Interview: How The 'Vampire Hunter D' TV Series Will Avoid The 'Game Of Thrones' Problem

Unified Pictures, the production company founded by Keith Kjarval that produced Rudderless, Trust Me and A Single Shot among others, is developing an animated Vampire Hunter D TV series. The popular series of Japanese novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi has spawned two movies in 1985 and 2000. We spoke with another Unified founder, Kurt Rauer, and Scott McLean who are overseeing Vampire Hunter D.

They are beginning with a comic book adaptation of the unpublished Kikuchi story Message From Cecile. With 34 published Kikuchi stories, and Kikuchi sill working, Vampire Hunter D is in no danger of running out of material or catching up with the books like Game of Thrones did. The comic book, Message from Mars, is told from the point of view of Cecile, a human colonist on Mars. Unified launched a Kickstarter for the first issue and met their $25,000 goal, so have set an even higher goal to finish the comic book as a prequel to the TV series.

Unified have partnered with other artists to create more collectible material to reintroduce Vampire Hunter D to America including medals, buttons, jewelry and sticker packs. The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game made a character sheet for D and will do so for other characters as they're introduced in subsequent issues of Message From Mars, ultimately planning a 32-page booklet of augmented rules for Vampire Hunter D games and their own short story. Fans can meet McLean at GenCon in Indianapolis this weekend, and read our interview with Rauer and McLean below. 

Since you tripled your Kickstarter goal, how can you use the extra funds to put back into the comic?

Rauer: So here's our goal. Initially, we had gone down the route of wanting to cover printing and creation costs of the first issue to make sure that there's a market there. We had planned on doing additional Kickstarters for additional issues. I think that we'll get through the entire run of five issues if we can make it to the number one most backed single issue comic of all time on Kickstarter. That number is about $120,000. I think that that's doable for us. We're going to make a concerted effort and a big push. I think we may be able to achieve that. With those funds, we'll be able to publish all five issues and get to a place where we have the short story completely told off of this Kickstarter program.

Are you interested in adapting Vampire Hunter D as a new movie?

Rauer: Potentially for a feature. What this is serving to do is it's showing the rest of the United States, showing the folks in Japan that there's still an appetite for Vampire Hunter D. We are working closely with Digital Frontier in Japan. They're our co-creation partners. We are bringing Vampire Hunter D to the broadcast studios to create a one-hour dramatic animated series.

So television, not movies.

Rauer: So somewhere around eight to 10 hours a year is where we're hoping to be.

Do you have a network involved with that?

Rauer: Not yet. This is part of that creation process. So as we're doing visual development for the comic, we're also doing visual development under the hood for the series itself. So some of the work that you see as biz dev on the Kickstarter campaign, that's being used to set our look and feel of pictures for the animation side of things. It's sort of dual purpose.

What's your timeline now that you're funded for several issues?

Rauer: Our first issue, the pencils will be completed and into ink by the middle of next week. That will be off to the printer within four weeks from now. Then we'll dovetail in each of the next issues from there with a final creation date of issue number five scheduled to go to the printer end of February next year. The first issue will hit the streets, retail copy, this year in November. So it will be a monthly delivery after that. We needed to build up a little bit of padding. Each issue is in that nine- to 10-week gestation period. So we need a little bit of padding before we start retailing issues on the 15th of the month. That's our schedule.

We are putting in front of everyone on the creative side in Japan, short stories that could work as follow-ups and a larger plan to create, if there's a need and the retailer versions of these books sell well, that we can just move into telling other stories that augment the D universe and not parallel the series work, but fill in gaps and enrich the universe a little bit through the comic book. Potentially publish small short stories that Kikuchi-san has written that we're not able to easily access in the United States, things that were only ever written in Japan. We have a very close relationship with a translator that Kikuchi works with, so we've gotten some great insight as to what else is out there that we don't have access to in the United States.

McLean: I just got another one e-mailed to me this morning.

So always Kikuchi stories?

Rauer: For D, yes. Look, he's so prolific, it's incredible.

McLean: He's written 34, 29 in the main franchise plus a whole slew of short stories, some of which including Message From Mars that have never been published here. There's the Greylancer books so I believe there is somewhere north of 50 separate stories if you count novels, shorts, and side stories.

Rauer: And he's still writing. His schedule, from what we understand, between this work and other franchises or other series that are only published in Japan, he finishes a book every five to six weeks, a novel every five to six weeks. At any one given time, Kevin Leahy our translator, says that he's working on two, sometimes three books in parallel. So as he's feeling the energy of one story, he writes through that. If he reaches a point where he's no longer able to write quickly, he'll switch stories and pick up another one. It's incredible.

McLean: There's enough source material that we'll plan on seven seasons.

Rauer: We're not working terribly hard to invent new stuff. You get in a situation where if you have three or four novels written that the series can exceed the scope of the written canon. I don't think we face that challenge with 30 plus books in the series.

And they would not overlap with the movies that already exist?

McLean: There are already two movies and our plan includes not going back. We are not planning on remaking anything. So books one and three, which were the basis of the first two movies, we won't be using for the television series.

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There hasn't been an American comic book of Vampire Hunter D. There's been manga and the novels have illustrations, but why do you think that is?

McLean: It has to do with the fact that in Japan, you're not going to find a 24-page comic book. The American-style comic book just does not exist there. Because of that, if something's not something you find in your home market, you're probably not really looking for a lot. It's unfamiliar to you.

Rauer: You don't understand it the same way as an organic homegrown product. I think the real answer is that Mr. Kikuchi, the creator and current rights holder who has done a rights deal with us and digital frontier collectively, has needed some form of comfort. How do you create something that's truly international that takes a foreign IP and works closely with that foreign set of tastes and aesthetic and binds it in such a way that the U.S. market can access it?

So we started almost 20 months ago now talking with the Japanese, Digital Frontier, and we began building this relationship. Over that more than year and a half, we built up a certain level of trust where we are able to now say to them we believe that this is a great marketplace for Vampire Hunter D. So have that organic conversation with Mr. Kikuchi and Mr. Matsuoka, his agent, and explain to them that we feel there is a market in the United States for this. Give them that comfort that we have established with you and pass that on to the rights holder. That's what they've done. So it's really been this relationship building and the mutual trust in the art form that we've been able to establish over the last year and a half that's allowed us to put forward the idea of creating a comic and then be successful at putting that idea to Mr. Kikuchi and get his approval for this, and then get to create that comic book.

It's something kind of unique I think. It's been a lot of fun for us to do along the way. We've learned a lot about the Japanese and their aesthetic and their work process that is different from animation here in the United States. We're doing a $35 million animated film called Ark of the Ardvaark. John Stevenson who directed Kung Fu Panda is our director. So we're doing that sort of traditional bigger budget U.S. animated product. That's entirely different than the way the Japanese animate for their domestic television. Their budgets are very slim in comparison and their timeframe is very condensed. So taking what we've learned through creating our own feature animation and bouncing that off the Japanese and learning how their process works has allowed us to come to a new place, where there is a great level of trust between the two companies. We are developing this feature TV animation so it's really high quality but still utilizing some Japanese pipeline, and then exhibiting a Japanese story but written by U.S. writers and adapted by U.S. writers for television. It's a little east and west.

Is the comic essentially a prequel for the series?

McLean: It's the only story in the whole franchise featuring D that's set on Mars. That was also part of the motivation to do this as a comic book and not part of the television series. All of the novels are set on Earth. For one short story it would be really difficult to try and work in a part of an episode set on Mars. So one of our writers suggested why not a comic book? Because it's a really great story and it touches on the transition from humanity blowing up the world literally to the rise of the vampires and how they started spreading out and taking things over. It does provide some unique insights into those portions of the story that are only alluded to in most of the rest of the novels.

How did you each become fans of the Vampire Hunter D franchise?

Rauer: That's easy. In 1985-86, my corner video store had a little animation schedule. We stumbled across D as an import and it was sort of the first time I had seen animation done at a high level outside the U.S. and it was eye-opening. Prior to that, it was essentially only Disney and Warners. I didn't know at the time that they made feature film outside of the United States. I was early high school and it was an eye-opener. At the end of that four-year period, we got Robotech here, the first run of that. We got Akira being bicycled around as a print in '87-'88. So we got to see that. We were interested in the art form very early. I grew up in San Jose. There's a large Japanese population there so it was organic how it came to be. And I've been a fan ever since.

McLean: My mom is Japanese. Immigrated here, she married my dad so I was seeing anime since I was an infant. Vampire Hunter D I came across because when I was a kid there was a local broadcaster that one night a week would do late night anime movies. As a kid, I would stay up past my bedtime. I would go to bed and then wait, sneak out, go to a television away from where my parents were that I could turn the volume down and watch these late night anime movies. Vampire Hunter D, the original '85 film was one.