Saturday, March 3, 2012

Stop #1: Dracula by Bram Stoker

There are a number of works that are so ingrained into western culture that to discover them for the first time is to actively fight against what we know of them. Alan Moore seems to have anticipated this when he claimed, according to wikipedia, anyway, there were two characters he was specifically not going to focus on because of their outsized reputations. One was Sherlock Holmes. The other was Dracula.

Of course, while both characters were largely absent from the first volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, their presence and their stories loom large from the very first page. The volume begins shortly after the great detective’s death, and Mina Murray is the first member of the League we meet.

I originally read Dracula years ago after reading the League, and read it again recently for this blog post. During the first read, I remember being so enthralled by certain scenes: the ride to the castle, the introduction of Count Dracula, Harker’s near-seduction by the three female vampires, Lucy as a vampire, Mina drinking blood from Dracula’s breast and later being burned by holy water, the final confrontation. These scenes were so vivid that I couldn’t imagine why there had been so many disparate portrayals of the story. Why hadn’t moviemakers just stuck to the wonderful and clear visions that I had in my head?

Then I actually saw some of the most famous filmed versions of Bram Stoker’s novel: Nosferatu, the Bela Lugosi Dracula, The Horror of Dracula. Despite my original enrapture in the original novel, I had to admit that all of these were wonderful. Not every great work can stand up under reinterpretation, but the core of Dracula is somehow unbreakable. You can kill Mina. You can kill Jonathan (and at the end of the first act!). You can leave out huge swaths of the characters, and somehow the core story of an evil vampire preying on the innocent stays, and just as creepy as ever.

That story core can even blot out something I was disappointed by on re-read: there are a lot of … forgive the expression … dead parts to Dracula, especially near the end, when the main cast spends much of the time trying to defeat Dracula by visiting lawyers that have the keys to the houses where he’s left some dirt-filled coffins. Not that some things didn’t get better on re-read. I admire even more the ride to the castle, and how the weather reflects the mental state of Jonathan Harker and the villagers on the ride to where he will meet Count Dracula. I felt as if I were being introduced for the first time to Quincey Morris, a Texan with a penchant for Winchesters who needs to be in the next American adaptation of this story, at least. I also really gained an even greater appreciation for Mina. Even when she’s being seen through the paternalistic (and sometimes so much so that it harms her) eyes of the men around her, or talking about how sensitive and in need of their protection she is, her strength comes through. Reading the book, I thought that not only was she far braver and stronger than Jonathan, but I wondered if Lucy would have lived if Mina hadn’t had to run off to get him.

But is Mina of LoEG the same Mina of Dracula? I’ve heard the complaint that with The Black Dossier and Century Mina is hardly Stoker’s creation anymore. However, I’ll submit that in some ways, Moore’s Mina has never been Stoker’s, not really.
If you read Dracula and then LoEG, some things simply don’t match. Moore once fancifully explained that the reason he gave Mina a neck scarred as if by razors in the second volume was because that was how bats really bite, but the original novel Mina writes in her diary Lucy had the two marks “of legend.” The original novel also shows on a few occasions that the marks left by a vampire disappear after the vampire is killed. The idea that Jonathan Harker left Mina because of her scars makes even less sense when the novel ends with the couple happily married for seven years and with a son.

These differences can be a stumbling block for some, especially comics fans who are sticklers for continuity. My brother once objected to it, saying, “Who is Alan Moore to decide that they should divorce?” Well, nobody, not any more than Star Trek fans who decide that Kirk and Spock should settle down and adopt children together. But one of the joys of fanfic is seeing the “canon” story taken in a different direction. And, I have to admit, since I think Jonathan Harker’s an irritating wuss I personally am not bothered by the new direction.

You don’t have to read Dracula to understand the LoEG’s Mina, but doing so you’ll find a lot of character similarities, especially when compared to the rather weak-willed Mina in the Lugosi movie. Both versions of the character are strong, smart, resourceful, and know how to be team players. However, the character in Dracula is the only woman on a team of decent men who have the utmost respect for her, but also leave her out of the proceedings to her detriment. In LoEG, she’s a woman leading a team of dangerous men who (at first) have little to no respect for her. If you read Dracula, you can read LoEG’s Mina as a woman striving not to be put in the same position she was in her past, who wants to be in control. And, I’ll also venture that despite all its faults, it makes what happens to Mina in Century: 1969 when she takes drugs to be hip and is tormented by visions of Dracula as even more tragic.

On the other hand, re-reading Dracula also made me notice another blind spot: there’s no equivalent in LoEG to the great friendship between Mina and Lucy. Can we have something like this in a future book, please? NSA sex with Fanny Hill isn’t quite doing it for me …

To dial down the flippancy, though, I’ve always loved Moore’s Mina. I haven’t always liked what Moore’s threatened her with, but she’s a rare heroine that’s compelling and strong while still human and subject to setbacks. It’s good to know that a lot of that came from the 19th century character.

Is This Book Worth Reading? Of course. It’s Dracula. Even with some dull parts it’s a great read and a classic.
Will This Book Enhance My Reading of League? Yes, although you should suspend your disbelief when it comes to the contradictions.

For Further Reading: Dracula at Wikisource

Stop #2: Moonchild

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