Chris Sims: Dracuology 101A comics interview article by: Geoffrey D. Wessel
Chris Sims has made his name mostly on the strength of his blogging, both on his own at the Invincible Super Blog, and as one of the principal writers at Comics Alliance. Sims has launched a couple of memes in his time, but he's also launched a few webcomics, notably Awesome Hospital (with Chad Bowers, Matt Digges & Josh Krach), as well as the rest of his Action Age Comics) strips. He's even made an appearance on The Daily Show as a "Batmanologist." Now, Sims will be premiering his first for-purchase work, Dracula the Unconquered with artist Steve Downer (and Josh Krach, again) on Halloween -- a fitting day to launch. Geoffrey D. Wessel took it upon himself to ask Sims a few questions.
Geoffrey D. Wessel: So I'll start this off by saying, as this is a hell I've had to deal with most of my life, I really felt for you having your name misspelled in your Daily Show appearance.
Chris Sims: Ha, I was inordinately crushed by that. I got an email from the producer the next day apologizing, too.
Wessel: That was nice of them at least. So, Dracula The Unconquered in 25 words or less.
Sims: Dracula and his teenage sidekick Thalia adventure around the world, battling monsters, spirits and other vampires and gathering magic artifacts. It costs a dollar!
Wessel: Funny you mention "other vampires," as the preview pages I read featured Dracula's lesser-known yet older kin, Varney the Vampire. What inspired you to bring him to the forefront here?
Sims: I wanted to have someone who just absolutely hated Dracula, and when you're dealing with villains, the best way to give someone that hate is through jealousy. And it fits so well with the sort of meta-story of their source material: Varney the Vampire was published almost fifty years before Dracula, and it introduced a ton of the standard elements that Bram Stoker played off of. But in pop culture terms, he's almost completely forgotten, while Dracula is this huge cultural icon.
That's sort of the basis for their relationship: Varney always should've been the King of the Vampires. He's a brutal, monstrous figure -- Steve [Downer] draws him so that he's got this almost gorilla thickness to him, huge arms and this powerful frame that could just tear you to shreds, and he's got more obvious signs of being a vampire than Drac, whose entire deal is that he dresses and speaks like an arrogant aristocrat. So for Varney, Dracula's this upstart -- as old as Drac is, Varney's older, and he's been wanting this for centuries.
Wessel: Are you planning to bring other contemporaneous literary vampires into the story? A trip to the Lair of the White Worm perhaps?
Sims: There are definitely going to be other literary vampires showing up. Part of the fun is playing these other characters -- or at least my ideas of them -- against my idea of Dracula. Aside from Varney, who's going to be the main antagonist of the series, Carmilla is definitely going to show up and play a major role in the first arc. I want to get around to using Orlok, too. They each represent a different aspect of how we think of vampires in pop culture, with Dracula sort of being the ultimate synthesis of them.
Wessel: But despite all this, it's not going to be anywhere near as heady or serious as, say, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in throwing together all these literary characters into one story, right?
Sims: Oh, definitely not. I mean, for starters, as Benito Cereno pointed out when I sent him the script for the first one, I'm getting it all wrong. My Varney has almost no resemblance to the relatively sympathetic character of the original novel. For me, they're just names and ideas, and so I try to make all of them easily accessible. If you've never heard of Varney, you'll be able to follow Dracula the Unconquered pretty easily. In fact, it might even be better.
Wessel: Then again, most people's ideas of Dracula come nowhere close to what Stoker actually wrote. Sad to think that the god-awful '90s film got it the closest.
Sims: That's one of the things that attracted me to the character, though. The idea that we have this idea of Dracula that's so much bigger and different than his portrayal in the novel. I made a joke that Dracula in Dracula isn't really any scarier than any weird foreign dude who invites you to his castle and then locks you up and tries to steal your girlfriend. He's just kind of a creep.
Wessel: The whole idea of consensus reality as it extends to fictional characters clashing with what was actually written has been on my mind lately. To wit, with the relaunched DC New 52, the Superman in Grant Morrison's Action Comics is actually closer to what was seen in the original Action #1, this man who was knocking about gangsters and governors at the same time. Doesn't jibe with the "Big Blue Boy Scout" theory, really, but there it was.
Sims: But the core idea is still the same: Superman's standing up for people who don't have the power to stand up for themselves. He's saving the less powerful from the more powerful, just like he does when he flies out to space and punches out Brainiac or Darkseid. It's sort of the same way I feel about Dracula, in that there are a thousand different takes and approaches to him, and mine isn't any more or less valid than any other, as long as it's rooted in that same essential idea. And hopefully, my idea of what's essential about Dracula is appealing enough to get people to pay a dollar to read about it.
Wessel: You're pretty well entrenched as a Dracula fan then, having sat through the Tomb of Dracula quasi-adaptation anime for your Comics Alliance readers' enjoyment...
Sims: Ha, yes. Though I'm not sure how much anyone actually enjoyed that.
Wessel: Since you're also the Batmanologist of Record for The Daily Show now, I would ask your thoughts on a Batman vs. Dracula scenario, but then I remembered those Red Rain Elseworlds...
Sims: Ha, I was not a fan. But honestly, most "Batman vs." fights I think about are going to end with a victory for Batman.
Wessel: "Most." So who beats Batman then?
Sims: Superman, the Thing, and Jack Kirby.
Wessel: Judge Dredd did manage the one-punch thing on him, though. Just saying.
Sims: Well to be fair, that's also how Judge Dredd dealt with the embodiment of fear.
Wessel: And it was the greatest single panel in comics ever as a result.
Sims: It's up there with Godzilla dunking in his Godzilla-sized Nikes.
Wessel: OH SNAP. While we're being critical, do you think your years of notability as a blogger and critic prepared you for hanging your own nuts out there with your own comics? How does it feel being on the other side?
Sims: You know, I think it actually has. I don't mean to sound self-important -- at least, no more self-important than I usually sound -- but when you're reading comics for the purpose of writing about them, and that's pretty much all you do for years, you learn a lot. It's really easy to read something and think that it sucks, but when you have to put it into words, you start reading very closely and figuring out why it sucks or why it's good or why this page layout doesn't work or why this characterization isn't appealing or why this particular scene made you think about a character you didn't like in a way that makes you love him.
I'm not saying that every critic can go out there and write a great comic, but if you want to learn how to do something, you have to study it, and being a critic is a pretty good way to do that. As for whether I'm up to putting my own stuff out there… Well, I've been doing that for a while. I've been doing Awesome Hospital with Chad [Bowers] for almost two years, and I've done a couple of other small projects too, like Solomon Stone and Woman of A.C.T.I.O.N. Throw in that I've been doing comedy pieces online for six and a half years, and I've had my fair share of reactions.
Wessel: So what made you decide to make Dracula The Unconquered a for-sale comic after releasing all the rest of the Action Age on the web?
Sims: Man, I always told myself that when I got asked this question, I'd just say "It's worth it," and then maybe put on some sunglasses. But to be honest with you, as much as I think it is worth paying for, it's sort of an experiment. Part of the motivation for doing the series was wanting to see what I could do with digital comics. We've written a lot of articles on CA about digital, and there seems to be this wish list of what people want out of digital comics, myself included. They want new stories that are accessible for any audience, they don't want them to have DRM, so that you own the files you buy, they want quality -- which is obvious -- and they want them for a dollar. So I wanted to see if I could do that, and give people everything they were saying they wanted.
And right after we started work on it, Four Star Studios started doing their Double Feature comics, and they were doing these great bonus features that you can only do with digital and giving people two eight-page stories for a buck, and they were great. It made me feel like this was something that could work, even in a market that's so used to free content. I think the low price point is crucial. It's the cost of a song on iTunes or Amazon MP3, or like a five-piece chicken nuggets, so it doesn't seem like a big deal, and when you compare it to what you're getting from major publishers, I really think it's appealing.
I mean, without even making a judgment on the quality of a book like Ultimate Spider-Man (which I like), that's a comic that's $3.99 for 20 pages. I'm nowhere near the level of Brian Bendis -- I can't even see that level with a telescope on a clear day -- but I'm doing a book that's four pages longer at a quarter of the price. I hope that sounds appealing to people, or at least appealing enough that they give that first issue a shot. If they don't like it, they're out a buck, and if they do, well, there's more on the way.
Wessel: Will there be an eventual print edition of this digital experiment?
Sims: It depends on what the demand's like, to be honest. Obviously, I'd like there to be one; we're doing it in the traditional print style rather than something like Awesome Hospital that would really take advantage of a computer screen rather than a portrait-oriented book, and while I'm trying to write a full story in each issue, the first seven tell a longer arc.
At the same time, if you're paying to print your own comics -- especially full-sized color comics -- it's just insanely expensive. I've been doing that for years with Solomon Stone and Woman of A.C.T.I.O.N. and Awesome Hospital, but it's just a nightmare on the financial side of things. You end up having to charge $5 for a 28-page comic just to break even, and unless you're willing to go through the hassle of trying to get an independent, self-published comic into the Previews catalog, your distribution is just tiny. It's limited to the people you run into at conventions or local stores that you try to sell on a one-to-one basis or even offering print collections to readers on a website, who already have a cheaper alternative right there in front of them on the same page. So, unless you've got this huge pool of readers, unless you're an Achewood or a Dr. McNinja or a Wonderella, it just doesn't seem like it's worth it.
The best-case scenario of a relatively unknown writer taking a book to a convention with something like a $30 price tag? It's pretty grim. Meanwhile, doing it digitally gives you this huge audience that you can reach all across the world. Anyone who likes comics and has Adobe Acrobat installed can buy and read Drac the Unconquered on Halloween, not just the people who walk by my table at a con and think it looks interesting enough to strike up a conversation.
Wessel: So do you buy the "webcomic as free advertisement of the printed comic" theory any more than the "single issue is the advertisement for the trade paperback"?
Sims: I think if you're writing something as an advertisement for something else, you're doing it wrong. That's something that frustrates me about a lot of current comics. You need to write for the unit you're presenting, not something that you're going to present in the future. If you're writing a 20-page comic, write a 20-page comic. You can have a beginning, middle and end in that comic and still structure it so that it flows into a larger story that's six issues long. You're not writing the first chapter of something, you're writing a single unit. If you're writing the first chapter, then you can just write the rest of the chapters and do it as an OGN, and that's fine.
That's why I'm really trying to do my best to do full stories in Dracula. The first seven issues are one big story, but I want them to read like 24-page comics, not like chapters of a 148-page graphic novel. I hope they'll hang together as well as stuff like the old Marvel comics of the '70s and '80s if you read them all at once, but that's not the way we're publishing them, so it's not the format that's first and foremost in my mind.
Wessel: Certainly, "writing for the trade" has become the default method in most modern comics, which has affected their accessibility to the mainstream. But, even so, like, "The Death of Gwen Stacy," those were single issues, and written as such, but taken together.....
Sims: Exactly. And, you know, doing the long-form story arcs isn't the problem at all. Dan Slott and Mark Waid are perfect examples right now: These are guys writing stories that are going to read beautifully when they're collected, but each issue feels like its own piece, and not just an excuse to get the first page and the last page.
Wessel: Then again, there's also a complete cultural misuse of the term "graphic novel," and that affects the perception of how comics are marketed and created these days. I think we need to realize that the latest X-Men trade isn't a "graphic novel." Am I off here?
Sims: Eh, I think that a "graphic novel" is just any comic with a spine that can go on a bookshelf, but the terminology of comics is weird. It's why I prefer the term "paperbacks" for collected issues of a comic, and "(original) graphic novel" for anything that's debuting in book format, rather than periodical. But it's all just comics.
Wessel: It is rather a hoity-toity phrasing of "comic book" after all. So just to wibble for a second, we both write comics that take place in England, although yours is in a (fantasy) Victorian setting while mine is modern day. Nevertheless, we're both Americans, so how far into the research are you going, even if it's getting Stoker's version of it right?
Sims: Ha! To be honest with you, I'm keeping things pretty vague, just to minimize the chance that I'll run into mistakes that'll pull readers out of the story. I tend to research things as I go. I have an idea, then I do the research, then that helps flesh out the idea. Or, occasionally, I'll see something that produces the idea fully formed. I was watching this amazing BBC documentary series called Connections, and there's a piece of an episode that just presented itself as the perfect idea for a Dracula story -- no additional research necessary.
But it's funny that you mention it taking place in England. The first few issues do, but, really, one of the things I want to do with the book is send Dracula traveling around the world. I've mentioned before that the main inspirations for the story were Scrooge McDuck, and I love the idea that he'll just drop what he's doing and head off to find King Solomon's Mines or something.
So, the first few issues take place in England, but after that it's off to this sort of fantasy version of Europe in 1901. Everywhere he goes is either fictional or a fictionalized version of it -- my "London" isn't exhaustively researched so much as it's the London I have in my head from a lifetime of reading Sherlock Holmes stories. But at the same time, the first issue takes place almost entirely within the Tower of London, so I definitely read up when I was writing it. But, you know, I doubt they have a secret underground crypt for vampires in there anyway.
I'm less concerned with the details than I am with the geography, if that makes sense. If Dracula's going to go to three different places, then he needs to go to them in a way that feels natural. Or supernatural, as the case may be.
Wessel: You mention King Solomon's Mines, and I mentioned LOEG earlier. There's also the Anno Dracula series from Kim Newman, where Dracula seduces Queen Victoria and life and history kinda go from there. There's also a lot of other comics using public domain or historical or literary characters as the characters. How do you feel about this cultural strip mining of old characters and situations becoming a cottage industry within itself?
Sims: Ha, as crazy as it is to say after you contextualized it as "strip mining," I love it. It's really what attracted me to Dracula as a character. I talked about Scrooge McDuck earlier, and you've probably seen me talk about Batman and how I love them both because they're characters that work in any kind of story. Is there something valuable somewhere? Boom: Scrooge can go get it. Is there a crime happening? You have a reason for Batman to be involved with anything from a Gotham City street mugging to fighting off Darkseid with the Justice League.
Dracula's the same way, because he's been so thoroughly mined. You can put him into any story and make it work, and because of that, he's become this huge cultural icon. There are like eight different versions of Dracula within ten feet of my computer: The Hammer movies, the Castlevania games, Marvel comics, the novel, and so on, and because they've been used and added to over the years, they're all equally valid. So while in a lot of ways it is strip mining and remixing, it's also just a use of a cultural signifier, the same as having a flying dude with a cape show up in something means super-hero, which really just means Superman, on a visual level.
I actually read Anno Dracula for the first time while I was writing the first issue of Dracula the Unconquered, because I wanted to make sure I wasn't doing the same sort of story that he was. I'm not -- Kim Newman's Dracula is a far different character from mine, and so the world revolves around him in a completely different way -- but it was a fascinating read because of how he used those characters. You can go into that novel completely cold, only knowing the name "Dracula" and the basic idea of who he is (big evil powerful vampire lord), and you still get a good story, because Newman is using those cultural signifiers to build his narrative. The focus isn't the reference or the minutiae, although it's nice to see Blacula get name-checked in there, the focus is on all of that coming together to form something new and different.
Wessel: One last thing I've been wanting to ask you for a while: you were the main instigator of what became something of a meme, mocking a line from an issue of Jim Balent's Tarot series about a woman's vagina being haunted. Were you aware when you helped add the term "haunted vagina" to the internet lexicon that there already was a novel called The Haunted Vagina?
Sims: Ha, I was not, but I assure you I've since been informed on an almost monthly basis.
Wessel: Ever had any inclination to read it?
Sims: I have not. I mean, what are the odds that anything could be a better use of that phrase than Tarot?
Wessel: Allllright, thanks for the time Chris.
Sims: Thank you! DRACULATHEUNCONQUEREDDOTCOM OCTOBER THIRTY FIRST ONE DOLLAR YEAHHHH!
(Imagine I was shouting that on the radio right before you cut me off.)
Geoffrey D. Wessel writes the sports thriller Keeper and is a regular contributor to SF anthology webcomic Hadron Colliderscope. He has also contributed to the "community created" (tm!) fantasy television series Bar Karma, did a story with 2000AD veteran Henry Flint in the Spirit of Hope charity anthology and has a story coming in a TBA Image anthology. His website is at http://gdwessel.com and he can also be found on Twitter as @gdwessel, as well as on Facebook with the same name.