I’ll admit, before reading the first issue of Dracula the Unconquered a little over a year ago, I knew I was going to like it based on the creative team alone. And their willingness to give a full length comic book away for a dollar, which I believe is the perfect price point for digital comics. However, I was still a bit skeptical of the actual premise. This isn’t to say that I don’t think monsters lend themselves to comedy, because they do whether its Frankenstein’s monster launching into a rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” somebody stepping on the Mummy’s bandages while he slowly unspools, or the Wolfman having nards I’m generally a light touch when it comes to that kind of stuff. And although the same could definitely be said for Dracula (‘sup Mad Monster Party!) I still couldn’t help but question the book’s actual premise somewhat: how do you take a character that is literally the definition of a blood-sucking monster and change them into a swashbuckling all ages hero?
The answer, weirdly enough, is pretty simple: You don’t change him at all; you just look at the story from another angle.
Written by Chris Sims with art by Steve Downer Dracula the Unconquered takes the titular lord-of-the-night ten years after his fall in the Bram Stoker story, as he is woken up by Varney the Vampire to find out he’s been ousted. This doesn’t particular bother Dracula as much as Varney presuming Dracula will become his servant which is what sets off the driving force of the book as Dracula sets out, along with his newly acquired plucky teenage assistant Thalia, to restore his powers and defeat Varney.
It’s worth noting that Sims is a writer over at Comics Alliance (the Jets to Spadexless’ Sharks (I kid! We love them.)) and a lot of the driving forces behind Dracula the Unconquered spins directly out of stuff he’s spent a lot of time thinking about, such as dudes with capes getting into fights at night and deathtraps. But it’s also a book that straddles the middle-ground between the foundation of its influences and creating something that feels fresh and exciting.
His main approach to writing Dracula seems to come from the idea that a villain is not only the hero of his own story but also that the villain really might not be all that villainous in the first place. The events of the original novel are only touched upon briefly, although Sims makes a point of showing Dracula being “monstrous,” but he also uses a pretty light touch in terms of the inherent horror elements, which downplays the more sinister aspects of the character and allows Dracula to come off a bit more relatable than you would expect.
Sims has said in interviews (such as the one I conducted during my old gig) that one of the biggest influences on this book were Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics. At the time I wasn’t familiar enough with those comics to know exactly what he meant but with the recent Fantagraphics reprints I was able to jump in, and it’s pretty clear to see the sort of adventure vibe Sims is trying evoke. It also shows the through line to what Steve Downer is trying to do with the art of the book.
Downer uses a style that’s cartoonish in design but elaborate in construction and I can think of few artists whose debuts were as fully formed as this. His art is vibrant, while still playing in the dark and shadowy settings that the book uses, with a real emphasis on action and character acting that have a confidence to them you can’t help but be impressed with. His design of characters has an impressive range, whether it be Dracula’s lean and angular presence or Varney’s round and solid frame, while utilizing a range of facial expressions that on their own could anchor the whole book. The art sells Sims writing by bringing to the forefront Dracula’s boredom while being confronted or Thalia’s raw defiance and irritation by being placed into “Damsel in Distress” scenarios.
Dracula the Unconquered utilizes a keen sense of economic storytelling along with fluid action which continues the Barks comparisons even if it’s not at that level of mastery yet. But it does its influence proud nonetheless. And, if I can be blunt, there were certain aspects of the book that reminded me of another master of storytelling: Elmore Leonard.
Now I know that may seem a stretch considering Leonard is a crime writer that’s never really touched this kind of storytelling, but hear me out. All of his work is defined by serious plots that are lightened by funny characterizations. Dracula the Unconquered’s plot for the first issue could be considered dramatic in other hands: a supernatural jailbreak and surviving a house full of deathtraps built by a bug eating maniac. But the humor of the book comes from Sims and Downers’ use of their characters, not from their settings.
My overreaching analysis aside though, this is a great comic series that’s only real problem has less to do with artistry as it does economics. At the time of this writing the book’s schedule is at roughly one issue a year which causes a narrative gap that makes the overarching story arc feel like its taking forever to set up. It’s an unfortunate financial reality of creator-owned comics that you cant really fault the creative team for (it’s not like they promised this would be a monthly release), but it’s still a bummer. It’s not a huge problem, but the gap does make it hard to keep the story fresh in your mind. You don’t remember exactly what it’s about beside Dracula and Thalia having adventures. Personally though, I feel like that’s enough, and it should be enough for most readers of this kind of comic book. For a dollar an issue it has the sort of bang for your buck storytelling that few comic books have nowadays and yet Dracula the Unconquered has it in spades.
TL;DR: Dracula the Unconquered is an extremely fun comic that uses the tools of numerous influences to create something that is incredibly fresh and exciting. It also only costs a dollar and if you aren’t willing try something for that price point you have more pressing problems than I’m willing to get into here.
A review PDF of Dracula the Unconquered was graciously provided to Spandexless by the creator even though it turned out Patrick had already bought it.