Interview: Koren Shadmi on 'Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Dracula'
We chat with the cartoonist about his latest graphic novel biography, and how he balanced that rise and fall.
What do we owe to the humans who become our icons? At the very least, we can give them our time. We can pick up a book devoted to their life, a text like Koren Shadmi's Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Dracula. It's a graphic novel memoir that champions the little boy who inhabited our most famous vampire and painfully examines the personality and the system that eventually chewed him up. Maybe you already know a little bit about Bela Lugosi, or you only know the creature of the night that he portrayed. Whatever the case, you will find a rich experience within these pages, an experience that will have you laughing, shivering, and crying. Everything Lugosi would want to squeeze from your person.
Koren Shadmi crafts this comic from a place of inquisition, not adulation. As you will read in this interview, the cartoonist only had the faintest awareness of the actor before diving into his life. But a chance encounter with a podcast ignited an uncontrollable curiosity. Shadmi needed to know more, and in that thirst for knowledge, he was compelled to splay Lugosi's life into sequential form.
Shadmi is not new to this process. He went through it before with his Rod Serling epic, The Twilight Man. But delving into a new life created a different set of challenges to overcome. Lugosi's history does not compare with Serling's, and their two trajectories could not be further from each other. There is a great sadness within Lugosi's timeline, and it's easy to zero your focus on his infamous fall, but Shadmi would ask you not to dismiss that epic rise either.
Chatting with Shadmi about Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Dracula was more than gratifying. We discuss his unique history with the actor as well as the process of containing such an immense life within a graphic novel. We also consider when it's appropriate to get metaphorical with a person's experience. When do you lean into fantasy to achieve emotional truth? It's tricky.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Brad: Why Bela Lugosi as your follow-up to your Rod Serling book? How did this become the subject that meant the most to you?
Koren: I was on a trip upstate with my wife and well, I was driving and we were listening to a history podcast, and the episode we listened to was about Bela Lugosi. And I think it was a two-part episode, and it was just an amazing life story. Very, very dramatic, a lot of ups and downs, and many things happened that were just... I would say he lived the lifetime of five people in one, so I just thought he would have been a good subject for a book, so I added him to the list. When the time came and my Rod Serling book was finished, Humanoids asked me, "Well, what's next?" And so I looked at my list and I sent them three options, and we all agreed that Lugosi would be the best one.
Brad: Did you have any kind of familiarity with Lugosi beyond him being Dracula growing up, or was this podcast all new information for you?
Koren: I think the first time I heard of him was through the song, "Bela Lugosi Is Dead," which is a Bauhaus song. And then I saw it performed in this horror movie from the '80s called The Hunger, which stars David Bowie. I didn't really know who he was and that in Israel, unlike here, those old horror movies were never running on TV. They weren't really being screened on in the theaters. So I knew generally who Dracula was and who Frankenstein was, but I never saw the movies, any of them. And then later, I guess in my later teens, I saw Tim Burton's Ed Wood, which I also really loved, and that was my other kind of introduction to his world. But of course, Ed Wood only covers the very late period of his life in the fifties when he collaborated with [the director] Ed Wood.
Brad: I was really pleased with how you structured the comic, starting with the fifties and then going backward. When did you know that you wanted to kick the book off in Los Angeles, 1955 with him checking himself into the clinic?
Koren: Well, I just always try to have some sort of interesting narrative device to frame it. I don't want to just throw the readers in with the first page showing a baby being born or something like that. So, I thought, "Well, what would be a good way to do that?" And, the way I thought was that he's checking himself into rehab. He was one of the first actors to publicly do that and reflecting on his life and all the choices he made. It's not super direct. You don't hear him narrating his own life story, but you kind of get the sense that he's thinking about all these things that have happened to him throughout his life.
Brad: When looking at his fall from grace, do you see Lugosi as more victim or perpetrator?
Koren: It's probably a combination, but it's just the fickle nature of Hollywood and especially Hollywood at the time. But I think it's still like that. People rise up and then they're forgotten for whatever reason. And I think that there were some unfortunate things that happened. For instance, there was a British ban on horror movies that kind of caused the studios to stop making Lugosi's kind of movies. The Laemmle's, who controlled Universal, went bankrupt, and they were kicked out the studio.
So there was a lot of stuff that was out of his hands that caused him to have a serious dry spell, but also he was a foreigner with a very heavy accent. And I think that also caused issues as far as the scope of roles that he could actually get. Someone like Karloff, who even had a British accent, had a kind of a healthier career, if you want to compare. A lot of people compare them and he played and got better roles, got paid better, and was a little more in control of the roles that he got. So I think Lugosi was an excellent actor and a performer, but for reasons that were out of his control he wasn't able to rise up as much as he hoped.
Brad: One of my favorite bits from your book is when Lugosi is in the Frankenstein makeup - he took that role from Karloff for a kinda crappy sequel - and he shoots up some morphine and falls into a metaphorical ocean. It's beautiful and sad, and tragic.
Koren: That page actually was one of the few places where there was a level of improvisation and it wasn't in the script. The page before felt a little too short, the whole experience, because it was an important part of this story - that he had sciatica - he was given morphine that at the time is kind of the equivalent of oxycodone. They didn't really know how addictive it was. And then he became really addicted. It's another example of things being kind of out of his hand a little bit.
The scene was a little short. He's just injecting and you see his face kind of in bliss and I thought, well, what about just this whole new splash page where he's sinking into these dark depths? I've never done morphine. So I don't know what kind of high it gives you, but I'm assuming it's not like some sort of party drug. That's what I imagined it to be.
Brad: When you're creating a book like this one or The Twilight Man, when do you know to go metaphorical like that. There's really only a few big moments of visual flourish, or metaphorical flourish, in Lugosi. But when they happen like that morphine page or the final page of the book - whoa - they really do hit like a Mack truck.
Koren: Yeah. I am a pretty conservative storyteller. I think overall I want to stick to the facts for the most part and just tell the story best I can, but there are moments where it's either very dry information or musings or something like that. And then I feel, "Oh, some sort of visual interpretation that's a little out of the box could be good here." So, in the Rod Serling book, The Twilight Man, there's a scene with him battling a giant TV-headed man in the rain. He used to be a boxer, right?
Koren: He equates his fighting with the network and with the system to boxing. So I thought that would be appropriate. But, with Lugosi, there wasn't as much of that here. There are parts where it's historical facts and that's where my editorial illustrator skills can help. I can draw something like when the Hungarian government is toppled and I can draw something a little more interesting, like the sign of the government being broken or something like that. I try to keep it interesting, but for the most part with Lugosi, it's more about the drama of his life and just showcasing the sad and the happy and the scope of all of his experiences.
Brad: How has your opinion of the man changed through the creation process? You heard all these ups and downs when you had first encountered this story on a car trip with your wife, but how has it evolved in the actual process of drawing these lines every day?
Koren: Yeah. You get to know the person a lot better, because you dive deeper. I saw many movies with him and read interviews and I realized he had a great sense of humor and this kind of sardonic sense of humor. And he was just this really intense performer, and I kind of really grew to appreciate his work a lot more. I wasn't as familiar with all his material before that. And I think there's a humor to it. He doesn't take himself too seriously and that's amazing. Someone like Karloff, he's also a fantastic actor, but he's a lot more reserved and a lot more in control. There's something about Lugosi's kind of intensity and then humor that make him really fun to watch.