Friday, 13 March 2015

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 3

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 3 consists of issues #50 to #70 of the regular series and #1 to #4 of Tomb of Dracula Magazine. Almost everything is written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Gene Colan bar one issue of the Magazine which is written by Roger McKenzie and another which is drawn by Steve Ditko.

The volume opens with a fairly well known encounter with the Silver Surfer as he gets caught up in the internal machinations of the satanic cult that Dracula now heads. It's all rather underwhelming and certainly not the great classic of legend, an early warning sign that perhaps Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan are starting to run out of creative energy. This feeling persists through the next several issues as other elements are hurried through such as the quick dismissal of Blade's doppelganger but fortunately there's a distinct upturn as the series heads towards its climax.

There are a few other guest appearances on the way with mixed impacts. Topaz, from the Werewolf by Night series, pops up as a tool of a very particular foe who wants Dracula lured to a special location. Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan shows up for an issue in order to resurrect Blade and free him from his doppelganger. Hellstrom doesn't hang around for the final showdown with Deacon Frost after which both Blade and Hannibal King broadly depart from the series with their mission of vengeance complete, though Blade shows up later in an issue that feels like it's a standby fill-in as Blade and Musenda reunite to save a woman from an odd curse that links her to a vampire, alternating between day and night. Also reaching completion is Harold H. Harold as he finishes his novel about Dracula, which is also adapted as a play and, potentially, a film, and he finally gets to go on a date with Aurora. He later appears at a showing of the play having convinced an actress he can get her a part in the film but Dracula is also in the audience and it doesn't go well for Harold.

One of the key themes of the volume is religion, with Dracula's position as head a satanic cult leading to encounters with both those from below and those from above. Early on, a mysterious being confronts Dracula only to die in the event but his spirit rises and it becomes clear he is connected to Christ via a portrait with glowing eyes. It's a very bold move to all but explicitly say that Dracula has encountered an angel, but it's also one that makes perfect sense given the power Christian artefacts have in vampire mythology. Later on, Dracula's son Janus is resurrected and artificially accelerated in age to that of a young man through fusion with the angel's spirit. And this leads to a confrontation that fuses both of the biggest themes.

The other big theme of the run is that of families, although there isn't much exploration of the most prominent direct relationship between Dracula and his descendant Frank Drake. Instead the emphasis at one end is on Rachel van Helsing and her relationship with Quincy Harker, as her father figure suffers a succession of heart attacks and becomes ever more desperate to complete his mission before his health finally gives out. Meanwhile Dracula is almost domesticated, now married to the cultist Domini and seeing a son, named Janus, born on the night of December 24th. In a display of a story element I have never liked in comics published at Christmas, Janus's birth brings peace and goodwill to the vicinity, causing the immediate fighting to end and foes to let one another go. Janus also brings joy and peace to both his parents, who reflect upon their pasts of loneliness and awkward relationships with the rest of their families. But families come in many forms and not all relationships are in good form. Dracula has a further encounter with his daughter Lilith but she will do nothing to help him in his most desperate hour. The Church of the Damned cult is another form of family but one with internal hatreds as Anton Lupeski plots to overthrow and destroy Dracula, now that the birth of a son means the vampire is no longer needed. In the showdown tragedy strikes when Dracula evades the bullet and it instead kills Janus. Lupeski is soon disposed of but Domini calls an end to the immediate violence, channelling the painting of Christ. Subsequently she performs a ritual that resurrects Janus in fusion with the dead angel's spirit, and the result is a young man torn between filial duty and a destiny to kill Dracula.

This leads to confrontations between father and son but before long both are lured to a strange recreation of a Roman arena, along with both Frank Drake and Topaz, where a demon tries to get Dracula and Janus to fight to the death but fails and they instead turn on the demon. Dracula then finds himself transported to Hell where they encounter Satan himself. Satan toys with Dracula, turning him into a human once more and casting him back into the world where both he and the vampire hunters now face a very different set of circumstances and morality. He now wanders the Earth discovering he now has the all too mortal concerns of money, food and injury to cope with whilst they must question whether they can kill a human man who is no longer a threat. But there's one hunter known as the Cowboy for whom the answer is clear-cut. Dracula continues on a quest to be restored to vampiredom, but is spurned by the only vampire he deems worthy to transform him, Lilith. Dracula then turns to Janus and persuades his son to send him to the one place where he might find restoration, Transylvania. But here too he finds rejection as his subjects and vampires now serve a new master, Torgo, and reject Dracula for having turned his back on the old ways. In turn Dracula is forced to embrace his foes even more as he turns to God for help and crucifixes for protection, but it's all the manipulation of Satan who has done all this to break him. Dracula is restored to vampire form as the climax of the series looms.

The finale sees Dracula confront Torgo, who was transformed into a vampire by the same woman as Dracula, leading to a battle to reclaim lordship over the vampires. But it's a hollow victory as Dracula contemplates just what it is he rules over and then comes the real showdown. Quincy Harker is dying and confronts Dracula one final time in the castle in Transylvania in vengeance for his wife and daughter. It's a dramatic climax to the series and Quincy is the natural choice for the final battle; however there's a loophole left open when explosives in Quincy's wheelchair detonate before he can take the correct ritual steps to destroy the corpse. All that is left is for Quincy's final letter to help Rachel rediscover herself, whilst Janus is unmerged from the angel and restored to infant form. The series ends with a look back at the man that Dracula was.

This is one of the rare cases from the era when a title was given enough warning to enable it to wrap up the story within its own pages; imagine the awkwardness if such an intense and involved conclusion had to be rush packed into a single issue of Marvel Two-in-One. There's a real sense of closure as Dracula is restored to his former glory just in time for the final showdown, whilst hope for the future is left with the surviving cast members. If the story of Marvel's Dracula had ended here it would have gone out on a truly spectacular high. However it turns out this wasn't quite the ending of the title that it at first seems but rather a clearing of the deck for a change in format.

The switch to a black and white magazine format is a surprise; it seems there was another attempt by Marvel to drive into the horror magazine format. If the colour comic was cancelled for this reason then it was in vain. The four magazines reproduced here (minus some back-up stories not featuring Dracula) just show a rambling chaos as Dracula is once more revived in a confusing tale of magic and gets caught up in a mixture of tales that owe more to Lovecraftian monster horror or the film The Exorcist than to the traditional gothic tales. Nor does the classic creative team survive long. Issue #2 is drawn by Steve Ditko but his style is just all wrong for the mush mash of content, being far too traditional cartoony for a tale of Satanists, demonic possession, a monster impregnating an innocent woman and her brother becoming an incubus, draining the life forces of others and turning into a visual link to a psychedelic dimension. Another story tells of a woman surviving having her blood drained by Dracula and later giving birth, only for her daughter to somehow remotely drain Dracula's blood supply and act like she is possessed. A back up is told in the pictures and text caption format from the perspective of an art dealer as he relates how a promising young artist full of hope and optimism was drastically changed by an encounter with Dracula. Although there are some recurring themes of women being twisted and broken, there is no clear direction with the group of vampire hunters now separated and scattered and only a brief appearance by Inspector Chelm of Scotland Yard to even hint at any recurring adversaries for Dracula. And then after three issues Wolfman leaves the title. His immediate successor is Roger McKenzie who goes back to the gothic roots of the character but at the expense of chronology by telling a tale of Dracula preying on a family living in a lighthouse in the early twentieth century. Although the magazine continued beyond this volume, the material here just shows a great waste of an opportunity as the title stumbles around with no clear identity or direction. Wolfman had had an incredible run on the colour comic, writing no less than sixty-four consecutive issues without interruption and giving it a strong identity and direction, so it's a pity that his final stories are such a forgettable mess. Colan's achievement of drawing all seventy issues is even more impressive and so it's a shame that for whatever reason the magazine stories weren't all drawn by him or that the alternative art just wasn't suitable for the series's style.

Ideally this volume would have ended with the end of the colour comic and left the magazines for another day. Or else Wolfman and Colan would have left the character at this stage and gone out on a high. This would have left this third volume as a return to greatness, overcoming the turgidness both in the earliest issues here and in the second volume, and restoring the series to a high point in time for the climax. Unfortunately the magazine stories undo all this good work, see the character resurrected all too quickly, Wolfman leaving at a bad low and the volume itself ending midflow. Normally the Essentials are constrained by page lengths that give limited manoeuvre for choosing end points but the first three volumes came out in the space of barely eleven months and it should have been possible to pace them so that the third ended with the end of the comic and kept the magazines back for the fourth. Instead the end of this volumes just crashes down after all the good that came before it.

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