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Friday, April 16, 2021

‘Cult of Dracula’: Richard Davis Unleashes a Female Dracula for the Modern Age [Blood/Ink/Staples]

Welcome to Blood/Ink/Staples, a recurring column which will shine a spotlight on creepy comic books new and old. Here, we’ll be taking a peek at forgotten graphic novels and hot-off-the-press floppies, buried indies and newly-released big labels. Some articles will be historical deep dives, others will feature interviews with creators, but all will attempt to steer our readers to the very best fearsome funnybooks to be found out there in the wild.


Read that name. Say it out loud, even.

What image first comes to mind? Bela Lugosi, curling his fingers and chewing scenery with the aid of his inimitable Hungarian accent? Perhaps you imagine Christopher Lee, locked into a ferocious battle with Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing in the final moments of Horror of Dracula. You may even think of Gary Oldman’s unapologetically romantic take on the character in Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning, baroque 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Whether he be young or old, friendly or fanged, outfitted in evening wear or fur and wings, Dracula surely comes with a certain set of parameters when it comes to detailing his exploits, even for the many, many variations on the character we’ve seen on stage, screen, and the printed page.

Comic book creator Richard Davis looks to upend our expectations of the bloodthirsty Count with his new series Cult of Dracula. Set in the present day and featuring a female spin on the titular villain, Cult acts as a contemporary retelling of the events of Bram Stoker’s source novel, reimagining the tale in an American environment while placing his characters into some surprisingly different roles. Van Helsing is portrayed here as a college professor heading up a documentary film project with his graduate assistants Johnathan Harker and Mina Murray. Quincy, Holmwood and Lucy are members of the focus of Van Helsing’s documentary, Ordo Dracul – a mysterious cult headed up by a very Mansonesque R.M. Renfield. The story is framed by an investigation into a cult-involved massacre led by FBI Agent Malcolm Bram, whose journey looks to lead the fed to discovering the true nature of the “dragon” that has inspired the eponymous cult.

With its sharp writing, moody art and genuinely creepy and imaginative take on a classic story, Cult of Dracula has already cemented itself as one of the better horror comics to be currently found haunting the stands. The first issue is already available as of this writing, with five more coming to complete the first arc. Two more six issue volumes, titled Rise of Dracula and Reign of Dracula, are expected to complete this grand retelling.

On hand to discuss Cult and its origins is creator Davis, who was kind enough to chat with Bloody Disgusting about his unique take on a well-worn legend.

Bloody Disgusting: How was it that you got into comics – both as a fan, and now as a creator?

Richard Davis: Believe it or not, there was a time in my life where I hated comic books. Hard to believe now, but I hated reading in general when I was a kid. The only thing I wanted to do when I was young was play baseball and video games. My parents, being very clever and very concerned about my development as a human being wanted to get me reading more. So what they decided to do was, whenever I would do well at school or if I played well on a baseball game, they would buy me a comic book.

If I was really good for a month and did all my chores and made the honor roll at school? Mom and Dad would take me over to Bob’s Collectors Den in Cookeville [Tennessee] and would basically let me spend an afternoon there, picking out whatever comics I wanted. I was picking up, you know, like Amazing Spider-Man, I was picking up Uncanny X-Men and Batman. Always loved Superman. Picking up basically the things that all kids do.

My little kid brain didn’t realize reading comic books was the same as reading. So Mom and Dad kind of tricked me into being an avid reader by giving me comic books early on. So I graduated from comic books up to reading novels and, now to this day, I’m an avid reader. So comic books are very, very important to me becoming who I am today. They were just absolutely essential in my formation as a person.

I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to do things that other people say I can’t do. If somebody says it’s impossible, that immediately makes me want to do it. I’ve worked in radio as an on air personality, I’ve worked for two presidential campaigns and one senatorial campaign. I owned a bar, I owned a theater, I worked in the film and theater industries. And then I ended up opening up a comic book store. Now, I’m writing comics, which is pretty damned cool.

I decided to be a comic book writer because I realized things were happening in my life. My wife unfortunately became very ill with with chronic kidney disease, and we had to make some life changes. She ultimately passed away in December of last year. We had full intentions of Cult of Dracula being produced as an independent horror film. That was our goal with it, and we were all on the path to developing that. When Amber got sick, we had to make some changes and I was actually just going to give up on the project. There was actually a time when I deleted the script. I just wiped it out. I said, “This is stupid. I can’t put time or money into this because we’ve got these serious health issues to deal with. I can’t be chasing a dream, we’ve gotta be realistic here.”

Amber got so pissed at me. I don’t think she has ever been so angry at me in my life than when I deleted that script. She’s never, ever yelled at me like that before. She let me have it with both barrels. Luckily, she had a copy of the script, a PDF that I had sent her [because] she was my editor.

She made me pick it back up, and she said, “Okay. So we can’t make a movie because we don’t have the money. We don’t have the time, the resources. But you can turn this into a comic. Writing a screenplay is not so very different from writing a comic book script. The same mechanisms are in place. So that’s what we decided to do.

I began talking to my friend, Tony Todd. Tony’s a good personal friend of both myself and Amber. He’s been very, very supportive of the project. The character Malcolm Bram, the FBI agent in Cult of Dracula, was written with the idea that Tony would play him in the movie. He was very encouraging, and he helped me meet some people in the comic book industry [such as] my good friend Georges Jeanty, who was an artist on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Georges is just an amazing human being. He gave me a lot of advice and he helped me early on in developing the script into the comic book format. Ultimately, Georges connected me with Henry Martinez, who would become my artist on the first two issues. That’s kind of a long, roundabout way of letting you know how I got here. Through just not giving up and being creative in finding a way to get this story told. If I couldn’t do it one way, we were just gonna do it the other.

BD: How did Cult of Dracula first come about?

RD: That was the most natural decision for me to make, because I am a huge horror fan. I can remember very clearly being four years old in my parents’ living room, hiding behind this big leather couch and poking my head around the corner, watching episodes of Scooby-Doo. It scared me to death as a kid, but I loved it. That feeling that I get from horror – from watching a horror movie or reading a horror comic, or going to a haunted house – that feeling has never left me. I still get that rush. I’m probably the easiest person in the world to scare because I want to be scared so badly.

I discovered Anne Rice when I was way too young to be reading Anne Rice. I was probably 10, 11, 12 years old, you know. I had no business reading Anne Rice that young, but … vampires have never left me. I played White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade, Vampire: The Dark Ages and Vampire: The Requiem. I will always love [vampires] because that’s just my jam.

So Cult of Dracula originally started as a stage production. We produced it at my theater in Wilmington, North Carolina called The Browncoat Pub & Theatre. This was October of 2013, and it ran an entire month of sold-out shows. It was nominated for several area theatre awards, and won a few of those. For one of those, Tony Todd was actually in the audience. This is where Tony and I actually met. From the first time he got to see the play, he was very encouraging and supportive, and wanted me to continue with it. So we just started developing it as a screenplay. Then, of course, we got to the point where the screenplay was no longer feasible. Now it’s a comic.

BD: Cult tells a remixed version of Bram Stoker’s tale, transplanting his story and characters into an entirely different time and setting. What was your reasoning for this approach, rather than doing a more traditional adaptation, or a sequel of sorts with different characters?

RD: It’s something I thought about quite a bit. I’ve always viewed Dracula as a timeless character. Vampires are primordial beings. These stories, these beings have been tucked away in the back of our brains since humans first started gathering around campfires. Every culture, every time, every place has some sort of vampire legend.

By choosing to modernize the Dracula story, I wanted to show that the character and vampires are timeless. It doesn’t matter where or when you are, every human being can relate to this story in one way or another. So, I decided that I wanted to update it to modern day and take the characters from Stoker’s original novel and kind of imagine … instead of telling a sequel to the story, instead ask – where would they be today?

So I took the characters and tried to imagine who they would be in the modern world. Renfield became a very Charles Manson-inspired figure. I love Renfield. I love every bit of his trippy, weird dialogue. But the modernization just seemed like it would make the story stand out as something a little bit different to readers, because we’ve already read the original Dracula. It’s a timeless, genre-defining classic. There’s no reason to go back to the Victorian era and try to retell Dracula there. We don’t need to go back there. What’s been lacking is a Dracula story for the modern age, for today. How would Dracula operate in a world with Twitter, where there cameras everywhere and everything is recorded?

There’s so much different about today, but there are also some similarities. We still have this fear of the Other, you know? Nowadays, the Other is not a creepy Eastern European aristocrat invading our home territory. Now the Other is a foreign terrorist from another country, or the person in the other political party. That’s the Other that we’re afraid of, but we still have that same essential fear.

So all of the themes in Stoker’s Dracula translated very well to the modern day. Once I started making the adjustments, the time period changes were probably the easiest to make.

How did you come to the decision to make Dracula a woman?

RD: I have to give credit to Georges Jeanty for that, because he challenged me pretty hardcore. I gave Georges my original draft of the comic script. He read it, got back to me and was like, “You know, it’s good. I love your dialogue, I love your pacing, I love the story that you’ve set up. But it’s really just another vampire story. It doesn’t really do anything for vampire mythology.” Then we started talking about 30 Days of Night and how, you know, answering one very simple question completely changed vampire mythology forever. “What would happen if vampires didn’t have to sleep during the day?” That was the whole premise of 30 Days, and it became an epically awesome vampire comic, and a pretty good movie later on.

So Georges said, “If you want it to be something special, you’ve got to do something special. You’ve got to change the perception of Dracula. You’ve got to add something to the vampire mythology. Right now, you’re not really doing that.” So I took that as a challenge and went back to the drawing board. I started researching vampire mythology, Dracula mythology, and that spun me out into different mythologies from around the world.

I found a really creepy children’s nursery rhyme. It’s a South American nursery rhyme that actually gets incorporated into issue three of the book. That was the big kind of changing point for me when I heard this nursery rhyme, sung by a woman like a nanny or a grandmother comforting a baby. She’s telling the baby, “Please be quiet, please be quiet, or the dark woman will come and steal you away.” That just sent chills down my spine. So I started researching creepy children’s nursery rhymes, then that spun me out into all of this other mythology. I started noticing a very common theme and a figure that appeared in mythologies just across the board. It didn’t matter if it was Native American, or if it was ancient Assyrian, or Islamic, or if it was European or South American. It didn’t matter. This figure was always there. It was always a woman, a dark woman, an outcast woman who was shunned and forced to the fringes of society.

She stalked the darkness and hunted in the shadows, and stole babies or naughty children from their beds, and survived by devouring their blood. And I got to thinking, “Wow, what if Dracula was all of these figures, and the way she manifests throughout human history is based on how people perceive her?” Suddenly, Dracula became the Wendigo. She became La Llorona, and Lady Bathory. She became Lamashtu, and the Lamia, and Medusa. All the way back to Lilith. Lilith became the lynchpin that kind of pulled everything together.

It all made sense. So, Lilith was the original vampire. The original Dracula, the original dragon. From there, I got to explore more of the the Biblical texts about the Whore of Babylon and the Great Dragon of Revelations. So I was able to link all of these mythologies together, and it became a pretty damn compelling story. Ultimately, switching genders and tying her to this mythology, it just made the story so much more interesting and also more frightening because it allowed me to explore why our society is so scared of women. It gives us a whole new perspective and point of view on the story.

BD: What were your inspirations for this tale, beyond the original novel? There are surely some heavy crime and Southern Gothic elements to be found in this telling.

RD: I’m a huge fan of Gothic literature. Obviously things like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Jekyll and Hyde – but also things like Northanger Abbey. You know, Gothic literature that you don’t normally associate with horror. The Monk was another very influential book. Then, being raised in the South, Southern Gothic is just part of life here. A lot of what you see in Cult of Dracula is a much darker, much more sensationalized version of the world that I grew up in.

The cult aspect was born from watching the movie Helter Skelter as a kid, about the Manson murders. I remember to this day, I’m still haunted by that actor’s eyes. They just scare the hell out of me, along with his portrayal of Manson. So Manson became one of those quintessential horror figures in my mind. He’s not a human, he’s a monster. He’s a lot like a vampire, because Manson didn’t kill anybody. He manipulated other people. He manipulated prom queens and high school athletes and book nerds to go out and do all these horrific things in his name, which is kind of what vampires do, too. They use this power to control people’s minds and to seduce them into doing these horrible, horrible things. So the Manson story was very influential in developing this story. Um, and just a general fascination with cults in general, um, uh, you know, uh, Jonestown, uh, is, is such an incredibly interesting story. Serial killers have always been very interesting to me, too. All of that fed into Cult of Dracula. You’re definitely gonna see references to some of those things, and the influence that they have is definitely in the book.

Can you talk a bit about Henry Martinez’s art and Trevor Richardson’s colors? Both seem to perfectly suit the material – fun, but with a darkness and edge to them.

RD: I thought Henry’s art style, from the very beginning, was perfectly suited for Cult of Dracula because he has a very 70s, 80s grindhouse vibe to his art. That’s just the way his style comes across, which is exactly the way I wanted this book to read. It’s a Tobe Hooper film, it’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre. His artwork is very, very well-suited for that. He was also able to kind of teach me little tricks about when to use a splash page and when to use a certain type of layout. Henry served as a bit of a mentor to me in developing this project. I’m very excited to have worked with him.

Unfortunately, Henry was impacted by COVID last year. He and his entire family came down with COVID, and he fell several months behind and still hasn’t fully recovered. He’s still having some lingering effects, so he ultimately had to step away from the book after issue 2.

We’re bringing on Puis Calzada, an artist out of Mexico City, whose style is very similar to Henry’s. So hopefully it won’t be too disrupting to the readers. They won’t notice a massive change in art style. I’m very, very grateful for everything that Henry was able to do on the first two issues, and just on providing guidance for me.

As we developed it, we auditioned probably two dozen colorists from every corner of the internet. We looked for every stone we could roll over. We got a submission from Trevor and I sent it over to Henry. Henry has never, in all of my time of knowing him, never responded to a message faster. It was just two words: hire him. So we did! You know, colorists don’t get the credit that they deserve in developing comic books. You usually don’t know the names of the colorist, but I think that Trevor is so incredibly talented. I think he’s going to be one of those colorists that kind of crosses over. I think people are going to start to recognize his name and they’re going to start to recognize his work because he makes some very bold choices. He’s, he’s fearless in what he decides to do with his colors, but they’re so incredibly fitting for the story. He really elevates this book to a whole new level.

BD: The various covers are quite beautiful as well. Will each issue feature cover variants?

RD: Yes. This is one of those things, taking advantage of my knowledge as a retailer. I’ve owned a comic book store for many years, called Nirvana Comics in Knoxville, Tennessee. Having an understanding of where the comic book market is going, there’s always going to be the segment of people who just read comics. But then, there are the collectors. There are some people who just collect comics to collect the cover art.

It’s a very, very rapidly rising segment of the comic book community. They’re really driving the economics of comic books in a lot of ways. So being able to put that into place when I pitched the idea of bringing Cult of Dracula over to Source Point Press, I kind of brought a business plan with me.

Very early on, one of the things I told Jacob and Travis [the president and the CEO of Source Point Press, Cult’s publisher], I told them very early on – if you pick this book up, you’re not only getting my comic, but you’re getting me. What I meant by that is that they’re going to get my work ethic, my creativity, and my commitment to selling this book.

I believed, and still to this day believe, that the success of my comic was going to be directly tied to building relationships with local comic book shops. So we began reaching out to them. My wife and I, we sat down, hopped on Google and we put together a database of literally every comic book store in the United States. We got their contact information and we started reaching out to them and we started building relationships, introducing ourselves. This is before I even had a publisher. I was like, “Hey, I’m Rich Davis. I’m writing this book called Cult of Dracula. This is what it’s about. You know, I would really love it if you carried it in your store. We just started talking, and we got to know a lot of them, got to know how their store was doing. I got to know when they were having a bad day or when they had a baby. And, you know, we just built these real relationships.

So when it came time to bring the book to Source Point, I said “What I want to do is create a program where we allow a limited number of retailers to do exclusive covers for Cult of Dracula, and we’ll set minimum order requirements for them. What we need to do is get a stable of artists that are willing to do these covers. Then we just connect A, to B, to C and boom, that’s what we do.” So by having those relationships with the retailers, by providing an opportunity for them to do something really cool for their store, now their store has a unique variant of Cult of Dracula. They now have a vested interest in seeing Cult of Dracula succeed, which is why they’re promoting it.

This isn’t just my book. It’s their book as well, because they’ve been there from the beginning. So I really think that having those variant covers has helped build that community and that kind of grassroots underground support for Cult of Dracula, which took it from being an absolutely unknown property from a guy that nobody’s ever heard of before to being one of the best-selling comic books for the month of March. When the numbers break, I think I know we’re going to be a Top 50 book. We might be a Top 25 book, and it’s all because of that grassroots support from retailers, local comic book shops and horror fans.

BD: Is it true that there is a Cult of Dracula movie in the works?

RD: That is correct. Everything kind of comes full circle, which is really cool. Cult of Dracula has entered into a development agreement with a company called Sure Pictures, run by producer Jerry Carita. Jerry is well-known in the world of reality television. He’s one of the original producers and creators of Comic Book Men. He’s also worked on American Pickers. Some big, big reality shows. So he’s got really strong relationships with Netflix, AMC, and Hulu.

Jerry has wanted to kind of spin off his reality television career into doing scripted projects. He and I got the opportunity, we started talking about it. Jerry introduced me to the other members of his company, created a nice business plan, and now they’ve got a development agreement to turn a Cult of Dracula into a film project.

I think what we all have in mind is that it would work best as a miniseries. Maybe on Shudder, or Screambox, or one of the streaming services. Jerry and his team are currently developing everything. We’re very confident that sometime in the near future you’re going to be seeing Cult of Dracula on the small screen.

BD: Ultimately, what would you like to leave our readers and fellow horror fans with who haven’t yet checked out this comic, or may not be comic fans in the first place?

RD: Cult of Dracula is a comic book written by a horror fan for fans of horror. I set out from the very beginning to write something that I would be proud of as a fan of horror. We definitely pay homage to the Splat Pack type of horror that Eli Roth would be proud of. There’s the classic monster movie things that Rob Zombie would love. I love Rob Zombie because I think he kind of captures the modern Southern Gothic motif. Of course, for people who are more into the slow burn thrillers, Cult of Dracula is definitely going to be for them. I’ve read that some people have compared it to Seven. Some people have compared it to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Of course, the Manson connection makes that very easy. People have compared it to Penny Dreadful. All of those things were in the back of my mind as I was writing this book

And then, I’m an 80s, 90s child. So you’re going to see a lot of references. If you’re a fan of movies like Near Dark, Dog Soldiers, Labyrinth, things like that, you’re definitely going to see references to those hidden within the book.

I wanted to write something for people who love the genre the way that I love the genre. So Cult of Dracula is written 100% with the horror fan in mind.

Special Thanks to Mr. Davis for his time.

Make certain to pick up Cult of Dracula #1, on stands now at your local comic book shop.


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