So Chris Sims was going around Twitter asking for people who wanted to interview him about his new comic, Dracula the Unconquered, for which Sims has decided you should all pay actual money to read. And I thought, “well, if Sims wants people to spend money on his comic, then it is only proper that I put him through the gauntlet.” Where the gauntlet is mostly me asking polite questions, basically. So here we go!
BIRD: So I’m here sitting down with Chris Sims (on a virtual basis) and we’re going to talk about his new comic, Dracula the Unconquered.
SIMS: So if I’m Chris, does that mean you have to be “Christopher?”
BIRD: I was going to go with this being a Chris-off. Which sounds dirty. Then again, pretty much the entire internet just calls me MGK anyway.
SIMS: I’m an iconoclast. But only when it comes to referring to people by their online handles.
BIRD: I have no problem with that. Speaking of which, you saw that you now are the “other” Chris Sims, right?
SIMS: I am the non-Nobel Prize-winning Chris Sims, if that’s what you mean. The thing about that is, that guy totally goes by Christopher, but he still gets the Wikipedia page for “Chris.” It’s just not right.
BIRD: I’m more or less in the same boat. When famed science journalist Christopher Bird died back in 1996 I got mail for years from people asking me if I was him.
SIMS: You got mail or him after he died? Did they think they were sending letters to heaven? Because that is adorable.
BIRD: Nah. Once or twice a week having to type out “No, that’s not me, and yes, he really is dead. Sorry.” This was pre-Google, you understand, so we had to rely on AltaVista and shit like that, and nobody actually could find anything on the internet and check things instantly. Also we had to walk uphill both ways to school in the snow.
SIMS: Ah yes. The dark days of the depression, when Alta Vista was king.
BIRD: Anyway. We should probably talk about your comic! Which you’re doing with Steve Downer on art and Josh Krach on letters.
SIMS: That is correct!
BIRD: So, I looked at what you sent me, and my first reaction is: your Dracula seems influenced by the classic Wolfman/Colan Tomb of Dracula Dracula. Tell me I”m wrong!
SIMS: It’s definitely an influence. I’ve written before how I’m a huge fan of that series. If you’ve never read it, check out the first Essential that Marvel put out — it feels like a TV show that would come on today. It’s got that kind of pacing and this ensemble cast that includes the hunky, good-hearted descendant of Dracula. And, of course, that Gene Colan art.
BIRD: Also, Tomb has the classic blue tuxedo outfit for Dracula, which I think most comic fans now default to imagining how Dracula dresses. As opposed to, and I am just saying hypothetically here, red body armor and white albino hair.
SIMS: Ha, yes. But that’s as much from Lugosi and Catstlevania: Symphony of the Night as it is from Colan. I really like the idea of Dracula being a dude who dresses for his role as the king of the vampires, you know? He’s classy. It feeds into this sense of grand arrogance that he puts out. One of the first things you see him do after he’s resurrected in Dracula the Unconquered #1 is that he starts dusting off his sleeves and adjusting his buttons for the best fit. It’s how I think of him — this image that he projects is everything. And that goes back to the original novel, too. There’s a lot of deception and pretension to Dracula when Harker meets him. He wants you to know he’s the man in charge.
BIRD: By “Harker,” are you referring to Cute Human Sidekick Girl? She didn’t get named in the first bunch of pages I read.
SIMS: No, I mean Jonathan Harker from the novel, you worthless illiterate. I was talking about when Jonathan meets him in the novel. That’s whole introduction of Dracula there was what I fixated on, trying to reconcile the way he is there with the way he gets portrayed in pop culture, which is where my version in Drac the Unconquered comes from. The girl that shows up in the comic is Thalia, she’s a brand-new character for the series.
BIRD: I want to get to Thalia a little later, mostly because the comic is named Dracula and not New Girl. Which is good, because less singing. But anyway – one of the big things for me about Tomb – and I don’t want to suggest here that you’re just trying to write Tomb again – is that it went back and forth between “Dracula is a total bastard” and “Dracula is an honorable monster and there’s far worse out there than him.” And I note that given you start the series off with Dracula first threatening Thalia and then arguing with Varney the Vampyre, who has become King of the Vampires in Drac’s absence, that you refer to both modes in the first third of your story.
SIMS: Yeah. If there’s one thing that separates my story from Tomb, it’s that Tomb was a straight-up villain comic. Dracula was unambiguously monstrous in that book, and while the original premise was that it was going to be the Good Guys hunting him down, he’s such a forceful character that he takes over and it starts to be about how Dracula fights things that are worse than he is. There’s definitely that aspect in Unconquered, but I wanted to do Dracula as an adventure hero. I’ve described it before as “Indiana Jones, starring Dracula,” and I really hope that’s how he comes across. But that said, there’s still that monstrous aspect to him, and there’s still a lot of stuff in his past that has to be at least dealt with and acknowledged if you’re going to try to do a story that… Well, it doesn’t necessarily “redeem” him, but it shows him in a different light. The things that he wants now are different from the things that he wanted when he first came to England in Stoker’s Dracula, which were different from what he wanted in the flashbacks where you see him in his full kill-the-humans end-boss Castlevania mode.
BIRD: That sounds like a challenging premise, given that, well, this is Dracula we’re talking about here. Even in Tomb he was still definitively a baddy, and that’s almost as sympathetic as he’s ever been portrayed in comics – witness, for example, Captain Britain and MI-13, where Paul Cornell made him entertainingly and plausibly racist as all get out. And that’s just the Marvel version of Dracula, which is arguably one of the most generous interpretations of the character.
SIMS: Exactly. When there are so many interpretations of a character — and that’s what I love about him, that there’s been so much done with him that he works in any sort of story — the thing that stuck out to me that could set mine apart was doing Dracula the Adventure Hero. Like I said, there’s definitely the idea behind it that there are monsters out there that would be worse than Dracula, but, you know, he’s still Dracula. I’ve written in the teaser at the website that some of the things that happened in the novel didn’t happen that way, which has given some people the idea that Dracula himself was a nicer or less monstrous figure in my take on those events. That’s not it at all — most of the evil stuff that’s attributed to Dracula is all his doing, it’s just that Harker, Van Helsing, Morris and Seward were misinformed or deliberately making themselves look more heroic than they were.
BIRD: So, how else is your Dracula distinguished? Is he a Dracula who can walk in sunlight (a la Francis Ford Coppola or Team Edward)? Or do you find the challenge of having to work around daytime to be more fun?
SIMS: You know how big a Batman fan I am. I am fully comfortable with comics that take place entirely at night for years at a time. But it’s interesting that you bring up the powers. Everyone who does a vampire story has to sort of figure out which version of vampire powers they’re going to use, and sometimes they do it by just having a dude list off what he can and can’t do. Garth Ennis has done it, and God help me, Stephenie Meyer did it too, and I hate it every time I see it. But there’s so much out there that it’s almost unavoidable.
BIRD: Well, if you don’t explicitly say that Dracula can’t shoot rainbow rays from his fingertips, people might assume that’s the case.
SIMS: I don’t do the big list, at least in the first couple of issues, the way it works in my head is that all your standard vampire powers and weaknesses — super-strength, they drink blood, sunlight burns them up — are common traits among all the vampires. But then you have the cool extra powers that are usually attributed to Dracula — being able to summon wolves and turn into a bat and take the form of mist — are King of the Vampires powers. Those powers are like the magical equivalent of a crown and scepter. They’re bestowed on you when you ascend to that level. So it’s stuff that Dracula used to be able to do, but now he can’t. To balance things out, and to explain anything else that’s come up, I have Dracula as a sorcerer as well. I mean, the guy’s a magical creature who was alive for hundreds of years. He’s picked up some tricks. You’ll see a bit of that in the first issue, too. The way I look at magic, and magical beings like Vampires, is that it’s all based in symbolism. Even the idea of the stake through the heart — it’s not because Vampires are magically vulnerable to wood, it’s because you’re literally nailing them to the ground so they can’t rise up from their graves. That’s how I try to think of it and present it, which I think dovetails with the idea of the powers as a symbol of rulership.
BIRD: Doesn’t giving Dracula magic just give you more to explain, though? Comics fans are notorious for bitching about how magic gets used as a deus ex machina (and also misunderstanding what a deus ex machina is, but you follow my point).
SIMS: In a way, yes. But like I said, it’s there from the start, and I think it fits with what I’m doing. The whole book is rooted in magic. Drac himself is a supernatural being, and like I said, the premise is largely influenced by stuff like Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are magical enemies, magical artifacts that he’s looking for, there’s wizards and spirits and ghosts. And once you establish that this is a world where all of that exists, and that your main character is right at the center of it, why not embrace it? Why wouldn’t a cunning warrior who knows there are people out there who want to kill him not figure out a way to bend that to his considerable will? Especially when he’s got decades to do it.
BIRD: Fair enough. I also note that you’re going all League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on us by bringing out Varney as one of Dracula’s antagonists in the very first issue. Are there other public-domain vampires (or monsters) waiting in the wings? Lord Ruthven, the Skeleton Mistress, and so on?
SIMS: Definitely. I mentioned this in another interview, but one of the first things I did when I figured out I wanted to do this was read Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, which is this huge literary mashup about Dracula winning at the end of his story and going on to take over England. I almost didn’t want to read it because I really, really didn’t want to see someone doing what I wanted to do well before the idea even popped into my head. It’s a great book, though, and fortunately for me, it’s a drastically different take on Dracula himself, and all of the other vampires orbit around him in a completely different way that they’d interact with mine. Varney was a logical choice for the villain because I wanted an older vampire that would be just as powerful, and his story predates Dracula. But there are others out there. Carmilla’s a definite — she shows up pretty early in the story, actually — and I have ideas for guys like Count Orlok as well. At the same time, I don’t want to just use those guys, either. A lot of the fun in plotting the series has been figuring out how to blend them into the stories I want to tell.
BIRD: How far have you plotted it out so far?
SIMS: I’m writing the third issue, and I have the first seven pretty thoroughly plotted. I try to write so that there’s a complete adventure in each, but those first seven tell an overarching story. If there’s ever a print version, that’ll be what it is. Beyond that, I have ideas of where I want to go, but as far as things I’ve written, there’s only little pieces in my notebook. “Drac goes to China.” Stuff like that.
BIRD: Dracula versus hopping vampires sounds like a Thing. But I digress. So, earlier you mentioned Thalia. Elaborate.
SIMS: What do you want to know?
BIRD: You’re introducing a brand new character to the Dracula mythos. What wouldn’t one want to know?
SIMS: Thalia’s the viewpoint character of the book. As much as I love Dracula, the guy’s a super-arrogant 500 year-old vampire sorcerer king. He’s hard to relate to, and the story that you tell when it’s just him — like Tomb, for instance — is a much more violent, vicious story than what I wanted to do. When you add someone else to that, it changes the dynamic completely. She’s a motivating factor for what he does to kick off the entire series, and as swaggering and arrogant as he is, she’s seeing him at his lowest point, when he really needs someone there to help him. Plus, she’s just really fun to write. The further I get into it, the easier it is for her to assert her personality, which is handy for me since I have this fully formed, crystalized image of who Dracula is and how forceful he can be as a character. She’s a good counterpoint to him. I can’t lie, one of her primary functions in the story is as a “civilian” so that Dracula can fill us in on his backstory and what he’s doing, but I never, ever, EVER want that to be all she is. A comic that treats a character as nothing more than a prop is a bad comic. So while there is exposition, and there is the fact that she’s a mortal human being occasionally in need of rescue from these dangerous supernatural forces, her real value comes in the interactions that she has with Dracula, and what those interactions force him to confront.
BIRD: Okay, I think we’re near the end here. So: five reasons why people should purchase DRACULA THE UNCONQUERED, other than “It’s good, really.” And… go!
SIMS: 24 pages. Full-Color. All-Ages. Action, adventure, horror, comedy. One American Dollar.
BIRD: Those are some damn terse reasons right there.
SIMS: But good ones! Really, though: It’s a 24-page comic for a buck. If you buy it, you’ve gotten more all-new content than the average mainstream comic for a third for the price, and if you don’t like it, you’re out the price of a cup of coffee. And we didn’t even really talk about my collaborators on this one. I sent you a few pages before the interview that are just Steve’s pencils and inks, but he’s a phenomenal colorist as well.
BIRD: I dunno, Sims. You are asking us to wager a dollar on the expertise of comics creators who are not even ONE TENTH as experienced as Rob Liefeld.
SIMS: I’m an outsider. I’ve got some fresh ideas that’ll shake things up! But I will admit: Dracula has 100% fewer pouches on his outfit than any given member of Youngblood.
BIRD: That seems like a good cutoff point? unless there’s anything we didn’t cover you want to discuss?
SIMS: Hey man, it’s your dime. You want to cut off the interview without getting to the good stuff, that’s your business. FAR BE IT FROM ME A TWO TIME EISNER NOMINATED COMICS JOURNALIST TO TELL YOU WHAT TO DO.
BIRD: Ahem, member of the first and only digital publication to win a Canada National Magazine Award here, buddy.
SIMS: Pffft, whatever. “Canada.”