Friday, October 12, 2012

Recommended Reading for 10/12: Tomb of Dracula

After the Comics Code was loosened back in the 70s, comics companies were able to start using all the things that were forbidden to them under the more draconian edicts of the code; these are the ones that many believe were put in to shut down EC Comics, the parts that limited the use of classic monsters like werewolves, zombies, and vampires. While werewolves are by far my favorite monster (hopefully I'll get a piece on the history of the modern werewolf comic in before the month is out), the best of the 70s Marvel monster comics was definitely the one starring the vampire. Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan's Tomb of Dracula is a gothic masterpiece of elaborate storytelling and great character.

Tomb of Dracula takes place in the present, which at the time was 1972, and the series follows the adventures of a reawakened Dracula and the band of vampire hunters who seek to destroy him. While the vampire hunters are given about as much page time as the Lord of the Undead, have no doubt this series is Dracula's first and foremost. His enemies come and go, but Dracula is the thing that holds the series together.

One of the most impressive aspects of Tomb of Dracula was the impressive runs by the creators. All seventy issues were pencilled by Gene Colan, master of light and shadow, who passed away recently. While the first six issues had different writers, with two each written by greats like Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin, and Gardner Fox, with issue seven Marv Wolfman took over, and remained with the series until the end. This allowed Wolfman to build subplots that paid out not just over months but over the course of years, rewarding long time readers with appearances by allies and enemies of Dracula who had not appeared for long stretches of issues.

Dracula himself follows very much in the classic mold of the original Bram Stoker novel. Dracula is a smart, calculating, and suave monster. He spends the series killing and feeding as he needs and making his plans to rule the night and the world. He preys upon women mostly, seducing them and the feeding, but he is not above turning men to serve his evil needs, or to make them into new Renfields to serve his purposes in the day. This is no angsty vampire like we see in so much of pop culture now. Dracula is a killer and he revels in his own power and cruelty.

Over the course of the series, Wolfman has Dracula confront all manner of other supernatural threats. Not only does he confront such other Marvel supernatural luminaries as Dr. Strange and Werewolf by Night (another great series, but one that never quite reaches the heights of Tomb), he also introduces his own brain in a jar villain, Dr. Sun, a mad scientist who wants to use Dracula's power in his own bid to conquer the world, and who would show up in another Wolfman series, Nova. Other issues featured Dracula confronting haunted houses, zombies, spirits, demons, and cults. Dracula defeats them all.

Of course, with a series headlined by a villain, there are also always heroes for them to fight. There are various characters who pop in and out of the series, including bumbling writer Harold H. Harold, and the silent giant Taj Nital, but there are a few who make up the principal cast of hunters. Two are descendants of the cast from the original Stoker novel. Quincy Harker is the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker, the victims of Dracula's depredations. While old and wheelchair bound by the time of the series, Quincy's brilliant mind and never ending supply of gadgets makes him Dracula's most formidable foe.

The other heir to a name from the novel is Rachel Van Helsing, descendant of legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. Rachel is possessed of a rage that gets her in over her head. Quincy is the rational one, Rachel is always charging in head first, with a bloodlust for the undead that almost equals that of Dracula for the living.

The final member of the regular cast of Tomb was Frank Drake. Frank was a descendant of Dracula himself who found out at the beginning of the series he was the heir to Castle Dracula. Frank was the one who inadvertently awakened Dracula to begin with, and it cost him the life o his fiance. Drake is the audience  perspective character, the one who gets to ask all the questions the reader would. He is not an experienced hunter, and while over the course of the series he learns to, he is never as dedicated as Rachel, never as full of rage. He is the most emotional, the most unsure of himself; in many ways, he is the most human.

There are two other character, though, who were introduced in the pages of Tomb of Dracula who became recurring characters and important characters around the Marvel Universe. One of those was Hannibal King, the vampire PI. In his first appearance, Tomb of Dracula #25, he is investigating vampires for a client, hunting the vampire who turned him, Deacon Frost. The whole issue is narrated in classic gumshoe fashion, from King's perspective, and it is not revealed he is a vampire until the last page. It's a great twist, and is one of my favorite issues of the series.

For those with a knowledge of the Marvel Universe, or maybe Marvel movies, the mention of Deacon Frost should tell you who the other character was, the most famous alum of Tomb of Dracula: Blade. Blade is, well, pretty much Blade. He is the Shaft of the vampire hunting crowd, with wooden knives and a no nonsense attitude. He recurs throughout the series, sometimes working with Harker's crew to hunt Dracula, sometimes fighting him on his own, and sometimes hunting other vampires. He eventually works with King to fight Deacon Frost, the man they both blame for their conditions.

While all seventy issues of Tomb are great, there are some highlights. Tomb of Dracula #32 is probably my favorite issue of the series. In it, a weakened Dracula decides to make his final run at Quincy Harker. Harker leads Dracula into a house that he has boobytrapped, and the king of vampires must make his way through a gauntlet of traps designed to destroy him. The issue is an intense battle between the two foes, and ends with what seems to be a definitive ending to their rivalry. It's a well orchestrated series of events, and is an exciting page turner.

Towards the end of the series, Dracula becomes the leader of a cult that mistakes him for the devil, and he takes one member to be his bride, a woman named Domini. She is the only person who is ever able to get any true human emotion out of Dracula over the course of the series, and through mystical ways they have a child, Janus. Janus grows quickly to adulthood, unnaturally so, and becomes an agent of heaven, an angel of sorts, whose life is dedicated to destroying his evil father. The story is notable for how clearly plotted and long form it is. This is around the same time as Chris Claremont was doing similar work on Uncanny X-Men, and was something different from what was done before. Even classic Marvel, with its lengthy subplots, treated the series as one or two or even three part stories connected by common characters. This was a novel spread over issues, with one long story. It seemed like Wolfman had an end point in mind and was working towards a planned endgame.

The final arc on the series was a sadly truncated one, but felt like it had potential to be one of the best. Dracula, made human again, was seeking a way to regain his powers while a new vampire, Torgo, had claimed his place as king of the vampires. Through the course of the series, Wolfman had found different ways to limit Dracula's power at times, but to see a truly human Dracula having to fight his way through legions that he once ruled was different. To see the ever confident Dracula in a position of weakness was jarring. In the end, of course, Dracula regains his powers and defeats Torgo, but the series had been cut two issues before it was originally supposed to, so the last issues were tightly packed and felt somewhat rushed. Still, it was exciting, and the series ended with one final confrontation between Dracula and Harker. The series was eventually continued in the Tomb of Dracula magazine, one of Marvel's black and white magazines, which are also good, but the series proper has a wonderful ending.

Aside from the engrossing stories, the art on Tomb of Dracula is something equally excellent. Gene Colan is a legend, one whose art plays beautifully with light and shadow. His Dracula moves in a swirl of cape through the night, almost part of it. He draws excellent creatures, monsters that ooze and snarl and send a chill up your spine. I read the entire Tomb of Dracula in Marvel's Essentials, and Colan's arts reproduces stunningly in black and white, with his heavy lines creating great contrast.

While Tomb of Dracula clearly takes place in the Marvel Universe, and has aspects of a superhero comic, it is at its heart a horror comic. The atmosphere is that of a gothic novel, with moors and monsters, and a protagonist who is not a hero. It's a series that reflects the coming of the anti-hero to Marvel, a series that is headlined by a character like Dracula served as a precursor the Wolverine and Punisher getting their own series. But none of those characters have the same dark charm as Dracula. While Dracula has starred in various comics since, none are quite as memorable as Tomb of Dracula.

The complete Tomb of Dracula is available in four Essential volumes, collecting the entire series as well as various tie-ins and the issues of the magazine. Marvel has also released four color trades collecting the first 32 issues.

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