Lord of the Undead

The most popular image is not necessarily the best.
Boris Karloff’s portrayal of The Monster is arguably the first and strongest image that springs to the collective mind when the word Frankenstein is spoken; yet there have been other visions of The Monster, such as Bernie Wrightson’s: beloved by comic art fans because of the artist’s intricate line work, shadow play and evocative stylistics–yet the masses are barely aware of his arguably finer version of Mary Shelley’s creature.
Most people are familiar with Conan (not O’Brien) because of Ahnold Schwarzenegger.
But Conan the Barbarian never would have been produced in the early ’80s if writer Roy Thomas had not started adapting Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories for Marvel Comics in the early ’70s.  The most popular version of Conan was that drawn by veteran comics artist John Buscema.
Musclebound, gorilla-like, savage, and certainly primitive.  But this vision of Conan, the one that found mass popularity around the world, was not the Conan of the first, classic issues.
This first issue was an artistic anomaly.  Artist Barry Smith was heavily inked to make his illustrative style more like Jack Kirby–more Marvelesque.  The right inker was quickly matched with Smith’s pseudo-antique style, and Barry Windsor Smith’s Conan exploded into the public consciousness.
By Crom!  Isn’t his black and white work simply amazing?
Ultimately, Smith’s Conan is the consummate Conan.
Unfortunately, Buscema’s Conan is the one people remember.
Now, let’s talk about the prince of darkness, the king of the vampires, the lord of the undead.  No, not Rush Limbaugh.
Dracula.
Of course, Bela Lugosi immediately springs first to mind–it was his 1931 portrayal that solidified the image of the aristocratic Count as the typical, popularized vampire.  And each culture or generation has tried to make Dracula in its own image.
 Max Schreck, Nosferatu, 1922
In case you didn’t know, this was the first–and completey unauthorized–adaptation of Dracula.
 Christopher Lee, Horror of Dracula, 1958
Primal bloodlust and eroticism at its finest.
 Frank Langella, Dracula, 1978
Disco hair.
 Gary Oldman, Francis Ford Coppolla’s Dracula, 1992
My mind is still trying to grapple with Keanu Reeves’s awful English accent.
Buffy met Dracula on TV in 1997.

For comic book fans, the single best version, as imagined by the late Gene Colan, Tomb of Dracula, 1970s
Lee’s Dracula is far superior than others, to me, at least, because of the sheer ferocity of his portrayal.  The imagery of the Hammer Dracula embodies blood and violence and sexuality in ways that would best be explored in a doctoral thesis.  Nevertheless, each version of Dracula captures the imagination of many . . . but it’s Lugosi’s image that the world still remembers most (even though the 1931 version may possibly be the dullest version ever made.  Sorry, purists).
Besides being popular and beloved fictional characters, Conan and Dracula now have something else in common.  New illustrated versions of their stories are currently being published, both drawn by a relative newcomer to illustration and comic art, but one whose artistic voice is essentially 21st century in style, yet as evocative and inspiring as Barry Smith’s Conan and Gene Colan’s Dracula (and let’s include Berni Wrightson’s Frankenstein, as well).
The illustrator is Becky Cloonan, and you can see for yourself at her website and in these few samples that her artistic vision is uniquely contemporary, yet she captures the timeless essence of the stories she transforms.
 Conan
 Cover of Conan: Queen of the Black Coast
The queen of the Black Coast, Belit
Dracula just came out in hardcover, and its illustrations are, perhaps, the best I’ve ever seen in any edition, combining the color and sensuality of a Hammer production with the gentility of Victorian romance and gothic mystery.
 Publicity poster
 The brides of Dracula
I urge you to buy these books and love them, especially Dracula.  The story is as wonderful today as it was when it was published in 1897–and this edition is magnificent in terms of Cloonan’s illustrations and Iris Shih’s book design.

Becky Cloonan is one of today’s best.


Get Becky Cloonan’s Dracula.
Get Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein.
Get Becky Cloonan’s
Conan comic books at Stories Comics.
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