Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Floppies for Trades 2: Tomb of Dracula

Tomb of Dracula is one of my favorite comics of the 70s. Newsstand distribution being what it was back then, I wasn’t able to get my hands on many issues as a kid, but every one I did manage to find was like a little treasure. A little treasure filled with blood and evil, but hey. That’s how I’ve always rolled.

At any rate. I’ve picked up odd issues of Tomb my whole life, mostly ragged-out copies I stumbled across in dollar boxes. They’re always a hoot, but I’ve never made a concerted effort to collect the series. In bulk, I was afraid, it might lose some of the weird charm it held when reading random issues spread out across the run: Here’s Blade! Here’s a robot with a human brain! Here’s a vampire baby! Here’s that Woody Allen character! None of these issues ever quite made sense to me taken individually, but I loved the macabre chaos of it all. If I had the through line, I thought, if I understood the plotlines, they might cease to be happy nonsense and be revealed as the same sort of shabby crap most 70s comics were.

But I sold off all my old, decaying, headache-inducing copies of Tomb as part of my recent funnybook purge, so when Marvel released the first volume of a new series of color reprints… I decided to take the plunge. Damn the torpedoes, and all that. It was interesting, and somewhat surprising, reading. My memory of the book is that it’s not very good until writer Marv Wolfman comes on in the second year and gets his longer storylines running, at which point it took off and became the batshit masterpiece I remember. I still think that’s the case, mostly, but I was shocked to discover that Wolfman actually came onto the book with issue 7, and that it took a decided downturn in quality when he did.

For the first six months, the book had a different writer every two issues. Gerry Conway wrote the first two, and his work on the book was the biggest surprise for me. It reads like a Hammer horror flick, with the addition of a surprisingly effective gothic narration. The prose is purple, to be sure, but it’s purple in a fun and appropriate way, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s a nice reminder that Conway was capable of more than his later work might have indicated.

In the first issue, he introduces us to Frank Drake, Dracula’s 20th century descendant. Drake’s squandered the family fortune, and his last chance to escape the horrible fate of getting a real job involves the one thing he still owns: a crumbling ruin called Castle Dracula. His plan is to turn the ancestral home into a tourist attraction, and along for the ride on this harebrained scheme are Drake’s girlfriend Jean and his erstwhile friend Clifton Graves (a great silly name). Drake more or less stole Jean from Graves, however, and it comes as little surprise when it’s revealed that Graves has only agreed to help out because he plans to murder Drake once they get to Transylvania, and win Jean’s affections back while comforting her loss. So of course it’s Graves who finds Dracula’s corpse, staked in the coffin where Van Helsing and crew left it back in the 1880s. He pulls the stake out, Dracula revives, and 70-some-odd issues of horrific mayhem ensue.

Before Conway’s done with the book, Jean’s been turned into a vampire, Graves has lost his mind, and Drake’s left sobbing on his knees as Dracula gets away. It ain‘t Shakespeare, but it is a fun little horror story with some nice atmosphere and numerous nods to both the Hammer and Universal films it takes inspiration from. Frank Drake actually grows as a character, too, going from a sort of “poor little rich boy” to a man taking responsibility for his actions. Conway even manages to give Dracula a bit of depth. Mostly, he’s just an aristocratic bloodsucker, but in their final confrontation, the Count leaps upon Drake in a fury, angry that his descendant didn’t want to aid him, and “break the age-old loneliness.”

This is only the first potentially-interesting character trait introduced for Dracula in these early issues, and like the rest it gets lost in the shuffle. Because it’s not a thread that Archie Goodwin picks up on in his two issues. He doesn’t forget Conway’s insane downer ending, though, because he picks up with Frank Drake about to commit suicide, and Clifton Graves a pathetic drunk. However, both men’s self-destruction is interrupted. Graves’ by Dracula, who swiftly turns him into a modern-day Renfield. Drake, on the other hand, is kept from leaping off London Bridge by the timely arrival of what should have been the series’ best character: Rachel Van Helsing.

As created by Goodwin, Rachel is a bad-ass. The great-grand-daughter of the original Van Helsing, she’s a vampire-hunting detective who’s armed with a crossbow that shoots wooden stakes, and accompanied by a mute Indian giant named Taj, who provides the muscle. She is awesome-sauce, and she should have ruled the book from the moment she walked on-screen. As we’ll see, later writers watered her down in favor of other characters, but she’s the shit for Goodwin’s two issues, which are the best in this collection. He continues Conway’s gothic narration, but adds a nice little twist to it with sequences where the narrator addresses the characters and their internal horror.

The plot involves an aging model named (I shit you not) Ilsa Strangway. Ilsa wants to become a vampire to regain her youthful beauty, and Dracula’s only too happy to oblige once she reveals to him that she can give him access to an obsidian mirror that can transport him back to his own time. This is another potentially-interesting trait for Dracula that gets lost in the writing shuffle: he’s a man out of time. Born of the 15th Century, and dead since the 19th, he’s found himself awakened in the 20th, and the world has changed in ways he can’t even imagine. So he takes Ilsa up on her offer. But, both of them being total bastards, they’ve double-crossed each other. I won’t go into detail on the deal, but Goodwin leaves Dracula in Hell, having taken Taj with him.

Gardner Fox (!) picks things up from there, and turns in two pretty awful, but completely insane, issues. Dracula fights his way through Hell (!), and then leads Our Heroes on a merry chase through time, along the way releasing a female vampire named Lenore (!), who he’s been keeping alive as just a heart in a jar for a few centuries (!). They wind up back in the 20th Century, where Our Heroes become unofficial agents of Scotland Yard (!) and they all get mixed up with some kind of hereditary man-beast out on the Scottish moors (!).

Fun as all that is, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Some of the plot movements don’t make much sense, the dialogue is a bit stiff, the gothic narration is pretty much gone, and some of the finer points of the on-going plotlines get confused or forgotten. Fox also begins the process of weakening Rachel. She does break bad with a bow and arrow in his first issue, but she also plays as the damsel in distress more than once. A romance between she and Drake materializes out of nowhere, too, which is a bit sudden considering that he was contemplating suicide over killing his vampire girlfriend only a couple of days earlier. But worse, there’s no sense of the two characters growing closer, no evidence of any attraction at all. It’s just dropped in the reader’s lap, where it lands with a profound thud. These are weak issues, and I was looking forward to Wolfman’s arrival with the next issue.

Unfortunately, his work’s only a little better. I was expecting something at least on a level with the Conway issues, and I didn’t get it. We do see Wolfman start laying the groundwork for the material I love so much from later in the series, but overall his work on these issues just isn‘t very good. He brings back the heavy narration, but trades the gothic tone of Conway and Goodwin for bad comics storytelling tricks like describing action that’s clear in the art, or weakly filling in exposition and backstory. Disappointing.

In Wolfman’s hands, series continuity slips further as well. The idea of Dracula as a man out of time, an important subtext in Goodwin and Fox’s stories, slowly vanishes as Wolfman seems to forget that Dracula was just recently revived. He acknowledges it at first, but by his third or fourth issue, Our Heroes are talking about their battle with Dracula as if it’s been going on for decades. New character Quincy Harker eventually says that he’s spent his life fighting Dracula, in spite of the fact that Dracula’s been dead since before he was born.

That said, Quincy is a pretty great character: he’s the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker, now an old man vampire hunter who’s bound to a wheelchair that he’s tricked out with a bank of guns that fire wooden darts, and a garlic-coated net that launches from one side. He was always my favorite of the good guy characters when I was a kid, and I still dig him now. Unfortunately, though, he does serve to further weaken Rachel. Once he’s introduced, Quincy becomes the de facto leader of the group, a role she had been filling up to that point. Wolfman also makes her generally less competent, keeping her at the heart of the action but having her require more physical help from the men. It’s crappy work on a character whose matter-of-fact liberation was refreshing; even now, assertive women in comics seem to wear their feminism like a huge chip on their shoulder.

Rachel is further diminished by the arrival of Blade in issue ten. Another character I’ve always loved, Blade is essentially a vampire-hunting version of Shaft. He’s the ultimate vampire-killing badass, and he serves to finally make Rachel completely redundant. With Quincy serving as leader and primary detective, and Blade as the super-effective hunter, she’s left with being Drake’s girlfriend as her primary role. She still gets to fire her crossbow off now and again, but at this point she’s been entirely eclipsed.

Much as I regret that, though, we do get Blade in return. And Blade really is awesome. An extremist loner who doesn’t agree with Quincy‘s straight-laced vampire-hunting methods, Blade was Wolverine before there was a Wolverine. His wooden knives and fighting skill make him one of the few physical threats Dracula faces, and there’s an audacity to him that I love. In his first fight with Dracula, Blade actually kicks him in the nuts! Oh, how I laughed! There’s no hint of the half-vampire origin we’ll eventually get for him, though. At this point, he’s simply the epitome of 70s cool, and I love him for it. He’s also obviously Wolfman’s favorite character, and no effort is spared to make him look as cool as possible.

Wolfman even goes so far as to depict Frank Drake as a bit of a coward to make Blade look better in comparison. But I dislike Wolfman’s Drake in general, so I shouldn’t really be surprised. In the earlier stories, Drake played as a solid leading man type, a brave novice inspired by the example of Rachel and Taj. In Wolfman’s hands, though, he becomes an angry dumbass. He’s completely ineffectual in the fight against Dracula, and yet he’s constantly criticizing Quincy and the rest of the group, making bitter jokes and just generally being an asshole. Drake was never my favorite character, but by the end of this collection, I really didn’t like the guy, and I have to lay the blame for that at Wolfman’s feet.

It’s not all bad, of course. Wolfman does bring a sense of excitement to the book, and a more contemporary feel. Alongside Blade, and some slightly hipper dialogue, there’s an issue with Dracula schmoozing his way onto a cruise ship full of jaded rich assholes. Wolfman also has a weakened Dracula assaulted by a motorcycle gang straight out of The Born Losers, and spends an entire issue on Dracula’s revenge against them later. That story is particularly crazy, as it also features a man in an iron lung seeking revenge on his enemies through voodoo! Since he’s paralyzed, he uses a set of robot arms to stick pins into the voodoo dolls. Brilliant! This is the kind of matter-of-fact random insanity I’ve always loved in the series, and it’s good to see so early in the run.

Wolfman also brings an element of his super hero writing to bear on the series in his depiction of Dracula’s vampire powers. Kept (perhaps wisely) vague by the earlier writers, Wolfman takes pains to nail down exactly what his title character can do, and then uses those abilities with great effectiveness. Granted, it gets old fast watching Dracula turn to mist every time somebody gets close enough to stake him, and one would hope that Our Heroes would just stop trying after a while, stealth and trickery seeming much more effective strategies. But it’s pretty cool the first time it happens, and Dracula’s mockery of his enemies’ attempts to assassinate him are pretty hysterical.

Every issue of Tomb was drawn, of course, by the magnificent Gene Colan, and it’s Colan’s contributions to the book that make it palatable even through the bad stuff. Colan was born to draw a book like this, his fascinations with clothing, ugly people, and dramatic lighting making him perfect for horror comics. He’s obviously rushed at times, and the lush style I remember is still developing on these early issues. Colan was more than capable of putting together a bad panel, or even a bad page, at this point in his career, and his attempt at inking himself on the first issue is surprisingly rough. He was also saddled with some bad inkers at times, including the ever-present Vince Colletta. But Jack Abel does some very nice stuff with Colan’s distinctive line later in the book, and about half the issues here were inked by Colan’s most enduring artistic partner, Tom Palmer. The greatness of their later partnership isn’t always on display in these early days, but it shines through on the Ilsa Strangway issues in particular.

And when Colan and his collaborators are on (which fortunately is most of the time), it’s beautiful stuff. He excels at deep shadows, and bearded men, and figures draped in capes and trench coats. Dracula’s cape in this series has always particularly amused me. You’d think that Colan would play up the cape as bat wings, but no. It’s midnight blue, with a red lining, and a ridiculously high collar. But it’s not just a single layer cape, oh no! There’s a shoulder cape layered on top of the longer one! It‘s this giant, voluminous thing, and it make Dracula seem that much larger than life underneath it. In many ways, it’s the quintessential Gene Colan design, and it’s fun to see him play around with it.

But Gene Colan is just one of many things Tomb of Dracula had going for it. It’s packed with fun horror trappings, insane ideas, some great and unusual heroes, and the one thing I haven’t talked about much at all yet: an enduring central character. The series couldn’t succeed without good heroes to oppose him, of course, and Tomb delivers those in spades. But, as the title implies, it’s Dracula’s book. The issues that deal primarily with his machinations apart from the good guys are often the strongest. Later in the run, Wolfman would give a bit more depth to the character, and even play him as an evil hero from time to time. Here, he’s all aristocratic arrogance and unerring survival instinct, but he still carries the series effortlessly. It’s a tribute to his strength, and to the comparative quality of the writing, that a villain book could last so long in a comics market so dominated by the good guys.

So. Tomb of Dracula is not a good comic by modern standards. It’s very good for its period, however, and is truly one of the all-time great Marvel series. It’s part of that “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” editorial philosophy that ruled Marvel in the 70s, and that lead to other great comics like Howard the Duck or Master of Kung-Fu. All this stuff was coming out when I was a kid, and it shaped how I look at the medium. I’m hard-wired from childhood to view vampires and karate guys and satirical ducks as equal in status to the spandex crowd, and I still seek out that sort of variety in my dork entertainment today. Thank god for that, and thank god for Tomb of Dracula.

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