Friday, January 06, 2023

Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Dracula by Koren Shadmi

There seems to be a decent-sized, and maybe still-growing, sub-genre of graphic novel biographies out there in the world. I've been away from that end of publishing for a while now, so I can't speak authoritatively to the reasons why, but my cynical side thinks they're aimed at the middle-grade need-to-do-a-report crowd, the modern equivalent of heavily illustrated "junior biographies" from my day.

But maybe there's a serious adult market for comics biographies of random people - who knows? The world is big and full of unlikely things. I'm definitely seeing more of them, for whatever reasons.

Such as this random book today: Lugosi: The Rise & Fall of Hollywood's Dracula, from the cartoonist Koren Shadmi. Shadmi is Israeli by birth, and some of his early comics stories were first published in France, but he's now resident in New York and works in English. 

I've seen two very different books by Shadmi before: recently his fictional graphic novel Bionic, and a while back his debut short-story collection In the Flesh. From his website, I see he's got a bunch of other books, roughly mixed between non-fiction and fiction, coming out more-or-less annually for the past decade - Lugosi is his most recent book, published last year.

It's a fairly standard biography in comics form, starting with a loosely related introduction by a vaguely famous person (Joe R. Lansdale, the horror writer) that talks a lot about the subject of the book and very little about Shadmi's work. Shadmi frames Lugosi's story through the lens of a 1955 stint in rehab, near the end of his life, and returns to that frame periodically, mostly for a few panels or a page. I see that structure a lot in non-fiction comics - The Incredible Nellie Bly, where my post hasn't gone live yet, does very much the same thing - but I think it's mostly a fashion or style; it doesn't necessarily add a whole lot to the chronological story to know that the subject eventually got old. At best, it's a dash of pathos when we're reading about an arrogant, womanizing guy who we might not be inclined to like all that much. (And we are doing that here.)

Other that returning to that frame story periodically, to show Lugosi in the grips of delirium tremens for dramatic effect, Shadmi tells Lugosi's life in order, starting off with the usual early material on his youth in Hungary and how he got to America. The bulk of the book covers his American career, starting with the Dracula play in New York in 1927, when Lugosi was already in his mid-forties. The play is a hit, it goes on tour, Lugosi ends up in Hollywood, he stars in the film version - and his career is launched. From there, the book is a sequence of this movie and that one, feuding with Boris Karloff, and so on, with a few highs and a whole lot of mediums to lows. But Lugosi mostly kept working, and he made a lot of money for a while, so it's hard to feel too bad for him when he cheats on yet another wife and runs through all of his money again.

Speaking of which, Lugosi was married and divorced four times - I don't remember if the book gets into #3 much; there's several decades of turmoil in his private life to get through here - and clearly was chasing a lot of other women for a long, long time. The book mentions the chasing without dramatizing much of it, besides the reason for one of his divorces, but the reader gets the sense that Lugosi was always on the make until nearly the end of his life.

Lugosi does what it aims to do: tell the story of a quirky, interesting life, hitting the moments that the people who really care will want to see - especially covering all of Lugosi's late work with Ed Wood, the often-proclaimed worst filmmaker in the world. Lugosi's life doesn't make much of a story, and it's not really uplifting, since he was a grandiose horndog who mostly made crappy horror movies and died half-forgotten, but Shadmi tells it truly and honestly, which is all anyone can do.

If you want a comics biography of Bela Lugosi, I don't see that you could expect anything more comprehensive, fair, and thoughtful than this one.

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