“DRAGON” – Creative team with U-M ties put a major stake in new Dracula tale

University of Michigan alumnus/Eisner Award-winning writer Saladin Ahmed wanted to do a story about Dracula but realized that’s a difficult task since so many different versions have been done with this iconic character across many different media for over a century.

Still, he was up to the task and focused on the historical aspects of the character, who debuted in 1897’s “Dracula,” written by Bram Stoker. The lord of the vampires is based on an actual historical figure from the 15th century named Vlad Tepes, alias Vlad the Impaler. 

“The most famous monster that we have in our culture is Dracula, so I’ve been interested in various versions of the Dracula story,” said Ahmed.

A native of Dearborn, Ahmed currently resides in Oakland County. His credits include Marvel’s “Black Bolt,” “Miles Morales: Spider-Man,” and “The Magnificent Ms. Marvel.”

“I was reading some stuff and looking at documentaries about the Ottoman era… and was reminded that is when the supposed historical inspiration for Dracula – Vlad Tepes – (reigned). When he was Vlad the Impaler and sticking people on stakes, it was a religious crusade in his mind,” he said. “Vlad was the king of a Christian state called Wallachia that was a subject of the Ottoman empire, which was a Muslim power. Vlad rejected the peace between them and went on a crusade, killing Muslims at first. Then he went even further and started killing Christians and even own people. His monstrous roots were connected to anti-Muslim sentiment. To me, there’s a powerful story there to tell that really never gets talked about when we talk about the monster Dracula.” 

The result is the original graphic novel “DRAGON,” which Ahmed collaborated on with acclaimed artist Dave Acosta, of West Bloomfield, an alumnus of the University of Michigan-Dearborn who is perhaps best known for his artwork on Dynamite Entertainment’s “Elvira” series. 

Saladin and I have been looking for a project to do together for a couple of years before ‘DRAGON.’ Saladin asked me if I would be interested in drawing this medieval Dracula story, which I was eager to do,” said Acosta.

In “DRAGON,” Adil, a fallen old Muslim warrior, and Marjorie, a young Christian nun, join forces to battle Dracula.  

I’ve always been interested in the origin of Dracula… What I wanted to do is what would happen if you were a devout Christian nun who was on the edges of the Ottoman empire or if you were a Muslim knight in the center of Istanbul and this guy starts killing people – what is your response to that?” said Ahmed. “It’s a story of an interfaith alliance. We tend to think of multiculturalism as something modern, but the Middle East at the time was a big melting pot of different kinds of people – Christian, Muslim, Jewish… from Europe, from other parts of the world. I wanted to portray that and show that was the world Dracula was reacting against.”

Ahmed, who was inspired by some of the medieval imagery in Detroit native/Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” has a caveat about “DRAGON.” 

“The book is a comic book horror story, so it’s not intended to be deeply historically accurate,” he said. “There’s a big fat note at the beginning of the book talking about how much liberty we’re taking with history.”  

Initially, Ahmed and Acosta planned on publishing “DRAGON” through a traditional publisher, but the pandemic adversely impacted the whole comic book industry, so they began a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $144,000 (the original goal was $40,000) to fund this project. 

“(It) was more successful than I could ever have hoped,” said Acosta. 

Ahmed agreed. 

“It was very successful; I’m really glad we went that route,” he said. “It eventually will be published by a traditional publisher. We’re now talking to various publishers about getting it out in a smaller, physical format into regular bookstores and Amazon, etc. Right now, we’ve also made it available digitally in what’s an unusual move. The only way to get a physical copy is this deluxe hardcover that we’ve done, which makes it a neat, exclusive product.”

The biggest challenge they faced on “DRAGON” was its length. 

“‘DRAGON’ was different for me in that it was a 100-page standalone graphic novel,” said Acosta. “I was used to drawing monthly comics and getting feedback from the audience. We pretty much worked in seclusion on this, showing the pages only to my closest friends.”

Ahmed added, “I’m very used to working in monthly comics, where you have a certain pace set at revealing your story; you’re laying some track ahead of you. But a graphic novel is much more like a novel where you’re conceiving the thing from beginning, middle, and end before anybody ever sees a page of it. It was cool. It felt like working on a feature film vs. a TV series. It felt perfect for the horror story. I think great horror stories are short gut punches and that’s what we tried to do here.”

An advantage both had was they were totally free to tell the story and format the book exactly as they wanted. It also allowed Acosta room to experiment. 

“I used a different style of art on ‘DRAGON,’ one that I’d never tried before,” he explained. “I used gray ink wash over pencils. I didn’t ink it like a traditional comic. It was risky but rewarding.”

“Dave was challenging himself on every page and it shows,” said Ahmed. 

Collaboration was a major aspect in the making of  “DRAGON.”

“I love working with my friend Saladin, not only for his writing talent, but he’s just a great dude and partner,” said Acosta. “When you are co-creating a creator-owned comic, it’s like a marriage. You are tied to the other person. I’m very grateful that we found each other.”