It was the recent comic book mini-series, Anno Dracula 1895: 7 Day in Mayhem from Titan Comics, by author Kim Newman and artist Paul McCaffrey, that saw me inspired to seek out and devour the alternative history saga Anno Dracula series of books and immerse myself in this chilling but fascinating world in which Dracula makes good on his plans for domination of the British Empire. And I’m so glad I did.
Over 15 years in the telling–and still going strong with the most recent novel, Johnny Alucard, out now–it’s a series of books that spans the 20th century, taking in WWI, the roaring 20’s and even Hollywood, with enough literary and pop cultural references to keep you vigilant, interested and entertained. I can’t recommend both the books and the comic series highly enough.
And so, it was with great pleasure I was able to scoop an interview with Kim Newman, a writer I have admired academically from afar for a far few year now, but never realised he had such a flair for fiction. I just love it when you discover either band or writer you’ve never come across before and they already have a healthy back catalogue of great hits. Enjoy the interview, and maybe you’ll be bitten too.
Olly MacNamee: With over two decades of success with Anno Dracula as a series of novels, why chose to tell further tales of this alternative reality in comic form?
Kim Newman: I’ve always been interested in expanding the series into other media–comics have been mooted from time to time over the years, but once the books found a home at Titan, who have their own in-house comics division, it seemed a pretty obvious idea. I had some hesitation because, since 1992 when the first novel came out originally, there have been quite a few comics with similar premises–so I waited a while to hit on an idea that was distinctive enough for me and would allow us to develop a sufficiently new take on the material.
OM: Set 10 years into Dracula’s reign over Britain and its empire, what’s this tale about for any interested readers not familiar with the world of Anno Dracula?
KN: I did include a full page of story so far to bring new readers up to speed, though I hope they’ll be intrigued enough to go back and read the books. The premise is that, in the alternate world of Anno Dracula, Dracula’s invasion of Britain in 1885 was successful–he defeated Van Helsing & Co., and rose to the throne, taking command of the Empire and spreading vampirism throughout every level of British society, also bringing all the other vampires of lore and fiction out of the woodwork.
Ten years on, Dracula is still in charge and things have almost settled down to routine horridness–but there are revolutionary forces, not all good, working to bring down his regime… and, like all tyrants, he’s surrounded by scheming toadies and would-be replacements. It’s a mix of horror, satire, science fiction, mystery, romance, conspiracy, metafiction and monster action–with some kung fu thrown in.
OM: What were the biggest challenges of producing a comic book compared to writing a novel? And, how do work with your artist, the amazing Paul McCaffrey? Do you drown him with notes and reference material, for instance?
KN: The medium has stricter requirements about some things–you only get a set number of pages, issues have to be the same length (I fudged this–the finale is three pages longer), a grid has to be adhered to, people have to stand in the order they speak if you don’t want the balloons all over the place) and you can’t be vague. It’s easy in a novel to write, say, ‘a swarm of children’ or ‘a gang of roughs’–but in a comics script you have to specify how many children or roughs, what sexes they are, any distinguishing characteristics they have and what specifically they’re doing.
And, if you want something in the frame–a picture on the wall, a stain on a jacket, a sleeping cat–you have to mention it. Because of the way this project panned out, it was fully scripted before Paul (McCaffrey) came aboard–but I had indeed prepared lists of visual references for almost all the characters and locations, plus suggestions of things to look at or be influenced by. I didn’t want to drown out his own input, so at some point the writer has to leave off and let the artist get on with drawing things–and, indeed, making his own stuff up. There are elements of the comic that surprised and delighted me too.
OM: I like your use of multiple narrators in this series (just like in Stoker does in Dracula). As in Stoker’s original novel, and your own, Dracula is something of a mysterious, off stage character as a result of this narrative concept, who looms large over Victorian England. Was this in homage to the narrative structure of and styling of the Stoker, or coincidence?
KN: It was more to do with the way comics have been the last thirty years or so–and that’s probably down to previous generations getting embarrassed by things like thought bubbles and preferring to use train-of-thought narratives that read like Stoker’s diary entries. I did embrace this, though–and asked for different typefaces to go with what I hoped were different voices, mostly so the reader would always know who was the POV in any given scene. One of the invisible tangles of this comes when two or more established POV characters are in a scene together–or, more rarely, when a scene takes place involving only characters who aren’t POV privileged.
I decided as early as the first novel that I didn’t want Dracula as a POV character, and that we’d spend most of our time away from him–though he permeates every scene of the book in a way we tried to match by having some reference to him in the dialogue, narrative or art of every page of the comic (there are any number of ‘hidden’ Draculas in it). I also like the idea of matching the changeability of the character, who manifests in pop culture as everything from the Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee Counts to the comedy versions with David Niven or George Hamilton, by having Dracula be different every time he appears onstage.
OM: Like the books, this series puts a strong female cast front and centre. Has vampirism, in your stories, freed them from the kind of Victorian female suppression that Dracula did in Stoker’s original? Has it speeded up the Suffragette movement in your alternative history saga?
KN: It was a conscious decision to make this particular story female-led, though at the outset I didn’t expect Christina Light (who has gone on from the comic to the next novel, Anno Dracula: One Thousand Monsters) to be as big a presence as she turned out to be. In Anno Dracula and most of the other books, there are stronger male characters–but I decided to look at women who’d emerged throughout the series as interesting, often coming out of the shadows of dominant men (like Dracula).
Though there was a lot of oppression of women in the pre-suffrage era, as there is now, I was inspired by quite a few real–or contemporary fictional–women…like Beatrice Webb, Annie Besant, Nellie Bly and Ellen Terry and the strain of adventuresses I also tapped into in my Phantom of the Opera-themed novel Angels of Music. I don’t rule out doing a more bloke-centric comic down the line, though I think we’ll be sticking with the ladies in the next miniseries.
OM: We’ve had some false contenders to your crown, if you don’t mind me saying, with films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and more recently the TV show, Penny Dreadful, stealing some of your thunder. Is the time now right for you to resurrect Anno Dracula as a film or TV property? Have you seen a rekindled interest in Anno Dracula because of the comic book? I know it’s got me hunting down your books, like Van Helsing hunts down vampires.
KN: The series has been in and out of option for years–and, yes, it has often been stymied by vaguely similar properties coming along. At the moment, there are some stirrings on that front–but it’s been a long time coming. I certainly hope the comic leads people to the books…but I also hope the books’ fans will look out for the comic.