The son of Dracul has a few portraits done.

The Illustrated Dracula

Oh, the plight of today’s Jae Lee fan. Sure, Lee might be prepping for his biggest, most visible project ever, that upcoming seven-issue Stephen King miniseries that’s actually written by Peter David, Dark Tower: Gunslinger Born, but we’re going to have to wait until February of 2007 to see the debut of that. And until then - nothing. We’ll get a free giveaway sketchbook thingy next month, sure, but beyond that there’s no comics-related work from Lee in the pipeline for 2006. Not so much as a cover. He’s shackled by the ankle to his drawing board, and there’s apparently no leaving until those last three issues are done. Even Hellshock: The Definitive Edition is on the backburner, though that thing looked to be stuck in some sort of Dynamic Forces staring contest with the American Flagg! hardcover anyway.

But the more devout of Lee’s fans need not despair, as a brand-new project is ready to roll. A real case of something old and something new, on several levels.

The Illustrated Dracula isn’t a new foray into the world of comics for publisher Penguin; their Penguin Classics line has already received much fanfare for the Graphic Classics initiative, assigning various comics folk to design new packaging for one classic work/collection or another. But now Penguin’s Viking Studio is taking things one step further, inviting comics artists to provide interior illustrations for sundry noted works. The first two specimens, this and The Illustrated Jane Eyre (art by Dame Darcy), saw official release just yesterday. New and old.

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel is more than just old, or classic, it’s inescapably visible; the material being in the public domain for as long as it has, the title character and the general story outline have never had the opportunity to fade away into the mists of age as so much Victoriana has, and there’s thusly no shortage of cheap editions itching for your vampire dollar. And yet, how many people have actually sat down and read Dracula? It’s always seemed to me that the work itself occupies a unique shadow world of being both absurdly recognizable and somewhat under-read. That’s why it’s all the more important to make a deluxe current edition seem as new as possible - so many have heard of the infamous Count, and many of that many might yet be willing to get pulled into a purchase of the actual source novel, should it look tantalizing enough.

Hence, Jae Lee. So how much Jae Lee do we get?

Well hell, I might as well boil this down into numbers.

Not counting the cover piece, there are an even thirty illustrations, one for each of the book’s twenty-seven chapters (technically, Chapter XV has no illustration and Chapter XVI has two), plus a frontispiece and a concluding two-page image sequence. Of the interior illustrations, four are in color. All of the color illustrations are full-page, but nearly half of the total pieces are actually spot illustrations, thirteen out of thirty. So, often you’ll be flipping through excerpted transcripts of Dr. Van Helsing’s wax cylinder recordings (it's like my day job!), and you’ll suddenly see a wolf or a scary old man peeping out from the binding, and that will be all for the visual art portion of the chapter. Interestingly, the book is heavily front-loaded with full-page images, partially I’m sure because several especially iconic sequences take place near the beginning (the advance of the three vampire women, the bound captain of the Demeter, Renfield eating bugs), but maybe so the book might initially appear to be more lavishly filled with art than it actually is. This is a 400-page tome, nicely designed and breezily laid out (even though the illustrations often anticipate where the text has not yet gone), but there’s little denying that the whole ‘Illustrated’ thing begins to peter out after a while.

What illustrations we get are certainly nice. Lee’s visual approach, fittingly for a new packaging of old material, draws heavy inspiration from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror, the famous 1922 pirate adaptation of Stoker’s book, though Lee’s Dracula is a bit more lovely than Murnau’s Orlok, the vampire’s beady red eyes sleepily sensitive, his feasting lips delicate. It’s not a text-perfect rendition - drawing in the vampire’s mustache would spoil the tone - but Lee is prepared to focus his visuals more on iconography anyway, which ties in with the notion of everyone kind of knowing what's in Dracula, even if the details are rarely perfect. Lots of rat ears and claws visible in shadow. An abundance of mist. There is more than one ominous horse. Burning orange behind a blade in the heart. And lots and lots of semi-modern stylishly gothy women dangling crosses from between their lips, bowing or reclining under frequent Lee colorist June Chung’s icy blues, vamping in black. Hell, one of them (in Chapter XXV) strikes a pose that appears to be, shall we say, in homage to an old Hellshock cover (second series, issue #3). I doubt Lee’s fans will mind; this one smiled as if he’d figured something out.

Obviously, if you already own Dracula, I don’t know how much you’d be willing to pay a $21.95 cover price for a short stack of Jae Lee drawings. It's a good-looking book. I mean, beyond the Jae Lee, it's well put together; there's a world of difference between a deluxe presentation of an old book and a bargain bin slap-job, just in terms of word crowding and parsing and the like. At the same time, I think it's a pretty natural reaction to see the term "Illustrated" in the title, and wish there was a lot more. Particularly with as little Jae Lee as we get these days. He's got to retreat back to the Dark Tower, lest the rising sun turn him to dust.

Oh wait. That's not even in this book. See what I mean?