Saturday, May 22, 2010

Comics: All aboard that's going aboard.

Bram Stoker's Dracula is an oddly uneven book. It's front-heavy. All the great stuff - Harker's time in Drac's castle; the voyage of the Demeter; Lucy's transformation, death, resurrection, and destruction - happens in the first half or two-thirds of the book. With the possible exception of vampiration interruptus scene, a near perfect vision of the Victorian nightmare projection of sexuality, the last third's pretty slow going. Though we're meant to get the feeling of mad dash through Europe, the result is a strangely emotionless list of ports of call and overland routes, punctuated by repetitious portents from Mina, and ending in a dud fight that end's the count's bloody undeath in an almost exhausted way. Consequently, when artists of various types take up the threads of Stoker's original, it's almost always elements from the early portion of the novel that they focus on. Prequels that give us backstory for Dracula and his three wives, for example, pick up the somewhat hanging thread of the monstrous femme vamps of Drac's mini-harem.

Personally, my favorite episode has always been the short, but sweet log of the doomed cargo ship Demeter. For those who have never read the book, the Demeter is the unlucky ship that has the displeasure of shipping Drac's coffin from mainland Europe to England. Unfortunately for the crew, the count wakes up hungry and starts picking off the sailors one by one. The whole incident is related through the captain's log, so the presence of Dracula is never fully revealed; he's nothing but shadows and fear, a creeping absence, a roll call of names of the missing. In a brilliant closing move on Stoker's part, the bit ends with the lone captain writing down his plan for reaching England, a plan rich in dramatic irony as the readers knows the moment he says it that it ensures he's powerless against Dracula. In this short scene, Stoker truly plays far above his standard level. Here the collage format of the novel, elsewhere little more than a somewhat clumsy lift from Wilkie Collins, is essential to the story: the tension in this scene doesn't come from any ambiguity of the fate of the sailors - they're prey and they never have a chance - but from the fact that the reader understands the situation and the sailors do not. It also has a taut economy to it that is atypical of the rest of Stoker's novel (see previous about endgame).

It has long baffled me that the scene on the Demeter has often been overlooked by adapters and revisionists. The first film adaptation, Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu, included an extended scene based on The Demeter's last voyage; but after that it largely vanishes from the adaptations; Browning's 1931 classic merely alludes to the scene, setting the mold for the majority of adaptations that followed. It seems like perfect horror premise: a crew, trapped on an inescapable boat, hunted by a sinister power from beyond. This is the very template of a million sci-fi/horror flicks, from The Thing from Another Planet to every flick in the Alien franchise.

So, it was no small thrill to hear that, not one, but two projects were revisiting the hulk of the doomed Demeter: a limited series comic from IDW and a flick in-pre-production-limbo flick. We'll have to focus on the one that actually exists at this point. Penned by Pumpkinhead screenwriter Gary Gerani and illustrated by the mixed media art of Stuart Saygar, the expansively titled Bram Stoker's Death Ship: the Last Voyage of the Demeter expands the Demeter scene into a four part mini-series. Promising, but not completely filling, Death Ship reveals what I didn't understand, but what adapters of Stoker's tale seem to have grasped: the Demeter scene is actually really tricky to adapt.

There's a harsh catch-22 at the heart of the task. The bit works because Stoker struck a near perfect balance between the relentless narrative drive of the scene and the amount of detail needed to sell it. At it's heart, the Demeter scene is a countdown to Dracula's arrival in England. The crew of the ship that carries him there is barely sketched out: there's the bold one, the drunk, the kid, and so on. What's important about them in the pace of their deaths: one after the other, the period in between getting shorter and shorter. It's like the heartbeat in Tell-tale Heart or the carpet/hardwood Big-Wheel scene in The Shining in that its power comes from it ever-tightening rhythm. Mess up that coiling rhythm and you mess up the scene.

This means that Gerani is between a rock and hard place. If you're going to make the voyage of the Demeter your story, then you need to flesh out the roles of the crew. In the original, the continuity of the captain's voice is hook enough to hang the interest of the reader upon. We need more detail, or we won't give a toss what happens to the crew. However, every added detail adds some drag to the plot. How much stuff can you add on to Stoker's original streamlined narrative before the drag impacts the speed and, by extension, screws up the pacing that is essential to its dramatic power. The creator's of Death Ship understand that more is not necessarily better in this case. They flesh out the crew as little as possible, working with narration and montage to suggest depth of character rather than risk dragging down the narrative chasing greater detail. The sacrifice, of course, is that the impact of the story comes at a remove. The reader cares less about the fate of the crew and, instead, the story's significance comes from our knowledge of context. This gives the whole thing an air of irrelevance rather fated doom.

That said, I think Death Ship suffers somewhat in a monthly format. The pacing of the story and the pacing of the comic biz do not work well together here. Gathered together, and read in a single sitting, I suspect the story will regain its drive and the economic characterization will seem more like a part of an overall artistic design and less like a conspicuous lack. Delivered as a tight, swift-moving whole, it'll better reflect the atypical verve of the original. Right now, it feels like a bit of a tease.

Though I do like Saygar's Dracula. More Man-bat than Bela, Saygar's vampire is an impressive beast.


David Lee Ingersoll said...

The story probably hasn't been touched much because, unless you change the end, none of the crew survives. And, unless I've forgotten, the crew never knows what they are up against. They don't really get to fight back. They just die.

The episode works in the novel because it amps up the power and menace of Dracula. We know what's killing the crew and we feel bad for them. When adapting the novel the episode probably gets left out because it's a lot of time spent with characters who don't ultimately affect the progress of the story. The episode is time away from our protagonists.

CRwM said...


Excellent points all.