The subject of today’s review is an interesting comic curio: a modern-day retelling of F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu, by writer Christopher Howard Wolf and artist Justin Wayne. The graphic novel from Viper Comics, now available to buy on Amazon, is unusual in that it’s essentially a reimagining of a reimagining.
The original film Nosferatu was a thinly-veiled adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with the German filmmakers unable to acquire the rights to the novel. And so Count Dracula became Count Orlok – the hideous, bald creature brought to life in iconic fashion by Max Schreck – and various other key characters were renamed and slightly altered. So when the Nosferatu graphic novel in turn renames and slightly alters the key characters from the F.W. Murnau film, we have a case of the Dracula cast filtered by three degrees of seperation.
Intriguingly, this version of Nosferatu draws inspiration from both the film its based on and the Bram Stoker source material that may be called its “grandfather”. The general plot of the comic is structured in a way that far more closely resembles Nosferatu than Dracula (though given that many subsequent filmic incarnations of Dracula would draw heavy influence from Nosferatu, that might be unclear to those unfamiliar with the original novel – for example, Nosferatu, not Dracula, introduced the idea of the vampire being killed by sunlight, with Bram Stoker’s Dracula able to happily walk about during the daytime), with a surprising amount of the key story beats kept intact even with the surface details radically altered. Justin Wayne also manages to carry over much of the iconic imagery from the film, such as Max Schreck’s unnerving appearance as Count Orlok, and the famous “shadow against the stairway” moment.
But Christopher Wolf cleverly works in the “diary extract” narrative device of the novel, using extracts from an autobiography and e-mail exchanges as captions to frame much of the action. And while the character of Bullner might share a name with his Nosferatu counterpart, putting him in the position of a federal agent obsessed with hunting down Orlok and giving him a more active role in the story’s climax makes him seem a lot less like the passive professor who played a mere bit-part role in the F.W. Murnau film, and a lot more like vampire hunter Abraham van Helsing, Dracula’s nemesis in the Bram Stoker novel.
The most obvious shift in dynamic for this modern-day version of the story is that married couple Thomas and Ellen Hutter turn into goth-chick lesbian couple Tommy and Elle. Tommy is an up-and-coming photographer, with Elle her model muse. One of the biggest strengths of the graphic novel is the believable relationship between these two characters, and their respective nuanced characterisations, aided by Wolf’s ear for snappy, naturalistic dialogue. Even amongst established comic book A-listers such dialogue isn’t always easy to find, so it’s always a treat when coming across a comic writer who has such a knack for it.
Another one of the highlights of the graphic novel is the portrayal of Orlok’s crazed lackey, Nox. While in terms of the broad strokes, he follows the same trajectory of the Knock character from the original film, Wolf takes relish in fleshing him out, giving him more acts of bloody depravity to engage in, and giving him a killer wit and a fair share of mean-spirited monlogues.
With all this talk of snappy wit and quick-fire dialogue, I think it’s clear this graphic novel is not intending to be a straight horror. As Wolf himself states in his introduction, the story is very much a tongue-in-cheek take on how a classic horror might be giving the Hollywood remake treatment. And he is ably assisted in this goal by the art of Justin Wayne. Falling just on the right side of cartoony, with a real knack for expressive faces, Wayne is crucial in establishing the mood of the comic. He’s helped in this regard by the crisp and vibrant colors of Sal N., aka The Darkcloak.
With every medium of entertainment seemingly in vampire overload, and with the glut of remakes and retellings removing any sense of dread or mystery from the Dracula tale, you might think that the last thing you want to read is a Nosferatu graphic novel. Fair enough. But if you can overcome any such hesitation and give this a try, I believe you’ll find an enjoyable story with more than enough charm and originality to make it stand out from its well-worn source material(s) and the countless other adaptations.