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Doctor Strange vs. Dracula!

Longbox Graveyard #164

Super-Blog Team-Up returns with a Doctor Strange-driven look at magic in comics! Now, Halloween was last week, so I’m a couple days late for Dracula, but with his movie out this week, I’m right on time for Doctor Strange … and it’s always time for Bronze Age Marvel here at Longbox Graveyard. So let’s jump right in as Doctor Strange battles Dracula, Lord of Vampires!

Tomb of Dracula #44

This two-part 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!

It’s been awhile since I posted here, and it feels good! I hope to make this a more regular occurrence — please let me know what you think of this story and Steve Englehart’s Strange cosmology in the comments section below!

But, before you go — it took the awesome power of Super-Blog Team-Up to wake Longbox Graveyard from its Odinsleep … assuming you view this as a welcome development, please pay your thanks forward by visiting these other Super-Blog Team-Up articles, all looking at some form of “Strange” Magic!

Super-Blog Team-Up: Magic!

NEXT: #165 I Shopped At An Amazon Brick And Mortar Book Store

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Tomb of Dracula Gallery

Visit my Tomb of Dracula Gallery on Pinterest.

Tomb of Dracula #26

Read my columns about Tomb of Dracula — Tomb It May Concern & Reopening The Tomb of Dracula.

(View all Longbox Graveyard Pinterest Galleries HERE).

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

Fantastic Fiftieth Issue!

Longbox Graveyard #50

With this installment, Longbox Graveyard hits the half-century mark! While you can always reference all past Longbox Graveyard columns through the Checklist link at the top of every page, to mark this solemn occasion I thought I’d count down the top ten Longbox Graveyard blogs by hits.

Cue the drumroll and the David Letterman voice as we begin with the #10 item on our Top Ten List of Longbox Graveyard posts for the past year!

10) Tomb It May Concern

Tomb of Dracula is a seminal comic of the 1970s and one of the reasons I started Longbox Graveyard. I was anxious to revisit this book, but my memories were based on the final issues of the run, and the early numbers were rougher sledding than I’d anticipated. I do remain enthused for this book and have been actively filling in my missing issues. I will get around to reviewing the rest of the series, though at this point it doesn’t look like that will happen before Halloween.

one of my recently-added Tomb of Dracula back issues, purchased out of the bin at the excellent House of Secrets comics shop in Burbank, California

It’s good to see this post has gotten some attention through the year, though I think most of that was down to a surge of hits from the Reddit comicbooks group, when I advertised it over there with the headline, “Before Vampires Sparkled, There Was Tomb of Dracula!” Never underestimate the power of nerd rage — about the one thing comics fans can agree on is that they hate and shun Twilight. Unfortunately, those Reddit readers are mostly interested in contemporary books and I don’t think I converted many of them into regular readers. I do think I made some valid points about the harder-than-expected edge of this series and it’s unsparing look at a genuinely evil protagonist — in a lot of ways I think Tomb of Dracula was (and still is) ahead of its time.

Longbox Graveyard has a long future ahead of it because so many of my favorite books have yet to come up for review here. In addition to finishing off Tomb of Dracula, I want to do several columns on Master of Kung Fu, Daredevil, and Swamp Thing, none one of which much figured in the first year of this blog. It’s crazy that I haven’t touched those books but that I did a Godzilla review this year! This project keeps getting bigger the deeper I get into it.

9) Top Ten Marvel Comics Characters

I did a pair of favorite character Top Ten blogs this year, and they both made this year end lineup. Lists are red meat for bloggers — easy to put together, and likely to draw comments, as everyone has an opinion about the best and worst of everything. My Marvel list wasn’t especially good writing, but it was important in that it helped bring together an emerging community around this blog, challenging my understanding of Sub-Mariner and taking me to task for snubbing Spider-Man. Community is critical for blog retention (and Top Tens are a nice, lazy way to structure a blog), so this list did its job, even if I’m not terribly proud of the work.

Plus anything that got me to take another look at Steve Ditko‘s Spider-Man must be counted as time well spent.

another special benefit and unexpected pleasure of this past year has been a new appreciation for Steve Ditko

8) This Female Fights Back!

My Ms. Marvel column represents the best of Longbox Graveyard on a personal level — not because of the quality of the column, but because without Longbox Graveyard, there’s no way on earth I ever would have rediscovered this series. This really was just another stack of books that I intended to offer a cursory glance on the way to eBay, but issue after issue I found myself unaccountably caught up in this admittedly marginal book, and not just because I developed a crush on Carol Danvers. Longbox Graveyard has been about rediscovering the comics of my youth and Ms. Marvel was among the most pleasant rediscoveries of the past year.

Carol is coming back as Captain Marvel, but I like her old look better

There is a vibrant female comics fandom scene on the internet, particularly at sites like DC Women Kicking Ass and Has Boobs, Reads Comics, and I think my Ms. Marvel column gets a few referrals from those sites, but mostly I think this column resonated because there isn’t a lot on the web about the original Ms. Marvel run.

I think the Ms. Marvel character is an important part of the dialogue about sexism in comics, and how female characters are generally sexualized while male characters are idealized, but it’s above my pay grade to sort that out. I just like this book (and since running this blog I’ve addressed my old mistake in filled in the rest of my Ms. Marvel, volume 1 collection, and look forward to reading those last few issues soon).

7) Panel Gallery: To Me, My Board!

My “Panel Galleries” were an experiment born out of desperation, and this first Panel Gallery only did so-so at launch, but it has continued to attract views so I shouldn’t be surprised to see it elbowing into my top posts of the year. Panel Galleries are the “fill in issues” of Longbox Graveyard, and while I will sometimes run them to coincide with outside media events (like the “Avengers Assemble” gallery I ran just before the movie came out), more often than not a Panel Gallery is a last-minute offering to keep my weekly posting streak alive while I work on a meatier subject or just take a couple weeks off to recharge.

This particular Panel Gallery focused on a narrow and obscure trope — the stock phrase the Silver Surfer calls out to summon his flying board. I have several other Panel Galleries on the boil, with panels excerpted and squirreled away in secret folders as I encounter them via my Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited subscription. A few panels that might otherwise have wound up in a Panel Gallery were repurposed for the “Say What?!” features I will be contributing this summer over at the Stash My Comics blog, and past Panel Galleries have new life as the backbone of Longbox Graveyard’s presence on Pinterest. Not bad for a fill-in feature!

If you have suggestions for future Panel Galleries, let me know. My next scheduled Panel Gallery will appear in July, focusing on the faces of Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man and supporting characters. The Ditko Panel Gallery I did on Doctor Strange faces finished well down the list for the year, but I really like seeing those Ditko faces up close, so you’re still going to get a lot of larger-than-life Ditko supporting characters in July when the new movie comes out.

a preview of my forthcoming Amazing Spider-Faces Panel Gallery

6) American Dream

I was still finding my footing when I published my fanboy rave for Ed Brubaker’s Captain America. I was in a honeymoon period of rediscovering comics and this Cap run likely benefited from that in scoring a rare A-plus score on the Longbox Graveyard Report Card. As much as I enjoyed the run at the time, two follow-on volumes remain unread on my shelf. Even with excellent modern books immediately to hand, I still prefer to spend my time with sometimes-inferior Bronze and Silver Age books.

Which isn’t to say I over-rated this series — not at all! It’s just that I went a little overboard with Cap in the early days of Longbox Graveyard and I haven’t quite recovered. Those aforementioned volumes are still in the shrink and while I hunted down the missing numbers to fill out my Jack Kirby Cap run from the 1970s, and I haven’t mustered the enthusiasm to plunge into those, either. Life is long, and it will seem longer still if I start treating comic books like homework assignments. I’ll get to these issues when the impulse strikes me. In the meantime, I’m happy to have them in my collection.

This particular post benefited from a surge of readers when author Ed Brubaker mentioned it on his Twitter feed, but like many spikes, that exposure appears to have resulted in few continuing readers. Still, it was nice to make contact with a working pro (and I would also exchange Facebook messages with Walt Simonson over the columns I did on his outstanding Thor run). For several weeks, that was my single strongest traffic day for Longbox Graveyard, eclipsed only by a mysterious surge of hits when I published my Beneath The Longbox Graveyard blog in February (which paradoxically did not end up making this year-end list), and then shattered by last week’s Thanos post.

5) Have You Seen This Barbarian?

This column might have been my best writing for Longbox Graveyard. Certainly it was my most heartfelt, and it’s good to see that my prescription for how Conan the Barbarian might be better handled on film proved one of the most popular posts of the year. A similar post lamenting the misfire of John Carter was also popular, falling just outside this top ten, despite being live for only a fraction of the time of my Conan piece.

it also helped to linkbait Jason Momoa naked

Almost a year later, this movie is forgotten, while the half-life of my Hyborian disappointment has burned off, and I’ve started reading some Conan again, thanks to the Savage Sword of Conan reprints published by Dark Horse Comics. I did a lot of Conan columns this year but I might sneak in one more in the year ahead …

4) Nemedian Chronicles

… because it seems my Conan coverage was more popular than I’d surmised. This is one of the earliest columns on this list, and it doubtless benefited from accumulating hits for nearly a year (and from the aforementioned linkbaiting), but I think the gorgeous Barry Windsor-Smith artwork in this run remains worthy of celebration, especially in their Dark Horse reprint form, and I stand by the high marks I offered Conan the Barbarian #1-25 on the Longbox Graveyard Report Card.

great cover, despite the helmet

3) Longbox Shortbox

Another format born of desperation that proved a successful innovation, my first “Longbox Shortbox” came around when I found I had several reviews that weren’t gelling as longer pieces, but still had one or two points I wanted to share. By combining them into a single post I felt they added up to the substance afforded by my “full” review format, and so the circle was squared, giving me a format to publish shorter reviews and also letting me discuss books that didn’t merit a full column all on their own. I’ve since made the format “official”, though I will be ratcheting back on the number of mini-reviews in each Shortbox column, as five mini-reviews ends up being longer, more exhausting, and less focused than a single stand-alone piece.

There were some decent insights here. My review of the earliest issues of the Avengers would warm me up for more extensive coverage of that book these past few weeks, and reviewing Don McGregor’s Black Panther in this format let me write a negative review in the fewest words possible. It’s not that I shy away from negative reviews — it’s just that my distaste for this Panther run came down to disliking the author’s style, which isn’t the greatest basis for criticism. The biggest misstep with this column was “grading down” New Teen Titans to B-plus (when it surely deserves an “A”) but that was also fodder for comments, which is never a bad thing.

2) Young Justice

An outlier on a comics blog, my animation review of DC’s Young Justice cartoon continues to pull hits each and every week, seeming to strengthen through the year, and might have come in as my top post of the year if I’d taken my traffic snapshot closer to press time. It might be because there are kids out there looking for news on this show’s notoriously erratic broadcast schedule … or it might be because mentioning “Batman Handjob” in your lead paragraph is powerful SEO mojo! Either way, the intertubes loves them some Young Justice!

I was happy for a chance to talk about Young Justice, which I continue to watch with my boys (when it is on). Warners did contact me with an offer to review another Young Justice DVD release, but I turned them down, as I felt I’d already said everything I needed to say about the show. Film and television reviews will remain the exception, rather than the rule here at Longbox Graveyard, but I suspect you can look forward to reviews of Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Batman The Brave And The Bold in the year ahead (provided I’m still on the Warners freebie list!).

1) Top Ten DC Comics Characters

Told you that lists were popular! Still, I was surprised to see this post proved the most popular of the year, and I think a lot of that popularity has to do with the robust comment thread this post generated, with thirty-odd posts offering their own Top Tens and debating the merits of Aquaman. I certainly can’t credit the success of this piece to my writing, which was some of the flabbiest on offer here at Longbox Graveyard, and displayed my general ignorance of DC characters by picking a third of the list strictly on the basis of their headgear!

I do promise more DC coverage in the year ahead, starting with some Batman as soon as next week. I’ll also be checking out some of the DC New 52 relaunch now that the trades are hitting the market, though I don’t know if they’ll prove blog-worthy.

Those were the hits. There were misses, too, with my Supergods column proving especially disappointing in terms of the traffic it (didn’t) pull, but even my top posts don’t get a lot of hits in the scheme of things, and the first purpose of Longbox Graveyard is that I please myself, so traffic numbers are of secondary importance. I do like watching my hit numbers increase, though, so if the impulse strikes you, please revisit these or other Longbox Graveyard posts, and tell your friends about the blog.

Thank you for supporting my work these past fifty issues!

NEXT WEEK: #51 Escape From The Longbox Shortbox

LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS

Tomb It May Concern

Longbox Graveyard #19

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. 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.

NEXT WEEK: #20 Young Justice

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