“If there was ever in the world a warranted and proven history, it is that of vampires–the evidence is all embracing.” —Jean Jacque Rousseau
In the lexicon of vampire characters, there are surprisingly few who have transcended the works in which they originally appeared to become icons. Only two names are genuinely recognizable and both are archetypes: Count Dracula and Nosferatu. That shouldn’t be surprising since the two characters started out as one in the same.
Although modeled on Dracula in behavior, Baron Graf Orlock, the Nosferatu (which means plague-bringer in Greek…the word is only mentioned once in the novel Dracula as a generic term for vampires), was much more monstrous in appearance.
The Count Dracula of Bram Stoker’s book was far removed from the debonair nobleman as portrayed by Bela Lugosi, but he was still recognizably human, apparently even cooking meals for Jonathan Harker.
In stark contrast, Orlock was an inhuman monster and became the direct template for another vampire type. Dracula and Orlock provided the pattern for almost all portrayals of the undead in the 20th century. In fact, Orlock might even be a tad more influential.
The concept that sunlight destroys a vampire first appeared in the film, Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Garuens ( A Symphony of Shudders) and that was picked up by the generations of writers and film-makers who followed. n the original novel, Dracula’s supernatural powers are limited by daylight, but the sun is not deadly to him. Orlock was a completely nocturnal creature.
The director of Nosferatu, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, wanted to film Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, but he didn’t want to pay Stoker’s widow for the privilege. Hoping to avoid charges of copyright infringement, he changed all the character and place names: Harker became Hutter, Count Dracula became Baron Orlock, London became Bremen and so on.
Unfortunately for Murnau, his changes weren’t enough to satisfy or fool Mrs. Stoker. She won a judgment against Murnau in international court. All copies of the film were ordered destroyed, but the master prints remained intact.
Although more polished productions dealing with vampires were made around the same time (such as Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr), Nosferatu still had a uniquely primal quality that was never duplicated. It continues to have, as one reviewer put it, to evoke “a chilly draft from doomsday.”
The film lay largely forgotten until new prints were struck from the master in the early 1960s but its rediscovery lay primarily with film students and children.
If you were a child in the 1960s, you were surrounded by monsters and monster imagery—Shock Theater, Creature Feature, monster comic books, magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, Monster World, Castle of Frankenstein as well as TV shows such as The Munsters and Dark Shadows.
When I first came across a picture of Orlock in the back pages of Famous Monsters I had no idea he was linked to Dracula…all I knew was that he didn’t look like any other picture of cinematic vampires I’d come across.
I think it was in this issue:
As portrayed by German actor Max Schreck, Orlock remains one of the most frightening visuals in horror movie history. I was revolted, yet fascinated. There was nothing of the European nobleman about him.
It wasn’t until much later when I saw the complete film that I realized Graf Orlock was characterized as a folkloric vampire…a hellish creature not remotely human or romanticized in any way. He slept in soil infected with the bubonic plague. Death, disease and horror followed in his wake. Rats were his servants.
Despite his iconic appearance, the Nosferatu version of the vampire wasn’t popular with most film-makers of the time. In pop culture, the most terrifying quality of the vampire became their appearance of humanity except for pale skin and maybe a pair of extended canines. An opera cloak was optional.
An Orlock-like vampire didn’t appear on screen again until the late 70s, in a made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. Remaking Barlow, the master vampire, into an Orlock lookalike (or was he indeed Orlock?) was a divergence from the book, but it made the scene where he first appeared the most memorable of the entire production.
Around the same time came Nosferatu: The Vampyre, starring Klaus Kinski in the title role.
Although patterned on the original silent version, the film used the names of the characters in Stoker’s novel.
By the early 1990s, with the world-wide popularity of Anne Rice’s Lestat novels, vampires had been recast as tortured Byronic heroes. They were no longer corpses bloated with the blood of innocents who lived in filth, but elegant, misunderstood predators who often gnashed their fangs in angst before they fed on their latest victim.
At that point in time, I was the editor and main idea-man of Millennium Publications. I knew that the company should produce a vampire comic of some sort.
Millennium was enjoying a great deal of success with our comic series based Doc Savage, The Wild Wild West and HP Lovecraft.
Innovation Comics had a hit with their adaptation of The Vampire Lestat and Millennium was adapting Anne Rice’s The Mummy Or Ramses the Damned, but I had no interest in creating a comic about vampires who attended dinner parties or dressed like leather fetishists from Goth clubs.
Nor did I want to revisit Dracula, primarily since Marvel had pretty much covered everything that possibly could be covered with the Count in their long-running Tomb of Dracula and Dracula Lives titles. Once you present Dracula fighting Spider-Man and The X-Men, you know you’ve gone about as far as you should.
Then I remembered Orlock.
Since Orlock had always been viewed as little more than Dracula with a name change, I decided to create a story that established once and for all that they were two separate and distinct characters.
I also wanted to make Orlock something more than a just another bloodsucker. I saw him as a monstrous entity that did not suffer from the same weaknesses as others of his kind—he did not shrink from crucifixes or Holy Water or even silver bullets.
My vision of Graf Orlock was that of a creature of ancient evil who perpetuated himself over the centuries, gaining greater sustenance from man’s cruelty to his own kind than from mere blood. He may have supped on blood, but he feasted on hatred.
When Orlock passes on his undead curse, the physical body changes little but the soul is corrupted.
I retained Orlock’s connection to plague-bearing rats and also gave him an ongoing adversary in the person of Sir William Longsword, but Longsword was not a stand-in for Dr. Van Helsing.
Millennium published the four-issue Nosferatu: Plague of Terror miniseries during 1991-2, using a two-color process to achieve a specific spooky mood.
By going in this direction, the Nosferatu miniseries became one of the most profitable titles the company had ever produced. It was also critically acclaimed…which is always nice. It was even included in J. Gordon Melton’s reference work, The Vampire Gallery.
Now, over 20 years after I first conceived Nosferatu: Plague of Terror, vampires are still popular, although they’ve changed to meet the cultural expectations of a new generation.
The current rule of thumb seems to be that vampires are not inherently evil, they’re just misunderstood victims of circumstance who have no choice but to perform dark deeds in order to survive—much like the angst-riddled boyfriends of dewy-eyed teenaged girls.
I suppose my tastes were fixed by an early exposure to Christopher Lee and Bram Stoker’s original novel, but I’ve never been a proponent of humanizing supernatural monsters. Seems to me that it dilutes the whole purpose, but then again, I’ve never understood why incarcerated serial killers are inundated by marriage proposals, either.
Nosferatu: Plague of Terror is my homage to monsters who really are monsters—my small protest against vampires who hang out at The Gap and go by the starkly undramatic names of “Bill.”
But more than anything Nosferatu: Plague of Terror suggests that you don’t have to be a vampire to be a monster.
The complete Nosferatu: Plague of Terror miniseries is now available as two ebooks for Kindle…we divided the four-issues into two volumes. Books one and two feature artwork by Rik (Captain America) Levins, Richard (New Warriors) Pace, Frank (Nightstalkers) Turner.
The art has been digitally (and beautifully!) enhanced by Millennial Concept Studios. Both books have the great Kindle features like panel zoom and crisp resolution.
Nosferatu:Plague of Terror is the first of many graphic novel ebooks with digitally enhanced artwork produced by Millennial Concepts.
It’s been an ongoing frustration that we’ve had all of these graphic novel and comic assets but finding a viable way to make available them as ebooks—not as downloadable PDFs—hasn’t been easy.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all conversion program…but now that hurdle has been cleared, so there is lots more to come.
Order Nosferatu: Plague of Terror Ebooks One and Two here–
And the trade paperback here: