Bela Lugosi was not only famous during his heyday as Dracula and a variety of other “creatures of the night”, but he also gained a second life through Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic (which won Martin Landau an Oscar for his portrayal of the late star) and a number of biographies that followed.
Koren Shadmi is the latest artist/writer to tackle the life and times of the man who will forever be associated with his role as the Count in a new graphic novel from Humanoids called Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula. We got a chance to speak to Shadmi about Lugosi’s legacy and what aspects he found most engaging about the former Universal Pictures star.
What made you decide to focus on the life of Bela Lugosi in your new graphic novel?
Koren Shadmi: Lugosi was on my shortlist of possible book subjects for awhile. I think around five or six years ago I was on a trip upstate with my wife and we were listening to a history podcast, there were two episodes about Lugosi, I think she fell asleep – but I was totally fascinated by his rollercoaster of a life. He can easily compete with Count Dracula himself for dramatic life story. I tried to bring forth his unique personality, he was a very romantic person, very emotional but also had many demons he was grappling with. If Rod Serling felt alienated from the world by his war experiences, Lugosi was alienated from the fact that he was a Hungarian immigrant with a heavy accent. They were very different people but there’s a lot of similarities, both of them were embraced by Hollywood and then eventually rejected.
What are your first memories of seeing Lugosi?
Shadmi: To be perfectly honest, I did not grow up watching any of the old universal movies. I’m originally from Israel, and it was kind of hard to come by those movies, they never ran on TV and were rarely in theaters. In my early teens I started watching some horror flicks but it was more like Dario Argento and Mario Bava. My only exposure to Lugosi was through listening to Bauhaus’ ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ and seeing it in The Hunger. While working on this book I dove deeply into the “golden age of horror” area of the 30’s and 40’s, and I was not disappointed.
How much research went into The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula? Was there something that particularly surprised you?
Shadmi: There was quite a bit of research; I read several biographies and every interview and article I could get my hands on. I was really surprised by Lugosi’s freewheeling lifestyle, he really lived for the day and never thought of tomorrow. That kind of lifestyle is so foreign to me, I’m always so cautious with everything from my spending to my alcohol intake. I think if Lugosi ever met me at a party he would probably think that I was quite a ‘wet blanket.’ I think Lugosi’s wild lifestyle was also his downfall, when he ran out of money and got hooked on drugs; it just so sad to see someone who is a legend, forgotten by his industry.
What aspect of Lugosi’s childhood had the biggest impact on him later in life?
Shadmi: His childhood is a bit hazy in the biographies. There’s contradicting accounts since he liked to embellish and change his stories, and I hint to that in the book. It seems like there was a lot of resistance from his family to him being an actor, and he clashed with his dad a lot, and I think that in his case the rebellion against his parents produced a sort of fuel and ambition.
There have been many stories and rumors over the years about why Lugosi was not cast in Frankenstein. Do you think it was primarily James Whale’s choice?
Yes, It was Whale’s choice as far as I could tell. Originally Lugosi was cast to play the monster under the direction of Robert Florey, but then the studios switched directors. Whale thought that Lugosi was wrong for the role, he wanted someone that could make the audience feel for the monster. So he brought on Karloff. Lugosi was pissed about it, even though he also thought the role was beneath him; he was a very contradictory guy.
Which of Lugosi’s films did you have the most fun illustrating?
Shadmi: I love The Black Cat, it’s the ultimate Lugosi / Karloff showdown, and it’s very beautiful visually with these amazing art deco sets and outfits. Lugosi definitely wins this one, he gives his usual over the top performance compared to Karloff. Highly recommended. All this was a ton of fun to draw.
Which film do you feel is the most underrated that Lugosi starred in?
Shadmi: The Island of Lost Souls is pretty amazing. Lugosi has a small role in it, but he does a fantastic job, and the film is really well crafted and has an eerie, disturbing atmosphere. I really feel like it’s the best film version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Much better than that awful 90’s Val Kilmer film.
What was it like working with Humanoids on the final product?
Shadmi: Humanoids did a great job with helping me produce both books; they are the ultimate combination of American comics making ethics with European production standards. They were very happy to see a book that was in the same general world of Hollywood legends.
Shadmi: I’m finishing up another non-fiction biography about the origin of video games. The project was written by David Kushner and drawn by me. It details the lives of Nolan Bushnell (creator of Atari) and Ralph Baer, the unsung ‘king’ of video games. They had a sort of feud going on between them throughout the 70’s; it’s a fun story. The book should be out in 2022 from Bold Type Books.
Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula will be published by Humanoids and will be available in finer comic book shops and bookstores on September 28.