Friday, 3 October 2014

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 2

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 2 collects issues #26-49 plus Giant-Size Dracula #2-5 (a renaming & refocusing of Giant-Size Chillers hence no #1) and Doctor Strange #14. The regular issues are all written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Gene Colan. The Giant-Sizes are written by Chris Claremont then David Anthony Kraft and drawn by Don Heck then Nestor Redondo. The Doctor Strange issue is written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Gene Colan. Bonus material includes an extra page produced for the reprint of issue #45, and Dracula's picture from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

The original release of this volume was surprisingly fast, coming less than six months after volume 1. Was it a fast attempt to ride the Buffy wave, albeit after that series had ended? Or was there some now-forgotten major vampire movie in 2004 that Marvel were trying to feed off the interest? Or were the rights limited forcing a speedy release programme before they lapsed? Or was it just down to someone in the Marvel office with a sense of humour noting both the series's British ancestry and Michael Howard's leadership of the Conservative Party? (Now there's a reference that will leave my international readers scratching their heads.)

Whatever the reason this volume is a letdown after the promise of the first. Gene Colan's art remains great but the general direction of the series is rather meandering, with several plotlines taking an eternity to resolve. The Giant-Size issues are standalone and two of them are even set in the past rather than the present. Whilst it leaves Dracula in the present under the control of a single creative team, their placement here just add to the mess by intruding upon the flow. There's a small amount of crossover with the monthly series with Inspector Chelm of Scotland Yard popping up in both and later supplying the regular vampire hunters with information. Other than this and a brief use of Quincy Harker the characters and situations are all original, with Dracula encountering some especially scary examples of the occult such as the Devil's Heart, a giant disembodied organ that is possessing a small town in the American mid West. Other tales are more downbeat such as Dracula's pursuit of a French government agent across Europe or the vampire's own pursuit by Elainne, the daughter of one of his medieval victims who has gained immortality and assembled a militia to gain revenge. The one character of seeming long term significance introduced here is Inspector Katherine Fraser, a Scotland Yard detective with psychic powers, but she doesn't make the leap over to the monthly. All in all the Giant-Size series is a disappointment and shows that it takes more than the character's name to make a good spin-off series.

Over in the main series things are really dragged out by a long running plot involving Dracula's powers steadily weakening, which ultimately turns out to be the manipulations of Doctor Sun. A disembodied brain may not seem the obvious rival to a vampire, although the name is fitting, but Sun's technology and cunning offers a good counterpoint to a primeval creature, upping the tension. Adding to the counterpoints is Sun's henchman Juno, who has a silver lance in place of a hand. The hunt eventually brings Dracula to the United States via an experimental spy plane and into a protracted showdown in which Quincy Harker and his vampire hunters find they need Dracula more than they realise, forcing them to take some drastic steps.

In the meantime, the vampire hunters are scattered across the globe. Taj has returned to India where his son has become a vampire, forcing Taj and his estranged wife to face the horror of having to kill their child before the local mobs do. Eventually he realises he can't but can only look on in horror as the mobs surge past him and perform the task. After this Taj drops out of the series as he opts to stay in India and rebuild his life with his wife. Perhaps somebody also realised how much of a stereotype a strong, silent Indian manservant is. Frank Drake is lured to South America by a friend who turns out to be working for Dracula who wants his descendent out of the way. This leads to encounters with zombies who are about to kill him when he is saved by a gratuitous guest appearance by Brother Voodoo. The crossing of genres just doesn't work and leaves the characters' presence all too exposed as a promotional puff piece, more so than the average guest appearance. Elsewhere Rachel van Helsing is reassessing her relationship with Drake whilst Quincy Harker is looking back on his long years of fighting the vampire and the huge cost to him both financially and personally. He remains ever resourceful, with his home containing no end of booby traps against Dracula, exploiting crosses, garlic, stakes and more, even right down to the crosses on the collar of his dog, appropriately named Saint. Quincy proves highly resourceful in luring the vampire to his lair and almost slays him but is forced to back down and save his foe when the nearly dead Dracula reveals he has had two other vampires take Rachel hostage.

Elsewhere Blade is used sparingly throughout much of the volume as he continues his own quest to track down and destroy Deacon Frost, the vampire that killed his mother, but this does eventually lead to his crossing paths with Dracula once more, actually allying against Doctor Sun. He then joins with Hannibal King, a detective vampire who refuses to feed on humans, to track down Frost, with the situation complicated by Frost's ability to create duplicates of those he bites, with Blade's duplicate actually absorbing him.

Arriving in Boston Dracula soon meets two more recurring cast members. Harold H. Harold is a hack writer suffering long term from Writer's Block when the appearance of a true-life vampire offers the prospect of an interview. He is also trying, with limited success, to date Aurora Rabinowitz, his editor's secretary. Both characters are played somewhat for laughs but Aurora defies expectations when she shows her resourcefulness when the pair raid the Harvard hospital blood bank to obtain supplies for a weakened Dracula. Harold nearly does get his interview from an amused and grateful Dracula, but the attempt is interrupted by Juno. However when it is all over Harold is able to overcome his Writer's Block and publish "True Vampire Stories" based on his adventure. But Aurora also produces a book called "I Loved a Vampire" and still takes a long time to see yes when Harold repeatedly asks her out on a date.

In the showdown with Doctor Sun, Dracula is actually killed by Juno's lance and then the corpse incinerated. For a few issues it seems as though the vampire is truly gone and all that remains is his legacy, with the vampire hunters left to stop Sun's plans to take over the world. But it soon becomes clear that only Dracula has the power to stop Sun, leading to debate about whether they should resurrect him or not. Soon Aurora's tears prove to be the ingredient they need and Dracula returns to the fight, allying with Blade and seemingly destroying Doctor Sun for good.

There's a continuation of the rewriting of Dracula's history since the events described in the Bram Stoker novel, with the establishment of a greater history of encounters with Blade, backdating them to the 1960s. Although the retcons may allow for a greater cast interaction with Dracula, it gets ever more confusing to try to understand just how long he has been out of operation and just what the consequences are of his actions. It might have been better to follow the lead of the Monster of Frankenstein title and start the series at some point in the past after the famous novel, then slowly bring the lead character to the present day with the back story more clearly set out.

Dracula is also forced to face up to the consequences of his actions when he meets Shiela Whittier, the owner of a castle he settles in during the day. Initially he hopes to use his host as a hypnotised slave to perform actions whilst the sun is up, but after banishing the ghost of her uncle (secretly actually her father) from the castle the two find themselves drawn together. However she subsequently discovers his true nature and turns instead to David Eshcol, a practising Jew and son of the owner of a pawnshop that contains an important magical artefact. David and Shiela fall for each other and flee Dracula after a defeat of Doctor Sun, but David is scared of reprisals and sets out to kill the lord of vampires, only to himself die in the process. Shiela then chooses suicide over servitude, leaving Dracula with two corpses and facing the very dark impact of his nature and actions. Later Dracula finds the pointlessness of revenge as he battles the Faceless Man, the reanimated corpse of a murder victim seeking his killers. Dracula gets caught up in the murders but the Faceless Man disintegrates before either his mission is complete or Dracula can gain his own revenge.

There are some nods to wider trends in society, most notably the encounter with Daphne von Wilkinson, a fashion designer and arch feminist who despises all men, especially her business rivals. She cuts a deal with Dracula to provide information on the location of Doctor Sun in exchange for the elimination of her main rivals. Dracula complies though starts to wonder if he's wasting his time, but both parties deliver their side of the deal. Only there's a twist as all the victims are now vampires who come to feed on von Wilkinson. Later on the 1970s growth in Satanism is reflected when Dracula takes over a cult and marries Domini, one of the followers, planning to create a child to be born on December 25th. Meanwhile the previous cult leader, Anton Lupeski, is secretly plotting to destroy Dracula.

The crossover with Doctor Strange is not especially memorable, being motivated by Dracula's attack on Strange's servant Wong. This leads to a battle as the magician tries to force the vampire to help resurrect the servant, in which Strange's body is transformed into a vampire though his astral self remains free. Eventually he seemingly destroys Dracula and cures both himself and Wong of the vampire curse, making in total for a rather slight crossover that doesn't really add anything to this volume.

The volume ends at a point when many of the story threads are still ongoing, with both Blade and King's battle against Frost's duplicates and Rachel, Frank and Harold's battle against the cultists in mid action. Dracula's plans are ongoing as well. Whilst there are often times when there's no simple clean point to bite off a chunk of a series for a collected edition, this one feels more ragged than most. When combined with the sheer tediousness of the Doctor Sun storyline that takes seemingly forever to resolve, the result is a rather disappointing volume that tries to do things with its main characters but doesn't really feel suitably spectacular. The series has a reputation as a great epic but a lot of epics have turgid middle sections and this is clearly one of them.

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