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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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Ellis Island

Longbox Graveyard #8

Transforming the Accumulation into a Collection involves hand work. A lot of hand work.

The first step was to triage the twenty-four longboxes in the garage. This was simple meatball surgery … quickly review what I’ve got, and sort into three types of boxes, which collectively comprise my Ellis Island for rediscovered comics:

The Dross Box: Do NOT give me your huddled masses yearning to be free! What the hell was I thinking when I bought these? Here’s where about 2/3rds of my books ended up. Stuff like The New Defenders, Batman and The Outsiders, and other titles best left forgotten. I’ll try to sell or give these away later.

the best Google image search could do for “superheroes & Ellis Island”

The Save Box: Books that I’m keeping, pretty much no matter what. First into this box were things like Judge Dredd, Conan the Barbarian, Master of Kung Fu, and Tomb of Dracula … which probably says something about me. Hmm. Anti-heroes, bad dads, rebellious sons. Sounds about right.

Also going here are books I probably won’t keep, but will try to sell at some point: 300, Dark Knight Returns, Batman: The Killing Joke.

Finally there are a pile of superhero favorites here that I need to look at more closely, as I wish to keep only the best runs of each book (which will probably amount to nothing at all for poor old Hulk, but hope springs eternal). I’ll get ’em sorted eventually, but in the meantime, I can find things a little better than before, and I was able to set aside the Walt Simonson run on Thor for my little guy, Jack. Mission accomplished — finding those books is what set off this whole project.

The Bubble Box: Books where I don’t trust my memory … books I know I liked, but am not sure I still want to keep. Here we’re talking stuff like The Badger (on life support after re-reading the first few issues), Warlock (saved and reviewed HERE), John Carter Warlord of Mars (since reviewed and then happily unloaded on eBay), Elementals, some older Defenders (which also earned a review HERE). and Micronauts (since added to the Save Box, a choice I failed to defend in an earlier post).

The Dross Box I intend to keep closed for awhile. The Bubble Box and the Save Box are where books are parked while awaiting transport off Ellis Island to  … The Collection!

Entering books into The Collection involves a kind of sanctification.

Books are sorted into number order. Old greening bags are thrown away and the books are snugged into new bags and boards. Just handling the books and putting them in new bags is satisfying — in a bag and on a board, the book looks crisp and shiny. Tucking and creasing the bag flap is like a benediction. This book has been Blessed. It will be Kept. It may never be opened again … but it will be kept.

Along the way, some books get read. I’ve already read chunks of Tomb of Dracula and Master of Kung Fu and found ’em pretty good. Bubble Books definitely get read before they are bagged and boarded.

Books are recorded, and a want list is created for issues I need to fill out a run. While I like the online resource and price guide at ComicsPriceGuide.com, I don’t want to be on the hook for a monthly subscription fee to access my data. The free database at Stash My Comics was also very attractive. After some hemming and hawing I settled on the new Mac version of the dedicated comics collecting software from Collectorz.com. It’s overkill for what I need but pretty cool, and it has a slick-if-expensive reader I can use on my iPhone, too.

Books are placed into a clean box, all nicely bagged, boarded, recorded, ordered, (sometimes read), and with their location noted in my database.

It’s been a meandering process but I’m under no deadline and so far I’m enjoying it. That I’ve lost time reading Barry Smith-era Conan is a happy problem to have.

But those Conan books have made me think about this whole project. Do I want to collect original books when better quality trade paperback versions are available?

I want to collect Roy Thomas’ first run on Conan, from issue #1 up through #115. I’ve only got about a third of that run, and rather than fill it out with original issues, I’m picking up the Dark Horse reprints (and you should too!). I already had The Chronicles of Conan volumes 1-4, and filling in volumes 5-14 had the triple advantage of offering the material in an easier-to-read form, with better print quality, and at a lower cost in cash and hassle than filling out the original collection.

These reprints are recolored editions, which will bother some (but not me, I think they look great). More important — does buying trade paperbacks miss the point of collecting?

Original comics have an intrinsic value, regardless of condition, the completeness of the run, or print quality. Just liking the old books is reason enough to keep them. For Conan the Barbarian, I will likely keep what I already have, but make little effort to fill in the gaps (unless I find a discount box treasure trove). In the meantime, I’ll happily enjoy the Dark Horse trades, eventually swapping over to digital when that transition sorts itself out.

Recognizing that original books and trade paperbacks are not an either/or proposition is comforting, and allays some of the angst I felt over buying that Watchmen trade. But the original form of the books are where I want to concentrate. Trade collections are a transitional form and eventually a shelf-full of trade paperbacks is going to look as out-of-date as an 8-Track tape collection. Trades are convenient and something I’ll occasionally buy, but I consider them disposable, outside of some high-end volumes like the very nice Marvel Omnibus series.

dross box trash

Original books will always be precious because of their singular nature.

Unless they’re Dross Box trash. Oy.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #9 Nemedian Chronicles

Buy Crom!

Longbox Graveyard #6

This project was supposed to be about organizing and selling comics that have become a personal burden.

Instead I’m buying comics …?

That’s what happens when you enter your comics into a database: you start to notice patterns. The kind of crazy patterns that matter only to paranoid schizophrenics and comic book collectors.

“All I have to collect are issues #84, #94, #95, and #97 and I will have an uninterrupted run of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian from issues #74 to #115! And if I go back and get #58 – #66 plus #68 – #73 then I will have a complete run from the first appearance of Belit, Queen of the Black Coast, to the conclusion of Roy Thomas‘ first run on the book!”

Madness.

I set out to catalog and consolidate my comics Accumulation, but as I get organized, I start to see the Collection in terms of negative space. Instead of seeing the books I have, I see the books that aren’t there. And that makes me wonder what it would take to fill in those gaps.

It’s a low priority with Conan. I own only 42 of the 115 books I’d like to collect from that run, and I’m content to own trade paperbacks as reading copies thanks to Dark Horse’s Chronicles of Conan reprints. Even if I found them in a discount box, I’d have to swallow hard before filling in those 73 missing issues. Many of those books are going to cost a good deal more than the two or three dollars I am prepared to pay, as the first twenty-five or so feature the rapidly-maturing talents of a young Barry Windsor-Smith on pencils.

But what about other series I’ve elected to keep?

Twenty-nine more Tomb of Draculas and I’ll have a complete run of Marv Wolfman’s era on the book — just a little less than half the number of Conans I “need.” Early issues of Tomb are pricey for me in the seven-to-ten dollar range, but it’s within shouting distance, and the reading alternatives aren’t as attractive. I have a couple volumes of The Essential Tomb of Dracula on hand, but I think these old Marvels lose a lot without color. Marvel did publish three Omnibus volumes of Tomb of Dracula, but I missed those when they were in print, and the secondary market prices are out of sight. In the last couple years, thanks (I suppose) to the strength of Twilight, Marvel has started to republish Tomb of Dracula in twelve-issue, full-color trades. While the reprint colors look a little too flashy to my eye, they are an attractive alternative to the original books.

I like Tomb, so I’ll remain on the hunt for reasonably-priced back issues.

A series I just completed is the Doug Moench run on Master of Kung Fu. Near as I can tell the series has not been collected (possibly owing to rights issues related to the original Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu pulps on which they were based). Through back-issue purchase I filled in the twenty-nine issues I was missing, and as I am nearly alone in my admiration for this series, I was able to purchase the books for about two dollars each through eBay auctions, Comic-Con, My Comicshop.com, and Midtown Comics.

Buying additional comics when I have approximately 5000 books I’ve yet to catalog is indefensible, but I’ll try.

Part of the reason I feel possessed by my comics Accumulation is that it feels like a bridge half-built to nowhere. I bought a lot of these books when I was a kid, getting them off the rack with pocket change, so there are gaps. Completing those older runs applies a kind of retroactive intentionality to my purchases. In place of a sprawling pile of comics, I’m building up a curated collection, broken into specific runs that have a beginning, middle, and (thankfully) an end.

I am also a consumer (albeit a damn strange one) in a consumer society. I do want to buy comics. I just don’t want to buy modern comics at three dollars a pop. Buying back issues for less than a modern comic scratches my consumerist needs while focusing on completing a cherished collection, rather than grinding through an indifferent stack of new books from a pull list every week.

a few of the hundred-odd back issues I bought at San Diego Comic-Con 2011

It helps to know where to stop. (Irony duly noted.) I have a teetering pile of Micronauts, but I’m keeping only the first twelve issues, stopping when Michael Golden leaves the book (though a recent attack from Mars may alter those plans). My Thor collection is focused on Walt Simonson’s run. My Judge Dredd collection is just the Eagle Comics reprints.

These are distinctions without a difference when looking at this obsession from the outside … but they are welcome guardrails here in my four-color wilderness. A method is emerging from the madness of this comic book project. Plus, for the first time ever, I had a reason to hit the used dealers when I made the annual family outing to San Diego Comic-Con last week. I was armed and ready with my shopping list, looking for bargain Conans and Kung Fu books, Buy Crom!

NEXT WEEK: #7 American Dream

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