'Sword of Dracula' creator Jason Henderson is taking over the (fantasy) world
Listen. The only thing you'll ever really need to know about Jason Henderson is that one of his daughter's first words was "Dracula." If you wanted to sum the guy up in one concise anecdote, you'd be hard pressed to uncover anything more revealing (and, let's face it, cute) than that little item. Wee Julia Sophia is 3 now, however, and has presumably moved on to bigger, badder words such as "lycanthrope," "exsanguinate," and the ever-popular crib mantra "the horror, the horror," but those first cooing gurgles, so similar to the soft, intimate sounds of vampiric feeding, were then and certainly remain now a highlight of Henderson's freshly minted parenthood. (What mom Julia thought of her child's first proper noun remains, perhaps for the best, unknown.)
Of course, there's more to the story of Jason Henderson than Hammer Films baby talk. And recently there's been a lot more. In a town renowned for its love of fantasy, be it cinematic, literary, video games, or, more to the point, comic books, Jason Henderson is a bona fide hat trick, a published novelist (five and counting) who has also written scripts for several of the most popular video games ever released, and who in the past several years has branched out into the ne plus ultra of Tarantino-esque cool: yes, penning his own sprawling comic book series.
Austin has more than its share of comic artists and writers (and inkers, letterers, and colorists) just swing by Austin Books' 51st and Lamar location and ask to see the "locals" section if you don't believe us but Henderson is something of a maverick's maverick: In just over a year, his Sword of Dracula, from Image Comics, has published six issues, become a critical and popular fan favorite, and been optioned for both film and video games. Then there are the two other titles he's also working on: the moody New Orleans ghost story Soulcatcher (actually his first foray into the field and soon to be a trade paperback), and the more recent Sylvia Faust, a "weird romance" that takes place at the Apocalypse Drafthouse Theater and features a dashing young film geek named Tim. Now where have we heard that before?
Actually, if you've spent any serious amount of time at Tim and Karrie League's Alamo Drafthouse Theatre Downtown, then you're probably already familiar with the back of Jason Henderson's head (conversely, he may well have studied yours in great detail as well). Not content to be merely a regular patron, he took over the Alamo for an evening of Dracula films the highlight of which was a short, animated trailer for his forthcoming book to promote the October 2003 launch of Sword of Dracula.
Which leads us to another notable item in the Henderson files: When it comes to promoting his own work (not to mention the work of the various artists that he works with), he makes Robert Rodriguez look like a piker. And we mean that in the best possible sense. In the permanently glutted world of independent comic books, where titles jostle for the meager amount of available shelf space like rats aboard The Demeter, having a clear sense of self-marketing is nearly as important as having a finished product to market. You might well have the greatest comic since, say, Marv Wolfman by Night on your hands, but if you can't get the consumer to notice it, your career might as well be as dead as Marley's ghost.
Suffice it to say, Henderson, along with a coterie of talented artists, has become that rarest of comic book phenomena, the legendary "overnight sensation," and is poised to become such in the realms of video games and film. Flavor of the month? Hardly, but if he were, it'd be O+.
You can blame a lot of things on a Catholic education especially if you're a writer but Henderson's stint at the private Catholic college the University of Dallas did more good than harm, the obverse of the traditional Sister Immaculata and the hickory-switch-on-the-knuckles gig.
"I was raised Baptist," explains native Texan Henderson, "but what I loved about UD was that they were really hard thinkers, intellectual Catholics, and so you were required to take these Western Traditions courses that were all about the development of Christianity and the birth of Western civilization. Really, really stringent writing requirements. My thesis? 'Quaker Abolitionism in 17th-Century America.'"
Within such winnowing and formative educational backgrounds are great minds forged, and even after a cursory chat with Henderson, it's obvious this strikingly genial blond guy with the piercing blue eyes could run mental rings around most of what passes for genre writing these days. (Our dream Jeopardy episode: Henderson, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman. We'll take "Too Goddamn Smart for Comics" for $100, Alex.)
We're sitting in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel beside the Congress Avenue Bridge-cum-bat-sanctuary, it should be mentioned, at the very table where, just shy of four years ago, a chain-smoking, coffee-addicted Henderson would sit and work and watch and wait. By that time, Henderson had a series of novels in his back pocket one of which was a sequel to Shakespeare's Macbeth and had done time as a travel writer in between various and other sundry in-between jobs. But it was always comics that were closest to his heart. You know ... like a stake.
"The first time I heard of the Nephilim," Henderson says, referring to a little-known-outside-of-goth-clubs biblical legend that would later serve as the basis for Sword of Dracula, "came from some insane rambling from Dr. Gene Scott, who used to be on television in the middle of the night in Texas. And then while I was studying Western Traditions at UD, I was looking at a discussion of Genesis and there's this weird little moment in Genesis where they talk about 'the sons of God.' It's very vague, but there's a suggestion that the sons of God consorted with human females and thence on Earth giants were born, and then that was apparently the straw that broke the camel's back and caused God to say, 'Screw it, I'm flooding the whole world and starting over.'
"What most people would say was that was the co-opting of an old legend of giants or demigods and bringing it into the Genesis story. A fundamentalist would say that it was simply a misreading and that the 'sons of God' refers to kings of man. A science fiction writer would say that whichever makes the coolest story is the one that I'm going to go with.
"The idea that vampires came out of all this was something that I came up with, the tying in vampirism to the fallen angels," Henderson continues. "Although people had made suggestions along those lines before. There's a lot of really, really bad scholarship out there that you can use when you're coming up with how to write your horror story. The funny thing is that as a guy with good historical training, I read a lot of stuff and find it to be just terrible scholarship, but if I can find it to be interesting and if I can find some basis for that theory in a primary text, then I might go ahead and use it."
Such are the inner workings of the artistic mind. Did we mention he has a law degree?
The Fearless Comic Book Writer, Or, Is That a Fully Developed Character Arc in Your Pocket or Are You Just Happy to See Me?
Like a lot of comic book and genre writers, Henderson spent vast chunks of his youth lost in the myriad universes of Stan Lee's Marvel Comics. For Henderson, though, it wasn't the slam-bang action that stoked his 12-cylinder imagination, but the sheer interconnectedness of the Marvel Universe itself.
"Generally I was reading the most poppy, soapy, long-running superhero stuff you could get," he says. "Clairmont's X-Men, especially, because he was shameless in terms of throwing in any tiny little subplot he could wedge into the main storyline. And, honestly, the people in pop culture who are most like those that read the X-Men are those who watch Days of Our Lives, because the two have so much in common in the sense that everybody's connected to somebody else. It would reward you for being a constant reader with little asides and very complicated overarching storylines and then your reward for paying attention to the whole, extended soap opera was a giddy sort of excitement on the part of the reader when they made one of those connections.
"In my own work I always take any opportunity to throw something like that in, because it gives the reader the idea that there's a greater world than what's on any particular page. That notion that the world of the work is very, very large and wide is immensely satisfying, especially to kids."
That sense of interconnectivity that there is a broader, more complex world existing concurrently to whatever a given comic book character happens to be doing in any particular panel, would ultimately find its best and most detailed expression in Henderson's Sword of Dracula series. But before that could happen, the author had to make the legendarily difficult leap into writing something anything for the medium. Comic book writers aren't born; they're inducted into the club, so to speak, and, as in so many other professions (most obviously film), publishers want to know what your résumé looks like what you've done before in the medium that might make them want to take a chance on you, Joe Schmo. It's the same old catch-22 of not being able to get work without previous experience, and not being able to accrue that experience without first getting some work.
"To be fair, it wasn't a case of 'Let's ignore Jason,'" explains Henderson. "They ignore everybody. There are only so many slots to fill in the business, and there's so many good people already in it, that breaking in is next to impossible. Everybody has a different story, but mine was that I came across the publisher of the horror outfit Moonstone Comics and I said, 'Hey, man, I'd love to write for Kolchak: The Night Stalker,' and he said, 'Yeah, you and everybody else.' So, I told him I knew a lot about vampires, had written games and novels and was a professional writer, so maybe I could write for their Vampire: The Masquerade book. He said no way to that, too, so finally I pitched him a story about Chinese vampires, because I knew a lot about them, and that, finally, got him intrigued. I pitched him a Chinese vampire story and that, ultimately, was how I got my foot in the door. By getting through two 'nos' to a 'yes.'"
From there on out it was semismooth sailing. Henderson pitched the same company, Moonstone, the idea for a series set in New Orleans and featuring a female protagonist who would help the restless spirits of that famously spooky city find solace and peace: Soulcatcher.
"I got a team together including penciller Lou Manna, who was an artist for Marvel, inker Terry Pallot, who had been a Star Trek artist, and Leslie Barkley, a brilliant colorist who was even more of a newcomer than me. And we put it together. It took a long time to finish, actually, and in the end only the first issue ever came out. But then I used the fact that Soulcatcher was in development to launch Sword of Dracula."
For the laypeople in the audience, that's generally how a comic book comes into being: through the hard work of a team of people working, if not side by side (other than himself, none of Henderson's crew live in Austin), then at least in concert, furiously writing, inking, faxing, and FedExing back and forth and across the Net, trading ideas, sketches, and rewrites until completion. For Henderson, who might just as well have a "Born to Delegate" tattoo inked across his bicep, that initial experience was exhilarating. But it was nothing compared to the creation of Sword of Dracula.
Full Metal Jugular
"Sword of Dracula was born right here in the Hyatt Regency at this very table," says Henderson with a grin. Oddly, there are no scorch marks atop the wood to denote the occasion.
He continues: "A friend of mine asked me why I hadn't ever done a Dracula story, and I had no answer. I loved Dracula, I was incredibly geeky about Dracula and knew the history of both the real Dracula and Bram Stoker's literary character inside and out, but I hadn't thought of a story that would be worth the time. You really need a story that would be new and different and utterly original, because the character had been done to death in virtually all media already.
"So I was sitting here in the atrium of the Hyatt, musing on Dracula, and then the Nephilim story came to mind, about the fallen angels, and I stood up, walked across the atrium to the porch overlooking Town Lake, pulled out my cell phone, and called my manager, Noelle Wright, in Los Angeles. I said, 'It's called Sword of Dracula and the lead character has to team up with Dracula to defeat an onslaught from the fallen angels from Genesis.' And her reaction was, like, 'Um, whatever. Send me pages. Go, man.'"
The series which again features a strong female protagonist in the form of vampire hunter Ronnie Van Helsing of the Polidorium Group is absolutely riveting, part Apocalypse Now, part Nietzschean übermensch riff, part Dracula-as-anti-life-force, and all punch, no sucka. The thus-far six-issue series (which will be coming out this February in a trade paperback edition from IDW Publishing) surges forward along dramatic ley lines buoyed by a revolving door of artists, including the stark expressionistic lines of Greg Scott, William Belk's more traditionally comic-bookish images, and Terry Pallot's detail-heavy chiaroscuristic inks.
It's Henderson's huge, militaristic storyline that anchors the whole shebang-pow-whoomph!
"Sword of Dracula is the character writ large," Henderson says, "on a grand scale, without the drawing room theatrics that are more commonly associated with the character. It's a big, Jerry Bruckheimer version of Dracula, the James Cameron version. It's Black Hawk Down meets Dracula.
"It's so funny how it all began to fall into place so quickly. I began writing the script and the first line was 'We open on a pair of binoculars on a hill.' I think I was writing it so fast because I was afraid that if I didn't get it down right away it might vanish from my head.
"I knew this was going to be my one shot at launching my comic book career. I'd published novels, written hit games, but nobody knew my name, nobody knew Greg Scott, we were all more or less beginning here, but one thing we all had in common was that we really, truly loved this project."
Girls, Girls, Girls (and Other Metaphysical Conundrums)
Henderson's third project, and the one he describes as being his most personal, is also his newest: Sylvia Faust. The story of a cute-as-a-rain-of-frogs rogue witch with a mysterious past and an even more mysterious future marks three for three when it comes to the author's penchant for strong female leads. And we're not talking the kind of obsessive fanboy females who tend to wear spandex in all the right places, either.
Says manager Wright, "That's absolutely something that attracted me to him, this sort of innate ability to craft nonstereotypical female characters that you see throughout his body of work. They're all unique and different from each other, and yet he doesn't fall into that sort of generic, buxom female heroine zone. It's smart stuff."
When we posed Henderson the question as to why a nice boy like him had such a way with the ladies, he seemed momentary flummoxed.
"I'm not sure why I keep writing female leads. Mainly I want to write characters that I'd fall in love with. So part of it is that a female character is a lot more fun to look at and enjoy as a heterosexual male, but that's too simple an answer. In Soulcatcher, the female lead is clearly a girl like the type I would fall in love with and is in many ways based on an editor I once knew who was brilliant and athletic and smart. With Sylvia Faust, she's more of a character that I would think of as my daughter or my little sister. And with Sword of Dracula, the character of Ronnie Van Helsing is purely cinematic and action-babe oriented.
"My wife would tell you that they're all girls that I'd end up asking out. And not being particularly introspective I'll leave it at that."
Any way you look at it, though, it's as clear as an icicle in the eye that Henderson has struck pay dirt with his nascent comic book career, and faster than anyone, most of all himself, expected. That's evidenced most by the fact that Sword of Dracula had its film rights optioned around Christmas of 2003 by Chuck (Die Hard) Gordon and Adrian (Spy Hunter) Askarieh. The option has since lapsed, notes Henderson. "Projects with the word 'Dracula' in them were basically put on hold the moment Van Helsing didn't do well. Think of that: Van Helsing is a cheesy period piece and we're Black Hawk Down with vampires. I created Sword of Dracula to be the antidote to movies like Van Helsing! The funny thing is that it means the project is back with me and my manager just as the mass-market paperback comes out this month from IDW Publishing."
Such is development hell. Not to worry, though. Local gaming outfit Critical Mass Interactive is currently developing Sword of Dracula as a first-person-exsanguinator video game, which is fitting considering Henderson's precomics work scripting for such video game all-stars as Command and Conquer. Currently in the developing-the-playable-demo phase, CMI and Henderson hope to have a finished demo ready to go for this year's Game Development Conference. Expect explosions galore, and anthropomorphic blood-demons (now there's a Burger King tie-in you can really sink your teeth into!).
For what its worth (and fans of Marvel's old Tomb of Dracula, like us, know it's worth a lot), Henderson has accomplished something even more remarkable than getting his own comic book off the ground and into the stores: He's added one more layer to the ever-evolving mythos of Dracula. It's remarkably tough to come up with anything new to say about the immortal one. Even the great John Carpenter muffed it with Vampires, and Hammer Studios long ago nailed their coffin shut, and so the fact that Henderson's riveting militaristic riffing on the ancient bloodsucker comes across as fresh as a newly tapped vein is, in a word, improbably delicious.
"The best part of this whole ride," Henderson says, "has been seeing what teams of artists and writers can do. Seeing Greg Scott do the best work of his career and then go and make ridiculous amounts of money and adulation on other projects elsewhere. Seeing William Belk do the best work of his career. And seeing these people not only do great work but also making my work better than I had originally envisioned. You realize that this is a whole, complete production, and that's something I never got to experience before. I got the privilege of leading these teams and that was very, very cool."
Carpe Noctem, baby.