By Clyde Hall. Both Sons of the Dragon Vlad II Dracul, both heirs to the throne of Wallachia, both held captive by the Ottoman Empire as children after their father refused to support the Ottoman invasion of Transylvania. Both royal hostages, both securing their father’s loyalty while learning the Ottoman way to ensure future Wallachian nobles allied to the Empire. Eleven-year-old Vlad and his younger brother Radu share these legacies and experiences, and each gain valuable insights to the Ottomans. They just come away with very different conclusions.
In The Brothers Dracul #1, writer Cullen Bunn draws on history to explore the relationship between the brothers and dwells within the framework of accepted facts regarding their lives and times. The Ottoman Turks did hold both youths as noble prisoners until they were young men, and they did school them in combat and the ways of the Empire. Radu the Handsome came to appreciate that culture, converted to Islam, and developed a close relationship with Sultan Mehmed II. Vlad never forgot nor forgave his captors, but embraced their warrior training and studied them, noted their tactics, so that one day he could exact his revenge. Which is why it’s always important to positively influence the older heir to the throne, not the junior.
Bunn effectively contrasts the siblings as the narrative opens in 1462, when Vlad is indeed in voivode of Wallachia and at his most powerful waging war on the Ottomans. He also uses flashbacks to their period of captivity, and with both devices establishes a setting of real-world solidity, of an era when drawing the next breath was never assured, especially where title and power were concerned. Of rulers wise enough to understand the benefit of besting a potential enemy by winning hearts and minds, and, failing that, making a charnel house example of their opponent.
Then Bunn does what I love most in horror fiction. Into this realism he places the improbable and fantastic. Naturally in this case, vampires, a subject the Ottomans school their charges in alongside archery and philosophy. Bunn ably merges the historical Vlad with the supernatural elements that immortalized him to the world outside Transylvania. He reveals a Vlad Dracul who was certainly influenced by years spent in Ottoman oppression, but whose personality was already shaped to become a significant warrior and ruler, undead concerns aside.
While the Dracula mythos has gaggles of retellings, Bunn’s approach in the initial issue, setting his narrative as a contrast between the brothers, is unconventional enough to kindle reader interest. The foundations are firmed for what’s to come with little in the way of lurid conflict or gaudy blood-letting. Bunn could easily have opened that vein; his setting is the year when some 250,000 Ottoman warriors were beset by vicious attacks from Vlad’s forces of 30,000. But he refrained, instead relying on scenes of horrific carnage presented in their aftermaths. With many horror fans keen on torture porn, that’s a tempered, admirable writing route to choose, and a testament to Bunn’s scripting chops.
He’s greatly assisted in his undertaking by artist Mirko Colak and colorist Maria Santaolalla, who keep the carnage pragmatic, understated, and never vibrant. Both add strata to the realism and the tone of the story with their lavishly detailed restraint regarding the horrific, but abundant care fashioning period-accurate clothing, architecture, and people. Colak’s skill with facial expression and bearing is second only to his clever panel framing. He illustrates, dialogue unnecessary, a weak leader compared to a willful one, an obdurate child’s incongruity with a more malleable youth.
The first issue is a stark, striking view of brothers caught up in intrigues not of their choosing, on paths that differ as they cope with treading a course without being overtaken, overpowered or overrun. The creative team has expertly shaped a dangerous, complicated natural world for them to survive. My curiosity lies in seeing if the unnatural, undead vampiric world is equally complex as the tale of two brothers continues.
Written by Cullen Bunn.
Art by Mirko Colak.
Colors by Maria Santaolalla.
Letters by Simon Bowland.
7 out of 10
Check out this seven-page preview of ‘The Brothers Dracul’ #1, courtesy of AfterShock Comics!