Interview: Kurt Busiek and Daryl Gregory on Dracula: The Company Of Monsters

Starting in August, a brand new ongoing series is coming from BOOM! Studios, entitled Dracula: The Company Of Monsters. Written by Kurt  Busiek (creator of Marvels, Astro City, Thunderbolts, and much more) and novelist Daryl Gregory, with art by Scott Godlewski, the series explores how the King Of Vampires, Dracula himself, fits into the modern corporate world. I spoke with Kurt and Daryl to learn more about the inception of this project, and where they plan on going with the series.


 

Matt Adler: Where did the idea for Dracula: The Company of Monsters originate?

Kurt Busiek: Me! It came from me!

Okay, you want more than that. It came from me being fascinated with the historical Dracula, Vlad III of Wallachia, who was a serious badass.  He fought the Turks pretty much all his life, trying to keep his country free, and kept his nobles in line by brutal and uncompromising methods — they didn't call him Vlad the Impaler because he liked Chevy Impalas. He was a prince, a warrior who led his armies into the thick of battle, a member of a secret society, a law & order hardass and more. And hey, he impaled people. Sometime he had the stakes greased so the impaling would go smoother and the victim would live longer, in agonizing pain, before finally dying.

Like I said, a badass. A sword-swinging, Turk-killing, enemy-impaling warrior badass. The vampire version of him is actually nicer than the real guy.

But for all that he was a nasty piece of work, the common people of Wallachia considered him a hero, and he's still a folk hero in Romania today. Part of that is because a lot of what we know about him comes from his enemies, and they wanted to make him look like a monster — though admittedly, they had plenty of material to do it — and part of it came from the fact that he took pretty good care of he peasants. One of the reasons he had to get harsh with his nobility was because they wanted to abuse the peasants, and Vlad wanted to stop them, because the peasants did all the real work and deserved to be protected.

So he's a monster to some and a hero to others, and they both had good reason to think that way, and that's interesting right there.  And on top of that, he got turned into literature's greatest villain by Bram Stoker, which makes him a vampire badass who's a hero to the people he was responsible for protecting.  And Stoker made him a sorcerer, too, who learned dark magic at the Scholomance, an academy of sorcery in the Carpathians, and he knew enough to turn himself into a vampire.

That's pretty good.

So in thinking about how to bring him to the present day, I started thinking about corporations, and how they're a lot like the feudal system Dracula was part of — a lot like them, but not the same. In some ways, there's a lot more freedom — you can quit, get a better job — but in some ways there's a lot more insecurity, with people getting fired, their jobs outsourced, that sort of thing. So what would happen if Dracula was revived today, in the belly of a large corporation that perhaps wasn't as nice to its rank and file as they might be — and it pissed Dracula off.

The monster side, the vampire side, the folk hero side — it brings it all together and pits Dracula against something we're all familiar with, corporate greed and callousness. Plus adventure, action, blood, romance, magic, blood, technology, blood and some blood, too.

That's where it came from.

MA: And how did BOOM! come into the picture?

KB: They wouldn't leave me alone, the bastards!

Seriously, that's pretty much how it happened. I'd talked to Ross Richie at a San Diego Con about some ideas I had, including a Dracula project — a different Dracula idea, as it happens, but that's how these things work — and he really liked the idea of doing a Dracula book.  As things played out, I got busy with other stuff, and didn't have the time to do it, but he kept coming back at me, asking about it. He had Mark Waid call and bug me, too.  He wanted a Dracula book, and he liked my idea — both ideas, by then — and Ross doesn't quit.

And in the end, I said look, I really don't have time to write this, but how about if I create and outline the series, and we have someone else do the actual day-to-day writing? Would that work? And as it turns out it would, so here we are.

MA: What led to the two of you being paired?

KB: I just turned around one day and there was Daryl, smiling that goofy smile and showing me brilliantly-written prose, and Matt Gagnon was saying, "Here's your co-writer." How did you get here, Daryl?

Daryl Gregory: I think Matt saw my ad on Craig's List: SF WRITER SEEKS MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH COMICS.

Actually, the matchmaking is all because of Chris Roberson and Chris' wife and publishing partner, Allison Baker. They knew some of the BOOM! people, and Chris, who writes FROM FABLETOWN WITH LOVE and iZOMBIE for Vertigo, had just started writing DUST TO DUST, the official prequel to BOOM!'s adapation of DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRONIC SHEEP. Allison and Chris picked up that I was intensely jealous of Chris' comics career. They knew this because I said to them, I am intensely jealous of Chris' comics career. I write SF and fantasy fiction, but I'm also lifelong comic book fan, and I'd always wanted to break into the field.

So somehow this message got across to the people at BOOM! I imagine the conversation went something like this: Chris said, "Matt, there's this guy I know who writes weird SF novels, and he's pathetically needy. If you could throw him a bone, that would be great." And Matt said, "Will he work cheap?" And Chris said, "I told you, he's a science fiction writer."

When Matt wrote me and asked if I'd be interested in writing a comic with Kurt Busiek, I don't think the pixels had finished resolving on my screen before I clicked Reply. I'd been a fan of Kurt's since the first run of THUNDERBOLTS. There are comic references all through my novels, but there's a short story of mine that couldn't have been written without the influence of MARVELS and ASTRO CITY.  And besides that, I loved his idea for Dracula.

MA: Can you tell us a bit about how you work together?

KB: It's a great system. I talk crap for days and Daryl listens to me and says "uh-huh" a lot, and "that's brilliant, sir" every now and then, and then I turn in all of my stuff late and he scrambles to meet the deadlines and does all the heavy lifting and makes me look good in the process. It's great.

DG: I also iron his pants. But yeah, pretty much he pontificates, and I do all the real work.

KB: Hey! When I said you had to agree with me all the time, I didn't mean on that!

DG: My apologies, Mr. Busiek. Your rules get so complicated.

KB: Okay, okay. Seriously, it's something like that, but I do actually contribute a little something worthwhile, here and there.  What I did was, I wrote what for lack of a better term we'll call a series bible, outlining who the characters are and what the backstory is and what the tone is, all that kind of stuff, and I've outlined the first 12 issues of the series, in enough detail to make the story work, but not so detailed that Daryl has no room to move, and we talk that over and make some revisions and flesh things out and he changes all my names (okay, he changed one name), ad then he takes it from there, breaking it into pages and panels and writing up the script, and in general making it his own, putting his particular stamp on it. I'm doing the idea and structure stuff, he's doing the actual choreography and scripting.

And since Daryl is new to comics, I'm giving him some feedback after he scripts it, to help him get more comfortable with the form — and so are Chris Roberson and others, which is probably more useful — but he's an excellent writer, so he's not going to need that sort of feedback for very long.

DG: What's new for me is the form and structure of comics. The form is so strict, it's like learning to write a sonnet. Or maybe a cinquain. I'm also trying to avoid the classic mistake of prose writers who move to comics: The Page Full of Text. I'm learning to pare down to essentials and let the artist carry their part of the story. I must admit it's a pleasure to say to Scott Godlewski, please draw a battle scene with 90,000 Turks and 20,000 Wallachians, at night, with lots of fires, 'kay? In a novel I'd have to be doing that work myself.

My main job, as I see it, is to get Kurt's vision onto the page — then, when he's not looking, layer in the character quirks, obscure historical references, and sight gags that amuse me. Kurt's actually been amazingly open to feedback, so when I say, Why is X happening? Wouldn't Y be better? he can either explain to me what he intended, or we can have a conversation about how to change things. It's a pretty relaxed, fluid process.

MA: How was artist Scott Godlewski chosen for this project?

KB: Well, see, I turned around one day and there was Scott…

No, Scott was brought in early on, because BOOM! wanted to get some covers done in advance, which means that we needed a design for Dracula for the cover artists to work from, and since there was no series artist yet, Matt tapped Scott.  Scott took my notes and just did a gorgeous design job, hitting almost exactly what we wanted on the first try. Seriously, I think we revised his facial hair and his cane a little bit, and that was all that needed to be tweaked.

And then it turned out that Scott would be available for new work right around the time we'd be needing someone, and since he'd done such a nice job designing Dracula, why not? He's a terrific storyteller, designs a great looking page, and has all the strengths the series needs — mood, setting, human and approachable characters, action and more. Horror always works better when you believe the characters and the settings they're in, and Scott gives the series a great grounding in credibility, so when the fangs come out, it's all the more compelling.

MA: Tell us a little about your vision of Dracula.

KB: I kinda went on about it earlier, so I'll let Daryl talk a little bit here…

DG: That bad-ass guy that Kurt mentioned? That's the vision I want to bring to life. I'm not very interested in the gentleman vampire in the opera cape. I'm approaching Dracula as a 15th century prince, with a 15th century attitude toward power, responsibility, nobility, and politics. Vlad was trying to hold onto a kingdom trapped between the Ottomans and the Hungarians, with a rival Danesti family trying to throw him off the thrown at any moment, his nobles undermining him, and his own brother betraying him to the Turks… This guy grew up in a hyper-Darwinian environment, and I think there's very little in the modern world that's going to throw him for long.

MA: Are all the events of the Stoker novel canon in your story?

KB: The part where he's destroyed at the end, not so much.  But DRACULA is an epistolary novel, so it's made up of the written accounts of the people involved. And that's what they think happened, at least. So it's canon in that all those letters, all those written accounts, say what they say in the novel. But that doesn't mean what the people who wrote those accounts think they saw was necessarily the truth.

For the most part, though, yes. We're taking as our "canon" the life of Vlad III of Wallachia, and the Stoker novel, and nothing else, no other Dracula movies, comics, novels, TV shows, breakfast cereals, and so on. And there are places where things have to be massaged a little to make the historical Dracula and the Stoker Dracula fit together, but we're keeping as much as we can. Daryl?

DG: We're definitely playing a creative game mixing real history, Stoker's Dracula, and an alternate history that would have occurred after Stoker's novel. For example, in real life Vlad was imprisoned for ten years by the Hungarians, but in our story he used that time to study dark arts at the Scholomance. And we have a world where, in Romania at least, you needed generations of vampire hunters to keep the remaining beasts in line after Dracula disappeared. Tim Powers was a teacher of mine years ago, and I feel like we're stealing from his playbook. Let's build a conspiracy theory out of literature and history, and set it loose on the modern world! It's a lot of fun.

MA: One of the covers to issue one shows Dracula chained and on his knees at the feet of men in business suits, and it's accompanied by the tagline, "They bought him as a powerful asset, but he’ll become their most powerful adversary!" Can you tell us anything about how one of the scariest characters in fiction could be brought so low by a bunch of suits?

KB: They snuck up on him while he was dead.

The cover's a little symbolic — they actually have much, much cooler Dracula restraints than just those chains.  They've researched him, found fragments of the dark teachings of the Scholomance, and done all the preparing for handling a vampire that they possibly could. They even brought him back from the dead, which gives them a certain hold over him. They think they've got everything covered.

But with Dracula, you never really do…

MA: Can you tell us a little bit about the corporation that buys Dracula? What is their business? What are their goals? Do we know right away what they need a vampire for?

KB: I actually did big brush-strokes stuff on Barrington Industries, and Daryl did the fine detail work, so I'll turn this over to him.

DG: Our corporation's based in Pittsburgh, a few hours from where I live, and there's something iconic about that city. It survived the implosion of the steel industry in the 70's and 80's, bloomed again in the 90's — but now it's getting hammered by the recession. Barrington Industries is one of those family-owned businesses that have been in Pittsburgh since the 1850's — as dynasty-driven as any feudal system — but forced to evolve with the times. Now the company's in a fight for its survival. They're looking for any edge, and they're desperate.

KB: And hey, what power-hungry corporation wouldn't want a vampire as an asset? When you can creep in anywhere, take command of other people — whether it's Renfielding the executives on the other side of a merger negotiation or killing off the competition, there's 1001 corporate uses for a vampire, I'd think. And Barrington Industries wants to explore all of them.

MA: Are you seeking to give some insight into the nature of the corporate world with this book?

KB: We're seeking to make good entertaining horror-adventure fiction with it, mostly. The nature of corporations comes up, but if it were a serious expose, it wouldn't have vampires in it.

DG: Or FULL of vampires.

KB: There'll be plenty to think about, I hope, but it's a context for vampire adventure more than a social critique.

Dracula might not think so, though. He's all about feudalism being way better than corporatism, and he's willing to kill anyone he needs to to make his points about social justice.  Which is effective, but maybe not terribly convincing…

MA: This has been announced as an ongoing series; what is it about the concept that you feel lends itself to the ongoing format?

KB: Dracula's a great character. Even after the first 12 issues, there's so much more to do with the characters, the context, the conflicts, loose ends from Dracula's past, new strategies as he builds a place for himself in this world, and more. There's a ton of stuff to work with.

DG: The main thing I'm concerned with is, How do we keep Daryl working? Of _course_ it's an ongoing series!

But Kurt's right, there's a ton of stuff to explore. My background is as a science fiction writer, so I'm interested in extrapolation, taking the story to its logical extremes. Once you have Dracula in the world, with vampire minions at his disposal, what would he _really_ do? This story isn't in a shared universe, so we no limits on where the story takes us.  There is no status quo. Anyone can die. The good guys may not win. And Dracula may buy controlling stock in Google.

MA: Have there been any other recent takes on vampires you've enjoyed, in comics or beyond? What do you think of the Twilight phenomenon?

KB: I like the vampires in BUFFY and ANGEL, and in Jim Butcher's DRESDEN FILES books, but I haven't been following the big new vampy sensations. Haven't read TWILIGHT or seen the movies, and even though her agent is a good friend of mine, I haven't read Charlaine Harris's books or seen TRUE BLOOD. But I'm coming at this, at least, from a "let's go back to the roots" approach — I want to build on the core stuff, not to be Twilight-y or Sookie Stackhouse-y.  How about you, Daryl?

DG: I think TRUE BLOOD is well done, and while I saw only a few episodes last season, I'm into it this year. But I'm afraid I've missed almost everything else. But maybe that's a good thing, because this book is about going back to the source. I guarantee lots of impaling.

MA: Any other projects you guys have coming up?

KB: I'm preparing for the return-to-monthly of ASTRO CITY, with Brent and Alex, and prepping another creator-owned book I'll be doing at Wildstorm, and I'm also working on BATMAN: CREATURE OF THE NIGHT, a thematic sequel of sorts to SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY, which is being stunningly drawn by John Paul Leon. And slowly working on the ARROWSMITH sequel. Beyond that, I've got another iron or two in the fire, but they're not ready to be announced yet.

DG: I'm writing the next issue of DRACULA: COMPANY OF MONSTERS.

Uh, wait, that doesn't sound so impressive.

I'm doing the rewrites of my next novel, RAISING STONY MAYHALL, which will be out next year from Del Rey Books — it's an anti-zombie-novel zombie novel. With heart. And I'm putting together a collection of my short fiction, including a story that will be out in the new superhero anthology coming out in July, MASKED, alongside stories by Bill Willingham, Paul Cornell, Peter David, you name it. Buy that thing!

 


 

Matt Adler must… resist… urge… to come up with awful vampire puns.