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Local takes on the original Dracula put Twilight to sparkly shame 

From graphic novels to rock operas, ATL likes its vampires Vlad to the bone

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GORE TECH: Shane Morton stands in the corner of his bedroom. “My Girlfriend wanted me to paint it like an enchanted forest.” It feels more like being inside of a heart. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • GORE TECH: Shane Morton stands in the corner of his bedroom. “My Girlfriend wanted me to paint it like an enchanted forest.” It feels more like being inside of a heart.

In the book, Dracula relocates to London, leaving Harker behind as a snack for his feral wives. The count preys on English ladies until an escaped Harker and a group of crusading men, led by Abraham Van Helsing, organize Scooby-Gang style and turn the hunter into the hunted. Dracula embodies the chauvinistic, xenophobic anxieties of the 19th century as an exotic, supernatural figure ravaging the nation's virgins. For today's audiences, Dracula embodies more fears and dark desires than any other famous monster, partly by passing as a human being in ways that rotting zombies and furry werewolves cannot.

"In Stoker's Dracula, the vampire's very refined, almost regal, this marriage of aristocrat and monster. He's this respected authority figure who turns out to be incredibly evil. We wanted to go in a different direction," says Jensen, who writes the scripts for Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer, illustrated by Dusty Higgins.

"I was never a vampire person," acknowledges Jensen, who says he never watched "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" until after he finished writing his four-volume graphic novel series. The comic book originated with a conversation in the mid-2000s at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where Jensen was a crime reporter and Higgins was the editorial cartoonist. Higgins drew a doodle of Carlo Collodi's famous puppet staking a toothy fiend, and the pair shared a laugh. In 2007, after Jensen had relocated to Atlanta, Higgins suggested they do a graphic novel based on the kickass puppet concept, and it caught on.

You can imagine how Pinocchio Vampire Slayer works. When the enchanted marionette lies his wooden nose grows, giving him an endless supply of stakes for striking down the undead. The gimmick gives Pinocchio a pretext for irresistible action-hero-style quips: "I hate killing vampires." SHIK! "I'm sorry about this." SHIK! Thanks to Higgins' stark, shadowy art and Jensen's balance of humor, horror, and respect for his characters, the series evolves past a one-joke premise to a supernatural epic that crisscrosses 19th-century Europe and draws inspiration from commedia dell'arte, author Italo Calvino, and Gothic horror.

The series' final installment, Of Wood and Blood, is being published in two parts, with the first recently released in August and the second due in early fall. Jensen and Higgins introduce an appropriately menacing, loathsome version of Dracula as the saga's Big Bad. "We always knew from the first book that there would be an explanation of where Pinocchio comes from, and it would connect to where vampires come from," Jensen explains. "You can see Vlad's castle in one panel of the first book. There was always a chance that we'd only sell like, two copies, but if we made some more books, we wanted to be able to say, 'We knew what we were doing all along.'"

Jensen explored the source material for all of the book's characters, and for Dracula, went back to both Stoker and European history. Originally Stoker planned to name his villain Count Wampyr, but chose the name Dracula from the descendants of Vlad II of Wallachia, who took the name Dracul after being invested in the chivalric Order of the Dragon in 1431. Stoker never equates the character with the 15th-century warlord Vlad Tepes III, aka Vlad the Impaler, who resisted the Ottoman Empire's invasion of Europe. The historical association frequently deepens the character's complexities, and Jensen finds the connection fascinating. "You find out he's a lot more interesting than the Vlad the Impaler stereotype. As a boy, he was given to the Turks as a hostage by his father. That's the kind of thing that can mess you up as a kid," he says. "For that part of the world he's a hero, like a very dark George Washington figure. Sure, he had a habit of putting people on spikes, but that was a pretty dark time."

Higgins draws Dracula as a corrupt hulk in medieval garb leading a small army of vampires from his castle. "I think our Vlad is more barbaric than usual. He's not slick, he doesn't use subterfuge, he's a very powerful presence with evil ambitions. He's bloated, almost as if he's stitched together," says Jensen, who finds a psychological justification for Dracula's behavior. "This monstrous, terrifying guy does these monstrous, terrifying things because he's frightened of death and trying to keep himself alive. That makes an interesting conflict."

Of Wood and Blood culminates with a showdown between a talking puppet and a fictionalized, undead take on a medieval campaigner. Neither adversary is technically alive, yet the fear of mortality casts a shadow over their confrontation. It's a far cry from the singing crickets and mischievous cats of Disney's Pinocchio.

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