REVIEW: The Bloody Beauty of Dracula: Son of the Dragon

A drawing of a man in an elaborate furred cloak and hat. His hands are folded and decorated in many rings.

Collecting the original digital series, Dracula: Son of the Dragon is a sprawling horror fantasy graphic novel. It follows the mythical rise of Vlad Tepes, better known as Vlad the Impaler, and his transformation into the vampire Vlad Dracula. Artist Salgood Sam and writer Mark Sable present a moody epic that explores the life of the ruler of Wallachia in both his historical and pop-cultural contexts. Equal parts historical fiction and fantasy reimagining, Dracula: Son of the Dragon is a beautifully crafted work whose fascination with its subject bleeds from the page.

Dracula: Son of the Dragon

Salgood Sam (Artist, Colors, Cover Artist, Letters), Mark Sable (Writer), and Becka Kinzie (Flats)
Dark Horse Comics
October 27, 2021

An image of a man with brown hair against a black background with a circular red dragon symbol. The text is red and reads Dracula: Son of the Dragon

The story begins in Wallachia in 1476 A.D., during the last year of Vlad Dracula’s rule as a mortal. Three holy men of different faiths hike up the winding path in the Romanian hills to Castle Dracula, where they are confronted by a grisly forest of impaled bodies and gleaming skulls. In exchange for sanctuary in his castle, Dracula asks the holy men if he’ll be allowed into Heaven. The monk tells Dracula that he was created in the image of his father, Vlad II Dracul, the deposed prince of Wallachia and a founding member of the Order of the Dragon.

Vlad II pledged his sons to the Holy Roman Empire and its battle against the Ottoman Turks, eventually sacrificing Vlad and his other sons Mircea, Radu, and Vlad IV. The monk explains that Vlad’s enemies are paying for his father’s sins rather than his own. But the true story of how Vlad became Dracula is far more complicated than the holy men understand from rumor and myth, and so Dracula confesses.

What unfolds is a brisk but expansive account of Vlad Dracula’s rise to power. From his initial combat training to his and his brothers’ education in the occult arts to the evolving political instability of Vlad II’s alliances and Vlad and Radu’s capture by the Ottoman sultan, Vlad becomes a brutal and cunning warrior. The meticulously researched historical events and settings are peppered with elements of monsters and magic, gradually shifting from a more straightforward retelling to a fantastical one. Vampires, dragons, and grisly spells become more frequent but well-grounded by the world’s lore and severe tone and never feel out of place.

Artist Sam’s fluid linework and dense page constructions beautifully realize the script’s fast pace. He creates lush, highly detailed scenes that condense shifting time, space, and mood into gorgeous tableaux. Panels shaped like arched doorways draw the reader into scenes as if moving through space alongside characters, while pages condense entire illuminated manuscripts Vlad is reading to involve us in the process. The delicate shading and textures in wood, cloth, and fur give every sequence a sense of weight and lived-in reality.

Sam creates a foreboding, almost claustrophobic temperament throughout by combining the intimate presentation with a dreary palette consisting of deep browns, greens, and reds. Pops of rich jewel tones and the occasional sunny landscape works with some of the humanizing sequences between Vlad and his brothers to break up the visual dread. However, these lighter moments are a brief respite as the brutality of the plot always draws the reader right back into Vlad’s bloody ascension.

The narrative’s pace does leave some characters and relationships undeveloped, as does Sable’s frequently stiff, expositional dialogue. It’s easy to lose track of characters in the dense cast of historical players; fortunately, there’s a detailed dramatis personae at the beginning that provides a profile of each character. The endnotes offer additional information on both the historical and pop culture contexts Sam and Sable are navigating and expanding on the book’s events. This section provides fascinating supplemental material, additional promotional artwork, and a partial bibliography citing Sam and Sable’s variety of historical, literary, and film sources.

The story closes as Vlad Dracula finishes his confession, recalling the brutal death of his father and brother Mircea by the nobility who betrayed their alliance. The young Vlad takes up his father’s sword to avenge his family and reclaim Wallachia. Now standing before the holy men as the fearsome Vlad Dracula, he rejects the monk’s pity and God’s forgiveness. Dracula spears the monk through the heart with a wooden cross and accepts his fate as the monster he’s become. It’s a brutal and haunting note to close on and contrasts the sense of obligation that fueled the young Vlad with the otherworldly monstrosity he has now embraced.

Dracula: Son of the Dragon is a fascinating, well-crafted portrait of Vlad Tepes as a man and myth. It’s a compelling horror fantasy grounded by painstaking research into historical scholarship, literary criticism, and film history, presented with the utmost care. With its stunning artwork and methodical presentation, Dracula: Son of the Dragon is more than worthy of your time.

Magen Cubed

Magen Cubed

Magen Cubed is a novelist, occasional critic, and general internet menace. Frequently seen hollering about monsters on Twitter.

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