On the 26th of May 1897, an Irish Author by the name of Bram Stoker published a novel entitled Dracula. Stoker also penned Dracula as a stage play which opened May 18th, 1897. The work would capture the imagination of the public and go on to inspire a multitude of novels, plays, movies, and comic books that continue to come into publication. I suspect we all already knew that.
Reimagined versions of Dracula have become a staple of pop culture. Each of us may have met the infamous count in a variety of incarnations ranging from Gary Oldman’s love starved fiend in the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Wes Craven’s attempt to modernize the story in Dracula 2000 or even as the father of the animated hero Vampire Hunter D. It is not difficult to rework Stoker’s Dracula into a satisfying narrative. Dracula has been an ongoing antagonist in Marvel Comics sine 1972. The Marvel version of the character even gave rise to Blade who himself has gone on to inspire a whole genre of monster hunter related characters.
It could be said that Dracula has been overused as a character. The 1990s saw a boom in Vampire fiction with everything from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For some time, the over saturation of vampires made their use gauche or trite. Vampires faded into mist, but never quite let go of the strangle hold they have on our imagination. Among horror fans there is a reverence for the vampire in general and Count Dracula specifically. Stoker penned one of the pillars of classic horror. The character was then overused and abused for over a century.
Rich Davis’s Cult of Dracula is an exception to this standard. It stands out as a new, imaginative entry into Dracula’s lore. When reading the first issue you find yourself reuniting with Mina Murray, Jonathan Harker, Abraham Van Helsing, Quincey Morris, Lucy Westenra, Arthur Holmwood, and Robert Renfield with all the comfort and familiarity of a long-lost family member.
These familiar faces have changed though. They have secrets, some of them sinister and haunting. Is this Mina seeing ghosts of her past or is she being literally haunted? Is Jonathan Harker the same true hearted man who only has eyes for Mina or is this camera man a flawed shadow who will be swept up in the events clearly brewing on the horizon. Why is Abraham Van Helsing wearing a priest’s collar when he is clearly in charge of a documentary film crew? These doubts and questions help to take the comfortable and familiar nature of the characters and make them feel alien and slightly inappropriate as if seeing a former lover in the throes of passion with someone new.
It might be hard for someone living in a large city to understand, but religious fervor in a rural community can be terrifying. The opening scenes of the first issue center on a quaint little country church. This traditionally wholesome and safe setting turns to horror in the wake of a massacre of magnificent proportions. The splashes of blood on formerly pristine white walls are a striking dichotomy. An infant smothered to death under the weight of her decapitated Mother is a small but disturbing detail in a greater tapestry of gore and terror. The images jump off the page and take up residence in your subconscious keeping you slightly frightened for a pleasant time after you have set the book down.
While Rich Davis’ words set the dialog and scene, Henry Martinez brings scenes to life with clean lines and attention to detail. Each panel is lovingly rendered faithfully from the script with great skill. I could have seen this book being black and white based in the tradition of great horror comics like The Walking Dead or Tales from the Crypt. I am glad that is not the case. Trevor Richardson’s colors take a creepy tale and turn the intensity up to maximum. From red skies to purple bags under some character’s eyes these little touches add emphasis and subtext to each scene. Art lovers will not be left wanting by Cult of Dracula #1.
I think Cult of Dracula is going to be one of the should-not-miss comics of 2020. Writer/Creator Rich Davis has taken the proven winning formula from Dracula and updated it to both frighten and delight the more difficult to scare modern world. This is not your grandfather’s scary story to tell around the campfire. It has deep psychological touches which lend it power and credibility. Issue #1 wraps you in a mystery that you both cannot wait to solve and at the same time are dreading unraveling. I am even left with the feeling that we may not even be able to trust Malcolm Bram, our seeming protagonist. If you cannot take comfort and solace in your hero, who can you trust?
One way to tell a well-written scary story is to take the comfortable and familiar and give it an uncomfortable twist. Cult of Dracula excels at this. Rather than being a reboot or reimaging of a dated vampire tale, Cult of Dracula borrows a few sturdy bones from Dracula and twists them into something new and refreshing. I could easily see this story as a TV series or movie. There is a lot being said in the pages of Cult of Dracula. Some of it you are too afraid to look away from.
Overall, I would give the book a solid 8.5 out of 10. As a writer, I would have been tempted to hide the identity of the characters from their analogs in Dracula. This criticism, if it really is one, comes from the idea that I know something of the roles Abraham Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, and Renfield are going to play over the course of the story. I suspect this may be an intentional ploy on the part of Rich Davis to lull the audience into a false sense of comfort before taking us on an unexpected thrill ride. If so, I expect to fall fully in love with the series and will be clamoring to see more. Even with the privilege of being one of the advance reviewers of the book, I already find myself impatiently awaiting issue #2. That is the mark of a well told story: Wanting to know what is going to happen next! Do yourself a favor and don’t miss Cult of Dracula.