All-Action Classics, Volume 1: Dracula
Written by Michael Mucci; Illustrated by Ben Caldwell
Adapting classic literature for a younger audience is tricky business. I mean, any kind of adaptation has its challenges, but taking a novel intended for adults of a century or two ago and making it exciting for modern kids has to be daunting as hell. Especially when that novel is Dracula, which has a difficult narrative style with all those journal entries and spends a lot of time building dread by prolonging events. It’s also violent and bloody.
I’m curious to see how Dynamite’s Complete Dracula handles the slower parts of the story. And how much use they’ll make of captions as opposed to letting dialogue and images tell the story. That’s got to be a hard job and Dynamite has the advantage of targeting an adult audience with presumably longer attention spans. Plus, lots of blood will be welcomed by grown-up vampire fans.
Not that younger readers don’t also appreciate lots of blood, but I imagine that some of their parents aren’t quite as excited about their being exposed to it. Michael Mucci and Ben Caldwell had some hard choices to make. Fortunately, they made all the right decisions and have created an adaptation that’s perfect for their audience – including grown-ups in the mood for a fast-paced, exciting version of Bram Stoker’s story.
Caldwell’s animation-inspired characters and settings look like concept art for what could be Disney’s Dracula. I hope I can say that as a compliment because Mucci’s script does anything but dumb the story down. The combined result isn’t much like a Disney film, but the art has the same level of quality. Jonathan Harker and Mina actually have more of a Rankin-Bass look to their designs. They’re fresher-faced and less exaggerated than the other characters, which is appropriate since they’re the readers’ entry to the story. They seem the most normal of the cast.
Renfield is fully convincing as both a kind, pitiful, old man and a violently energetic lunatic. Van Helsing is a comical old scientist with professorial facial hair and enormously bushy eyebrows. Dr. Jack Seward is a thin, fragile-looking man. You can tell just by looking at him that when he moves he’s very careful and measured. Caldwell draws aristocratic Arthur Holmwood with classical, almost effeminate features. He looks like he’s stepped off the side of an ancient Greek vase. Quincy Morris is a big-jawed Western hero with long, Wild Bill Hickok hair and moustache. I want to read a whole series of stories about Caldwell’s Quincy Morris. Lucy Westenra has dark, exotic features that make you believe all of these men would fall in love with her. Her looks also make her into a hauntingly seductive vampire once Dracula’s done with her.
I haven’t forgotten about Dracula. Caldwell’s version may just be my favorite representation yet. He strikes just the right balance between seductive and menacing. I’ve never seen anyone be able to pull that off before. Usually the Count is either horrendous and disfigured or he’s dapper and handsome. Caldwell’s design with its switch-thin frame and terrible, crooked teeth leans toward the horrendous, but Dracula’s body language conveys a confident, powerful, compelling presence. Caldwell’s Dracula can seduce, but it’s a seduction based on the vampire’s awful will rather than romance.
The lettering helps with this image too. The tails on Dracula’s word balloons don’t point straight at him like everyone else’s in the book. They curl and wind, suggesting a silky, hypnotic voice. And this is the book’s greatest strength. Not just the lettering, but the ability that the lettering and the character design and the colors and everything else has to quickly tell you what you need to know about each of these characters. There’s no need for long, tension-building scenes. The tension and the horror is all visual. That frees Mucci to spend his time hitting the action parts of the plot.
All-Action Dracula lives up to its name. Not that there aren’t scenes of people talking, but Caldwell juices those up too with interesting details and animated facial expressions. Mucci uses very few captions – mostly at the beginning and end as the story ramps up and finally settles down again – and even then he’s sparing about how many he allows into a panel. There’s nothing in comics I hate more than having to spend a lot of time reading captions on a page. Mucci didn’t make me do that, which is pretty impressive in a Dracula adaptation.
I’m curious now to explore some other comics adaptations of the story. Halloween’s coming, so I think I’ll see what I can dig up. Suggestions about specific versions are welcome in the comments. This is definitely the one to beat though. And at $6.95 for 128 pages, there won’t be any beating the price.
Five out of five Mad Renfields.