Friday, 25 October 2013

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 1

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 1 collects issues #1-25 of Tomb of Dracula plus Werewolf by Night #15 and a story from Giant-Size Chillers #1. The latter comic was a contemporary of Giant-Size Super-Heroes #1 and Giant-Size Super-Stars #1, an early, anthology approach to the Giant-Sizes before a switch to individual named series. (Confusingly less than a year later the title and numbering were reused for a brief anthology series of short stories.) The early Tomb of Dracula issues are written by Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin and Gardner Fox before Marv Wolfman begins a long run, and he also writes the Werewolf by Night and Giant-Size Chillers issues. Gene Colan draws all the Tomb of Dracula and Giant-Size Chillers issues whilst Mike Ploog handles Werewolf by Night.

I read the original Bram Stoker novel Dracula when I was about eleven or twelve but on reflection this was almost certainly an abridged version - not only was it stocked in a school library with pupils as young as ten but it came in a double edition flip-book with The Phantom of the Opera and I don't remember the resulting edition being enormous. So I suspect some of the themes of the novel were either stripped out or sufficiently subtle that I didn't recognise them, leaving something of a traditional adventure story. But of course Dracula's fame also stems from endless movies where the public domain status of the novel has meant complete freedom for studios to do whatever they like with the character without having to have regard for Stoker's original vision. Here we get something close to the Stoker novel but toned down with the overt sexual themes absent.

At the surface level Dracula's main focus is upon a supply of blood and hatred of the human race. However it can't be denied that many of his victims are female and there's a strong element of the predatory male in the approach as shown by the cover to issue #1 which is used for the volume as a whole. However Dracula also at times acts to help women, taking steps to tackle the ghost haunting one, and at other times pouncing on attackers or even empowering a dying woman so she can take her revenge upon her killer. Dracula himself is a rare example of a villainous title character; normally it's rare for such series to last because of the difficulty in having the villain win or escape all the time, but here the main character has a strong presence, intelligence and charisma that lures the reader back for more. As the series progresses it's established that the struggle against vampires in general and Dracula in particular has lasted a long time, so it can be seen as part of a great epic.

The series is primarily set in Europe with occasional shifts to the east. Oddly there's hardly any reference as to which country Transylvania is located in or the difficulty in travelling across the Iron Curtain to Romania. It is supposedly the present day, even if London is full of the fog, cobbled streets and widespread use of Cockney and "bloody" that bears more resemblance to an ignorant Hollywood executive's conception than reality. As a latter day sequel to a late Victorian gothic horror novel there's something vaguely appropriate about that, but as a Londoner all too often it feels as though American writers are succumbing to cliché. The series is set in the regular Marvel universe but doesn't actually overlap on it much. The only characters to appear from elsewhere are Jack Russell the Werewolf and Topaz, his mysterious magical friend, thanks to a crossover between the two titles. Otherwise Dracula did pop up in the first issue of Giant-Size Spider-Man which came out towards the end of the run contained in this volume, but that isn't included here. Since the series is primarily set outside the States it's not too surprising that there aren't many guest stars piling in from the superhero titles. Instead the focus is upon the title character and those who seek to stop him.

Amongst his opponents are a group of vampire hunters drawn together. Some other characters are either taken directly from the novel or are descended from people in it. Introduced at the start is Frank Drake, a modern day member of the Dracula family - whether he's directly descended from the vampiric Count is a precise detail that changes with the writers - and the heir to Castle Dracula. His immediate family have altered their surname to escape the associations with the novel - here treated as an account of actual events - and the resurrection of the Count has quite a chilling effect upon him. When exploring the castle he's inherited, his friend Clifton Graves stumbles across a coffin containing a skeleton with a stake in it; removing the stake revives Count Dracula who hypnotises Graves into being his servant. Drake's girlfriend Jeanie is bitten by Dracula and becomes a vampire herself; subsequently Drake is forced to destroy her with a stake and sunlight and the horror of having had to "kill" her remains with him for a long time.

A similar horror of having to destroy a woman close to him comes to Quincy Harker. He is the baby born at the end of the book, son of Jonathan Harker and his wife Mina and named after Quincy Morris, who died in what appeared to be the final confrontation with Dracula. Trained by Abraham van Helsing to carry on the fight, Quincy Harker has spent nearly his entire life fighting vampires, including Dracula (when a retcon has him active for much of the intervening years), and though now elderly and confined to a wheelchair he continues to guide the younger vampire hunters. In another dark moment Harker's daughter Edith is captured by Dracula and although freed she has in the meantime been turned into a vampire, her greatest fear. Rather than face an undead existence as one, she throws herself from a great height to disable her body and Quincy is forced to perform the brutal process to destroy her.

Rachel van Helsing is spared from having to perform such a horrific action on one she cares for, but her life has been no less tragic. The granddaughter of Dracula's greatest foe, she has experienced tragedy throughout her life as Dracula has killed many of her family. Despite this she never gives in and even at her worst moment when she and Dracula are trapped in snowswept mountains and each has to keep the other alive in order to survive, she is still determined to destroy him even if it comes at the cost of her own life. A heavily serious person, she does nevertheless find comfort with Drake. She is usually accompanied by her servant Taj Nitall who is a super strong mute Indian, a stereotype more acceptable forty years ago than now. Taj is loyal and incredible durable, surviving some pretty violent encounters with Dracula and/or his hypnotised henchmen, but there isn't a great deal revealed about him. At the end he receives a message from India and rushes there, to see his hated estranged wife and be told their son is dying but the subplot isn't resolved within this volume.

By far the best known of the vampire hunters introduced here is Blade the Vampire-Slayer, debuting about a quarter of a century before Buffy. Although he's a little underused there's a strong background given for him and one that is actually quite detached from Dracula, making it easy to spin him off into adventures elsewhere. His mother was attacked by a vampire whilst pregnant and died; he now seeks revenge but has yet to find the specific vampire. At one point he is bitten by Dracula but Harker discovers that Blade has an immunity due to his heritage. The character adds a degree of dynamism but doesn't last too long, eventually leaving the group to focus on find his own mother's killer.

As well as the nasty moments that have affected almost all of the vampire hunters the series contains some other quite dark moments, such as when Jason Faust, an embittered businessmen now paralysed and trapped in an iron lung, is bitten and turned into a vampire. Unable to move to sate his thirst, he can only lie in pain and await the sunlight which will destroy him. Later Dracula comes across a scheming man pushing his wife off a cliff so he and his mistress can inherit her money; Dracula reaches the wife as she lies dying and turns her into a vampire so that she can seek her revenge. On another occasion he feigns a road accident to get close to a housewife who three days later heads home and bites both her husband and their two young children. Not all of this is shown on panel but it's pretty heavy stuff and I'm amazed to see a series as old as this was published under the auspices of the Comics Code Authority. Dracula is also fairly brutal at times, including setting and detonating explosives on a ship, leaving his hypnotised henchman Clifton Graves behind to die.

But Graves survives and resurfaces as part of a new plot, though he seemingly dies again in it. One of the longest running subplots involves Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who has had his brain removed from his body and attached to computers, making for an extremely intelligent and powerful foe. Requiring and constant supply of blood to sustain him, he searches hard for the perfect vampire agent who can obtain the blood without suspicion of ulterior motives. A succession of cutaways show his agents, mainly based on the coast of Northern Ireland, searching and testing potential recruits before eventually locating Dracula. It's nice to see Northern Ireland for once being presented in fiction as an ordinary place and a reasonable location for an out of the way testing facility rather than fiction just focusing on the Troubles - given these issues were published in the period 1972 through 1974 this use is oddly a particularly encouraging example of hope. The Doctor Sun storyline also allows the series to briefly present Dracula as the victim and underdog, making his escape and survival less awkward.

It didn't take too long before a potential spin-off character appears. Lilith, Dracula's Daughter, is introduced in Giant-Size Chillers #1 but there is no familial bond between father and daughter owing to his treatment of her mother even before he became a vampire all those centuries ago. Lilith's own powers and abilities are slightly different, thanks to the gypsies who raised her, and she has no fear of sunlight or crucifixes but she also has the power to be reborn in the body of an innocent woman who hates her father. She proposes an alliance with her own father but he rejects it and leaves her to seek her own spin-off appearances elsewhere are part of Marvel's then thriving horror line.

The crossover with Werewolf by Night is hard to assess. In fiction in many mediums it's not uncommon to have Dracula mixing with other gothic monsters and the most common two are a werewolf and the monster of Frankenstein. So it's hard to deny that the Werewolf is a very appropriate first guest star (and this crossover predates even the encounter with Spider-Man over in Giant-Size Spider-Man). However the main focus of the crossover is upon fleshing out the backstory of the Werewolf, revealing the family curse, and it's tied into an encounter at Castle Dracula. Whilst this doesn't (at this stage at least) have much impact on the rest of Dracula's series, it does feel rather awkward to be tying the origin of one of the characters to another. There's no particular reason that I can see for the Werewolf to need such a connection and it if anything undermines the character's effectiveness. The crossover is also weakened by the failure to adequately introduce both the Werewolf/Jack Russell and Topaz to Dracula readers - the latter character may be deliberately mysterious but as presented here she could just as easily be the victim of poor explanations. I wonder if Werewolf by Night readers found the presence of Frank Drake and Rachel van Helsing equally confusing.

Overall this volumes shows a distinctly different type of series to Marvel's superhero fare and it works well without running for the traditional guest stars, villains or locations. Gene Colan's artwork always had a distinct style of its own but here is some his best ever work. Most of the issues are inked by Tom Palmer who complements Colan's pencils well but even the handful of issues handled by Vince Colletta hold up well - perhaps Colletta's effectiveness depended very much upon both the penciller and genre and here his style worked well. Marv Wolfman's scripts are also strong and compelling but there are some continuity errors noticeable when the issues are read altogether; it seems Wolfman was either implicitly or explicitly changing details only briefly established by the trio of writers on the handful of issues before him. As well as making Drake a direct descendent of Dracula we also get a regenerating castle that is burnt down by the local villagers in the first issue but later on appears as intact as ever. Initially it seems Dracula has lain in his coffin since the 1890s and the events of the Stoker novel but later on it's established he was last killed just three years earlier. Wolfman was hardly the first or last writer to seek to impose their own continuity upon a series but it's normally rare for Marvel series to make such changes without explicitly addressing what had come before. A rather odder change comes in the crossover when Drake and van Helsing take off in a helicopter in the Werewolf by Night issue but in the follow-up Tomb of Dracula issue Drake has been replaced by a pilot with no obvious time to change over.

A number of issues reference another series called Dracula Lives! This was a magazine format series outside the Comics Code Authority which was a predominantly standalone series that told tales of Dracula throughout his long history, including an adaptation of the novel. Although the occasional reference to events shown there can leave the reader wanting to see more, it doesn't detract from the readability of this volume. It takes a little time but once the team of Wolfman and Colan is in place the result is a spectacular gripping and biting series that remains true to both the source material and many of the popular conceptions of vampires but which also manages to stay engaging for the modern age.

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