Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It Came From The Back Issue Bins! #2- The Tomb of Dracula

by Jason Shayer

Contrasting last month’s column on current horror comic books you should be reading, this month I’ll be delving into the back issue bins to hype a staple of the 1970s horror, Marvel Comics’ The Tomb of Dracula.
In the early 1970s, Marvel Comics was in a bit of a rut after Jack Kirby had defected to DC Comics and Stan Lee had stepped down as Editor-In-Chief. The Comic Code Authority, which had driven a stake through EC comics two decades earlier, had been diluted and The-Powers-That-Be at Marvel decided to take advantage of it. The company tried to single-handedly revive horror comics by flooding the market with supernatural titles, such as Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Son of Satan, and The Tomb of Dracula.
The Tomb of Dracula was the most successful Bronze age horror title, running over seven years and compiling well over 70 issues (including Giant-Size specials). The first few issues were written by Archie Goodwin, Gerry Conway, and Gardiner Fox and were serviceable enough, but didn’t really seem to get any traction. These early issues did set the stage for new ongoing writer Marv Wolfman who came on board with issue #7.
Wolfman, probably better known for his superhero work on The New Teen Titans and Crisis on Infinite Earths, laid the ground work for a lengthy and memorable run on The Tomb of Dracula. How did he do that? Wolfman did two things: he created a sympathetic, almost likable villain in Dracula and, similar to Stoker’s novel, he pulled together a cast of unique and very human vampire hunters. He set the direction of the book by first focusing on the characters and then letting the overall plot develop on its own.
Wolfman cleverly tied these vampire hunters to Dracula’s original foes in Stoker’s novel.. Frank Drake, an actual descendant of Dracula himself, teamed up with Rachel van Helsing (granddaughter of Abraham Van Helsing) and Quincy Harker (son of Jonathan and Mina Harker) along with a few other hunters with a vested interested in killing Dracula, like Taj Nital and Blade. Blade the Vampire Hunter proved to be popular enough to spawn several comic book series as well as inspire a trilogy of movies and a short-lived TV series.
And so, follow up the vampire hunter cast with Wolfman’s strong characterization of Dracula, and you have a formula for success. Dracula was treated as more of a fallen hero; noble and cunning, but driven by all-too human emotions and the brutal need to satiating his deadly hunger. This portrayal of Dracula complemented Gene Colan’s strength in drawing people.
And speaking of the artwork, the easiest way to describe it would be to say that penciler Gene Colan and inker Tom Palmer were born to draw the Tomb of Dracula. Drawing from their history together on Daredevil and Dr. Strange, they were the ideal tandem to convey the fog-enshrouded streets of London, the moonlit graveyards, the shadowy castles, and the cobblestone streets of forgotten Eastern European villages. The covers weren’t bad either as most were beautifully rendered by the legendary Gil Kane.

For readers more familiar with today’s comic books, you’ll need to be patient as you plow through the heavily narrated panels and the 1970s-style dialog, but if you can get passed these minor faults, you’re in for a treat. One of the nice things was that despite being a Marvel comic, the series wasn’t tied into the Marvel Universe other than the occasional supernatural crossover with the Werewolf by Night or Doctor Strange. So, it’s a neatly contained series that stands on its own.
There are three ways you can enjoy this series: the hard way, track down the individual issues; the easy way, pick up the four volumes of the black and white Tomb of Dracula Essentials (also the cheapest way; note that the fourth volume has been edited, including the removal of nudity, as the Essentials were sold as an all-ages product); and the expensive way, pick up the two massive volumes of the Tomb of Dracula Omnibus (Volume Two is due in November).
So the real decision boils down to whether or not you want to go with the black and white or the color. While I love the Omnibus edition collecting 30-odd issues in one giant hardcover versus the flimsy paper of the Essentials, I almost wish the Omnibus had also gone black and white. Colan and Palmer’s art seems restrained by the colors as their work really leveraged the black and white tone. Another thing to keep in mind is the amazing binding of the Omnibus versus the glue binding of the Essentials. The Omnibus, despite being over 800 pages long, lies very flat no matter where you are in the book and there’s no gutter lost throughout the book.

A few interesting notes:
- Wolfman and Colan moved to DC shortly after Tomb of Dracula ended and used a similar formula for a series called Night Force, but didn’t duplicate its success.
- Colan drew upon actor Jack Palance as his inspiration for his version of Dracula.
- Stan Lee and Roy Thomas were originally billed as the title’s writers. The series had been once referred to as The House of Dracula in its conceptual stage. (Bullpen Bulletin, July 1971)
- Roy Thomas and Gil Kane proposed introducing Dracula in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, but Stan Lee had other designs for him and thus Morbius the Living Vampire was created. (Comic Book Artist #13 - www.twomorrows.com/comicbookartist/articles/13thomas.html)
- There was a short lived companion magazine, Dracula Lives, but the instability in the creative teams didn’t give it the same feel as the core title.

--Jason Shayer