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Doctor Strange vs. Dracula!

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!

Tomb of Dracula #44

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!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

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.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

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.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

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!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

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.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

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!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

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!

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.

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

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!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

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!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

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.

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

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!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

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 …

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

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!

Originally published as part of Super-Blog Team-Up, in Longbox Graveyard #164, November 2016.

MONDAY: Tournament of Terror Championship Round!

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Reopening The Tomb of Dracula

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

Originally published as Longbox Graveyard #70, October 2012.

TOMORROW: Marvel Value Stamps!

King of the Monsters!

The long and winding road that has been the Longbox Graveyard has taken some unexpected side trips. When I began this blog I intended it only as a means of keeping myself on track as I cataloged and sold off my Accumulation of unwanted comics.

But a funny thing happened on the way to eBay … I started reading my comics again, and found that I kinda sorta still liked them. After decades away from funny books, suddenly I was hip deep in the buggers, not only reviewing favorite books like Conan and Thor, but also looking at newer series like Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, and even exploring the intersection of comics and technology with books like Operation Ajax and the vintage comics on offer through Marvel’s Digital subscription service.

Surprises all! What I never expected — with so many issues of Master of Kung Fu, Fantastic Four, Batman, Daredevil, and Swamp Thing as yet unexamined — was that I would devote an entire column to Marvel’s Godzilla.

Inspiration comes when you least expect it. There I was, arguing the merits of John Carter with fellow blogger Mars Will Send No More when the conversation turned — as it will among learned men — to the merits of fictional T-Rexes. Before I knew it I was committed not only to reviewing Godzilla, but also to participating in a March Madness T-Rex Beat-Down tournament (for the results of which, mouse over to Mars’ blog).

Mars and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but I echo his blog comments excluding Godzilla from our tournament, and not merely because Godzilla isn’t a proper T-Rex. As Mars put it, “… Godzilla annihilates everything, everyone, everywhere, always. And any story where he didn’t is a lie.” Godzilla is an outsized character who can’t help but dominate any scene he enters, whether he’s sharing the stage with a field of cinematic dinosaurs or the headline characters of the Marvel Universe.

Godzilla annihilates the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier (and the Golden Gate Bridge for good measure)

And so what of Marvel’s Godzilla? Does this big green galoot annihilate everything and everyone, everywhere and always? Or is Marvel’s version of the King of Monsters a big pile of lies?

My plan was to review just those Godzilla books I had in the Accumulation — issues one to six or so — but after the first half dozen books I found myself unaccountably caught up in the admittedly thin story. So rather than dump my Godzillas for pennies on eBay, I instead went into WonderCon determined to fill out my run, but found that the dealers on the convention floor thought their Godzilla back-issues were worth ten bucks a pop.

Hey, I like the book, but there’s a limit. My first impulse was to review what I had and offer the first “incomplete” grade on the Longbox Graveyard report card, but then thirteen bucks and a trip to eBay secured a copy of the black & white Essential Godzilla, and the great Godzilla review project was on once more!

So what was the deal with Godzilla, anyways? The year was 1977, and Marvel would try just about anything, including adding the Godzilla license to the Marvel Universe. What could have been a disaster was instead a workman-like book in the tradition of late 1970s Marvel, where solid editorial standards and dependable mid-list talent ensured a firm floor for the entire comics line. It’s rare to find a truly dreadful Marvel book from the late 70s, and thanks to an energetic effort from the Doug Moench on scripts and a professional job from penciller Herb Trimpe we have two years of Godzilla books that for the most part deliver the goods — neither very good nor very bad, but always entertaining and probably better than the series had any right to be.

A snappy first issue introduces Godzilla to the Marvel Universe (and you can read that issue online, in it’s entirety, over at Mars Will Send No More). It does feel like Marvel was hedging their bets, at least at first. Pitting Godzilla against S.H.I.E.L.D. was an inspired choice, but we get the S.H.I.E.L.D. B-team here, with secondary Helicarriers commanded by Dum Dum Dugan rather than the iconic Nick Fury. When Godzilla stomps Alaska, Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego in short order, it really should get the attention of the Avengers and Fantastic Four (but we will have to wait until the end of the series for that moment). Rather than scrambling even the B-team Defenders to the rescue, we get the forgettable Champions for a serviceable superhero battle with the Big G most memorable for Hercules taking down Godzilla with a judo flip.

The Marvel Universe has always been New York-centric, but you figure it would get national attention when Godzilla destroys Hoover Dam, stomps Las Vegas, and wrecks Salt Lake City during a battle with bizarre space monsters … but Godzilla is still regarded as a hoax when he finally makes it to Manhattan in issue #20, and only then do Marvel’s most iconic heroes scramble for a pretty decent superhero fight against Godzilla.

(image grabbed from Comic Vine)

But I’m not sure Moench could have handled Godzilla any other way. In contemporary terms, Godzilla attacking the United States would warrant a summer’s worth of Marvel Comics cross-overs, bleeding into every book in the line, but in 1978 Moench and Marvel elected to keep Godzilla partitioned in his own little bubble of the Marvel Universe. The only alternative would have been to go right at it — to deeply integrate Godzilla in the line with increasingly improbable cross-overs every issue, which would have been a hoot with an absurdist writer like Steve Gerber or David Anthony Kraft, but there’s no way it could have been a sustainable premise.

Instead, Moench went to the Marvel monster playbook, adopting the tropes on display in books like Man-Thing, Tomb of Dracula, and even Hulk, where his title character is a remote and sometimes unfathomable anti-hero, while the subplots and characterization revolve around supporting characters trying to help or hinder the star of the book. And this proves one of the weaknesses of Godzilla. Along with the aforementioned S.H.I.E.L.D. back-up squad we have a team of generic Japanese scientists trying to stop Godzilla, including a twelve-year-old boy who (of course) bonds with a giant robot to fight the monster that he is convinced is good at heart.

Godzilla versus obligatory giant robot Red Ronin

In the first year of the book, Moench also gets some play out of examining Godzilla’s motivation. Is he a rampaging monster, or a misunderstood victim? The cast eventually comes down on Godzilla’s side, but Dum Dum Dugan needs some convincing.

The second year of the book is a little more whimsical, and while the plot contrivances of pitting Godzilla against cowboys (in a distant echo of Valley of the Gwangi), or having Godzilla shrunk down by Hank Pym’s reducing gas to fight rats in the sewers of New York will make Godzilla purists apoplectic, I found the less leaden tone of these later tales more entertaining. The last half of the book also gave me a renewed appreciation for Herb Trimpe, about whom I always thought the best I could say is that he wasn’t Sal Buscema. Trimpe struggles with facial expressions — Dum Dum’s cigar pops out his mouth the hundred-odd times he wears his “surprised” face, which is identical to his “angry” face. There are plenty of those recycled Trimpe panels where a character’s foreshortened index finger fills half the frame, as someone points, blank-faced, at something happening beyond our view. But Trimpe has real strengths when it comes to draftsmanship, and the backgrounds of his New York are appropriately detailed and authentic. The two-part western interlude also let Trimpe draw horses — Trimpe got his start doing western comics, and he draws good horses, something that’s not as common among comic book artists as you might think.

And he pulled off the odd inspired Godzilla panel, too.

In all, Godzilla does what you’d expect. Our hero stomps a bunch of cities, and he battles but is never really beaten by S.H.I.E.L.D. and Marvel’s superheroes. He crosses-over with Devil Dinosaur, fights a sewer rat, and he shares a panel with Spider-Man. He’s at the center of some ridiculous story lines (at one point reduced to human-size, led around the New York Bowery in a hat and trench coat!), but it didn’t bother me as I’m one of those ignorant gaijin who finds it hard to parse “Godzilla” and “quality” in the same sentence. No matter these indignities, Godzilla emerges from his weird, twenty-four-issue Marvel odyssey with his reputation intact, clearly still King of the Monsters, and having delivered a solid, entertaining run of comic books.

trench coat Godzilla!

Godzilla in a trench coat! (image via Tars Tarkas.net)

In all, Marvel’s Godzilla isn’t a bad read. I won’t tumble to the inflated prices those WonderCon guys want for this book, but I’d happily fish an issue or two out of the dollar box, and the out-of-print but readily-available black & white Essential Godzilla is an inexpensive way to experience this series for yourself. Where else where you see Thor bonk Godzilla on the nose with his enchanted hammer?

Yep, that happened. Godzilla really was part of the Marvel Universe! A second-class citizen, sure, and this might seem a second-rate book. But Godzilla is not a second-rate effort. Sometimes comics are art, but most of the time comics are just comics, and as a guy who wrote a lot of inventory assignments himself, I have genuine admiration for the team that turned in such consistent effort along the way to bringing this self-contained run to a satisfactory conclusion. I doubt I’ll go back to this series, but I’m happy to have spent a couple nights with Godzilla, stomping through the Marvel Universe. Hail to the King!

Originally published as Longbox Graveyard #43, April 2014.

MONDAY: The Tournament of Terror Begins!

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