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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

NEXT WEEK: #71 Guide To Comic Books On Instagram

Super Tuesday: Gene The Dean

This week’s “Super Tuesday” blast from the past is a Marvel house ad promoting their black & white magazines line. Aside from Crazy and Savage Sword of Conan, Marvel had trouble getting traction with their superhero magazine publications, which sometimes explored more mature content than was common in their regular color comic books.

This ad is primarily notable for Gene Colan‘s art. Dracula and Howard the Duck are both signature Gene Colan characters, but the rest were less commonly penciled by Gene the Dean, particularly Conan. Near as I can tell, Colan’s experience with Conan was limited to “The Curse of the Monolith,” which appeared in Savage Sword of Conan #33.

Have I overlooked another Colan Conan classic? Sound off in comments, below!

And join me tomorrow when I return to what may be Gene The Dean’s finest work — Tomb of Dracula!

TOMORROW AT LONGBOX GRAVEYARD: Reopening The Tomb of Dracula

The Coming of … The Falcon!

The Coming of … The Falcon!

My new Dollar Box column is now live over at StashMyComic.com. This month I break with tradition and review not one … not two … but three issues in one column with The Coming of the Falcon!

This is the Falcon’s origin story from Captain America #117-119. It features some great Gene Colan art, the Red Skull, the Cosmic Cube, the aforementioned Falcon, and one of the goofiest and most convoluted Silver Age Captain America stories you will ever read!

Save yourself the pain of sorting through the originals and get up-to-speed on all things Falcon over at the Dollar Box! Thanks, as always, to StashMyComics.com for hosting my column!

Panel Gallery: Made It!

Batman, The Grey Knight

Longbox Graveyard #57

The Dark Knight Rises is in theaters this week, the third and final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, which with its bazillion dollars in box office has clearly become the consensus view. Few characters have sported as many different tones as Batman, and fewer still so successfully — between comics, TV, and movie series, there must be a half-dozen different versions of the Batman. The current grim-and-gritty motion picture Batman traces its roots to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, though Nolan’s series has gone on to become a thing of its own, thanks to its not-a-superhero-but-really-a-crime-picture story beats, and a transcendent performance by the late Heath Ledger in the trilogy’s middle installment.

Batman wasn’t always this way, and the Batman of old didn’t become today’s Batman overnight. A couple weeks ago I spotlighted the late 1970’s Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run in Detective that arguably began Batman’s transformation into his modern form, but where was Batman after that series and before Frank Miller put his indelible stamp on the character?

The Batman of the early 1980s was defined by writer Doug Moench. Teamed with a number of pencillers — most notably Gene Colan — Moench’s 80-issue run, published twice monthly in the pages of Detective and Batman, gave us a final look at Batman before Crisis on Infinite Earths and Frank Miller’s vision helped bring down the curtain on the “Bronze Age” of comics.

Overshadowed as it was by the Dark Knight phenomenon, this Doug Moench era has been forgotten by many, and I think unfairly, as it has moments of rich characterization and a couple single-issue stories that hold up well today. To their credit, DC didn’t boot Moench to the curb, no matter how many times Dark Knight went back to press with the flavor fans clearly preferred. Moench’s run came to a celebratory end in Batman #400 … but then it’s like he was never there. Following Moench would be Batman: Year One, and then a run by crime novelist Max Allen Collins, and the modern age of Batman had well and truly begun.

nice cover by Don Newton, who did some of his final work on this series before his untimely death in 1984

So who was the Doug Moench Batman, this transitional shades-of-grey knight before the darkest dawn of our current era?

The familiar Bat-tropes are all on display. Bruce Wayne still moonlights as Batman, hangs around in a cave, and responds to Commissioner Gordon’s Bat-Signal. Gotham City is still menaced by the finest rogue’s gallery in comics, and Batman himself is obsessively driven to bring them all to justice. Batman roars around in his Batmobile accompanied by his young partner, Robin. There are plenty of fist-fights and shadowy show-downs with warehouses full of mooks up to no good, and one or two Gene Colan pages with costumes swirling all over the place.

yes, Harvey Bullock has three hands in that panel, but this is the masterful Gene Colan — just go with it!

Where this Batman most differs from the more recent vintage is in his humanity, or at least his emotionality. Far from the grim workaholic of contemporary Batman stories, Doug Moench’s Batman wrestles with his dual roles as Bruce Wayne and superhero, wondering if he can ever be happy so long as Batman is a part of his life. Themes of mortality and exhaustion are repeated throughout the run, as Batman comes to understand that he may be at his physical peak, but that he’s wearing down under the constant grind of battling Gotham’s crazies. He especially agonizes over whether he should allow Jason Todd to become his partner as Robin, and he gets positively tied in knots shifting his affections between four different women each appealing to a different aspect of his soul.

There’s plenty of crime, punishment, and superheroic punch-outs in this run, but it is in this handling of Batman’s interior life — and the lives of the book’s many supporting characters — where Moench is at his best.

Commissioner Gordon nurses a bad heart and works overtime to bear up under the gaze of his boss, the corrupt Mayor Hamilton Hill, who makes Gordon’s life miserable by saddling him with the piggish and disgraced Harvey Bullock as his assistant. Alfred Pennyworth is distracted from pressing Bruce Wayne’s trousers when his estranged daughter, Julia, re-enters his life. Jason Todd has mood swings and generally acts like a little kid, earning him a contempt from the audience that would famously end in his death by popular demand in a DC Comics telephone poll, but also painting an emotionally accurate portrait of an insecure and needy young man.

Four women form the points of Bruce Wayne and Batman’s emotional compass in this series. Bruce’s relationship with Vicki Vale goes downhill quickly, with Vicki proving demanding and strident; it isn’t long before Bruce has thrown her over, first for a momentary infatuation with Alfred’s daughter, Julia, then for a more serious involvement with Nocturna, one of several new characters Moench adds to the cast in this run.

Nocturna is introduced as a tiresome emo girl, physically and psychologically altered by an astronomy accident (!) rendering her skin white … but she recovers from that ridiculous beginning, and does what many of Moench’s characters do: change and grow as the series evolves. Nocturna puzzles out Batman’s true identity, then tries to ensnare Bruce by mounting a custody challenge for Bruce’s ward (and Robin-to-be) Jason Todd, only to find that her emotional needs are better met trying to be mother to Jason than paramour to Batman.

Along the way, Batman discovers he’s interested in Nocturna only when she’s playing the bad girl, an obsession thrown into stark relief when Catwoman returns to Batman’s life, but our hero finds the old sparks aren’t striking, largely because Catwoman has reformed and the thrill has gone along with her villainy.

Catwoman’s return doesn’t work out so great for anyone

Supporting players get their spotlight time, too. He’s changed a bit since his introduction here, but Harvey Bullock is Moench’s signature and enduring creation in this run. Initially a foil for Commissioner Gorden, the incompetent Bullock changes his tune after driving Gordon to a heart attack, and seeks to atone for past sins by becoming a genuinely dedicated cop. He’s used for comic relief, storming in at the worst moment and trampling on evidence, but he proves to be a genuine and emotionally reliable character, even revealing an interior thoughtfulness through his love of classic film …

… and inspiring a boyish loyalty from Jason Todd, who might see in Bullock a surrogate father more approachable than the remote Batman.

The bad guys are appropriately street-level, with most of their darkness on the inside. There’s the cop killing (and ex-cop) Savage Skull, and the aforementioned Nocturna and her ninja henchman, Night-Thief. Black Mask goes whacko and fashions a mask for himself from his father’s coffin lid, which is pretty wonderful. Moench trots out Batman’s traditional villains, too, but at times this feels compulsory. Batman’s battle with the Riddler was an off-the-shelf tale (though it is hard to be anything but formulaic with a written backwards-by-the book Riddler story), and Moench’s Joker story was a feathered fish, with that villain incongruously trying to set off a Guatemalan civil war. Poison Ivy fared a bit better, as did Deadshot.

Moench’s take on Two-Face was his best of all.

This is a Batman book, so of course it has its gothic shadows, but they aren’t so front-and-center as in contemporary books. This is an old fashioned series, employing storytelling conventions long out of style — like compressed story arcs that rarely run more than an issue or two, and copious use of thought balloons. So, too, is Batman a bit old fashioned, at times daring to smile and even seem happy to do what he does. On his first night’s patrol with his new Robin, Batman is positively giddy compared to the grim Dark Knight of page and screen this past quarter century. Batman even works in a photo opportunity after he and the Boy Wonder clean up a den of inequity.

To be fair, this isn’t a classic run of comics. A few of the storylines overstay their welcome, and the Green Arrow back-up feature in Detective is forgettable, save for a two-part Alan Moore story, and a delightful turn in Detective #559 — a full-length tale where Batman and Oliver Queen go after each other harder than they do the bad guys.

Select single issue stories stand out, like Batman #383, where we see an exhausting night in the life of Batman, or the excusably heavy-handed Detective #550, where Moench tries to get to the heart of what led an otherwise ordinary street thug into a life of crime. A two-part tale in Batman #393-394 reuniting Doug Moench with his Master of Kung Fu partner Paul Gulacy has some tasty art, but the espionage thriller story is a bit muddled.

Moench & Gulacy bring some Master of Kung Fu-style to Batman

In all, though, this is an average run of superhero comics, nudged to just-above-average grade owing to its length, and consistency. I am a big Gene Colan fan, but even Gene is less than extraordinary here, possibly limited by inadequate inkers (the forceful Alfredo Alcala, especially, is a poor fit for Gene’s flowing fog style). Approaching the end of this run in my recent re-read, when the “red skies” of the Crisis on Infinite Earths meta-event signaled that the end was near for the old order at DC, I found that I didn’t sadly shake my head or mourn for what Batman was about to become. I enjoyed this run, and I rank Doug Moench among my favorite comic book authors, but Batman is one of the few comic characters that I think is genuinely better served by his current incarnation. The contemporary Dark Knight may be a little short on melodrama and self-examination, but we have plenty of other superheroes running that playbook. Batman has evolved into a remote and unapproachable legend, but he’s earned that status, and it’s a big part of what makes him unique. Despite my love of Bronze Age comics, I think I’ll stick with the current take on Batman

… but if you want to see Batman before the legend overtook the man, you could do worse than to hunt down this particular run of Bat books, which do offer their own leisurely, introspective, and slow-burning rewards.

  • Titles: Batman & Detective Comics
  • Published By: DC Comics, 1937-2011 (curse you, “New 52” reboot!)
  • Issues Reviewed By The Longbox Graveyard: Batman #360-400, Detective #527-566, June 1983-October 1986
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-plus
  • Own The Originals: Detective & Batman

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #58 Panel Gallery: Holy Hannah!

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