Complete Thoughts on Alberto Breccia’s Dracula comics

When I was in sixth grade I went through a massive massive vampire/dracula stage.  I mean I didn’t go goth outwardly style.  But during that time you couldn’t find me without a book with a vampire in it.  We didn’t have Twilight back then, so it was uphill both ways in the snow reading books from which even Ann Rice’s vampire books would be seen as literary juggernauts in comparison.  This was before even buffy came around.  It all started with Stoker though.  I remember the first time I read Dracula.  I read it because I had seen trailers for the movie, which my mom wouldn’t let me go see since it was rated R, and the imagery just from the movie trailers was burned into my brain–so I had to get my fix somehow–so I went for the book.

I read the whole thing in a single day.  I remember it vividly.  My sister had a piano recital church thing that I had to go to, and I remember slumping down into the front seat of my step-dad’s car on the trip to the church reading through car sickness, and then once we got to the church, finding an abandoned sunday school classroom and hiding in a corner just completely engrossed.  I would say it was one of the formulative reading experiences for me as a kid.  Like that, and when I read Huck Finn in 3rd grade over like 12 hours through a fever.

Anyways.  That’s a long jog to go just to say, I will always have a soft spot for Dracula adaptions.  And though Breccia’s Dracula is very different tonally from Stoker’s work–even as he adapts portions of it, Poe’s The Raven, and I Am Legend–there is still horror at play.  It is a slinking sinister kind of horror hidden behind the jokes and cartoony absurdist facade.  There’s shit in here that will make you laugh for sure. But there’s also some stuff that will kick your souls teeth in.

I think the first thing that hits you about these pages are the shapes and colors.  Space in a panel twists and contorts like a fevered dream–everything is unsteady and amorphous.  There is no rigidity to even the surrounding architecture which seem to almost threaten not so much to fall down, but melt down into the ground which itself shifts like waves.  Here Breccia’s line is less the firm definition of object and space, than the ever shifting border between various colors of light.  This style is at once ABOUT the line, as it is NOT about the line.  Color and line almost fight for primacy from image to image.

The effect is phantasmagoriac in nature.  These art at once stain glass window paintings, as they are vulgarities gleaned from Day of the Dead celebrations.

 

In this page, where Dracula is going to the dentist in preparation for Jonathan Harker’s arrival at his castle, we can see shape/color/form as a series of interlocking bits on the page.  Look how in the right panel how the townsperson with the cross fits into that wall almost as a puzzle piece.  Here depth isn’t being created solely by color relationships.  Like often times you will see the foreground/background focus being manipulated in color by how much detail is put in to one or the other.  So if you wanted your reader to focus on something in the background, you would make the foreground all one type of color relationship, and then make the background element you are highlighting contrast that so the reader’s eye is immediately drawn to it.

So like in this page colored by Sloane Leong in Change(Ales Kot, Morgan Jeske, Ed Brisson):

In the top panel your focus is brought to the foreground by the white coloring which pops over that pink and purple background colors.  And then in the bottom panel the foreground is purple and pink, and way in the background you see a spot of white, which is your focal point as a reader.  If the bottom panel wasn’t colored in this way, you would only have the lettering balloons to help you find the two characters, and even then the experience would be very different, and it would be visually more complicated for you to read that page, which would change the rhythm of the page.

Contrast that with how Breccia handles crowds in Dracula in this scene from the Poe short story, where Dracula has followed Poe to a bar:

With the top panel Breccia lets you know just where Dracula is going to be positionally in the room, so when he enters the bar in the second panel you kind of know where to look for him.  Notice how because of the way the crowd is colored–the image is extremely crowded, and compared to the Change page above, there is not really very much depth.  And yet Breccia is still able to keep your focus on Dracula here solely through his composition both of that panel and of the page in general.  Look how the first panel angels dracula almost like an arrow into the direction that Dracula will enter the bar in the second panel.  If you flipped that top panel, you as a reader would most likely lose Dracula as you dragged down into the second panel–it would take you an extra moment to find him that clearly Breccia doesn’t intend.  You can tell that he intends to highlight Dracula’s entrance here as well because in that second panel Dracula’s figure represents the uppermost figure in the composition.  There is a kind of triangle/pyramid moving down and out from Dracula(worth pointing out, if you did draw the triangle for the composition of this page out, you would see that the first side as you read left to right, points right at Poe.

So obviously this is a different way of denoting focus for the reader, even as you use the kitchen sink color wise.  But there is something else that is achieved here versus the scene in Change(which I’m just using as an easy comparison, if you want my thoughts on Change, they are here).  In the Change scene, the storytelling emphasis in terms of the color, the writing, and lettering is speed and clarity.  And with Jeske’s side of it, a certain dramatic space by pulling back behind the crowd.  With Breccia though, he is getting across this psychology of coming into a crowded bar looking for someone, and not being able to find them right away.  Even though we are looking at Dracula from inside the bar, the psychology of the scene is purely from Dracula’s perspective.  There’s so many people here.  Where is Edgar Allan Poe?  It takes a minute for him to get his bearings.  And then by the last panel he’s found him.

This page further plays with our notions of crowd/focus/unfocused and introduces what I would say is one of the core toys Breccia uses to masterous affect in his Dracula stories–zoom.  Again we start off with this crowd pick looking back into Dracula.  What is interesting here is that now Dracula is not highlighted directly in the composition.  Instead you follow a diagonal from the dude on the left, almost zig-zagging back up to Dracula–through Poe.  Through this Breccia has staged the entire page, that this page is about both us and dracula watching Poe from the shadows.  The second panel is this wonderful deep focus moment that is all over Dracula.

Notice in the first panel Poe is drinking.  In the second panel, Poe has started to pour another drink.  So this indicates to us that time has past.  But also notice that Dracula himself hasn’t changed from the first panel.  Nor has the composition of Dracula in relationship to Poe.  So what Breccia has done here is has frozen the composition, and Dracula himself, while both animating Poe and zooming into on Dracula.  It has an almost reverse focus effect like you are almost being pulled in by Dracula.  It’s deep like Legosi’s eyes.

The bottom panels are like a master blues guitarist bending out a note.  He freezes and unfreezes actions, as he moves the perspective 180 degrees in alternating panels.  If you did this in a movie, the audience would probably throw up on the floor.  Notice the subtle animation changes between the 1st and third panels on that bottom row.  And then the second and fourth panels.  Just subtle changes, and how that allows for the movement to be perceived by the reader.  I mean a lot of great comic artists do this kind of thing.  Al Columbia’s Pim and Francie is a horrifying exploration of these kinds of animation techniques in the comic medium–but it’s just really fun to watch Breccia noodling on these different elements of comic making.

This is the last page of this crowd scene.  Look at everyone ice grilling Poe as he gets up to leave and spills his drink everywhere.  Like cool, you’re the father of modern horror, but we all hate you–kind of looks.  The coolest thing on this page though is the two middle panels where the dude in the brown jacket mirrors the shape of the building in the next panel, and the chimney on the house next to the that building is colored vaguely like Dracula’s face in the previous panel.  The bottom panel is too beautiful for words.

 

II.  And then the Bottom Dropped Out: Argentina’s Dirty War and Dracula…Fui Leyenda (I Am Legend)

 

The style of Dracula casts its titular hero in a kind of absurdist buffoon role, just by its very nature, and many of the Dracula stories are basically meant to be funny comics which build to a humorous final punchline.  It makes sense that Breccia would see Dracula in this way, given his background with the real horror of Argentina’s Dirty War which as part of the overarching monstrosity called Operation Condor led to the disappearance of between 9,000 to 30,000 men, women, and children in Argentina.  Among those “disapeared” was Breccia’s friend and collaborator Hector Oesterheld.  Breccia’s reality during the 70s in Argentina would have been one of the kind of nightmarish state sponsored atrocity that is real horror manifest.

So it makes sense that his Dracula would be less serious.  I mean compared to the Generals in Argentina during the 70s and early 80s, Dracula was no monster.

Enter Breccia’s Dracula…Fui Leyenda, which is his loose adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend as applied to Dracula and the Dirty War.

We start with Dracula strolling through town oblivious to his surroundings.  Right behind his head we see a propaganda poster for a military general dictator.  But then he begins to see things.  And we now see what Dracula’s primary role in this short is, which is as witness to atrocity.  To see, and to remember.

 

This second page is amazing.  We get this throng of tortured faces protesting for peace, their words and ideas overwhelming  the military who are cooped up into the corner of the page, afraid and small.  The way that electric pink and blue divides the page like a wedge is really cool.  And then in the third panel these monstrous decorated generals almost on top of each other, hidden in the windows like cowards.  One of them barks the orders, which aren’t words, just blood.  The pink and purple has pulled out of the third panel, so that that blood is the focal point.

And then we get this Guernica type vertical panel of atrocity, the violence piled on top of itself.  Almost uncomprehensible in its chaos and evil.  It overtakes the entire page.  And then the next biggest panel is Dracula drenched in blood.  Blood the very thing that vampires love and live on, but rather than be in heaven, he is in shock, barely able to comprehend what he has seen, and he is sent running from the scene.  But Breccia doesn’t even have him running away from the violence.  The direction of the last panel, is angled back into the violence of the first panel.  As if no matter how far Dracula runs, he will be unable to escape this atrocity.

A defeated Dracula wandering the wastelands, Breccia drawing his form like a ghost.  The top half of him floats in the air like casper, and his legs seem to move as if only because that’s what legs know how to do.  The bottom half of this page was probably for me the moment where this comic really just kicked my stomach in.

Notice how in the left panel Dracula is looking out at the reader, but the boards and direction of Dracula’s neck/body arrow into that last panel.  Which is a 180 degree flip.  We are actually seeing what Dracula is looking at in the left panel, concurrent to our watching his reaction to it.  It is a uniquely comic thing its timing and scope.

The body parts are being ripped off of these human beings and put into the wastebasket.  It was really difficult for me to read that panel because I am somewhat well informed about the types of things that were done in those settings, during that time, in latin america.  And knowing that I live in a country that was extremely cognizant of what was going on during Operation Condor all over South America.  And not only did we know what was going on, we were complicit, offering funding and support during both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, all because communism was this big bad thing that it wasn’t enough to go after it in our own country–we had to stem its tide in countries that had nothing to do with us!  And then you see like the things that happened this past week in Egypt…nothing changes.  And why?  Why are people doing these things to each other for politics or religion?  Why is something as inane as a combination of ideas and words, enough to get you to commit horrible atrocities on someone who is fundamentally the same as you.  In Argentina, sometimes when they would disappear a family they would give the children away to families that supported the party.  Do you know how fucked up that is?  Imagine these kids growing up and then finding out the parents that raised them aren’t their parents, and more than that, were complicit in the deaths of their real parents?  The scale of the horror of Operation Condor and the Dirty War is of a scale that challenges your ability to imagine terror.

And while the children scream, the monsters dance.  The bottom panel depicts the children who were given over to convents during the Dirty war.

The colors on this page contrast the drab colors of the lives of the protesters, creating an even more monstrous depiction of the elites.  Also notice that those in power are generally drawn as these lumpy well-fed monsters with sharp teeth, and the people are drawn more in the vein of either traditional forms, or like in the protest page, like innocent monks in some old religious woodcutting.

 

NN is the label that was applied to the plots of unnamed children who were disappeared and then buried.  Breccia has the third panel pulling down into the graves with the figures warping more and more the closer they get to the actual graves.  And then the last panel has this stretching effect.  Their long faces pushing up questioning the horror.  The distance between the top head and the skull in its hands exacerbates the effect.

In the end Dracula is completely terrified out of his mind.  He sees the car rolling up behind him, and fears he could be next.  The way he is slinking in the top panel shows his internal paranoia, and the way Breccia has now given him this shadow against the brick wall, as if he is ready to be stood up for execution.  And then you get him just completely cracking in that middle panel.  His top hat comes flying off.  His legs are going in one direction, his hands and torso in another direction.  He is out of his mind.

The punchline to the comic which I’ve not included here is that he runs straight into a church for sanctuary and becomes a monk.

World cold enough to drive a vampire to Jesus.

6 comments
  1. Truthfully, I didn’t read any of this, but I really sat and stared at the images. The style reminds me of Marc Chagall, particularly his “I and the Village” self-portrait.

  2. kzekedaurus said:

    Radical! Due to all your posts, I feel remiss that my bookshelf is lacking -anything- from Alberto Breccia.
    The style he uses here reminds me a lot of my favourite animator, Shinya Ohira, who frequently breaks model and plays with line and shape to bring out the power and life in motion. Here though, its used and paced really moodily/unnervingly, and I love that. Just, like you point out, how aware it makes you of the control Breccia has over this world he’s crafting, and the purpose in the choices he’s making; it’s real masterful to look at.
    It seems like a lot of my favourite comic artists (woo, Samura!) and animators tend to overlap. I mean, ignoring the fact that they come from much the same background, or that both mediums have different strengths that are their own. It’s just cool when I can feel that… shared spirit. Or something.
    I dunno. Sorry if I sound like a rube. Thanks for the article, though. Real food for thought!

  3. Brett Von Schlosser said:

    this is a fantastic post. I really want more Breccia and the story of Argentinian comics to somehow find it’s way to the states. any idea when this was published in Argentina? obviously this would have to have been after 70s. but the thing I’ve often heard is that due to the oppressive censorship policies, many Argentinian cartoonists had little to work with, so they simply turned to straight up adaptations of Poe and H.P Lovecraft. many of which saw publication in Heavy Metal and the Warren horror mags. so I wonder if that might have informed his decision to use the guise of a simple famous horror adaptation to deal with his own experiences.

  4. Sarah, this is brilliant and absolutely well-written. Dracula is one of my favorite Breccia works, but you uncovered so much subtext that I didn’t realize was present.

    Fantastic article and I have it bookmarked now.

    Thanks.

    ADRIAN JOHNSON

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