t mean to lock you in the attic!  I was just protecting you from those evil gypsies!”)  Or is it more like, the book is a load of stuff and nonsense, and the REAL STORY didn’t have anything to do with it?

I’d like to think that you can jump on Drac without knowing anything about him other than what you’d pick up from pop culture.  You certainly don’t need to have read the novel — as long as you’ve got the high points of Dracula going to England, fighting some guys and getitng beaten, you’ll be okay.   It’s definitely influenced by other versions. I’m planning on having Orlok from Nosferatu show up eventually, but that’s a while off, as well as other vampire stories.  Varney, from Varney the Vampire, is the main antagonist of the series, and I’ve already had Benito Cereno complaining that I’m not sticking to the actual events of that story, because I’m changing things around to something that I think is more exciting.

As far as Harker misconstruing the events of Dracula, that’s not really the case.  Like I said, that stuff happened — Dracula definitely locked up Jonathan Harker, bit Lucy Westenra and did some villainous things — it’s just that the “heroes” weren’t quite so noble.  Something else I read for research (and enjoyment) was Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, in which Dracula “wins” at the end and ends up biting Queen Victoria and taking over England.  He drops in a ton of nods to classic lit and pop culture — there’s even a reference to Blacula in that first book — and since I’m obviously taking a similar path by incorporating characters like Varney and Carmilla, I wanted to make sure  I wasn’t unintentionally stepping on his toes.  Fortunately, the focus in that book isn’t really on Dracula himself, so I think I’m in the clear with how I’m treating the source material.

3.  Typically when we see Dracula, he’s either 1) in his original, Prince of Wallachia time period, 2) cotemporaneous with the time period in the book, or 3) in the modern era — but you’ve got him just at the turn of the century.  Why this point in time, specifically?

Funny that you bring up the Prince of Wallachia aspect.  One of the first things I decided is that my version of Dracula isn’t the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, at all.  It’s something I’ve never really liked, having this historical figure reinterpreted as this fictional character that’s so much bigger, so I dropped it entirely.  I may get around to doing the story of Who He Is And How He Came To Be in Dracula the Unconquered, but he’s definitely not that guy.

As for the time frame, I went back and forth on that a lot.  Maybe it was just the Scrooge McDuck influence again, but I knew I didn’t want it to be in the present, because that ground’s been well-covered.  I thought about doing it in the 1920s, but that didn’t feel right either.  In the end, 1901 seemed like a good fit.  It’s about ten years after the events of the novel (Klinger places them at 1888), so there’s the sense that he’s been away for a while, and having him return at the dawn of the 20th Century felt like I could do something new.  It’s right after Queen Victoria’s death in January of 1901, so there’s the actual official end of the Victorian Age and the beginning of what came after to play with.  There’s so much you can do at that time — steampunk-style gaslamp fantasy, the end of the Wild West, Houdini and Wyatt Earp are still around, there’s even Wong Fei Hong running around in China doing drunken boxing… it gives you a lot of options, but you can still have that distant past flair to play around with.

Another big reason came from Thalia.  I wanted her to be smart, but not genre-savvy, if that makes sense.  One of the best ways to do that was to put her in a time when that wasn’t an option.  As popular as Dracula is, there weren’t a million popular vampire stories floating around London in 1901 — there’s really just the one, and now she’s living in it.

4.  Can you tell us a little more about Thalia?  How does she relate to or differ from Mina Murray or other Dracula-related heroines?

It’s probably no surprise that Thalia’s a viewpoint character.  Dracula’s really hard to identify with in certain ways — I want to write him so that you sympathize with him and the frustrations and battle that he has, but at the end of the day, he’s an immortal vampire sorceror who was the King of the Vampires for a couple hundred years.  That sort of perspective is difficult to convey to a reader.  A story with just Dracula, with no characters around to influence him, lends itself to a much more brutal, vicious sort of story than what I wanted to do.

At the same time, I didn’t want her to be just a prop to have things explained to her.  She’s a great device for Dracula to give exposition to, but if you make that her solitary role, if you make that any character’s solitary role, then you’re writing a bad comic.  It’s tough, because you obviously want to focus on Dracula, but the more I write, the easier it is for her to assert her character, and to change the story and Drac’s attitude just by being there.  There’s a great comic by Mark Waid called Ruse about a Sherlock Holmes type and his assistant, and she’s such a great character that I wanted to study those comics and reverse engineer how he made her work.  Not to namedrop, but when I was interviewing him for CA, I asked him about it and he told me “Never have a one character tell another something she already knows.”  It’s such a simple piece of advice, but it keeps you from dropping the hated “As you know…” introduction, which is such an obvious sign of bad writing that I tried to use it in every issue of Solomon Stone.

Steve Downer pointed out after he read the script that it was interesting that I was having Dracula team up with a teenage girl for his sidekick, because the character has such a predatory history with young women, like Lucy and Mina.  It wasn’t a conscious decision — the fact is that I just liked the dynamic of having a girl sidekick and I thought it would be interesting — but after he said that, it changed the way I think about him.  If Dracula’s going to be a hero, there has to be something to redeem that aspect of him, and I think that comes through a little more in the second issue.  Thalia gets  a better sense of what she’s gotten into with Drac, and he gets a better sense of what she’s going to mean to him, rather than just being someone who can run errands during daylight.

5.  The original novel is often interpreted as emblematic of  the late-Victorian culture’s fear of female sexuality (i.e. — Dracula as a sexually-transmitted disease infecting women with licentiousness and causing them to become uncaring and terrifying monsters, rather than fitting comfortably into the traditional daughter/wife/mother roles), and also the British terror of seeing their society undermined by immigrants (i.e. — Dracula as the swarthy foreigner coming to London and draining the life and virtue out of virginal white women).

Given the recent dust-up in comics regarding sex and race, did you find these interpretations of the character to be something that needed to be addressed?  Does the book answer those criticisms in any way, or address the larger criticisms of race and sexuality in mainstream comics?

That’s something that, for the most part, I’m staying away from.  I do have plans to address the idea of vampires as this overt sexuality, but in a way that’s… funnier, I guess?  I’m not setting out to Fix Comics, or anything, but I think the best way to do that is just to write a better comic.  That’s what I’m trying to do, and hopefully it’ll be good enough that that statement won’t come back to haunt me.

6.  You’ve got two collaborators on this book — can you talk a little about how that collaboration process works for your team?  Do you do all the writing yourself?  Do you find yourself with very specific ideas that you want the artists to illustrate more or less precisely, or with more general ideas that Josh Krach and Steve Downer just sort of run with?

I write it, Steve does the art, and Josh letters it.  I do a lot of cowriting with Chad Bowers, with Awesome Hospital and our upcoming graphic novel from Oni Press [I asked Chris about this novel, but he said he couldn’t tell me due to SECRETS —  braak], but this is really something that I wanted to do myself, in terms of building a script from the ground up.  But obviously there’s a huge influence from what Steve and Josh bring to the table — Josh is a great sounding board, and Steve had an idea for staging something in the first issue that’s become the lynchpin of the entire first arc.

Right now, I’m writing #3, but I’ve plotted out the first seven in detail.  Each issue is meant to tell a full story, but those seven issues make up one big arc — if we ever do a paperback, that’s what’ll be in it.  And on the subject of collaboration, when I came to Josh and Steve with the plots, they had some great suggestions that helped me flesh them out.  I love working with those guys.  I’ve also got scattered notes on stories I want to get to — Drac in the West, Drac goes to China, just vague ideas like that.

7. Dracula Unconquered is being distributed digitally — what would you say are the most significant challenges to making a successful, independent comic work with primarily digital distribution?  What would you say are it’s primary advantages?

Part of the reason I wanted to do Drac the way I’m doing it is that, for me at least, it’s this huge experiment.  We talk a lot about digital comics at my day job, and when I was first coming up with the ideas, I thought about what people — including me! —  seem to want out of digital books. I made a checklist in my head:  They want quality, which is obvious.  They want original stories, but a lot of the comics reading audience also wants characters they’re familiar with.  They want complete stories, and not just pieces of something.  And they want them for a dollar.So, that’s what we did.  Fortunately, Steve and Josh are on board with the experiment.

Right after we’d started Four Star Studios — Tim Seely, Mike Norton, those guys — did what looks like their version of the same experiment with their Double Feature comics, but they went all out in taking advantage of the iPad.  They’ve got their own app, they’ve got some great bonus material, their comics are 99 cents each for two stories — albeit two 8-page stories — and it’s great.  It really made me feel like we were onto something.

As for the advantage, it’s just so much easier.  I’ve printed comics to sell at cons and it’s a nightmare.  It’s great to have a physical object to hand to people, but if you’re doing a  28-page color comic, you have to sell it for $5 just to break even.  With digital, it’s so much easier to get it, not to mention that you’re able to put it out for a world-wide audience from wherever you are.  The only problem is getting noticed in the crowded field, especially when there are so many webcomics — mine included — that operate on giving people content for free.  If they can get ten years of Achewood or Dr. McNinja for no money, then convincing them that mine’s worth paying for is the toughest obstacle for us.

That’s why I want to give people something that feels like it’s worth it.  It’s a complete issue and at 24 pages, it’s longer than your average mainstream comic.  Plus, a dollar’s not much.  Hopefully it’ll be a value.

There’s this great freedom to create and distribute, where things are able to find these huge audiences that they deserve, and it’s so much easier to get things out there.

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Comments
  1. […] up, Threat Quality Press talks to Chris about his inspiration for the series and where he hopes to go with it: Dracula is […]

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Excellent stuff, very excited to pick this up with my digital internet hands.

  3. Allen Belk says:

    The more I hear about this series, the more I look forward to it!

  4. Johann Tor says:

    Great stuff, and I like Sims sounds like he’s stretching a bit again.

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