Set during his second rule as Voivode of Wallachia, and just before his war against the Ottoman Empire, Vald Dracul #1 from Scout Comics traces the history of the historical figure often cited as the influence for the fictional vampire Count Dracula. At 64 pages long, the comic sets the scene and lays the foundations for what promises to be an intriguing and violent stomp through Romanian history.
This is a translation of the Italian comic Vlad, published by Feltrinelli, written by Italian novelist Matteo Strukul with artwork by fellow Italian Andrea Mutti. Mutti’s name will be much more familiar to comic book fans as he has worked on a number of comics for most of the American publishers.
The life of Vlad the Impaler, as he is more widely known, is not virgin territory for comics having been covered most recently in AfterShock Comics 2018 title Brothers Dracul. However, Strukul and Mutti bring a new take on the character and imbue it with their own European style.
Strukul’s story starts in the winter of 1456, high in the Transylvanian mountains. Katharina and her brother Istvan are confronted by a pack of hungry wolves and they ready themselves for a fight. In steps the majestic figure of Vlad Dracula, ruler of not only the state but the land itself.
The sister and brother are the reader’s entry point into Vlad’s life and the majority of the plot revolves around them to a certain degree, with Vlad at the centre. After this initial meeting Strukul leaps the plot forward five years to the start of Vlad’s rebellion against Sultan Mohammed II. This is where the writer begins to display the violence that surrounds the legend’s of Vlad. Assisting him is a ward like Istvan, who is shown to be knee deep in the bloody acts Vlad dictates.
Elsewhere, the reader learns what happened to Katharina, now the not-so secret lover of the Voivode. Jealousy and hatred drive a group of women to attack Katharina and turn the local populace against her. The treatment of Katharina is disturbing and Strukul does not hold back, making sure that the cruelty resonates from the page. This is in contrast to the actions of the men in the story, where there is more revelry in the violence and a sense of justification.
Strukul changes this as the story progresses and as the titular character is explored at a greater depth Vlad doesn’t become the hero his introduction implied. Vlad lives in a violent world surrounded by atrocities and injustices but he is also the instigator for some of these. His treatment of his wife, for example, is a stark contrast to his protective behaviour towards Katharina. The devotion and love is coupled with anger, cruelty and hate.
The historical accuracy of the story is perhaps questionable. The main events and actions are spoken of in many historical documents but the intimate, day to day lives of the characters are not so forthcoming. Any liberties Strukul may be taking with the historical facts are instantly forgiven, however, by the sheer beauty of the artwork.
Andrea Mutti creates a perfect setting for the story. His landscapes are gorgeous but also intimidating. The reader can almost feel the wind chill of the Transylvanian Mountains and the cold, inhospitable villages. This is wonderfully contrasted with the alluring warmth of the interiors, especially within Vlad’s home. It’s not difficult to see why Katharina and Istvan would devote themselves to this violent leader.
This extravagance and hypnotic beauty is the point of Mutti’s work. Through his depictions of places and people he gives the reader some understanding of the characters’ decisions. Vlad himself stands out on the page, his garish colored clothes almost drowning everyone else’s drabness. He is larger than life and draws his followers to him like moths to a flame.
Fascination and Morbid Curiosity
There are very few characters to fall in love with in this comic but that doesn’t mean you won’t want to follow them to their inevitable end. Between them Strukul and Mutti have created an alluring world populated by a cast of intriguing characters. There is some clunky dialogue, and very cliched Captions, but letterer Joel Rodriguez does an amazing job of giving the characters their own voices. To some degree this helps to hide, or at least explain away, the cringey elements in a similar way that Interview With The Vampire is over romanticised because it is a tale told by the leading character who is an insufferable sentimentalist.
Mutti’s watercolor washes and sketchy art style heightens elements of the narrative and creates a sublime realism similar to contemporary Italian artist Rudolf Stingel’s landscapes. There is a connection between the audience and the image that involves an appreciation of the creative process; it’s evident within the paintings. Something similar is happening in Vlad Dracul. You are conscious that this is a fiction told in a comic format and the process of creating the artwork reflects the creation of a Man which, in turn, is central to the narrative.
This is an artistic reflection of history and an enjoyable one at that. It features an array of elements associated with the more classic Dracula mythos without actually addressing the link directly. There are no signs of vampirism or extended life in Vlad Dracul, instead it is a violent, historical drama. Fans of Brothers Dracul, or even Topps Comics 1993 publication Vlad the Impaler will definitely enjoy this new take on the character but so will fans of historical dramas and lovers of exciting art.