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Reopening The Tomb of Dracula

Longbox Graveyard #70

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I last cracked open the door to the Tomb of Dracula. My original examination of this seminal series yielded a slight disappointment, and as was the case with my long-delayed Master of Kung Fu review debuting here earlier this month, I’ve hesitated to return to Tomb for fear it would not live up to my memories. But I needn’t have worried — this second trip into Dracula’s Tomb was better than the first, reaffirming my affection for this unique Marvel Comics series.

Sometimes it just takes awhile before a book finds its way. In my review of the book’s first two dozen issues, it wasn’t until #23 that I thought Tomb started to get traction, when series maestro Marv Wolfman settled into his second year on the series. After experimenting both with single-issue stories and a multi-part Doctor Sun min-epic, Tomb of Dracula found its footing with a series of small and personal stories that showcase the strengths of this series.

Just as martial artist Shang-Chi could not compete with wall-crawlers or super-soldiers (and his series developed a new approach to fighting and action to compensate), so too was Dracula fighting an uphill battle compared to the villains of the Marvel Universe. Dracula is a terrifying and ancient evil, but he isn’t the world-shaking menace of a Doctor Doom or Galactus.

As headlining Marvel villains go, Dracula’s closest contemporary might be the Red Skull, but Dracula would never enjoy the Skull’s visual, action-packed opportunities to express his villainy. It just didn’t play for Dracula to run the usual Marvel bad guy play book — to rob a bank, attack the Baxter Building, or threaten to conquer the world (though Dracula would try to do that, in time).

Instead, Dracula would express his evil in deeply personal ways — by torturing his enemies; by corrupting youth and innocence; even by attacking faiths and beliefs.

Issue #26 opens a three-part tale revolving around “The Chimera,” an ancient artifact granting immense power for good or evil. Witnessing his father’s death at the hands of mysterious agents who would claim the artifact for their own, the Chimera falls to David Eschol to protect. A bookish Talmudic scholar, Eschol is immediately in over his head, uncomprehending of the evil forces converging upon him — Dracula chief among them. Disoriented after the attack that kills his father, David falls into Dracula’s web through a “chance” encounter with Shiela Whittier, Dracula’s mortal love interest introduced in issue #23, now acting as Dracula’s thrall.

In short order, Whittier delivers David to her master.

His sense of reality overturned, David’s first encounter with Dracula would also be a test of his faith.

Here are high stakes indeed — the power of God over evil, the relationship between free will and faith — cast front and center by Dracula’s cold assurance that it is his destiny to rule the human race. For all his faith, poor David is no match for Dracula, and would surely have met his death at Dracula’s hands were not all three characters abruptly captured by mysterious agents at the end of the issue.

Issue #30 finds Dracula bound and humiliated, taunted by an mysterious voice and put in his place with a right cross from a righteous cross …

But Dracula is not alone in his torment. Through the power of the Chimera, Shiela and David are tortured, too, with poor, doomed Shiela in her mind finally receiving her heart’s delight.

These intimate and emotional assaults act like a kind of burning fuse, raising the stakes for Dracula’s inevitable escape, when he takes his revenge in an especially personal fashion.

But something is happening to Dracula, as he allows that he’s having feelings for Shiela Winters, even as he dismisses the notion that his foes can gain power over him by threatening her. The extent to which Shiela has come to command Dracula’s heart is obvious by the issue’s end, when Shiela has smashed the devilish Chimera statue to bits, and quits the scene on David Eschol’s arm, leaving an uncharacteristically impotent Dracula in her wake.

I can’t determine whether it’s more satisfying to see Dracula get his revenge or his comeuppance, a unique characteristic of Tomb of Dracula, and an aspect that I think is grounded in the personal nature of the series. The stakes are just so different here from other Marvel books, owing to Marv Wolfman’s rich characterizations, and Gene Colan’s flowing pencils, in top form here communicating grounded and emotional action.

And so closes the three-part “Chimera” arc, but now Tomb of Dracula is truly starting to simmer. These characters will all be heard from again, and subplots I’ve not mentioned here will also boil over as Dracula tracks down the mysterious nemesis who captured him. This is a solid tale, and a sample of better things to come, as the Tomb of Dracula storytelling DNA really starts to mature.

I will resolve to return to Dracula’s Tomb before another year gets behind me!

  • Title: Tomb of Dracula
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1972-79
  • Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #26-28, November 1974 – January 1975
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B
  • Read The Reprints: Longbox Graveyard Store

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on October 17, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. I could be wrong, but wasn’t “Mae Li” also the name of Pussy Galore’s assistant from Goldfinger? :)

    You’ve posted some splendid segments from the TOD series–it’s a very good sampling of the quality work in this title.

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  2. This is another thing, like Master of Kung Fu, that I never got into because I was strictly into superhero comics, but also like MOKF, something I’d like to catch up on. The story you’ve shown here looks really good. I’m thinking I’ll have to pick up Essential Tomb of Dracula, if it’s still in print. I prefer color but this seems like something that would lend itself well to black and white, and allow me to save money.

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    • Both Tomb and MoKF have stood the test of time better than many Marvel superhero books of their era and both series are well worth remembering and reading, either as nostalgia or for the very first time.

      My first Tomb of Dracula review used images from Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 1, which even if not in print can still be had cheaply on eBay. It does lose a bit for not being in color but being a horror book it isn’t as big a step down as you experience with a superhero title in Essentials format. The whole series is also available digitally (and in color) as part of Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited subscription program.

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      • Thanks for the tip. I’m not that crazy about digital comics, but an unlimited subscription could wind up saving me a lot of money on things I don’t feel I need a hard copy for, and this is something that probably qualifies.

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  3. I have to admit that despite being a fan of Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan I never got into Tomb of Dracula back in the day but I’m interested in doing so now. What do you recommend as the best way to jump in? Are the early stories any good? Or is there a particular issue or run that it’s best to start with? I am OK buying collected editions but the price for the Omnibus seems a bit steep and there are all sorts of gripes about cheap binding…

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    • I covered the first twenty-five issues of Tomb in my review last year — the executive summary is that the first dozen or so are wobbly as the book passes from writer to writer, but it starts to stabilize when Wolfman comes aboard around issue #12, and then becomes the book I remember with Giant-Size Chillers #1 and Tomb #23. All of those books are reprinted in Essentials Volume 1, and Gene Colan is aboard from the first issue, so it’s not a bad place to start if you want to read from the beginning, but expect to roll your eyes a bit at the first year of the book.

      If you want to jump in “when it gets good,” you can safely begin with Essentials Volume 2, which should start with issue #26 and include the story I’ve reviewed here. The Omnibuses are pricey, and probably not an option unless you are already a confirmed fan. The stories are also available digitally, as I noted upthread to Dave B — you could buy a Marvel sub for a month for ten bucks, and read the whole run that way, which isn’t a bad option if you aren’t concerned with actually owning the stories.

      There are also more affordable color collections that I think are still available — I have them listed in my long-neglected Amazon store — but I’m not sure which volumes you need to grab to find these particular stories.

      I will have another Tomb review before the end of the year (he said, crossing his fingers), and I hope to continue looking at this series in months to come, so if you do decide to jump into Tomb there will be an opportunity to read along with Longbox Graveyard.

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  4. ‘never really appreciated (or read) Tomb of Dracula; but you’re right there was subtlety and Difference here – nice

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    • It certainly didn’t occur to me at the time I read them, but I think one of the reasons why Master of Kung Fu and Tomb of Dracula both enjoyed much longer runs than the other martial arts or horror exploitation books of their day (aside from the quality of the books themselves) is that they discovered a formula that let them compete effectively with superhero books, providing a different flavor than the superhero books had on offer. For MoKF, it was a new take on action; for Tomb, it was long-form development of a supporting cast and the very personal rivalries between that cast and Dracula.

      Without those hooks, these books would never have stood out in a line offering superheroic action and such larger-than-life villainy. It is a shame of course that these books aren’t better known or still going concerns, but they are also products of their age and the miracle is that they existed at all. Well worth tracking down.

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      • concurred: I did get to read a bit of Shang Chi second hand, but even then felt a quality of envisioning that suddenly ‘turbo’d the art of storytelling and especially, as you observe, the film-like framed break-down of action

        this – the warp-factoring of storytelling and art – was the most exciting about comics in the 70s; there was already the long legacy of the art from the 40s and 50s, there were the steps into character and angst of Marvel’s 60s and then the Brave New Adventures that somehow got through in the 70s even though they were never going to be big sellers: Shang Chi, Tomb of Dracula, but then Steve Gerber’s Man Thing and Howard the Duck, McGregor’s & Graham’s Black Panther, McGregor’s & Russell’s Killraven, Moench & Buckler’s Deathlok, Starlin’s Warlock & Captain Marvell (not to mention DC’s Wrightson’s Swamp Thing, Kaluta’s Shadow); you have treated a number of these books and looked at some of their inadequacies, but nevertheless also, they were exciting because they played with the FORM of the art and did things with it which opened such possibility and wonder …

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        • And nearly every book you mention there is a favorite, and as you note I have reviewed several of them here at the blog. I have offered low or average grades to some of them … but I hope it goes without saying that if I review a book at all, it is a cut above the majority of books from that time that don’t merit mention in the first place. I also need to schedule a few of those books for a second look (such as McGregor’s Black Panther, even Starlin’s Captain Marvel) as I think they would rate higher were I reading them today.

          Thanks for reminding me of Wrightson’s Swamp Thing, I need to re-read that soon. I have a reprint of the original run out in my Accumulation, somewhere. I’ve been working up to revisiting Alan Moore’s run on the book but it might be better to start with the originals.

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  5. I ❤ you guys! ❤ when you get discussing comics. You guys know everything!

    I’m just a BIG fan of all things old school Dracula. So, totally diggin’ it!

    Halloween is such a great opportunity to visit such monster subjects, too! Wish I had more Time.

    Great read, readers, comments and panels!

    Hope you had a spooky day! 💀💋

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  6. I’ve already made clear my love of Master Of Kung Fu in your earliest post and that also applies here to Tomb of Dracula as well. Once Marv and Gene figured it out, it really stands out from that era.

    I always liked that it felt completely disconnected from the Marvel Universe. It was moody, it was creepy and it blurred the lines between good and evil in ways that you weren’t going to get in Fantastic Four. Marv created a deep bench of supporting characters and moved them around in interesting directions.

    With the traditional super-hero books at Marvel, there were certain limitations – even if the FF disbanded they’d get back together, Aunt May would always live, and Cap would fight the Red Skull. But I always had the feeling that ToD had fewer restrictions and that anything could happen.

    MoKF and ToD mostly resemble long-form television these days or 1970s soap operas – long arcing stories, shifts in character loyalties, a large cast, and storylines that weave in and out, get dropped and picked up again. Claremont did similar work with X-Men.

    Good post! Looking forward to your next read of ToD.

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    • Thanks, Tom, and you are right, the book worked best when it was isolated from the rest of the Marvel Universe. I remember now that my first exposure to Marvel’s Dracula was in Giant-Size Spider-Man #1, a crossover story that didn’t work at all, and that poisoned me on Marvel’s take on the character for years. I don’t think I got around to picking up an issue of Tomb until the book was well into the #50s, and I’ve been tracking down back issues ever since.

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  7. These classics have passed all the tests of time, and they can still increase my heartbeat :P

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    • This Tomb of Dracula run really was unique — moody, atmospheric, and a departure from the comics of the day (though still firmly a part of the Marvel house formula). They are worth remembering, and revisiting. I’ll post about the series again in October.

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  8. Where is the vampire slayer? Dracula comes back to life if he exists we need a vampire slayer to turn him to dust.

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    • One of the things that really drive the narrative in this series is the rotating cast of vampire slayers. If it was just Dracula every month, the series would grind to a halt, but at various times we have Quincy Harker, Rachel Van Helsing, Frank Drake, Blade, Hannibal King, and others all taking their turn at bat (so to speak) to take on Dracula. And sometimes they even succeed — seems like once every dozen issues or so, someone manages to stake Drac, but of course he always rises again.

      it was this rich supporting cast of the hunters and the hunted that made Tomb of Dracula one of the best comics of its era. Recommended.

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