The late, great, Gene Colan was a signature Marvel artist, and aside from Daredevil, the two characters with which I most associate him are Doctor Strange and Dracula. So it seems only natural that those two characters would clash in a two-part story starting inside the pages of “Comicdom’s Number 1 Fear Magazine” — Tomb of Dracula!
This crossover began in Tomb of Dracula #44, smack-dab in the middle of the classic run by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, and Tom Palmer. I’ve sung the praises of Tomb of Dracula here at Longbox Graveyard before (twice!) — it really might have been the finest Marvel comic of its age. And one of the reasons the book worked so well was that writer and editor Marv Wolfman largely kept Dracula and his tales sequestered from the rest of the Marvel Universe. While Drac would encounter Spider-Man and Thor in other titles, Marv jealously guarded the door of Dracula’s own book, ceding to editorial pressure to more closely connect Tomb of Dracula with the Marvel Universe only through crossovers with otherworldly and supernatural characters like Silver Surfer, Brother Voodoo, and (in our case) Doctor Strange!
The first part of the tale, written by Marv Wolfman, opened with Strange mourning the death of his faithful manservant, Wong, beneath the flashing fangs of a vampire!
Just look at Gene Colan’s smokey pencils, beautifully illuminated by Tom Palmer’s perfect inks! There’s never been a better team for supernatural comics storytelling!
But this wasn’t just any vampire — this was Dracula, the Lord of Vampires, as Strange discovered when his sorcery allowed him to experience Wong’s final moments.
Harnessing the fathomless powers of the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto (which then, as now, could do about anything the writer needed it to do), Doctor Strange tracked the “life-patterns” of Dracula from the scene of the crime to Dracula’s lair in Boston.
I love how Colan’s “camera” pushes in on Dracula, starting with his open coffin, then Dracula in repose, and then Dracula alert to Strange’s intrusion. Looking at this sequence, did you “see” Dracula’s eyes snap open between the last two panels? That’s the magic of comics, boys and girls — like Scott McCloud noted, comics are as much about what you don’t see between the panels as what you see in the panels themselves.
After that? Well, it’s on!
But this battle between Dracula and Strange wasn’t the usual Marvel Comics Fist City beat-down, and it wasn’t even a garden-variety Doctor Strange ectoplasmic duel of ghosts.
No, to battle Dracula, Strange invoked the “Images of Ikonn” to delve into Dracula’s “passions and fears,” taking Dracula back to the moment his mortal self fell on the battlefield in a cavalry duel with Turkish invaders.
It’s kind of dirty pool, to be honest.
For a couple panels, there, we could almost sympathize with Dracula, and this was intentional. Marv Wolfman considered Dracula the “protagonist” of Tomb of Dracula, rather than the hero, but as readers we still needed to get on board with Dracula, and moments like this served to humanize him. We see Dracula as a mortal terrified of his pending (un)death, we see his noble sacrifice in defense of his homeland, and can kind of feel bad for him … but it doesn’t take much for Dracula to revert to form, showing the dark side of his noble nature with his incredulity that this conflict originated with the death of “… a mere hireling … a cretinous menial … a whimpering domestic.”
(Don’t take a job with Dracula, folks).
Taken aback by Dracula’s sudden recovery — and reluctant to use his “more potent magics” for fear of rendering Dracula incapable of restoring Wong to life — Doctor Strange was quickly mesmerized by Dracula.
Mesmerized … and slain!
How’s that for a vintage Marvel shock ending? Doctor Strange is dead? Say it isn’t so!
Fortunately, we needn’t wait even one week to see how this one turns out … the tale continued in Doctor Strange #14!
While this issue was written by Steve Englehart (who firmly put his stamp on the story, as we shall see), the book was illustrated by the self-same team of Colan and Palmer, and also edited by Marv Wolfman, resulting in an unusually coherent crossover, at least by Marvel standards.
The issue opened with Dracula gloating over his fallen foe, casting Strange’s body into a dungeon, where he might rot until rising, three days later, as Dracula’s undead slave.
But in his arrogance, Dracula didn’t reckon that Doctor Strange might be “no stranger to death,” as we learn that Strange escaped death by leaving his body instants before Dracula killed him at the end of last issue. But now, Strange was trapped outside his body, in astral form, with only three days to concoct a solution to his dilemma.
So what did Strange do?
Why, he thought, of course!
But all the thinking in the world didn’t solve Doc’s trouble. After trying to distract Dracula with visions and spells — and nearly catching Dracula out in the daylight — Strange was still a helpless, disembodied spectator when Dracula returned three days later. But Dracula was taking no chances, and in an odd reversal of roles, he sought to put a final end to the undead Doctor Strange with a stake through the heart!
Right on cue, Strange rose as a vampire, and we finally got some fist-and-fang action, as Dracula battled with a thing that was not-quite-Strange: Doctor Strange’s body, given in to dark vampiric impulses, while Strange’s conscience was helpless to intervene.
And it didn’t take long for Dracula to gain the upper hand against a Doctor Strange reduced to bestial impulses.
I love it when Drac calls someone a “clod.” If your boss calls you a clod — or “cretin,” another favorite — then he’s probably a super-villian
It’s when Dracula had Doctor Strange on the ropes that something intriguing and even a little profound occurred. When Dracula asserted himself as “Lord” while strangling the life from Strange, from the depths of his possessed soul, Doctor Strange called on the power of the Christian god to save his life!
It’s a bold turn of events, and something Steve Englehart didn’t shy away from — he once featured God Himself in a Doctor Strange story, then authored a bogus fan letter to deflect scrutiny — but what’s most interesting to me about this moment is what it asks about Doctor Strange’s own spirituality.
Does Doctor Strange believe in the Christian god, or is He just another deity in the Rolodex, to be invoked like Cyttorak or Vishanti? In his moment of greatest extremis, it is the Christian god that Strange turns to for salvation. Is Strange a man of faith, or is he just happy to use the best tool at hand?
Either way, that cross-like burst of light sure did the job …
Strange’s body and soul become one again even as Dracula is sent down to defeat, but Englehart implies that the will and even the cruelty required to overcome Dracula’s evil doesn’t come entirely from the divine force Strange invoked — that the “… true Dr. Strange would find no pleasure in his (Dracula’s) pain … that his tormentor (Strange) has been touched with Dracula’s own evil …” This conclusion points to an (ahem) strange duality, with the power of God getting Strange back on his feet, but Dracula’s own dark power of evil being the special sauce that let Strange finish the deed and kill Dracula for all time.
(Or at least until the next issue of Tomb of Dracula!)
And with Strange’s (and Wong’s) souls miraculously restored through Dracula’s death (could Drac have died for their sins? Nah …), that brings this tale to a close, and with it this installment of Longbox Graveyard!
So, who do you think would win, in a battle between Dracula and the Sorcerer Supreme? Please let me know what you think of this story and Steve Englehart’s Strange cosmology in the comments section below!
MONDAY: Tournament of Terror Championship Round!
The most amazing thing happened to me!
Last night I went to bed cranky, angry, and full of bitterness about the many Marvel Value Stamp indignities I’ve chronicled all month here at Longbox Graveyard.
I was filled with silly notions about a lifetime of regret from carving up funnybooks that turned out to be worth real cash money, all these decades later.
But when I woke up … those feelings were just gone.
I felt great!
I mean, look at those stamps above. They’re charming! And imagine little twelve-year-old me, eagerly turning to the letters page of his fresh-bought comics, and cutting out the newest stamps. Oh, it’s charming.
And these stamps, in particular, represent such a positive series of role models. Kingpin is a champion of his city, and a force for urban renewal. J. Jonah Jameson, the original crusading reporter, and the enemy of Fake News! The Leader … that guy knows best, let me tell you. The Rhino, the Stranger, Dormammu — pillars of the community, all of them! Only Ghost Rider is less than wholesome. “Biker Types” are anti-social!
Here’s the very reasonable price I ended of paying for those cute stamps!
- #73 Kingpin: Power Man #21 – $9
- #74 The Stranger: Marvel Premiere #18 – $21
- #76 Dormammu: Doctor Strange #5 – $17
- #80 Ghost Rider: Thor #229 – $10
- #81 Rhino: Ghost Rider #9 – $21
- #87 J. Jonah Jameson: Marvel Team-Up #25 – $8
- #88 The Leader: Avengers #129 – $19
That brings the running total replacement cost for my Value Stamp issues to $3136. A pittance. I really don’t know what I was upset about!
You know, if my rantings here this past month have infected any of you … I am sincerely sorry. But better than apologies, I can offer a cure! I found this darling little seed pod under my bed. Let me bring you one, you will feel so much better after a good night’s sleep.
It’s no bother.
Oh, no, I insist.
There is no pain. Suddenly, while you’re asleep, they’ll absorb your minds, your memories and you’re reborn into an untroubled world … Tomorrow you’ll be one of us … There’s no need for love … Love. Desire. Ambition. Faith. Without them, life is so simple, believe me.
TOMORROW: Dr. Strange vs. Dracula!
This month at Longbox Graveyard is all about monsters, and while Swamp Thing isn’t the first of his kind (that would be The Heap), and not even the first muck monster from the Big Two (as Marvel’s Man-Thing debuted several months earlier), Swamp Thing is certainly the most famous and best-realized of all the the many fiends stalking the four-color funny book bogs.
Originally appearing in a short story in House of Secrets #92, Swamp Thing made his first full-length appearance in somewhat altered form in 1972’s Swamp Thing #1. The product of a close collaboration between writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing is one of the greatest creature designs in all of comics. With his craggy brows and half-skull face, Swamp Thing is perched on the edge of uncanny valley, with a visage by turns soulful and monstrous, the perfect mask of torment for forlorn man-turned-monster Alec Holland.
Later creators — including luminaries like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Brian K. Vaughn, and Scott Snyder — would develop Swamp Thing into an elemental champion at the center of a complex and expansive comics cosmology, but the original Wein & Wrightson version of the character is simplicity itself. Tasked with creating a bio-restorative formula by the government, scientist-couple Alec and Linda Holland retire to a remote swampland laboratory, where they are immediately menaced by thugs intent on stealing their knowledge. One thing leads to another, and before long a bomb has gone off and a flaming Alec Holland has plunged into the muck, only to rise as the avenging muck monster, Swamp Thing!
This is a taut and effective horror comic, strongly-written by author Len Wein and lent an extra layer of creepy by the uncredited letterer, who employs drippy caption boxes to good effect. Perhaps that letterer was artist Bernie Wrightson, who put his stamp on every other aspect of the book, creating a swamp-gothic look on the fly — a world of shadowy locales that are still perfectly detailed, and populated with heavy-featured thugs rendered with such skill that you don’t recognize the degree to which the art uses comic exaggeration until you’ve read the book two or three times.
Wrightson would go on to become one of the most celebrated artists in the medium, but he was largely unknown when Swamp Thing debuted … and what a debut it is. This is a mature work with a rare balance of style, mood, character, and storytelling.
It’s also a simple story, as befits the best origin tales, setting the table for stories to follow by introducing the main characters, and establishing our (anti) hero’s all-important powers and foibles. Of interest to fans of later incarnations of Swamp Thing (or readers more familiar with the minimally-sentient Man-Thing), this version of Swamp Thing is fully aware of what he is.
Alec Holland’s scientific mind instantly comprehends what has happened to him, and there is a minimum of mooning around and identity crisis before Swamp Thing gets down to the business of revenge.
And that’s the long and short of it, really — in “Dark Genesis” we have a bare bones Silver Age horror comic, an on-the-rails story that could pass for a one-and-done entry from EC’s Tales From The Crypt. Swamp Thing’s many complications and evolutions would come later, and it is a testament to the solid foundation laid down by Wrightston and Wein that this most basic muck monster is still surprising and delighting us forty years later. I personally revere Alan Moore’s 1980s reinvention of this character, but there’s also room in my collection for this simpler version of Swamp Thing, an effective and eminently memorable character in its own right. You won’t find this 20-cent comic in dollar boxes any longer, but affordable reprints are readily available, should you wish to familiarize yourself with the original adventures of this greatest of the swamp monsters! (A digital version of the story was also available for free direct from DC Comics at the time of this writing).
(And if you want even more Swamp Thing, check out my review of the rest of the series, here!)
TOMORROW: Marvel Value Stamps!