Friday, 30 October 2015

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 4

Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 4 is a change from the norm, containing material in narrative rather than publication order from Tomb of Dracula Magazine #2 to #6, Dracula Lives! #1 to #13 and Frankenstein Monster #7 to #9. Bonus material includes some pin-ups from the magazines and also from a calendar, unused pencilled artwork from the multi-part story planned for Tomb of Dracula #70 to #72 before it was condensed into a single giant-size issue, and finally a couple of one-page stories. The Dracula stories are written by a wide range of writers including Marv Wolfman, Roger McKenzie, Peter Gillis, Gerry Conway, Doug Moench, Gardner Fox, Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella, Mike Friedrich, Jim Shooter, Steve Gerber, Len Wein and Rick Margopolous. The art is by Gene Colan, John Buscema, Neal Adams, Vicente Alcazar, Frank Robbins, Steve Gan, Sonny Trinidad, Yong Montano, Dick Ayers, Alan Weiss, Frank Springer, George Evans, Tony Dezuniga, Paul Gulacy, Rich Buckler, Jim Starlin, Alfonso Font, Mike Ploog, Frank Robbins, Alfredo Alcala, George Tuska, Val Mayerik and Ernie Chua. The Frankenstein Monster issues are all written by Mike Friedrich and drawn by John Buscema. With such a large number of creators there are not one but two separate labels posts.

One of the less often commented features about reprints is that they aren't always exactly the same as the original publication. Cutting pages or even individual panels to fit a smaller page count or different size format and modifying footnotes to reference other reprints are the best known but there's also a long history of amending dialogue and visuals to suit different sensibilities. Just to add to the confusion the state of the archives isn't always the best so the material available or ordered up is sometimes identical to the original printing, sometimes a modified version from a later reprint and occasionally an earlier prepublication one that was modified before it first went to the printers but with the unaltered version hanging around in the files. The Essentials have had a mixed record on source material over the years, with the earlier volumes often relying on other reprints whilst the later ones developed better techniques for going straight back to the source material. But even then some things were still changed. Usually these changes aren't too well documented but this volume, released almost at the mid point of the Essentials, has had some changes made to the artwork to cover up nudity, especially on the first story with Lilith.

Were this not known about it wouldn't affect readability at all - the changes focus on hiding nudity, mainly by extending existing clothing. (There are some comparisons between the original and modified panels at The Groovy Age of Horror: Censored Essentials? - be warned the nudity is clear.) Marvel of course has every legal right to do this (the US doesn't have the concept of creators' moral rights to object to tampering with the work) and whether this was the company's own decision or a response to the modern standards of distributors and booksellers is unknown, but the alternative may have been no reprint at all. But it's a pity that it was deemed necessary to make the modifications as it does ultimately mean this isn't quite an exact reprint (and that means even more when most of the material was in black and white to start with). And the market for reprints of old Dracula stories shouldn't have a problem with it. Certainly there's other material with pretty adult themes such as pirates attacking a village, including rape (the word is actually used) and their female captain is shown using sex to beguile and control her crew, with one crewmember shown being rewarded and later others promised "Hellyn's reward will be given to all who score with a thrust!" when facing Dracula. Yet despite this the story finds itself unable to say "bastard" and has to use the euphemism "fatherless dog".

As for what's actually been printed here, this is very much a mishmash collection of material. It starts off with a couple of tales from Tomb of Dracula Magazine, continuing where the last volume left off, before running through a whole set of historical adventures from the various magazines and another character's comic, then finishes off with the present day tales from Dracula Lives! magazine that ran parallel to the early issues of the Tomb of Dracula comic. The result of all this is that the volume jumps around. Reading between the lines it becomes clear that Marvel didn't really know what to do with the ongoing adventures of Dracula now that the 1970s horror fad had passed and Marv Wolfman had left the character (and was in the process of leaving the company altogether). Consequently it's unsurprising that the magazine ended after just six issues and there's nothing in the early stories that suggests any real direction with the most significant development being an ending of sorts as Lilith is separated from the body of Angel O'Hara and then finds she is unable to kill her father. The other early tale is a more typical piece of what is to come, with Dracula preying on an innocent woman, here a ballerina, and transforming her. She eventually commits suicide and is not the only female victim to do so in these pages.

The historic adventures of Dracula show no development at all, being just a succession of tales in different historic periods. Reordering them chronologically helps to disguise the lack of direction but it also exposes some inconsistencies in the basic vampire mythology, most notably as to whether a transformed victim needs to wait three nights or not before rising again, whether Dracula needs to spend the day in a coffin full of Transylvanian earth or not, and whether he needs to be invited in before he can enter a public dwelling. Each of these rules is both adhered to and broken throughout the course of these tales, with Dracula's precise vulnerability to crosses also fluctuating somewhat. This just reinforces the mess these tales are.

By and large the historic adventures either fill in the core history of Dracula, although the adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel is conspicuously absent, or else place the vampire in a particular period setting as he wanders across Europe and occasionally beyond, but always ultimately returning home. There's a variety of stock characters and situations including hordes of Turkish warriors, witches, pirates, court nobles, American Civil War soldiers, cowboys, gangsters and wartime Germans. And there are attempts to do more with the formula than simply preying on women and evading their menfolk. But something just doesn't feel right about these stories. Dracula is ultimately a late Victorian Gothic creation, even if he was named after a historical figure from the fifteenth century and has since had that historical character fused into the fictional one. Seeing him placed in other historical settings just doesn't feel right and few of the tales are able to really rise above the limitations. As a result the only historic stories of any real significance are the early ones which tell how Vlad the Impaler became a vampire in the first place and also how the centuries long war between Dracula and the Van Helsings began. There's also a particularly dark tale as Dracula encounters and brings down the notorious real life serial killer Countess Elizabeth Bathory, here depicted with all the gruesomeness of bathing in the blood of virgins to restore and maintain her youth. It's a particularly dark tale that shows Dracula up against a woman who is immune to his bite, forcing him to resort to more devious methods to bring her down, making for a good homage to what is believed to have been one of the influences upon Stoker. Otherwise these tales are really just back-up filler that don't work when collected together in their own right. Early on a text piece entitled "Bloodline: A Probable Outline Of The Career Of Count Vlad Dracula" summarises all the adventures and material from various flashbacks and that contains probably everything that could be needed to cover his historic career.

The three Frankenstein Monster issues are set in 1898 and appear to be Dracula's first appearance after the Stoker novel, which is given a very brief one page summary here. The issues show Frankenstein's monster on a search for the last of his creator's family and encountering a travelling gypsy circus on the way but one of the gypsies has ulterior motives. It leads to a rather dull conflict between two of the greatest horror creations who each deserved so much more. As is so often the case with these tales we get Dracula preying on innocent women in an isolated settlement and clashing with the local men, with some suspicious townsfolk thrown in who bring a gruesome fate to the gypsies. We also get what is becoming an increasingly routine occurrence whereby Dracula ends the story seemingly slain but his killer lacks either the knowledge or time to perform the necessary actions to destroy the corpse before the vampire can be brought back to life. Though we sometimes see Dracula resurrected, such as here when an old gypsy woman tricks the monster into unsealing a tomb, the succession of deaths and unexplained resurrections work to undermine the overall impact of the stories by disrupting the narrative flow and removing the impact of danger and destruction to Dracula.

The final part of the volume is only slightly more coherent, being taken up with the present day adventures from Dracula Lives! and so at least publication and chronological orders coincide. But apart from a vague narrative as Dracula comes to the States in an unsuccessful search for his old foe Cagliostro before heading back to Europe, this is much the same as before. Dracula wanders through a succession of scenarios, ranging from becoming addicted to drugs after biting a junkie to a battle with an eighteenth century man who has been transformed into a stone gargoyle that only comes to life at night. A visit to New Orleans sees the Zombie passing by but there's no interaction between the two horror characters and instead the focus is on an encounter with Marie Le Vau, the "Voodoo Queen of New Orleans". Elsewhere in Hollywood Dracula challenges a has-been actor who has been portraying him and suffering delusions that make him believe he is the actual vampire. Dracula's nastiest streak comes to the fore at times as he sets traps, especially when he bites a terrorist and sets him up to be exposed to sunlight without realising what will happen. A particularly favourite trick is to set a foe up by biting an expected acquaintance in advance who in turn becomes a vampire in time to attack. A number of women are drawn to Dracula over the course of these stories and he will sometimes be drawn to them in return but ultimately will never settle with any of them, leaving them lonely and, in one case, suicidal. The biggest addition to the mythology is the Montesi Formula, a spell that can destroy vampires permanently which leads Dracula to risk invading the Vatican in order to dispose of both Cardinal Montesi and the formula before it can be used permanently. Otherwise these tales are just more of the same.

This volume primarily serves as a companion piece to the three earlier ones, collecting together material from the supporting series and guest appearances that never fully fitted alongside the ongoing narrative in the monthly comic. And this patchwork shows even without being reordered into a chronological framework. There's no development or recurring cast beyond Dracula, whilst a lot of the situations bear a strong similarity to one another. All in all this volume is pretty inessential.

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