The 1970s are widely considered among the most influential in defining the modern horror genre. Roman Polanski arrived to the renaissance a couple of years early with Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, but it was filmmakers such as Dario Argento, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven who would leave the lasting mark on the period. The influence of their groundbreaking decisions reverberates through the scary stories we tell ourselves even today. In Cult of Dracula, it is quite clear that first time comic writer Rich Davis feels those vibrations. Like those pioneering horror masters, he honors those who came before him while blazing his own path.
Cult of Dracula #1 begins with nearly nine pages of somber silence. The macabre tranquility is broken only when the detective pauses to document the tragic death of an infant smothered in its mother’s arms. I’ll wager that the death of innocence will prove a recurring theme in Davis’s tale. Trusting artist Henry Martinez to guide the readers as they attempt to piece together an unimaginable tragedy, is a beautifully bold choice by Davis. He and Martinez clearly believe in one another and they share that faith in their readers. Less confident creators might have given in to the temptation to hold the reader’s hand with overly expository narration or heavy handed panels. This creative duo exercises a lighter touch. They leave much of the nightmare to the reader’s imagination. This speaks well to what we might expect as the story unfolds in future issues. Cult of Dracula is a story written for mature audiences in every sense of that word.
Charles Manson brought the decade of love to a jarring end when he ordered his acolytes to murder actress Sharon Tate and six other innocent people in August of 1969. In many ways, America was never the same. Suddenly the suburbs weren’t safe anymore. The innocent were no longer immune to the torments of monsters. Terrible things could and often did happen to good people. This became a terrifying theme in legendary films such as Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and, of course, Halloween. The 70s brought horror into the home. It’s fitting that Davis uses Manson as an analog for the enigmatic guru of the Cult of Dracula.
This character is introduced only as “Papa” in the first issue. I suspect he’ll have another name later in the story. Davis draws many of the characters from Bram Stoker’s novel into this modern story. Overall, he does a solid job with these modernizations, though some characters are far more interesting than others. Had I not already been spoiled by one of a number of podcasts promoting Cult of Dracula, I might suspect that Papa could be Dracula himself. Perhaps he’s the devil? In an enchanting splash page drawn by Martinez and masterfully colored by Trevor Richardson, Papa literally brings the darkness with him. Darkness consumes the light with every barefoot step he takes into the scene. He speaks with the bewitching weirdness of the most infamous cult leaders. On the surface, his homilies seem like nonsensical ramblings. Upon deeper reflection, however, Papa, like all those who prey upon the weak and the wandering, weaves the bizarre truth of a man who sees the world from a warped perspective. He gives these lost sheep something to believe in then wields it against them with draconian malice. Papa is simply terrifying. I can’t wait to find out who he really is.
70s-era horror films were revolutionary for their simplicity. They proved that intimate explorations of personal tragedies could be as frightening as grandiose tales of the supernatural. In many ways, the pioneering slasher and torture porn films of Hooper, Carpenter and Craven are why we caricature the classic monsters of the Universal period today. I’m still not certain exactly how he accomplishes this, but Davis somehow manages to Frankenstein these two diametrically opposed approaches to horror into one compelling symbiotic machination.
The characters in Cult of Dracula are alive. They’re engaging. They’re interesting. They have real conversations with one another. Davis’s use of dialogue already stands with some of the best I’ve read in comics. He completely eschews the false need to explain everything. He trusts the reader to interpret subtext. Martinez does a wonderful job of suggesting that subtext through facial expressions drawn with exquisite detail. The first issue gives us very little in the way of concrete information, but we are haunted by the near certainty that no one is who they seem to be and everyone has some sort of agenda. Cult of Dracula begins as a very intimate story. This makes the introduction of the supernatural all the more jarring.
I believe that today’s evolving comic book landscape shares many similarities with the world of filmmaking in the 70s. Many readers today are moving on from the simple tales of superheroes in spandex battling an infinite assembly line of extinction level events every three or four months in the same way moviegoers abandoned the overly broad morality tales of the Universal monster movies in the 70s. Comic readers are more mature. They crave complex stories that reflect the real world and the threats they face in it. That’s not to say that brilliant writers such as Donny Cates, James Tynion and others can’t tell these intimate, character driven type stories. Only that the corporatized nature of Marvel and DC, like the studio dominated Universal movies, are less likely to truly set those creators free to tell the stories they want to tell the way they want to tell them. These multinational corporations have too many billions of dollars in licensing and merchandising deals to set maverick creators free with their properties. The 70s facilitated a renaissance in low-budget, ground-breaking horror. I believe we are witnessing a similar renaissance in small press, independent comic books. I believe that Cult of Dracula is a worthy addition to that movement.