Children the world over are in the habit of writing letters to Santa Claus, asking the jolly old man for presents. But what if you’re not interested in Santa coming to town, preferring instead to have a more terrifying visitor over for a decidedly spookier holiday? For a young boy named Sam, his own Halloween wish is to have his favorite monster, Dracula, over for a visit and to become a real vampire. Of course, things don’t go exactly as planned for Sam or his new monstrous best friend in writer Joshua Williamson and artist Vicente Navarrete’s 2008 graphic novel “Dear Dracula” from Image Comics and Shadowline.
While their story began four years ago, Dracula and Sam are making the jump from the printed page to the world of animation courtesy of “Wanted” and “The Amazing Screw-On Head” producers Kickstart Productions. The film was written by Brad Birch (“Johnny Test”), directed by Chad Van De Keere and stars Ray Liotta as Dracula, Nathan Gamble as Sam, and Emilio Estevez as Renfield. Cartoon Network will air the 61-minute CG animated movie as part of their “Spooky Specials” Halloween programming on October 16 at 7pm, or it can be purchased on DVD right now at Wal-Mart with a wider release planned.
Comic Book Resources caught up with Williamson as he was packing for this weekend’s New York Comic Con to discuss “Dear Dracula’s” road from comic book to animated movie, the initial impetus behind the book, his latest creator-owned title “Masks & Mobsters” as well as what he has coming down the pipe.
CBR News: For those that don’t know anything about the original story, give us an idea of what this is all about. Why will fans of animation (and Halloween) want to tune in to the animated “Dear Dracula” movie?
Joshua Williamson: The Hollywood pitch has always been a simple one: A little boy writes to Dracula at Halloween instead of Santa Claus at Christmas.
The star of the book is a young man named Sam, who is a self-proclaimed number one Dracula fan, writes Dracula and asks him to come make him a real vampire for Halloween. Dracula actually shows and takes Sam on an adventure. Really, if you’re an animation fan you’ll get to see a really cute, family friendly cartoon — but if you’re a Halloween fan, this one is for you. It’s a nice treat for my favorite holiday.
I know it was optioned several years ago, but how did the movie actually come about? And as someone who has published several creator-owned books, but this marking your first work that’s actually been adapted outside of comics, what was the process like to actually see the option become something real? Were you involved or did the producers and the network pretty much do what they wanted?
We met Kickstart at the San Diego Comic Con the summer before the book came out. They immediately took an interest in the property, and we started talking. Almost all of my creator-owned stuff has been optioned at some time or another. At one point Cartoon Network optioned one of my early creator-owned books “Necessary Evil” for their live-action initiative. And that was an interesting process with a lot of ups and downs, that resulted in the show not getting past the scripting stage, so ever since then I’ve been hesitant with getting my hopes up. For a bit there was a lot of back and forth about what kind of movie it was going to be. Lots of producers and studios were interested and then eventually it was decided to create a made-for-TV movie that would help build a franchise.
Now seeing it… it’s surreal. We’ve seen this from every step, the script, the designs, the storyboards, voice recordings, to the final product in our hands. Holding the DVD in my hands feels really… small. Not just that it isn’t real, but that this idea that Vinny and I came up with has become this bigger thing that a lot of people worked hard on. To me it’s just the beginning of a lot of good things for Vinny and I.
We were more involved in the beginning than in the later stages. Helping them with the story and trying to transform it into a new media. Working on the script, consulting and giving notes, but after that it was all Kickstart.
Is there anything you would change if you could?
Mostly story elements and few design things, and some animation stuff. [Laughs It sounds like a lot, but there are just a few small things here and there. I’ve become really critical of anything with my name on it in recent years. Looking back I wish it had been traditional animation and not CG.
Ray Liotta is kind of a heavyweight, and certainly not the voice I pictured for Dracula when I read the original story. Did you have any say in casting, and was there a particular voice you imagined for the character when you wrote the comic?
When I first heard Ray Liotta was doing the voice — I was like “HUNH?” but then I was excited because I love when actors are challenged to do the unexpected and work outside their normal zone. We always heard Bela Lugosi or The Count from “Sesame Street” as the voice of Dracula — with a hint of Vincent Price. It’s funny, Liotta is pretty much doing a Bela impersonation, but you can hear hear his voice and his attitude throughout.
Yeah, my fears were pretty quickly put aside when I heard him speak in the trailer. It’s definitely not him doing “Goodfellas” minus the language. On the story side, how closely did writer Brad Birch stick to the original book? Did you work with him at all during the process or did he adapt it according to his own needs and preferences?
Brad sticks pretty close to the book for the first half and started to fill in here and there. The book is a really simple story for kids, so there was a lot of room to add more. We did a lot of notes in the script, and tried to guide it the best we could, but there were certain things that we were just inexperienced at so Brad worked on that and got it across the finish line.
Has the story been expanded from the book, or does the scope remain largely unchanged?
Because we wanted to go with a bit of a wider appeal a few new characters are added, but for fans of the book you’ll see it stays really close for the beginning of the movie. The movie starts to deviate in that we expand on Dracula and Sam’s trick or treating adventure and they eventually go to a Halloween party together that’s being held by a girl that Sam has a crush on. I’m happy with a lot of the directions they took to build the story for an hour-long feature.
Was Vinny involved on the art side, or did they just take his original work on the graphic novel and run with it in this CG world?
They took our designs and ran with them. A lot of design changes were made to take it into the world of CG because not everything translated well, but like I said earlier, I wish it had stayed 2D. But that’s mostly just a personal opinion. You can see a lot of the same charm in the cartoon that Vinny put into the original art.
Regardless of how high-concept the hook of your stories are, one of the things I consistently enjoy about your work is this emotional honesty your characters have. So while a number of your books may feature easily-digestible, high-concept setups, the stories themselves are anything but fluff. How do you find that anchor as a writer to prevent a story with a strong hook from becoming, say, “Snakes on a Plane?”
Thanks! I’m glad to hear you say that. It’s sort of how my bran works. I went to school for graphic design and worked in Hollywood for a while. A lot of what I learned was how ideas and concepts need to be able to be absorbed at 60 miles per hour. We only have a few pages to sell and hook a reader. But yeah, it can’t be all big ideas. Once you grab the reader you need to make sure you can hold on. Something that keeps them hanging around. So for me I try to write stuff that I’d enjoy. I love big character moments. Once I get the idea I start building the world and its characters, so that they seem interesting to me. It’s the hardest part and where I think a lot of Hollywood goes wrong.
What’s your biggest takeaway from the experience — either on the comic book side or the animation side — now that your first movie has been produced?
Oh, man. That’s rough. I learned a lot about the business from this experience. And a lot about animation. It showed me what I want from the future of my career.
One thing I discovered was how strong my vision for things can be. How I shape and build my work from here on out will be a bit different because of the process and creativity we saw with this movie. It helped renew my confidence in my own abilities.
We are fully aware of how lucky we are to have a cartoon that we developed on TV. Not a lot of comic creators can say that. Our main hope for this is that it brings more people to the actual book, gives it a new audience and helps us sell more copies. Hopefully we’ll do another print run.
While Halloween is a time to put on masks, and “Dear Dracula” certainly takes full advantage of that, you’re dealing with another kind of costume in “Masks and Mobsters,” your digital-first series with Monkeybrain Comics and artist Mike Henderson. For our readers that missed the boat on the first two issues of this crime-meets-super heroes series, can you set it up for them?
I’ve always wondered — if super heroes and villains started popping up during the golden age, during the last 1930s, how would that affect organized crime? The mob had their own ways of doing things during that time and I imagine that masked heroes would have messed with their system. Imagine it’s “The Godfather” but with super heroes getting in the way of the family business, y’know?
Look at it as DC Comics’ “Gotham Central” from the criminals’ side instead of the cops. It’s an anthology with each issue standing alone, but connected in a “Pulp Fiction” sort of way. It’s the most fun I’ve had writing in a long time. Trying different things that I couldn’t do with other publishers. It’s been helping me change and grow as a writer. With each one I get more and more exited about the comic medium. I’ve always loved it but now I see it in a whole new light.
“Masks and Mobsters” #3 is set to his stores on 10/24, and you and Mike have teased the introduction of one of your favorite characters from the series, The Deadly Bones. What can you tell us about this next issue and the man in the crossbones armor?
Mike and I are super excited for the next issue that comes out October 24. I tried something sort of different with the storytelling and hope that people enjoy it. It’s a bit different from what you’ve seen in the first two chapters.
The Deadly Bones is sort of our Batman-like vigilante with a secret. Visually he just looks amazing. He was actually designed by the great artist Scott Godlweski who did BOOM!’s Dracula series a few years ago. The dude uses nunchucks that looks like two bones. It’s rad.
In this short the Deadly Bones crashes a drug den and that doesn’t go quite as he planned — but it’s also a story of revenge. Dangit, I think I just said too much.
Sounds pretty cool. Where is the series headed after that? Will you stick with done-in-one stories moving forward or can we expect some longer arcs as you progress?
The plan is to stick with the done-in-one stories for a bit. I love the model. It’s like little crime and super hero “Twilight Zone” episodes. It’s challenged me as a writer and helped me get past a few bad habits I picked up over the years.
We’re going to continue to introduce new characters and keep revisiting who we’ve already introduced. One character, Bobby Silver, who was the star of the first chapter, has gone into hiding since the some of the stuff that went down in the first two chapters, but his presence and what he did in the first chapter will be felt in every issue. Eventually the short stories will build to something bigger, but that’s the most I want to say right now.
Is Mike committed to drawing every issue or will you have any other artists breathe life into that universe?
Mike is doing the majority of heavy lifting when he can. I’d love for Mike to draw every issue, but with the him being busy doing work for the Big Two that can’t always happen.
We will have a few fillers artists that we’re excited about and will be announcing soon. The first being Jason Copland of “Murder Book” fame — oh and his awesome “Kill all Monsters!”
Anything else on the horizon? Anything at DC Comics now that “Voodoo” has wrapped up? More TV?
DC brought me in to do some pinch hitting for “Deathstroke” #13 and #14, which was a blast. A chance to write Slade Wilson was impossible to turn down. Also issue #14 has Hawkman in it and I’ve always wanted to write him, so again, yeah — just had to do the job. There are few things floating around at DC that I’m working on that are way too soon to talk about.
Currently I’m doing Captain Midnight for Dark Horse Comics that premiers in November’s “Dark Horse Comics Presents.” I’ve got “Sketch Monsters” volume 2 at Oni Press and another OGN with them that I’ve been working on forever. And I’m putting together another web comic. And a few more creator-owned books that are planned for next year.
Yeesh, I’m just exhausted saying that all out loud. And people always wonder why I’m tired all the time and joke about how I live in a cave and don’t have time to talk to people.
But, the thing I’m most excited about is a miniseries at Image that hasn’t been announced yet that will blow people away. It drives me nuts that it’s too early to talk about. Soon!
With more TV, there are a few really cool things on the horizon. “Dear Dracula” won’t be the last thing of mine that is transformed into a new media, but that’s a story for another day. I’m really excited about some personal projects that are finally happening. The next few years are going to be really interesting.
“Dear Dracula” is available on DVD now from Wal-Mart and airs October 16 at 7pm on Cartoon Network.