Alberto Breccia’s Dracula… Part I of II: Zolly-Pop Color Porn

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 preperation 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 immedietely 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.

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