"Blacula: Return of the King" Graphic Novel Review
Written by Ricardo Serrano Denis
Published by Zombie Love Studios
Written by Rodney Barnes
Illustrated by Jason Shawn Alexander
Lettered by Marshall Dillon
January 31, 2023, 128 pages
Horror has a history of monsters audiences end up rooting for despite their bloodthirsty ways. Fans of Freddy love the killer’s dark humor and slapstick-like murder scenes (especially from part 2 onwards), fans of Michael Myers cheer whenever an obnoxious teenager gets the knife, and fans of Leatherface relish every opportunity to see the sadistic cannibal fashion another mask out of someone else’s face.
Fans of Blacula relate to their monster differently. Played by William Marshall, Prince Mamuwalde became a Black horror icon the moment the movie Blacula premiered in 1972. The reason? His rage and his hunger were justified, though not in every single kill. The movie opens with Mamuwalde seeking the help of Count Dracula to suppress slave trading by the Europeans. He’s betrayed almost immediately, trapped in a coffin underneath the vampire’s castle, and made aware of his wife’s cruel fate all while being powerless to stop it.
Rodney Barnes and Jason Shawn Alexander find the drive behind their take on Prince Mamuwalde in that betrayal, giving readers a vampire worth rooting for in their graphic novel Blacula: Return of the King. The book is a direct continuation of the titular vamp’s story with a few surprises up its sleeves regarding the possibility of a shared universe with the creative team’s other vampire comic Killadelphia.
Return of the King sees Blacula coming back to Los Angeles, a city with a problem the prince had a hand in. This version of LA, though, is darker than the one in the 1972 film. Whereas the original felt like a violent and unfair place, this one feels like a city that’s about to explode. We get a sense of this through a blogger called Tina Thomas that is searching for the truth behind the vampire problem and a kid called Kross that’s hunting down the fabled Blacula for altering the course of his family’s life for all eternity.
Barnes’ script is unafraid to tie into the two Blacula movies in existence, though not to the point of turning them into the price of admission for the comic. Those new to Blacula get brief glimpses into past events designed to place them in the story quickly, allowing for this new chapter to stand on its own regardless of the reader’s starting point with the character.
What makes the story fly in its own airspace, though, is how topical it is. Mamuwalde’s return is firmly set in America’s recent incarnations of racial tension and police violence. Urban neglect and marginalization are ever present forces pushing against Blacula’s worldview. He pays it back in kind, stepping into situations that offer a brutal sense of catharsis that’s both refreshing and confrontational. This can best be seen in a sequence that pits the vampire against a few police officers that lead with guns instead of words. It turns bloody quickly, but not gratuitously. There’s meaning behind the violence and it fosters thought.
Jason Shawn Alexander’s art accentuates this with a sense of ferocity that carries throughout. Blacula is portrayed as a supremely powerful being who carries a history of injustices on his very body. Alexander draws Mamuwalde like the very personification of a reckoning, primed and ready to get his point across in blood.
The same goes for the story’s villain, the original Dracula. Without spoiling much, it bears mentioning that this version of the classic vampire also benefits from a topical treatment that frames current race relations within the sphere of privilege and abuse. Barnes writes him with sinister and malicious intent while Alexander draws him as an evil presence that entertains the idea of hubris as a strength rather than a weakness. It’s an impressive take on the legendary monster and it makes the story feel much more urgent.
As stated earlier, Return of the King flirts with the idea of a shared universe with Killadelphia, though not in the traditional comics crossover way. The appearance of certain characters suggests Blacula could make his way to Philadelphia if there’s a story for it. Barnes and Alexander open a door to it, savoring the possibilities rather than outright confirming anything. It’s a clever tease that I hope becomes a reality.
The horror comic to beat this year is Blacula: Return of the King. Barnes and Alexander breathe new life into the iconic black vampire and lay the groundwork for future stories. Their Mamuwalde is a reactive force of violence that uses the same cruel language that the world's been using in recent years to identify who and what deserves to be relieved of their blood. It’s perhaps the most important horror story currently on the stands.
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