For one of the most popular comics in Europe — published in multiple countries including Denmark, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Poland, the series is also one of the top-selling titles in its native Italy — Dylan Dog is a title that remains curiously unknown in English-speaking countries, despite two attempts to bring it to American readers and even a movie adaptation starring a former on-screen Superman. So… what is it about this horror comic that’s bewitched Euro audiences while leaving the United States cold?
Debuting in 1986, Dylan Dog was the creation of novelist Tiziano Sclavi and illustrator Claudio Villa; an attempt by Sergio Bonelli Editore to cash in on what he believed was an audience hungry for a horror title. What emerged from that admittedly cynical origin probably wasn’t what they had in mind, nor was it what Sclavi originally pitched. His first take -- which centered around an American P.I. in the Raymond Chandler style -- ended up being radically reworked into a former British cop turned detective closer to Sherlock Holmes, if Holmes had sex, hung out with supernatural creatures and looked significantly more like British actor Rupert Everett.
The Everett likeness isn’t accidental either, really; as Sclavi once explained, he’d specifically told Villa to model the character after Everett in the movie Another Country after being disappointed in the artist’s first design concepts. (He looked, according to the writer, "too much like a Spanish dancer". Draw your own conclusions about what that actually means, and why it might be a bad thing.) It was just one of the unsubtle ways in which Dylan shamelessly references his influences — his name comes from the poet Dylan Thomas, and his home address — 7 Craven Road — is named for Wes Craven, the horror director whose A Nightmare on Elm Street was still fresh in the public consciousness at the time of Dylan’s creation.
Those references lampshade one of the particular appeals of Dylan Dog as a strip — it’s ability to be entirely aware of its own ridiculousness. Not unlike Mike Mignola’s Hellboy — a series it shared a U.S. publisher with, as Dark Horse Comics held the American reprint rights for a period — Dylan Dog is a funny, absurd comic that has fun with the horror genre and refuses to take itself too seriously. Sure, there’s danger and uncertainty around every corner and a prerequisite spooky apocalypse being threatened on a regular basis, but there’s a lightness and humor to everything, with the suitably charming Dylan himself seeming bemused by events, no matter what is happening.
One of the strip’s supporting characters, sidekick Groucho, is all but the real Groucho Marx, wisecracking and providing comic relief at all times —he’s a Groucho Marx impersonator (according to the official mythology of the series, but he’s essentially treated as the real thing in all but the American reprints, where likeness issues gave him a makeover and name change to “Felix” — only underscores the strip’s desire to keep matters light.
That’s not to say that it’s purely a comedy, however; there’s both a surreality and beauty to the strip — not to mention a certain lyricism; Dylan is described as a “l’indagatore dell’incubo,” literally a “nightmare investigator,” which feels like it sets the tone for the series as a whole — that makes it tricky to pin down. This isn’t something as straightforward as, say, Doctor Strange, or even DC’s Hellblazer, where it’s clear to the reader what to expect from just a few pages’ worth of reading — which might be one of the primary problems that the series has in finding a sizable audience in the United States, to be cynical.
Such complexity and variety may not appeal to American audiences— a fact perhaps proven by the failure of 2011’s Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, a movie adaptation starring Brandon Routh as the eponymous hero, which only made a fifth of its budget back — but it’s certainly enough for a dedicated fandom in Europe. Amongst them, author, philosopher and critic, Umberto Eco, who was once quoted putting the strip in esteemed company. “I can read the Bible, Homer, or Dylan Dog for several days without being bored,” he once said.
There is one thing that audiences across the world can agree on, when it comes to Dylan Dog — that it has been, throughout its almost 35-year run, home to some consistently beautiful artwork from the likes of Angelo Stano, Bruno Bridisi, Carrado Roi and Claudio Castellini, amongst others. Working predominantly in a strongly chiaroscuro style similar to artists such as Alex Toth or the aforementioned Mignola, the artists of the traditionally black-and-white strip have created work that’s deceptively complex, influenced by fine artists such as Egon Schiele. The result is something that’s easy to follow, filled with atmosphere and narrative detail, and often breathtakingly beautiful.
Dylan Dog may simply be a comic strip that doesn’t translate well outside of its home continent, or travel particularly successfully across the Atlantic. Great comic art, however, can transcend language barriers or changing cultural norms — and that, ultimately, may be Dylan’s greatest weapon.