Blog Archives

Tomb It May Concern

I discovered Tomb of Dracula near the end of the book’s run, tumbling to the unapologetic evil of the comic’s title character as he fought to regain his throne as the “Lord of the Vampires.” Though joining an extended storyline in the middle, I was tantalized rather than frustrated by the book’s footnoting and continuity, coming to regard the series one of my favorites of the 1970s. I’ve always wanted to read the series from the start, filling in details of the origin of Blade, the development of the vampire fighters who hunted Dracula, and Drac’s first arch-enemy, the mysterious Doctor Sun.

Fast forward thirty-five years and I am months into this Longbox Graveyard project. Tomb of Dracula made it off Ellis Island with no questions asked, and I’ve filled in a dozen or so back issues at Comic-Con sight unseen. With Halloween bearing down this seemed an excellent opportunity to re-open the Tomb, reading the series from the start, experiencing some new-to-me adventures of the Count and his hunters as I worked forward through the series toward tales I dimly remembered as being superior.

How fared the Count when dragged into the light of day for the ruthless examination of a fifteen-year-old turned fifty? Read on!

Marvel Comics had a long history of monster books, but they weren’t the gothic kind — the fun-seeking bullet that put EC Comics out of business in the 1950s put paid to axe murderers and zombies, leaving Marvel to get their monster kicks with giant, city-stomping freaks like Fin Fang Foom and It, The Living Colossus. But by 1971 the comics code would relax, cracking the vault door for literary monsters in the classic tradition of Dracula and Frankenstein. Comics publishers pounced on this formerly forbidden candy, with Marvel quickly publishing books like Frankenstein Monster (1973-1975), Werewolf By Night (1972-1977), and Adventure Into Fear (1972-1975) featuring Man-Thing and later Morbius the Living Vampire.

The longest-running and greatest Marvel horror book was Tomb of Dracula. Debuting in 1972, and lasting seventy issues, nearly every issue of the run came from the famously stable team of writer Marv Wolfman, penciller Gene Colan, and inker Tom Palmer.

Tomb of Dracula is an old school vampire book, written before Ann Rice, Joss Whedon, Charlaine Harris, and Stephanie Meyer popularized the idea of vampires as erotic anti-heroes. When Dracula feeds, it is murder, with little sense of seduction, and the objectified way Gene Colan draws Dracula’s victims — discarded in alleys, crumpled and with their limbs splayed out — can make them seem victims of sexual assault.

The series rarely wavers. This is a battle to the death between Dracula and his hunters — between good and evil, with little of the ambiguous middle ground of modern vampire lore. If we come to enjoy Dracula’s characterization and admire his icy nobility as the series develops — as in those those rare moments when the Count takes some hapless human under his protection — it is the arm’s-length admiration afforded a deadly serpent or sea creature.

There’s never the remotest doubt that Dracula is an evil bastard who deserves to die.

Most disappointing to modern readers will be the design of Dracula himself — he’s an old guy in a cape, designed to hew as close as possible to the Bela Lugosi template without alerting Universal’s lawyers. While the design has the unmistakable virtue of screaming “vampire!” to any twelve-year-old seeing him on a comic book cover, it lacks even the moderately updated look that Christopher Lee was rocking in the contemporary films like Taste The Blood of Dracula.

taste the blood of Christopher Lee!

While the covers of the book emphasized opera cape collars and gaping fangs, the interior depiction of Dracula was quite a bit better, where Gene Colan’s brilliant pencils described a more noble Dracula, with a broad forehead and wide face that hinted at intelligence when it wasn’t distorted into a mask of demonic fury.

Shadowy, swirly, and emotive, Colan’s pencils rarely show Dracula in his entirety — in practically every panel he seems half cloaked in darkness, or in some misty nether state between man and bat. When Dracula goes into action, Colan’s pencils — which seem to have motion even when his subject is at rest — depict the Count as a swirling cyclone of cape, fangs, and talons, hurling bodies across the room thanks to a strength that Dracula boasts is equal to that of twenty men.

The first nine issues of the book are a bumpy ride, with five different writers, and no better than lighting-flash glimpses of the book Tomb of Dracula would become. Gerry Conway’s origin story recycled Universal and Hammer movie tropes to tell the tale of a distant cousin of the legendary Dracula (Frank Drake), who comes to claim the Count’s castle in modern times. Heavily reliant upon Bram Stoker’s original story, Conway’s script is solid, but a tad over-written and predictable — as you would expect, Drake finds the Count is very much alive, and mayhem ensues

Archie Goodwin followed Conway, wisely introducing additional members of the supporting cast, building a vampire-hunting team around Drake and Rachel Van Helsing (grand-daughter of Dracula’s arch-nemesis) and her mute Indian servant, Taj. Gardner Fox wrote issues #5 & 6, and while his writing was melodramatic, his style pointed toward a new characterization for Dracula — the haughty, cruel nobleman, “Lord of the Vampires,” who views all beings as lesser creatures he is destined to rule.

Gene Colan’s art is worth seeing from the very first issue, but less patient readers can safely wait until issue #12 to jump aboard, when Marv Wolfman has gotten his feet under him, and Tom Palmer has permanently rejoined the creative team. That issue sees the primary cast of vampire hunters fully assembled — now including the wheelchair-bound gadgeteer Quincy Harker, and Wolfman and Colan’s original creation, Blade, the Vampire Hunter, who would outlast this series and appear on the screen in a trilogy of Wesley Snipes movies (the first of which remains a guilty pleasure).

For the most part, Wolfman would discard the old-fashioned, gothic tone of the early series and over time transform the book into a more modern and fast-moving adventure tale of hunters and the hunted. But even after Wolfman is aboard, the series is uneven, advancing in lurches and stops, and developing little of the multi-issue narrative that I remember from the end of the run. Wolfman’s first dozen issues are mostly a series of one-off stories of varying effectiveness.

But to criticize the book for this structure is to hold it to the standards of a different day. In the 1970s no one was “writing for the trade” (six or twelve issue epics intended for eventual republication as trade paperbacks). Stories were told in one or two parts with subplots that might go on for months before evolving into full storylines. In this the book was actually a little ahead of itself, in that its many stand-alone issues are linked, however tenuously, into a larger narrative revolving around Dracula and his pursuers.

What really made Tomb of Dracula unique for its time was that this was a comic book about a bad guy. Not an anti-hero — a genuine bad guy, a murdering demon who sought to enslave the human race. As such it always felt that the stakes were higher in Tomb of Dracula — that the deaths were more real, and that something greater was at issue than the four-color punch-ups of Marvel superhero books. Aside from a couple cameos, this early part of the run wisely partitioned Dracula from the Marvel universe, giving the book a chance to develop its own tone and mythology, and avoiding the cognitive dissonance of crossing Dracula over with flying girls in tights.

let’s just pretend this never happened

After the formulaic-but-entertaining issues #12 & 13, Tomb of Dracula takes a step back. Issue #14 revolves around a preacher and a contrivance that positions Dracula’s body as the central attraction in a revivalist prayer meeting — it’s heavy-handed and forced. Issue #15 is a series of vignettes told in flashback by Dracula (which don’t quite add up) and #16 is a Tales From the Crypt-style story of the poorer sort, with a cool-looking monster but not so great an ending. Issue #17 is an intriguing and violent tale set aboard a train to Transylvania, but momentum is lost the following issue, the first of a two-part crossover with Werewolf By Night, which is mostly about Jack Russell and his girlfriend, and doesn’t advance Dracula’s story in any meaningful way.

Issues #19 and #20 are moody — set during a blizzard in the Transylvanian alps — but too reliant on coincidences and plot contrivances, with Dracula and Rachel Van Helsing the unlikely survivors of a helicopter crash, and Dracula unconvincingly failing to kill his foe because he needs to “save her for later.” The issue bottoms out when our heroes accidentally stumble into a secret headquarters of the mysterious Doctor Sun (last seen in a pagoda on the coast of Ireland!) …

Doctor Sun, just your ordinary murderous Chinese Communist brain-in-a-box

… but there follows some redemption, because for all that Doctor Sun is ridiculous, he’s also damn awesome — a Communist Chinese mastermind vampire brain in a box? What’s not to like? But before we can delve too deeply into the Doctor’s deeply weird plan — which involves mind-swapping devices and a plot to rule the world with an undead army — the base has been destroyed and Drac is wrestling with some minor vampire in the Russian countryside, a story based on authentic folklore (according to the letters page), but feeling that much more shoehorned into the book because of it.

It is with the cross-over starting in Giant-Sized Chillers #1 and concluding in Tomb of Dracula #23 that the series most closely begins to resemble my memories of the later run. Dracula gets pulled into a haunted house story revolving around an English castle he wants to inhabit, and along the way becomes emotionally involved with a mortal woman. It is also at this point that Wolfman’s subplots begin to get traction — Dracula’s hated daughter, Lillith, has been resurrected; Taj is summoned home to India on a mysterious mission; Frank Drake suffers an identity crisis; and Blade gets a starring role for an issue, fighting it out with Dracula in a London department store.

With issue #25, vampire-hunting private eye Hannibal King is introduced, in one of the better stand-alone books of the series, and it appears the book has genuinely found it’s footing … but it is here, arbitrarily, that I end my review, both because the sun is rising, and because The Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 1 (the black & white reprint I’ve relied upon for most of this run) only goes up through issue #25!

In time I will return to this series to see if it develops into the book I remember. I have nearly caught up with my collection of original books, and I look forward to abandoning the Essentials and continuing this tale in all it’s murky, poorly-printed, full-color glory. But for now Dracula goes back in his Tomb, having not quite lived up to my expectations, but with an undiminished promise of better tales to come.

  • Title: Tomb of Dracula
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1972-79
  • Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #1-25, April 1972 – October 1974
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B-

Originally published as Longbox Graveyard #19, October 2011.

TOMORROW: Marvel Value Stamps!

First Cut

Surprise!

Longbox Graveyard returns to celebrate Halloween month, starting tomorrow!

As a preamble to a month of Halloween features and fun, please read the column below about the scariest thing in all of comics — Marvel Value Stamps! And then join me here tomorrow to see how it all connects to Halloween Month at Longbox Graveyard!

Marvel Value Stamps explanation, by way of Mars Will Send No More!

I turned twelve in the summer of 1974, a season that saw my family and I temporarily living in Hollywood, California. I’d spent my childhood to that point in the San Fernando Valley, about a dozen miles north of our new home, and that summer marked the gap between my final year of elementary school, and my first year of junior high school. It would have been a rootless time in any case, caught between schools and on the cusp of adolescence, but moving to Hollywood made my isolation especially acute.

hooray for Hollywood!

Fortunately, I made plenty of friends that summer. Mostly they were imaginary.

Hollywood Boulevard was my backyard, and I still wonder at the strange lapse of judgment that saw my parents grant me free reign of that place. The Boulevard was a sleazy little strip. Porn shops, record stores, movie theaters, magic shops, toy stores, pizza joints … terrifying from an adult perspective, but the perfect kingdom for a kid too young to register the attention of the pimps and the drug dealers and the bit extras of the freak circus that was Hollywood in the ’70s. I ranged the street between Cahuenga and Highland, sneaking into Bruce Lee movies, or haunting now-vanished treasure caves like the old Cherokee Book Store (with its stacks of Famous Monsters magazines), and Bennett’s Book Store, filled to the brim with movie memorabilia.

It was in places such as these that I met those aforementioned imaginary friends, in the form of comic books that I started buying for the first time that summer. DC Comics were cheaper by a nickel, but Aquaman and the Flash seemed like squares, and I quickly became a loyal Marvel buyer, attracted by characters like the rampaging Hulk, who had broken a wedge into my imagination thanks to an Aurora model kit that I’d completed earlier that year.

it all began with Hulk!

my finished version of the kit looked a lot crappier!

It was one issue of Hulk, in particular, that would come to haunt me for decades to follow. In that summer of 1974, I lucked into the comic book equivalent of a winning lottery ticket.

You can argue about their monetary value, but some comic books are undeniably collectable. The first appearances of characters like Superman, Captain America, and Batman — dating from an era before comics were afforded an ounce of popular respect, and pulped in countless wartime paper drives — are legitimately scarce cultural artifacts.

The same cannot be said of comics purpose-published by the millions as ready-made collectibles in the 1990s, but it does sometimes hold true for the 1960s Silver Age of comics, prized for the introduction of books like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. And trailing that Silver Age, serving as my personal “Golden Age” of comics, was the lesser Bronze Age of comics, known for a wildly experimental and uneven output of four-color superheroes, monsters, and barbarian heroes.

It was also the era when one of Marvel’s last significant original characters made his first comic book appearance.

Hulk #181

I knew none of this when I bought my copy of Hulk #181 off the rack. I was just keeping up with the Hulk’s fight against a shaggy super-monster called the Wendigo, and when a scrappy Canadian superhero named “Wolverine” popped up in the last panel of issue #180, then slugged it out with the Hulk in #181, I didn’t know him from Iron Fist, Deathlok, or any other character first introduced that year.

Neither did anyone else, and that’s what makes Hulk #181 one of the most sought-after comics of its era. Marvel had put a little push behind Wolverine, convincing themselves the character would boost Canadian circulation, and trumpeting his appearance in house ads, but his initial appearance was tepid, and it would be months before the Wolverine we know today would claim the spotlight, when he was tapped to join the re-launched X-Men in 1975.

I don't own THIS uber-valuable X-Men comic, but I have seventy-odd others from this era
These new X-Men were an instant hit, and the team’s most compelling character was Wolverine, sporting a swagger and a subtely-revamped look that transformed him from the Hulk’s sparring partner into an eventual international superstar. The success of the new X-Men — along with the publication of the first Star Wars comics — has been credited with saving Marvel Comics (and maybe the comics industry as a whole) in the late 1970s.

And I missed it!

In the time between Wolverine’s birth and pop culture apotheosis, I’d moved back to the San Fernando Valley, and was no longer in walking distance of a newsstand. I drifted away from comics for a few months and completely missed the re-birth of the X-Men. Still, when I got back into funnybooks in late 1975, I thought I’d encountered a rare bit of good fortune, because I kept every comic I ever bought … and that original Wolverine appearance might be worth five or even ten bucks! It was like winning the lottery!

There was just one problem. I’d cut up the book to get at its Marvel Value Stamp.

Marvel VALUE Stamps! Has there ever been a more insidiously misnamed gimmick?

Mole Man Value Stamp

Starting in 1974, oversized “stamp” images of Marvel heroes and villains began appearing on Marvel’s letter pages. Each image was numbered, and Marvel offered a little “stamp book” to contain our collections. The stamps were hyped up in Marvel’s editorial pages of the day, and vague promises were made of the great glory and riches that would certainly be showered upon the dedicated fan who collected all one-hundred stamps!

The “stamps,” of course, were worthless, and the whole scheme would become the bane of Bronze Age comics collectors (who have long since learned to never buy a back issue from this era without first checking the letters page). Being a good little Marvel maniac, I sent away for the album and dutifully mutilated fifty of my comic books in pursuit of the stamps. I know this because I still have the album, with my stamps cut out and taped in place.

Marvel Value Stamps

(Patient Zero for this plague is Stamp #54, featuring Shanna The She-Devil, clipped from my copy of Hulk #181 and still on display in my damnable stamp book).

And thus, in all innocence, was an historic comic I may have one day sold for thousands of dollars reduced to a fraction of its potential value.

But you know … the worst part isn’t that I cut up so many of my comics.

For me, the worst part is that I was so darn careful about doing it.

I didn’t tear out the stamps. If using scissors, I cut into the page at a right-angle, and excerpted only the stamp, doing minimal possible violence to the comic. For a time I even had one of my dad’s straight razors, and cut the stamp directly from the book, inserting a cutting board behind the stamp’s location, creating a little window onto the following page, and producing an effect just slightly less catastrophic than if I’d used the razor on my throat.

Hulk 181

There was no reason for me to take such care, except that I wanted to keep my comics as nice as possible. And there was no reason for me to want to keep those books nice, aside from sensing that they were something precious, something that I’d want to keep, something that might someday be valuable. I wasn’t careless, or heedless, or even especially reckless, but in my studious little way, I condemned myself to for the worst of both worlds, shackled to my comics accumulation for decades to come, while at the same time ensuring I could never profit from my collection, because buyers for carved-up Bronze Age Marvels are few and far between.

I still have my copy of Hulk #181, and every time I take it out, I harbor a naive hope that this time the book will have been miraculously healed, or that I’d forgotten it actually eluded my mad, stamp-slashing rampage. It happened just now, when I looked at it to write this article.

Hulk Smash! (and me, too)

I’m sure this ritual will continue until I go to the big longbox in the sky. For all that I fantasize about restoring Hulk #181 with the proper stamp, then getting it graded and clam-shelled and ready for the market, I know I never will. Given the right circumstances, this comic might even be worth a couple hundred bucks …

… but the story is worth far more! I’ve dined out on this tale for years, laughing at how I scissored up the most valuable comic book of the last thirty-five years while simultaneously buying and preserving two copies of Human Fly #1 as an “investment.”

I’ve even come to accept that the ritual sacrifice of this comic made it uniquely my own, bound to me for all time, and thus becoming more personal and important it could ever have been as a complete but accidental treasure. That I destroyed this book, yet kept it, and still think about it, and write about it, makes it precious in ways a professionally graded and preserved copy could never hope to attain.

HULK THINK!

like the Hulk, I think about this stuff a lot

Only through its desecration did this copy of Hulk #181 become completely mine, a part of my journey through life and collecting, a bridge to my twelve-year-old self in the long-lost summer of 1974, conceiving a life-long love of comics and dutifully collecting his Marvel Value Stamps.

I wouldn’t have it any other way!

(No, I’m not buying it, either. Leaving now to go find that razor).

This column was originally published at The Longbox Project, and later republished as Longbox Graveyard #153, October 2015.

TOMORROW: Longbox Graveyard Returns!

Ms. Marvel #1

Ms. Marvel #1

Ms. Marvel swoops onto the scene, sporting scarf and bare midriff, tossing around cars to foil a bank robbery and relying on her “Seventh Sense” to get out of — and into — trouble. There is a feeling of “just add water” with this first issue, with Ms. Marvel borrowing the costume of Captain Marvel, and the book borrowing the supporting cast of Spider-Man — Carol Danvers gets a job in the magazine division of the Daily Bugel, sparks up a friendship with Mary Jane Watson, and even rescues J. Jonah Jameson from the clutches of the Scorpion in the book’s second action sequence. But the book tries for something new, too, with Carol and Ms. Marvel unaware they are in fact the same person, and with the origin and dimension of Ms. Marvel’s powers left as a mystery for another issue. The action is by-the-book (John Buscema supposedly didn’t like drawing superhero books, and it shows here), but the script is loaded with more characterization than you’d expect, with one sequence where Carol Danvers barks down Jonah Jameson in a salary negotiation being the highlight.

Ms. Marvel #1, by Conway and Buscema

Ms. Marvel would go on to enjoy a rocky career, but her debut issue was competent and readable and even aware, in it’s late-70s way, of gender issues, looking at a woman’s life in the workplace, and punctuating an action scene with a little girl declaring she wants to grow up to be a hero just like Ms. Marvel. (And where else was a Marvel kid supposed to turn? All the best female superheroes were across town, working for DC!)

Ms. Marvel #1, by Conway & Buscema

  • Script: Gerry Conway
  • Pencils: John Buscema
  • Inks: Joe Sinnott

Click here for more Ms. Marvel at Longbox Graveyard!

Click here for more Marvel 1977!

Please share your comments below!

Ms. Marvel #1

%d bloggers like this: