Dracula, Kelley Jones, Matt Wagner and the Pleasure of Comics
Updated: Nov 11
We chat with the comic collaborators about their monstrous new take on the Bram Stoker classic.
Welcome to our Creator Corner, our reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the comics industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Kelley Jones and Matt Wagner about Dracula. Listen to the unedited audio HERE.
Dracula, you know his deal. Vlad the Impaler. He rejected god, made a deal with the devil, and became a vampire. When I heard Kelley Jones and Matt Wagner collaborated on a new Dracula story, I thought, "Cool, cool, cool. They're good for it." Then, I read the comic. About fifteen minutes before jumping on Zoom for a chat about it. Y'all. When I tell you that you have not read a Dracula story like this one, ya better believe me.
Their Dracula: The Impaler snatches a few lines from Bram Stoker's classic and places them under the microscope. Before Vlad got his wings, he attended Satan's School for Sorcerers, The Scholomance. Jones and Wagner stretch a few sentences into a 112-page graphic novel, and it's currently seeking funding through Kickstarter. CLICK HERE for details.
It's a thick, beastly, and monstrous saga told passionately and with expertise. Kelley Jones illustrates dark, inky miracles as if he were twenty-five and not...well, the age he is today. Colorist José Villarrubia drenches the gorgeous wickedness with bright, supernatural colors, and the effect is a richly emotional work.
Nerding out about vampire comics and movies with Kelley Jones and Matt Wagner was more than a pleasure. I didn't have to say much as they're put-a-coin-in-'em-and-go kinda creators. I was as much an audience to their delightful conversation as you are about to be. They discuss their mission in creating Dracula: The Impaler, what they love about the monster, and why comics are such a beautiful medium to tell his grotesque story.
Brad: I just finished reading the comic like 15 minutes ago. I thought I had read every kind of Dracula story, watched every kind of Dracula movie, but this one is new to me. This was radically new to me and I was aghast at how different it is from everything else. Matt, since you're kind of the story generator, can you talk about tackling Dracula from this specific perspective?
Matt Wagner: Sure, sure. I mean, anybody that's a fan of the book, and both Kelley and I have been for many, many years, know what a compelling and magnetic character Dracula is, and he's not in the book very much. Aside from the first scene where Harker goes to his castle in Transylvania, he's missing for a lot of the active narrative. He's off stage, he's very much a shadowy presence that haunts both the story and the characters. And in fact, in the movies it's a lot of that too. I had always felt like I wanted more Dracula. And the book is written in what's called an epistolary style, which means that it's all journals and letters and news accounts. And all those voices in there, and the voice that's missing is Dracula himself. So we decided to center it very much on Dracula, have Dracula be the narrator, and we very much wanted to avoid retelling the original novel in comic book form. That's already been done a ton of times.
It's already been done in films and never kind of hitting the mark as far as a truly faithful adaptation. The '94 [Francis Ford] Coppola version went on and on about how faithful they were and it wasn't! The central theme of him being in love with Mina and this reincarnated love, that's nowhere in the novel. He's not a romantic character in the novel, he's a fucking monster. We wanted to keep him that way, but also show the human behind the monster, enough humanity that he was recognizable, but also to never let you forget the fact that he's extraordinarily dangerous. I keep using the analogy of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs as far as the novel goes. He absolutely steals that film. He's in for 16 minutes,
I think that series did itself a disservice by delving too much into Hannibal Lecter after a while. But I don't feel like we've made that mistake here. We really tried to stick close to everything that the book says, honoring it, but also adding things and fleshing out the character. For instance, this first graphic novel that you said you just finished is all spawned by one - actually it's two references in the novel. Van Helsing's telling our band of heroes all about Dracula and all about vampires and everything, and he mentions Dracula's history, and you have to presume this is when he is alive, that Dracula attended something called the Scholomance, which is a Romanian legend about a seminary for the dark arts held way up in the mountains once every seven years.
It's hosted by Satan himself! Satan takes on 10 students and keeps one of them for himself. And I thought, "Wow, that's so evocative. How come nobody's ever done anything with that? That's sitting right there in the center of that book." So we took that as the springboard for our story and coupled that with aspects of the real life Dracula of Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century of Wallachian warlord, and we went from there.
Brad: And Kelley, what was your response when this chunk of script lands in your hands?
Kelley Jones: I honestly think it's the most perfect script I've ever gotten.
Matt Wagner: Started as a phone call.
Kelley Jones: Yeah. I think the questions he was asking - there was obviously Matt's love of the genre and the character and everything, but Matt was doing something I had never done and I was kicking myself in that he was asking these questions like, "Well, what is this Scholomance?" When he was telling me this, he was getting me on two levels. One, I thought the story was absolutely brilliant. I mean, it was compelling. When I first heard him say it, I wasn't thinking how would I draw it? I was just enraptured by what he was telling me, what he wanted to do and he was just telling the story. And then when he started saying that it came from these questions he was asking, because I knew Dracula so well and I wasn't asking that, I knew other people who loved Dracula had also not asked that because I'd never seen this anywhere.
I'd not seen the detail into Vlad before this all happens. I'd not seen him as the warlord. I'd not seen him as the man who had to make the decision to do whatever it was he was going to do. And all those things put him as a vampire in context to me. It made it much more human but better. It made it much more terrifying because I'm going along here and I'm going, this guy is incredibly dangerous and not in the typical evil villainy, snidely, whiplash way. He was a contemplative thoughtful man with incredible moments of just visceral horror.
Kelley Jones, Matt Wagner, Dracula and his Shadow
Matt Wagner: We really tried to take the approach that he's already Dracula as we know him before he becomes the vampire.
Kelley Jones: He was.
Matt Wagner: The vampire is almost just a cherry on top, just a side result of his personality.
Kelley Jones: As excited as I am to have done this and see it come to fruition like this, the sadness for me is I envy people who get to go through this the first time, who get to go through what Matt did.
Matt Wagner: Yeah. Because we've been sitting on it for a while now and telling us to not tell people about it is hard!
Kelley Jones: I'm not even talking about what I did. Like I say, any guy drawing this, I would be that into it because this is so different. Rarely does that happen that you come across something of this familiar territory where you think you're going to know and you say, "Well, what more is he going to do with Dracula?" It's a brand new Dracula. But it's Dracula. It's actually brand new because it's the Dracula that he truly is. It's the one that Stoker meant. It's the one that existed historically, and oddly enough, it's just never been done. There's never been, I mean, you get close with a BBC '70s approach, but it's still... And I can't emphasize enough that as just a good horror book read goes, I can't think of too many things that will equal this much, less come close. It's that horrifying to me.
Matt Wagner: Some of the other things I was trying to address too from a writing standpoint was in the book he's incredibly powerful. He has all sorts of powers and we see a very few other vampires in the book, they don't seem to be as powerful. And why is that? Is that just that he's been around longer or is there some actual reason that he has certain other sorcerer's supernatural abilities that the other vampires don't seem to even think about?
The other thing was when I approached this, I was like, "Look, this is the vampire. This is the most famous vampire of all time. How has he become a vampire?" It can't just be that he gets bitten by another vampire because that's fucking boring. And that puts him in a weak position. He has to become a vampire in a very extraordinary manner. And there again, I think we hit the note on that one too. There's a lot of cool surprises in here. There's a lot of cool surprises, and yet we want it also to feel extremely familiar. You said you thought you knew everything about Dracula, but yet at the same time when you're reading it, you're like, "But this is Dracula."
Brad: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Hmmmm... How do I phrase this without spoiling anything? What's great about Dracula, your Dracula, it's not just about a rejection of God. It's more like an embracing of self, and of who he already is as Kelley was saying,
Kelley Jones: He's a narcissist.
Matt Wagner: He's hungry for power. We see that on the first page. He talks about that and to defeat his enemies. And there's this line from the novel - that we have in the trailer on our Kickstarter campaign - that kind of wraps it all up, "To defeat the godless, one must become godless." And anybody that's willing to do that is scary.
Kelley Jones: Yes, he is. Again, when Matt was telling me the idea, he had just had said a similar thing to me, and I said, "This is new to me, but it is so familiar. This seems like I should have known this. This should have been done." I think that this is an interpretation of Dracula from Matt that will stand with the great interpretations - film or otherwise. It honestly is full bodied, fully-formed. It's just going to seem like-
Matt Wagner: Full-blooded, say it buddy!
Kelley Jones: I can't. I wanted to say grabs you by the throat. I can't. But where it was tough is Matt was right. Yes, we're working on this thing, can't show anything ti anybody. But I was always telling friends of mine, or anyone, peers. I've had a couple of other artists say, "My God, this is beautiful work you're doing." And I go, "It comes from this source. If you were getting this, it would do the same thing to you." You realize what you're getting here - it's a magnum opus. It is that good.
Matt Wagner: And the flip side of that from me, the writer's standpoint is that I was continually writing this to - "Okay, what is going to look great when Kelley draws it?" I had things I wanted to say, but also it was like, "I need to see this through Kelley's visuals. Oh, shit this is going to look great. Kelley's going to draw the hell out of this." And then it would come in and it'd be like, "That's even better than I was picturing."
Kelley Jones: It was something where every day it was an absolute pleasure to go to the board.
Matt Wagner: His wife told him, "Oh, you must be working on Dracula today, because you're in such a good mood."
Kelley Jones: Yeah, she was right. Matt just went unbiased. He just said this, "this is for me and I love guys who do that." If this makes someone mad or someone goes, "Oh my God," or whatever. When you do something great, when you get something great, you realize it's almost like a conspiracy. Matt, he was inviting me to his conspiracy and I was going, "I am not going to fail. There's no way I'm not going to succeed in putting this to paper."
Matt Wagner: And boy did you.
Kelley Jones: And if I can get it to get through coloring, which was beautiful and all-
Matt Wagner: I was just going to say, we need to talk about those.
Kelley Jones, Matt Wagner, Dracula and his Colors
Kelley Jones: If you can get through all the processes it takes to put it to paper or get it to someone's eyes, if you can get it there with that initial rush, then that's a rare feat. That is rare. And if there's a thing I would tell other writers is that you look at how Matt did this, where it's scene building upon scene, building upon scene, creating a character, and it's through action, not long drawn out narration, not pointing a finger. And so I came to this thing going, "This is a guy who trusts his audience to have some intelligence." He trusts an audience to also handle the fact that we're in 1460.
You're going to see new stuff, not just the supernatural, not just all the goodies, but you're going to live in that time. I'm feeling that. I mean, here I am thinking I know all this stuff and he's surprising me. Here I am thinking, I know. I love it when someone does that to me where they go, "Well, Kelley, it's Dracula." And I go, "Okay, well, Matt says Dracula, I know everything about Dracula. About five minutes in, I'm going, I don't know anything about Dracula."
Matt Wagner: One of the few people I did show this to in advance was my good friend and co-writer on Sandman Mystery Theater. Steven Seagle was in town for a reason, and he stopped by for lunch, and I took him downstairs and showed him this. When I told him, "Oh, it's me and Kelley Jones doing Dracula." He told me later he thought, "Dracula? Seen it." And then I started showing it to him and he was just like, "Oh, no, I haven't seen that."
Kelley Jones: Matt, I got a good email from him telling me that. He says, "Man, I'll tell you right now. I was all going, 'Oh my God, what are you guys wasting your time on?' At the end of it, I go, 'This is the best book I've read in 10 years.'" I'm going, "Okay, that's good."
Matt Wagner: This is a good opportunity, like I said, to talk about José Villarrubia.
Brad: Yeah, let's do it.
Matt Wagner: Our colorist. Part of the approach Kelley and I wanted to take here was that we wanted to reach back into the days of comics that inspired both of us. The days of Heavy Metal and Creepy and Eerie and that '70s horror boom in comics. And as such, color-wise, we didn't want a lot of computer effects. We didn't want a lot of hyper rendering. We wanted a very old school sort of approach. And I happen to think of José for this because of the work he recently did restoring Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing for DC and he was also doing some restoration work on the Richard Corben Library for Dark Horse.
And I've always had this approach to Kelley art that I think it needs to be colored vibrantly, not dark and moody because he's already drawn the dark and moody. And so we said to José, "Look, we really want this kind of feel old school and we want it to be very vibrant colorwise." And I pointed him to Italian Giallo movies, specifically Suspiria by Dario Argento and very more specifically Black Sabbath by Mario Bava, both of which are horror movies, classic horror movies that look like a neon sign practically. They're lit up so bright, and yet they're spooky as shit. So he got all of that, and boy, he really brought it too. He brought it to the game.
Kelley Jones: And I'll add, that's another thing. I enjoyed working with Matt and we'd always wanted to, and in my limited two-dimensional vision, I was just thinking he'll write a really good, I don't know, Batman or Grendel, and I'll do it and that'll do it. So it went to this new thing that was utterly brand new and original, and then he had this vision of how it should look, which was utterly new and original to me. I've always liked bright colors, but Matt's idea was, "Well, we're going to go '60s, London, New Wave, whatever. It was just going to be pop art. And I trusted him because I love his results in his work.
Matt Wagner: For all that pop artiness, it still feels very natural.
Kelley Jones: Well, what it does is it looks like the stuff I grew up reading. It looks like [Jim] Steranko, [Bernie] Wrightson, [Neal] Adams. It looks like the stuff that influenced me. So when he said it, I went, "Okay, that sounds really cool. No one's doing it. So it's brand new." It's utterly brand new.
Matt Wagner: And José has a few computer effects here and there just to let us know that we are here in this day and age and we're not back then. But he really pulls off the zeitgeist.
Kelley Jones: But where Matt was right. I thought about it and I said, "Well, if you're doing the 1460s, you don't want big super special effects." It's almost like if you're doing a film, lower the CGI, increase the practical. So yes, whereas that would fall onto me, I'm fine with it because I'm neurotic when I'm working anyway, and I feel I have to do everything.
Matt Wagner: And one neat thing, Kelley keeps mentioning the timeframe here, 1460, the entire first volume does take place in the 15th century. But we are going to orbit the events of the novel. So we're going to be covering centuries of time in the upcoming books. And of course, Dracula is a multi century character. Let's see, by the time the events of the novel, he's 400 plus years old. About 430, 450 years old or something like that. So we'll get to cover all of that.
Kelley Jones: Well, if this were a Marvel comic of the 60s, this would be "Special Origin Issue."
Kelley Jones, Matt Wagner, Dracula and Comic Book Glory
Brad: Dracula, because it's such a massive shadow - I mean, he looms large over the cultural imagination. When did you know to lean into that shadow and when to pull away?
Matt Wagner: Again, I just kept in my mind what he is in the book, and I had to approach as he's still that guy 450 years later. He doesn't really change all that much. You know what I mean? He stays kind of the same when he turns into a vampire, that's it. He's frozen in time personality wise. And so I just had to keep all that in mind. Again, the crazy thing about this character who I would call and have called truly the most famous literary character of all time, you think of all the famous literary characters and there are many, many, many. Gatsby, Oliver Twist, Huckleberry Finn, on and on and on. Dracula is the one that is literally known worldwide to every single citizen alive pretty much in every culture.
And yet, as I've said, he's not in the book that much. We don't see him talking that much, but when he does, it's indelible. I can quote you almost all of his dialogue from the book itself. There's not much of it, but we know lines like "What sweet music they make, the children of the night, plaything of man's vanity," many things like this and I just keep those in mind.
Kelley Jones: I think what Matt did that I loved in context to what you're saying is we know the folklore, we know the rituals and all the things about vampires and [our] Dracula does that. What Matt does is, "Okay, we're going to stop the show and tell you why this is. He just has it woven in, subtly into it. The whole thing with Vlad being an impaler pays off, the whole thing on why a crucifix will affect him pays off.
Matt Wagner: Yeah, all the stuff that's explained in the book, I kept looking at it going, "Okay, how come?"
Kelley Jones: Matt does a neat trick that he doesn't stop the show to explain it to you. It's just woven into the story. You know it because everyone knows vampire stuff. We all know this stuff. But he just weaves it into the story seamlessly, and it's not like, let's stop the show and explain it to everyone. It's just there. And then you go, "Oh, that's why." That's a pleasure when you're reading. You feel like you're involved in it more.
Matt Wagner: And that's a result of the comic book medium. A while ago, I did some work with Legendary Entertainment when they had launched their comic book line. And I went down for a meeting when I turned in my first script, and they had given the script to a movie reader to do notes, the notes were all fucking wrong because it was a movie reader, right? I had to explain to these guys, "Look, unlike a film, you don't need to over explain shit. Comic readers are more like TV watchers in that they will examine that minutia and they will figure it out themselves because it's not like a film where, I mean, nowadays is a little different, but it used to be a film, you'd watch it and it was gone. A comic book stays in your hands and you can look at it again and again and again, and you can get all the nuance.
Kelley Jones: That's the pleasure of comics.
Matt Wagner: For years and years and years, of course, people in our profession used to try and define what makes comics different than film. And there's some structural differences but the biggest of which, I think, is film is time creating the illusion of space and comics is space creating the illusion of time. And that's the difference between the two. In a film, when you see a setting that's not really there, that's light flickering by you creating that illusion. Whereas in comics, you're looking at an actual drawing, a static drawing that is creating the illusion of movement and time going by as it goes from panel to panel to panel.
Kelley Jones: It's a private thing you're alone with it yourself.
Matt Wagner: The other thing about comics used to be, well, you can draw anything in comics, anything can happen in comics. So of course now with CGI, that's true in movies, but the difference is, as Kelley was pointing out there, there's an intimacy to reading a comic book that isn't quite there with a film. Film tends to be, number one, assaultive. It comes at you. And it is very often a group participation sort of thing. You go to the theater or you watch it with your family. You can watch films alone, but generally speaking, I don't think that's how they're meant to be enjoyed.
Brad: I agree 100%. I mean, a comic is really a conversation between the book and the person reading it, and you can say that about a movie, but a movie is also a conversation with everyone you're watching it with. And I do think movies are a communal experience, and even though I've watched a ton of movies by myself, it's not the same.
Matt Wagner: Even if you're only watching it with one other person, let's say your significant other, you don't read with people hardly ever. You don't read a comic with anybody. It's just not the same experience. I've tried, it sucks.
Kelley Jones: Well, and you'll hear the voices of the characters in your head differently. Nobody can do that. You'll feel the emotion of it differently than a film will do it with a soundtrack and all the extra stuff. We are in a silent, your head thing, even though it's visual and it's all there, everyone has a different view of how these characters sound.
Matt Wagner: That's why any of the attempts to do a live reading of a comic, and there've been plenty of those over the years, they just never really take off because again, everybody wants to personalize it.
Kelley Jones: I like that they're eccentric and that's why it's a unique medium. I want to keep it that way. I have these voices in my head, how they work. I mean, I hear them differently. Everyone does. That's the way it should be. Where you capture people, and a mass of people, is you have got to deliver the goods. And if you can't do that, if you start pontificating or if you start being elite, if you start being removed and remote, you don't. Matt sticks his hands into it and draws up big things of bloody goo. And he says, "Look at this. Look at this!"
Matt Wagner: I'm going with entrails!
Kelley Jones: It's what the comic should be. There's a fearlessness in what he did, and that's what inspired me. I'm going, "This is fearless writing. Absolutely fearless." And it is saying, "Shut up, follow me. Look at this." And it's not Matt telling me this, it's Vlad telling me this.