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Saladin Ahmed's Kickstarter success Dragon connects the past to the present through Dracula
When adversity becomes insurmountable, uneasy alliances can be forged and unify people. While it’s hard to imagine that happening in our current climate, that’s what the story of Saladin Ahmed and Dave Acosta’s first Kickstarter original graphic novel, Dragon, is about: an old fallen Muslim warrior and a young Christian nun setting aside their disagreements and inherited biases during the Ottoman Empire to combat the horrors of Vlad the Impaler, known to many as Dracula
Ahmed won the Eisner for Black Bolt in 2018 and currently writes Miles Morales: Spider-Man and The Magnificent Ms. Marvel, while Acosta’s art is a staple in the horror comics world having drawn Elvira, Swords of Sorrow, and Vessel of Terror. Since announcing their Detroit-based team-up, Dragon blew past its initial $40,000 goal and surpassed $100,000 just 10 days into the campaign.
As the total continues to climb in these final days and hours of the campaign, Ahmed spoke exclusively with SYFY WIRE about the creation of Dragon, circumventing the challenges a pandemic creates, and how to make a Kickstarter a special event.
What’s Dragon about?
Dragon takes place in the 15th century on the edges of the Ottoman Empire during the lifetime of the historical Vlad the Impaler, who in our story is in fact, the monster Dracula. People have this false sense of past times, especially in the medieval era. They think of diversity and cross-cultural connection as something that’s very modern, but in fact, humans have been doing this forever. The Middle Ages and the Ottoman Empire was a fascinating mix of different kinds of people living together, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not.
The time and place that the historical Dracula lived in has fascinated me for years. Nobody ever talks about the forest of bodies he put up on spikes is mostly Turkish people. There was this religious and national slant of that conflict, that I’ve taken to a supernatural realm that we can appropriately associate with Dracula.
At the root of Dragon is a fascinating partnership. How did you come to this highly unusual pairing?
For me, that world where different kinds of people having to work and live together is the world we live in. I’m always going to be interested in those types of conflicts and relationships, whatever time period it is. I will always be attracted to mismatched duos. It’s a classic trope in genre fiction.
So I latched onto a having one Christian and one Muslim; one male and one female; and just different personalities types, different approaches to faith, to duty at very different places in their lives that are united in this quest against something that threatens what’s dear to both of them.
Faith is such a strong part of who these characters are, but faith in one’s religion — in this time without certain modern wisdoms — meant something more, didn’t it?
Dragon definitely takes place in a world where God is a real thing. It’s a very theistic universe and that to me is about capturing the mentality of the people at the time. That said, people had a vastly set of approaches on how they handled faith. Adil is a much more cynical, skeptical guy and Marjorie is very zealous and sure of her faith. They both live in a world of belief, but they do it very differently.
What fascinates me about looking up previous eras is that there’s both this radical difference and radical sameness. When you see some of the propaganda that people say about each other in that time period, it looks a lot like the propaganda said today. You have people worrying about a world gone mad, it feels a lot like reading it today. It’s about honoring those differences in history but also drawing the connections.
What is about this historically grounded version of Dracula/Vlad that attracted you?
This is very much a book inspired history but not bound by it. So there are a lot of liberties taken intentionally. For those who will claim I am wrong, I know this happened in this year instead of this, and I know these characters never met, and I take massive liberty with Dracula of course.
Even in the verse of the modern Dracula story, he’s a sort of misunderstood prince, sexy anti-hero. There’s none of that in this. He’s not human in our story. The title, "Dragon," evokes the fact that Dracula is a monster. For much of the book, you don't see what he looks like, because to me, monsters are scarier when they’re glimpsed. He’s more this force of “un-nature” you could say, more so than a human individual. I have a lot of fun playing with that pure terrifying monstrosity.
Could you tell me a bit about your decision to crowdsource?
This was a project that felt like a unique story in terms of me wanting creative control and also this felt like it was calling out to be presented in a physical way. I’ve always wanted to produce a beautiful, physically big book. That’s not the easiest thing to do with a publisher right now because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, which has made getting comics to readers more complicated. Everyone is finding new ways to live right now. It seems to be working.
Because you hit your goal so soon, so early, everything else seems like gravy. Do you feel compelled to elevate the packaging and presentation?
Rather than telling people for $20k you get a ribbon, and pledge another $20k you get a slipcase, we were going to look at the [total] pot of money we get and make the best possible physical hardcover, given that. I’ve posted some minimum specifications in terms of the page count (at least 168 pages), but it’s not definitive, to plan with maximum flexibility. Every bit of money that we make allows us to make a more lux product, but I think it’s going to be stunning when they get it in their hands.
You also chose not to make this available in a digital format, so backers must wait until it is complete and shipped (approximately June 2021), which builds the anticipation, doesn’t it?
The first folks that read this will be the folks who backed us this past month and will get this physical thing to read next year. It’s like releasing your film in theaters on a big screen because it was made to be seen on a big screen.
That said, issues of accessibility and affordability matter to me. Somewhere down the line, I can imagine Dragon being made available in other formats, but right now, this is a special event and people can be a part of it.
This is an opportunity for Dave and I, as co-creators, to have control in the how and when. We have a way that we'd really like people to experience this and hope as many people as possible will Then we’ll see what happens after this.
How did Dave get involved?
We worked on a previous pitch for a science fiction comic that never went anywhere but his work on that was exceptional and I knew I must work with him. He’s a horror guy and we have similar sensibilities about certain things. So when I started to conceive Dragon, it had to be with Dave and once he went to it, it’s even better than I thought it’d be.
You added Nate Cosby as an editor, Chris O’Halloran’s colors, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s logo and letters. What did these co-collaborators add?
Nate suggested Chris, as we worked together at Marvel, and I agreed that he was perfect. This is not a superhero book in its colors, it demands a range of muted, spooky, atmospheric tones and other times these garish, almost Italian horror-movie-poster style.
I had never worked with Hassan before, but he interviewed me about Black Bolt for his magazine, PanelxPanel. He was the perfect person to go to for design as well as lettering. It’s going to be a cool looking book.
What have you learned about yourself and in the response to writing marginalized characters, at least in comics, such as Miles Morales, Kamala Khan, and Elena Abbott?
One of the saddest things about COVID for me is not to get that energy in person. It can feel silly what we do, telling stories about monsters and superheroes and looking at pictures someone drew of your stories, but being reminded how much the connection with those stories matters to all sorts of different kinds of people and being able to expand the people who feel like those stories are speaking to them, is a big deal to me.
Has living in a pandemic affected you and creating art?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m always writing about the world around us. That hasn’t really changed, but I will say it’s funny to see the stuff you write from before and how it becomes newly relevant. We’ve got some stuff with Miles Morales and Ms. Marvel and looking at these scripts thinking, "Oh, people are going to think we wrote about what’s happening in our world now, when it was written six months ago."
What’s your immediate reaction to being fully funded so quickly?
It’s been stunning! It’s a huge gamble whenever you go a non-traditional route with publishing, but for a number of reasons, it felt like the right home, the right way to get this out to people. I sat there and watched [the launch], terrified, but the response has been overwhelmingly supportive. I’m sort of still in shock here.
The Dragon Kickstarter ends on Aug. 6, 2020, at 2 p.m. PDT.