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Undead Zone: Talking Dracula With Jason Henderson By Derek Handley
Some European websites are already calling him the new horror guy, even though he doesn't have a book out yet. We're talking about Jason Henderson, and his is a name that will conjure up some iconic images of horror and heroism in years to come, if his first four books are anything to judge by. It's not just that he's writing vampires, ancient evils, ghosts and cosmic magic; the man who wrote the story for the popular "Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2" videogame now gets to play with the Marvel Universe, set a story in the sought-after Vampire: The Masquerade world, and deal with the King of Vampires himself, Dracula.
Henderson, the new horror guy, met with us to talk about James Cameron-style Dracula in Sword of Dracula (Image), the arrogance of 17-year olds in Strange Magic (Marvel/Epic), Chinese vampires in Isabel, and ghosts and New Orleans in Soulcatcher (Moonstone).
Slush Factory: The first comic book you ever bought was an issue of Tomb of Dracula, and now we're on the verge of seeing your Sword of Dracula on the shelves. That must have been quite a journey! How do you feel now?
Jason Henderson: I feel like I’m leaning over a well and listening.
SF: Very enigmatic first answer.
JH: (laughs) Okay, so I'll explain. When I got that magazine – it was an issue of Tomb of Dracula, the black and white magazine, which I loved – I was in Oklahoma visiting my great-grandparents on their farm. They had a well; you know, an old drinking-water well in front of the farm house. I used to drop pennies in, and listen for the plunk when the penny hit; you could never tell how far down the water was. Well, I’m there, now, waiting for the plunk. Hearing the silence of the wait. I’m new to the comics game and learning more every day… part of the feeling is that we’ve tried to be daring and different with Sword of Dracula, and part of me is just… it's not even that I'm scared. Just on edge, anticipating.
You see, Dracula means a lot to me, and I can’t wait to see the whole arc together – see on paper everything that’s in my head – and meanwhile, people haven’t even seen the opening. So that’s strange and scary, and it's like waiting to find out, waiting for the penny to hit the water.
The real opener, the end of the anticipation, will be August 23rd, when the prequel comes out in Digital Webbing Presents #10. Greg feels the same way – we got together on this project last summer and he’s been working his ass off, and now all of a sudden people are seeing his work – all those characters, all that detai; you know, a leather jacket in Greg’s art looks like flapping leather – and he’s starting to get calls. But he’s like me, still on edge.
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SF: What is your take on Dracula? From other interviews and articles, I get the impression that your Dracula has the sadism and cruelty of the historical Vlad the Impaler combined with the ancient evil and power of the vampire, with none of the elegant 'mysterious lover' attributes that he is assigned so often. Is that a fair assessment?
JH: That’s pretty accurate, except that it’s not that he has none of the 'mysterious lover'. He could be a lover, certainly; after all, in the novel, he says he has loved before and will love again, but love is not the motivating factor for him in Sword of Dracula. Ruling and protecting his ascendance is. That’s fine by me, because that romantic ground has been so well tread by so many excellent writers; Richard Matheson sort of nailed it in 1973 and very little else need be done with Dracula the lover. And yet that’s the riff, over and over.
I wanted to do a story where Dracula was freed from the trappings we associate with Dracula stories – a small insular cast running around a few rooms and panting a lot. So instead, we’re doing BIG stories, starting with “The Elders,” which will dominate our first year. The Elders are the Nephilim, the Angels who betrayed their post and whose lust creates the first vampires – and who want to come back and take over the Earth. Dracula is busy plotting to do that himself, so in this arc he has to work with the Polidorium to bring the playing field back to a staus quo favoring him. There’s not much time in there for Dracula to be a romantic hero, even if someone were hooked on his nastiness. Mind you, if you talk to him he’s quite charming. That’s part of his power.
The other thing we're playing with is the physical evolution of Dracula; this is an older, more powerful Dracula than the Bram Stoker original; he pins Ronnie Van Helsing to a wall with a cable of blood he shoots from a cut in his finger. He can do anything with blood. He’s a powerful mind.
SF: With such a take on Dracula, I'd imagine he'd be difficult to write – you actually said it yourself that you can't bring yourself to write down some of the things Vlad the Impaler did. Was he a tough character to have as one of your main protagonists in that regard?
JH: Luckily I didn’t have to make him a protagonist; he’s more an antagonist to Ronnie, who ends up having to work with him – but the way he winds up in Ronnie’s hands will blow your mind!
SF: Not very enthusiastic about this project, are you?
JH: (laughs) I love writing this guy; he’s so full of himself and dangerous. But I’m not really going to wallow in a lot of his atrocities; rather, I think it’s important to always keep them in mind. At the start of issue 2, Ronnie has a slideshow speech which is about just that: 'don’t forget what he can do'.
SF: You said this is the big-action-movie-James-Cameron-style Dracula. Without spoiling it for anyone, what can readers expect?
JH: Expect commandoes firing silver-jacketed pressed hawthorn bullets that make advancing columns of vampires go FWOOSH. Expect humvees and snowmobiles, acrobatics, and a debate about the usefulness of fruit pies in stopping bad guys.
There’s two trains running at the same time: on one is my take on Dracula as drawn by Greg, and then there’s the nature of the story itself, which we decided should be ruled by an internal motto, 'Screw the usual'. We just weren’t all that excited by starting small and personal on this one. We have a bad guy who can cut his thumb and run you through with spikes of blood; he has an army of vampires hiding camouflaged in a giant blood-castle; he’s up against a well-funded military organization called the Polidorium – this story is not small. We may do small, creepy stories around the Polidorium or Dracula, but the thrust of Sword of Dracula is pounding drums and war.
SF: What is the significance of the 'Sword' in the title?
JH: Sword of Dracula refers not to an actual sword like Excalibur, but rather to Dracula's ability to wield destructive power. Think of Sword of Dracula as a concept, like the 'world-encompassing closing fist of Dracula'. Just like there was rarely a tomb in Tomb of Dracula. I’m not sure there were any scars in Scars of Dracula, for that matter…
SF: You got me there… Okay, I'd like to ask you about something you wrote in an online article: "Does [Dracula] think he's the hero? Of course…". Why do you see him that way, as on the side of right in his mind? I'm particularly interested because so many writers want to make vampires tortured and aware of their evil, or predators who know they're the 'bad guys.'
JH: It's not that he thinks he's the hero in the traditional sense of the word. It's more that he thinks he’s the king. So, if it turns him on to torture someone, that’s got to be right. If he finds himself liking the screams, that must be right, because he’s the king. He’s a vampire, on a higher plane than mortals, and he’s the King of the Vampires, on a higher plane than the of the undead. He’s long, long past feeling guilt over killing someone else so that he might go on living. He thinks that’s right. In Dracula’s mind, his whole story is one of triumph, alone, just him, and everyone is going to know it. Everybody is a bit player in a big pageant about Dracula’s ascension to all thrones. Mind you, he has people he likes – he likes Rose, the mortal Gypsy he keeps around as a lover and adviser. And he might ironically think of himself as a bad guy. But he wouldn’t give it up. I do sometimes wonder who would move him emotionally; it would have to be someone from long ago, maybe Radu, Dracula’s little brother. But Radu’s been dead for a very long time.
The real hero here is Ronnie Van Helsing. And I’m glad the hero is a human. Because I’m human. And I’m glad she’s not perfect, she has problems – a pretty nasty one that nearly kills her later, in fact – that’s what I’d rather see elevated. Not the sadist vampire king; he’s a nightmare to celebrate, but not to ever be mistaken about.
SF: Moving away from the book: you're a big fan of Dracula, and, I guess, vampires in general. What are the adaptations and projects based around the vampire that you enjoy the most – what's your top five or six vampire comics, movies, whatever?
JH: Oh, that's actually easy. Well, it's easy to start anyway. Marvel's Tomb of Dracula Magazine is a real big favorite of mine; six issues of differing takes on the same character. Fun to read and almost as fun to try to track them down.
Horror of Dracula; a 1957 movie with Dracula in whopping garish color, Dracula is played by Christopher Lee, who moves like a jaguar, who’s a seducer and a predator, and is fought by Peter Cushing, the best Van Helsing of all. My review is available to read here.
Brides of Dracula, 1962, is still not out on DVD, although it should be. Hands down, it's Peter Cushing’s best performance as Van Helsing, and it's a wonderful presentation of Hammer’s weird little Universe. Now, there’s a license I’d love the play with – the Hammerscape.
SF: I can see that working. Have you ever tried to find out who holds all the licences?
JH: Give me time…let's see. Oh yeah, Dracula, from 1979, Frank Langella, the Universal picture. This movie is just about forgotten now, strangely; Langella was such a remarkable badass. And it’s a big romance, and the look of it is very like that year’s Herzog Nosferatu, and both can be seen very clearly as Jon J. Muth’s inspiration for his Dracula graphic novel.
Which is another favorite of mine – Dracula, by Jon J. Muth, the water-colored graphic novel. Like the 1979 Dracula, it mixes up all the characters of the novel, but who cares! It’s a wonderful vision of mood and melcancholy and eroticism. And Dracula is never seen clearly at all.
In 1987, Mark "Frankenstein Mobster" Wheatley started a fairly long-running series called Blood of Dracula, which showed Dracula from lots of different angles. It was an impressive independent piece of work, and I'll bet he thinks I've never heard of it.
I'd have to add Vampire Circus and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, because they dare to be different
SF: Speaking of daring to be different, did you see Dracula 2000?
JH: (pause) Yes.
SF: What did you think of the central idea, that Dracula was in fact Judas, banned from Heaven and on a quest to damn Jesus' followers?
JH: Boy, you gotta hand it to them for trying, huh? First of all I was kind of pleased that someone would try just blowing off the Vlad Tepesch connection. It’s a tenuous connection anyway; Stoker had a really rough outline of Vlad in the novel and nobody really paid it much mind until the 1970s. Even when they did, it was never all that well used; Matheson chose to use the Vlad connection as the source of a romance, which was Coppola’s take, too. So Dracula 2000 says, screw it, he’s tortured and he’s, ah, Judas. Yeeeeahh… Fair enough. Given that, most of my objections to most Dracula movies just go out the window. They were free to make Dracula whatever they wanted, so they made him a very pretty man who likes New Orleans and shopping at Virgin Records. At least he wasn’t the good guy. You know, I also really like Dracula II, which is even more daring and interesting but went straight to DVD. Still a small movie, but excellent kung fu.
SF: You can't beat kung-fu and vampires, eh? Now, you have another vampire-themed book coming out – Vampire the Masquerade: Isabel. What can you tell us about that – what is the scope of the story, what clans will fans of the game be able to recognize, and so on?
JH: Vampire the Masquerade: Isabel is a one-shot and should be out in late August or early September, and it’s named after one of the key characters in the game mythos, Isabel the sorceress vampire of the Giovanni family. But the story really belongs to a young math-genius Giovanni named Nicholas, who accompanies Isabel to China to help the Chinese vampires unlock a mystic portal. While he’s there he falls in love with a ghost and decides he’s going to try to free her, betraying the rules of both societies and bringing the wrath of the Beijing vampires and the Giovanni down on his head. It’s a fun story and my very first comic script, so I can’t wait to see it – it’s drawn by Steve Ellis, who has a kind of manga-esque feel. He was chosen because I had so many weird visions in the book, so many demons and dripping dream-bridges.
SF: How did the project come about?
JH: Okay, true story. I wanted to write a story for Joe Gentile at Moonstone. Bear in mind that I had no comics experience. I said, “lemme write a Kolchak,” he said no. “Lemme write a Vampire,” he said, “you have no idea how many people wanna write Vampire.” I said, “how about Chinese vampires? I can do that.” He said, “tell me more about Chinese vampires.” And Lo, years of no turned into a single yes.
SF: From vampires to ghosts...Soulcatcher is set in New Orleans. Did you visit the city when you were writing the story, to get the sense of it?
JH: Certainly – I did research there, which actually led me first to write a travel article, then to start thinking about Soulcatcher. What struck me was how alive the whole city was with ghosts and ghost stories, and how horror in New Orleans always hits on the vampire angle – or the stories go for the 'Big Easy,' crooked cop thing. I wanted to do a character who was at home in New Orleans, who could walk down the street and wave at the ghost of David Essex, the sniper, who would still be up on the roof. Mind you now I have TWO stories set in New Orleans – Soulcatcher, and Strange Magic, which is from Epic (Marvel). Soulcatcher has two issues already drawn, but we’re probably going to release Issue 1 in February to coincide with Strange Magic.
The basic ideas of the two books are very different, although both are laced with a lot of humour. Soulcatcher is about Roma Lockman, a woman with the ability to absorb the knowledge of the recently dead; at first she's trying to figure out why all the ghosts hate her. Strange Magic is about Sofia, a 17-year old sorceress on the run from the Marvel Universe. Strange Magic is a lot brighter, but both are laced with a lot of humor.
SF: Soulcatcher also has its roots in classic horror, and you're becoming known as 'the new horror guy' on some European sites...
JH: Really? I didn’t know I was known as anything. We’ll have to see about that.
SF: I guess they need a label for you. Anyway, I happen to know that your first ever unsolicited submission was to a superhero comic – the Avengers, back in the East and West Coast Avengers days. Do you have any super-hero stories you want to tell, or have you a need for horror right now?
JH: Superheroes? Heck yeah – to me Sword of Dracula is a hero story about Ronnie as much as a horror story about Dracula. And Soulcatcher is to all intents and purposes a hero book, although there are no costumes.
But costumed superheroes, yes, I have that bug from way back. I’ve got so much plain-clothes going now, in fact, that I’m sort of itching to do a straight-up superhero. In fact the first thing Greg and I worked on together was a pitch for DC Comics about a Machiavellian superhero nightclub owner in 50s Gotham, who pulls the strings on all these different stories – heroes, villains, dancers, losers, gamblers – that wander through his club. People in and out of costume. I loved that.
SF: Well, you have Strange Magic set in the Marvel Universe...do you have any plans for Marvel characters you'd like to bring into the story?
JH: I can think of several right off the bat, but it won't happen right away. At least one character's return has been put at the end of about the first year, and that was intended since the time of the first pitch. Some of those appearances might get pretty painful. But, you know, Brother Voodoo, Man-Thing, the Living Zombie? We have some fun ideas. And bear in mind, this series is intended to be flippant and bright, even in a lot of dark surroundings – so we might well try something really wacky. That's what I've love about X-Statix – that they have that mix of light, dark and wacky.
SF: Is Sofia intended as a Sorceress in the style of Dr. Strange, Zatanna, etc., or more of a witch, a la Willow (Buffy) or Morgan Riordan (Wicca/Sweep)? Or is she something entirely new?
JH: She's a sorceress, cosmic style; she draws her powers from the cosmos and focuses it, and has been practicing for years. I wrote fantasy novels and am very familiar with the other ways this could have gone, but Sofia is more like the other magic-users of the Marvel Universe and less a classic Wiccan. But I like the way she uses her powers; she has a sense of goofy fun, she can levitate and hang upside down while talking to people. The problem with her isn't her level of power, it's her level of arrogance and her unpreparedness for failure. Which I guess is what I was like at 17, too.
SF: So, you have four books coming out, and you're probably going to end up working with quite a range of people. What do you look for in the artists you work with?
JH: Having a talent for composition is first, telling a clear story. But I think getting it done on time, regularly, is pretty key, probably most of all. Having two issues in the can on Soulcatcher and Sword of Dracula is nice to know. With Greg on Sword of Dracula and Strange Magic, and Lou and Terry on Soulcatcher, I have guys who know how to do it and get it done.
SF: Wrapping up…what is the schedule for Sword of Dracula? When is it out, how long will it run, and have you plans to continue it into something longer?
JH: Sword of Dracula: Ice, the prequel, is in Digital Webbing Presents #10, this month – if you want the whole story, start here.
Sword Of Dracula itself is bimonthly, starting from Image in October. We’ll wrap up Arc 1 after a year and probably start a whole new season. Mind you, if you pay attention, we lay the groundwork for a whole other series in Issue #3.
SF: Jason Henderson, thank you very much for your time, and good luck with the books.