Like many a vampire fan, I own multiple adaptations of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel Dracula. They vary considerably in style, medium, approach and (of course) quality. But several are graphic novels, and one of these maybe deserves a bit more publicity. I refer to the All Action Classics version from Sterling Publishing, written by Michael Mucci and illustrated by Ben Caldwell which came out in 2008. So far I’ve been unable to find any other published works by Mucci but Caldwell has a greater body of work. In truth the writing of the book seems a fairly straightforward retelling of the original novel. Details are added that give color, but no insight.
What makes this memorable from any one of dozens of graphic novel Draculas on the market remains the artwork. Interestingly, the work seems to aim for serving as an introduction of the horror classic to children. It very nearly has a Hanna Barbera look, but not really. Anything like naturalism vanishes amidst the kind of heightened reality one would expect in a cartoon. As can be seen in the cover, for example, Van Helsing’s eyebrows are wider than his head! The eyes of the characters are completely out of purportion. Likewise most characters, especially women, look too thin to be able to stand. But while this sounds absurd, it in fact works quite well. Consider it akin to the way Batman’s cape never really obeys the laws of physics. Not in comic books anyway. Nor should it! Even so the size of characters’ irises change. One one level–that of inappropriate realism–absurd. On another, it works very well. Just as any serious examination of Castle Dracula would lead one to conclude this building cannot stand. But it doesn’t matter.
Likewise the eroticism and violence of the story end up toned down. Not eliminated, but rendered subtle. Lucy and Mina, for example, remain quite pretty. Interestingly, their features are not portrayed as cute. No, they actually conform to a waifish ideal of womanhood. Nothing childish or really childlike about them. At the same time, there’s no hint of a body underneath their flowing garments. Head, hands, and neck only. Which leaves their faces and poses the primary means of expression other than dialogue. Most graphic novels, especially aimed at the young, don’t really convey a great deal of nuance with such. Not so here! That the different characters actually convey multifaceted personalities proves impressive.
The violence also becomes subtle but pervasive. No great swathes of blood anywhere but artistic spatterings of it to great effect. Lucy’s nightgown in which she haunts the night as a vampire has many drops of the color red. Which brings me to the colors. For the most part, it remains subdued, with impressive shading of tones to convey depth and movement. But hardly any red. When we see red, we see a dark crimson and it nearly always is blood. In fact, this rapidly becomes so clear that hardly any effort goes into making it look like blood. Dracula sleeps in what looks like a pool of the stuff, but with no real effort on the artist to make it look at all liquid. Not a complaint! It works! Creating a subtle but distinct frisson of horror without venturing into gore.
A few other points deserve mentioning. One is the detail. The clothing, the buildings, the sources of light, the types of equipment used–all look extremely authentic and well-thought out. Pistols look period, as do hats. And tools. And furniture. Not one building look generic and even the burn mark on Mina’s forehead matches the figure one would expect on a fragment of the Host! All this makes for a very impressive level of thought going into the whole design. It even follows the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula in odd little touches. Lucy’s eyes turn violet. She’s buried in a quite lovely glass coffin. Dracula’s coffin has a dragon/phoenix motif on the lid and so forth.
Overall, I think this serves its purpose–introducing children to Bram Stoker’s novel–admirably well. I kinda wish this had been available back when I was a child. Back before we had television. Or…fire.