Wednesday, October 04, 2006
Comics: I never drink . . . bootleg hooch.
Some concepts are just so goofy, such bluntly designed vehicles for instant fanboy kicks, that they become cool. One of these concepts is pitting Dracula, vampire king of the damned, against Al Capone, king of Prohibition Era Chicago. And this is exactly what the somewhat un-creatively titled comic Dracula vs. Capone does.
The title pretty much says it all. In Chicago, the "Roaring" part of the Roaring Twenties refers mainly the fire of Thompson machine guns as Capone locks down the city. Fortunately for the good citizens of the Windy City, Capone's reign is not unchallenged. A new threat, in form of an upstart Treasury agent named Elliot Ness and his so-called "Untouchables" are giving Scarface some trouble. As the forces of organized crime and justice prepare to face off, a new player arrives on the scene. Dracula, reawakened by blood-tainted rain, comes back to life with a small army of thirsty vamps. The head blood-sucker plans to use the chaos and random bloodshed of Chicago to hide his efforts to re-establish his rule over the night. And with that bit of backstory, it's on.
Goofy? Sure. But goofy with a pedigree. Horror cinema used to be filled these bizarre mash-ups. Sherlock Holmes versus Satanic cults, Jesse James versus Dracula, any number of monsters versus one another. None of these pictures were, perhaps, cinematic gems, or even highlights of the horror genre. Though they were not without their place. These pictures were treats for genre film fans. Why treat horror lovers to just another werewolf film when you could have the Wolfman face off against Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, all in one film? Sadly, the death of the B-film has mostly ended this sort of silly, but flat-out fun sub-genre. With the exception of Jason versus Freddy and the lame VanHelsing, mash-ups seem to be a thing of the past.
At least, they are on the big screen. In comics, the hybridizing spirit is alive and well. Want to see Mark Twain and Tesla (the inventor, not the band) go up against Lovecraft's Elder Ones? Check out The Five Fists of Science. Can't decide between vampires and pirates? You don't have to with Sea of Red. Want to see Dracula take on the Silver Surfer? I can't imagine you did, but you can find that in Essentials: Tomb of Dracula. What is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but a giant mash-up? In fact, the efforts of folks like Moore have ensured that the comic mash-up has not only thrived, but gained a level of artistic respectability within the medium that the film variety never achieved.
That's a long way to go to say that the idea is not without precedent. And, if Dracula vs. Capone were just a fun throwaway in this long line of mash-ups, it would still be worth a peek. The art is effective and artist Chris Moreno uses color to great effect. The dark reds and inky blacks of the book are a pleasure. But, what makes it worth the full read is the care writer Jim Krueger takes with the story. The first issue is narrated by three different characters: Dracula, Capone, and Malone, the right-hand man of Ness. Like the original novel Dracula, these narrative voices tend to blend, but unlike the original, the comic uses what might be a failing to its advantage. By weaving in repeated images and motifs – Capone talks about the compulsion to drink, Malone discusses crime sucking the lifeblood of the city, both Capone and Dracula talk about ruling the underworld – the thoughts of the characters mingle into a tangle of metaphors that reflects again and again the themes of the books. The whole thing is better written than you'd expect.
The book is not perfect. In the rush to get Drac to the City of Broad Shoulders, Krueger and company rely on the narrative device that so much blood is being spilled in Chicago that it literally rains blood on Transylvania. An odd idea. The pacing is a bit off too. Stage managing the three-way confrontation between Capone, Ness, and Dracula means that readers are often run through scenes with no time to take in the details. For example, Frank Nitti appears, but his role in Capone's organization is never fully explained. (Not that there aren't some nice touches – in the space of a single frame, a tongue-tied accountant tries to warn Capone about his finances, but Capone's throwing one of his famously violent fits and scares off his one chance to avoid prison.)
Overall, though, these little things are overlooked. Dracula vs. Capone is good stuff. It might not rise to Moore-ish levels of literary pretension, but it is an effective genre fusion and worth the cover price.