Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Essential: The Tomb of Dracula
vol. 1

Essential The Tomb of DraculaOctober 2003 - available in soft cover

Written by Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin, Marv Wolfman, Gardner F. Fox. Pencils by Gene Colan, Mike Ploog. Inks by Tom Palmer, Jack Able, Vince Colletta, Frank Chiaramonte.
Letters: John Costanza, Denise Vladimir, Artie Simek, Charlotte Jetter. Editor: Stan Lee.

Reprinting: The Tomb of Dracula #1-25, Werewolf By Night #15, Giant-Sized Chillers #1

560 pages

Published by Marvel Comics

Cover price: $14.99 USA/ $24.00 CAN

Our regular reviewer, "Drooling" D.K., will take a break this week while the Supreme Plasmate takes a whack at it.  His Orcishness kindly allowed me to review this TPB when I told him just how much I had enjoyed it.  Also because I kept it so long, he hasn't had a chance to read it...

Marvel's "Essential" line of trade paperbacks economically reprint some of their more successful comic book series of yesteryear, but on cheaper paper and in black and white to save costs -- savings which are presumably passed on to the consumer.  Essential The Tomb of Dracula vol. 1 contains the entire original run of issues #1 to #25 of The Tomb of Dracula as well as Werewolf by Night #15 and Giant-Sized Chillers #1, to complete the tag ends of cross-over storylines.  The result, as with all the Essential TPBs, is a truly mammoth collection, and one which we might expect would be a bit excessive for anyone but a real hard core The Tomb of Dracula fan.  But, while I read a few of the original comics back in the '70s, and had fond memories, especially of Gene Colan's art, reading through this titanic tome I was amazed that, not only did I not find it heavy sledding...I could hardly put it down.

I haven't enjoyed a comic book this much since I read Al Williamson's run of Star Wars!

First a bit of history.  As you probably know, in the 1950s a wave of public hysteria broke out in the U.S. over the question of whether or not comic books were corrupting the nation's youths -- hysteria which culminated in the creation of a self-regulating body known as the Comics Code Authority.  Henceforth, all comics -- if they wanted stores to carry them -- were required to seek Comics Code approval, which had strict guidelines of dos and don'ts, amongst the latter being just about anything connected with monsters or horror.  As a result, throughout the 1960s, horror of any sort was verbotem, and superheroes came to the fore.  But then, in the early 70s, Stan Lee shook things up by publishing his famous "drug issue" of Spider-man without Comics Code approval.  When that Spider-man sold anyway, the powers-that-be decided it was high time they reevaluated the Comics Code -- monsters included -- and loosened things up a bit.  What followed was a wave of horror based comics which, though tame by today's standards, were pushing the envelope of the day.  Titles like Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Swamp Thing, Werewolf by Night and Dracula Lives shambled out of the shadows and into the light.  And of them all, one of the greatest (or at least most ambitious) was The Tomb of Dracula.

Though those titles promised horror, they hadn't forgotten their roots in superhero comics.  The result, as I found reading this TPB, was a surprisingly aggressive vision of the vampire count, a Dracula who engages in two-fisted throw-downs with a regularity and verve which the more courtly Bela Lugosi (or even Frank Langella) would never have countenanced.

The series begins with Frank Drake and a friend visiting Castle Dracula in Transylvania, which Drake, a descendant of the famous Count, has inherited and now hopes to turn into a tourist attraction.  Drake's friend accidentally awakens the sleeping Lord of Vampires and the rest of the series concerns the efforts of Drake and a group of vampire hunters led by Quincy Harker, a descendant of Jonathon Harker in the original novel Dracula, to hunt Fangs down.  They are eventually joined by a more street-wise vampire slayer named Blade, (who, all these years later, still thrives in the comics, albeit in a slightly altered form, and who has appeared in no less than two hit motion pictures). Unlike Bram Stoker's novel, here there is less talk and more action, including use of imaginative weaponry like Harker's wheelchair which shoots special vampire-killing darts.  And yet, for all the emphasis on comic book thud and blunder, what drew me in and held me riveted was Marv Wolfman's dramatic prose style married with Gene Colan's shadow-heavy, almost photo-realistic pencils. 

As has been pointed out by others before me, the coincidence of a man named Wolfman writing a comic about Dracula (or, for that matter, a letterer named Vladimir) is just too perfect for words.  But, apart from that, in The Tomb of Dracula Wolfman makes full use of the serial nature of comics, crafting story arcs which extend over several issues, even as each issue presents a self contained "sub-story".  This was a technique which has long been standard in comics (although I don't know how common it was back in the early 70s), but which has only recently cropped up on television.  (On TV, it probably began with the so-called "nighttime soaps" like Dallas, then showed up in Hill Street Blues, and spread from there.)  But even in comics, it is rare to find it done right, as Wolfman does it here. 

Presenting extended story arcs in this TPB form has both a good and a bad side.  On the good side, the reader doesn't have to worry about missing an issue because his/her local comic shop was sold out, nor does he/she run the risk of forgetting past details which may have cropped up months before.  On the bad side, story arcs can seem more impressive and complex when presented a bit at a time, over the course of many months.  When presented in one massive batch like this, it is easier to spot weaknesses, and the plots may seem overly simplistic and perfunctory.  Here, the longest extended plot features the machinations of the mysterious Dr. Sun, who has captured his own vampire, but whose purposes are kept secret for a considerable time.

While I enjoyed Wolfman's stories, it was Gene Colan's pencils that truly blew me away.  Colan is an interesting artist.  Exceedingly realistic both in his human figures and in his depiction of architecture, he nonetheless isn't a meticulous "draftsman" in the fashion of John Byrne or George Perez, whose art, though breathtakingly complex and accurate, can sometimes seem cold and stiff.  With Colan, you can imagine he is a colourist's worst nightmare, with one dynamic figure blending into another, all mixed together with swirls of mist or fog until it is nearly impossible to tell where one figure ends and another begins.  With many artists I can imagine them roughing in the usual art-class stick person before adding flesh and clothes.  With Colan, he seems as if he is literally drawing precisely what he is seeing in his mind's eye -- even when he may not be entirely sure what it is he is seeing! 

Colan makes heavy use of darkness and light, often defining a figure more in terms of stark shadows rather than through actual outlines.  The result is perfect for a moody horror comic like The Tomb of Dracula.  (I recall reading a debate in the letters page of The Tomb of Dracula over whether or not this was appropriate given that, in Stoker's original novel, vampires don't cast shadows!)  Since the Essential TPBs are printed in black and white, some comics may lose something in the translation, but not so The Tomb of Dracula, which if anything gains from the emphasis on darkness.  Then too there is a dynamic quality to Colan's images which I have rarely seen in comics.  Even the simplest, most static image is seen from an imaginative angle, as if viewed by a wildly mobile camera, imbuing it with energy and kineticism.

The one weakness, in terms of the art, lies in Mike Ploog's pencils found in issue #15 of Werewolf by Night.  I had fond memories of Ploog's art based on a fairly famous issue of Man-Thing concerning a suicidal circus clown which I read as a kid, but I was disappointed by the art found here.  Nevertheless, it was only one issue and then back to Colan!  (Strangely, the issue of Giant-Sized Chillers #1 appears in the wrong order and should have come before the Tomb of Dracula #22 which here precedes it.)

While Wolfman plays with many characters, he is clearly most interested in the personality of his titular villain.  The others are fairly one dimensional, and defined mainly by their obsessive need to stake the big guy.  Dracula alone is given depth and motivation, portrayed as supremely arrogant (he even calls himself a "god") but sometimes lonely and touched by unexpected signs of human needs -- as when he seems somewhat smitten by a woman who is being tormented by a seemingly haunted house.

Reading Essential The Tomb of Dracula vol. 1, I was pleased to see that my memories weren't faulty.  The series was just as good as I had remembered.  Perhaps better.  I just hope they'll bring out a vol. 2.  Which is probably the best praise I can give.

Now, excuse me while I go back to re-reading my Al Williamson Star Wars...

Reviewed by Jeffrey Blair Latta

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