Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Tomb Of Dracula





Dracula rises from the grave and steps into the Marvel Universe – facing a disembodied brain, a gigantic heart and a ghost with the nerve to steal Dracula's victims! The lord of vampires visits a horrible fate upon the daughter of a long-time enemy, but will his worst enemy prove to be his own daughter? Plus: voodoo, time travel and motorcycle gangs! The cosmic-powered Chimera and a Legion of Doom unlike any other! And who's the tough guy with the knives that snuffs out vampires' lives? BLADE! Can you dig it? Also featuring Werewolf by Night and Hannibal King, Vampire Detective! Collecting TOMB OF DRACULA #1-31, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT #15, GIANT-SIZE CHILLERS #1 and GIANT-SIZE DRACULA #2-4.768 PGS./Rated T+ …$99.99 ISBN: 978-0-7851-2778-9 Trim size: oversized

[Caught this in the Marvel Solicitations for August. This will be on-sale from October 1st, 2008 onwards.]

The year was 1972. DC Comics saw the steady decline of the superhero set and decided to take their books on a "quest for relevance". Denny O'Neil was enamoured by the hip-journalists of his day such as Norman Mailer and the social messages in the songs of Bob Dylan. He brought that spirit into his "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" book in an acclaimed run with Neal Adams (reprinted numerous times as "Hard Travellin' Heroes"). Marvel, who began the Silver Age superhero renaissance, had gone on to its "Phase Two" with Roy Thomas taking over from Stan Lee on many of the books - in order to free Stan's schedule so that he could go on the road on speaking-tours to colleges and universities. In short, everyone was working hard to court the attentions of the more sophisticated college-students. It was, as if, comics as a whole was being forced to grow up overnight. At the same time, the "bravura" writers/artists of the day were turning conventions on its head with their subversive and counterculture meditations on spirituality, reality, politics, drugs, mysticism, etc. (Check out anything by Steve Englehart, Howard Chaykin, Al Milgrom and Jim Starlin to see what I mean!) The more sophisticated storytelling led Stan Lee himself to contribute several issues of "Amazing Spider-Man" to deal with the rising problems of drug-addiction among the youths in his neighbourhood. The Comics Code Authority (that ghetto-like policeman of four-colour pop-culture initiated because of the fundamentalist tirades of Frederick Wertham) refused to approve those issues by Stan Lee. Stan Lee went ahead and published those issues without the code. The world did not end. Morals did not suddenly slide down the drain. More than anything, those issues proved to the world that archaic values (of an earlier and more cowardly time) needed to be re-evaluted and that comic books really do serve a higher purpose by providing needful information about social issues. The result was that the Comics Code was actually revised - time was, a few gutsy writers could force legislative bodies to change their archaic codes. Time now, young people in their 20s brandishing B.Sc.(Hons) continue to fight for archaic codes and insipid values.

With the loosening of the Code and a demand for more sophisticated literary-graphic entertainment, both Marvel and DC decided to explore the Horror Genre (long since abandoned after the death of EC Comics - another casualty of the archaic Comics Code Authority). Marvel did Man-Thing and DC did Swamp Thing. History is unclear as far as which was the original swamp creature. It was possible that both Gerry Conway and Len Wein were tapping into the same poplorica memes of the day and decided to explore issues of identity and mysticism via masses of swarm glob! Next came other horror gems like Ghost Rider, Werewolf By Night, House of Mystery, the Warren Magazines/Vampirella, Tales of the Zombie and the big brother of horror comics that ruled the morbid Seventies: TOMB OF DRACULA.

This series was the brainchild of Roy Thomas. The first two issues were written by Gerry Conway (who was given everything that Roy himself did not personally write anyway!), the next two were by Archie Goodwin (who was just starting off as a freelancer going on to an editorial position at Marvel - and who worked on the Warren/Vampirella mags as well) and the following two were by legendary DC Alumni Gardner Fox. That was Year One of the bi-monthly mag that began on April 1972. The greatest highlight of the book was, naturally, the art of Gene Colan (inked by Tom Palmer, who also did amazing work for Neal Adams and John Buscema at the same time) that brought a combination of cinematic realism, creepiness and grace to the storytelling. Colan, once known as the laziest artist in the business, really did his best on the series. He was the sole penciller for the entire series (more than 70 issues straight) and something about the stories spoke to his heart. Colan is the type of artist whose art range from absolutely mind-blowing (e.g. Daredevil, Sub-Mariner, Tomb of Dracula) to uninspired fill-ins whenever he's not in the mood. However, even the art of Gene Colan was not enough to elevate the book to true "cult-status". Marv Wolfman was the glue that held the book together. Upon taking on the book from issue #7 onwards, Wolfman gave his heart and soul as the writer of the book for the rest of the decade (before leaving Marvel in the early 1980s to create "The New Teen Titans" with George Perez at DC).

While Pltypus and La Tey were fighting epileptic fits after four nights of talks by Doctor Ben, I was rummaging through my shelves looking for this old "Essential Tomb of Dracula" book that reprinted the earlier issues of the series in glorious black & white. I got that volume for my wife to read during her last pregnancy, if I remembered rightly. I'm the sort of idiot who buys a 600+ page book of vampiric-horror for his pregnant wife to read! Ironically, I never did read the book myself. At that time, I was caught up with the stirrings of the Ultimate Universe and Nu-Marvel under Joe Quesada's goons. My stupidity. This (to quote Pltypus) is indeed "superior comic crafting". Marv Wolfman's writing combined with Gene Colan's pencils and inked by Tom Palmer. I dived into the book and was lost for 10 hours straight. I toured the English countrysides with the Old Count, visited the age-old Castle Dracula in Transylvania, and was caught in the old superstitions of the crucifix, the stake, garlic, and all the colourful Roman Catholic mumbo-jumbo that went a long way into the creation of the vampiric lore that we know and love. I read about Dracula mesmerising a bunch of kids and turning them into killers. Then I fell asleep and had a terrible dream about murderous kids with knifes! Woke up with cold sweat. Time was comics were so potent a mind-drug! And that was long before we had any stupid "Suggested For Matured Readers" tag on the covers. Wolfman wrote the rag-tag band of vampire hunters as humans rather than super-humans. Quincy Harker (son of Jonathan and Mina Harker), Frank Drake (descendent of Dracula), Rachel Van Helsing (daughter of Abraham Van Helsing), the mute giant Taj, and later, Blade and Hannibal King (yes, the blokes from the Wesley Snipes movies!). They were people who were idealistic, passionate, wracked with self-doubt, struggling with their constant failures, looking to one another for love and support, etc. All this long before Chris Claremont made angst fashionable in the pages of "Uncanny X-Men"! Hundreds who've outgrown their spandex fantasies found that they had to continue reading and collecting "Tomb of Dracula". In a way, it was also among the first real serial comic-book by Marvel. It was true that in the 1960s, Marvel revolutionized the industry with its evolving characters (Peter Parker outgrew high school and went to college, Reed and Sue got married, etc.) but the comics were still pretty much self-contained in the sense that one could pick up any single-issue and understand what's going on. Not so with "Tomb of Dracula". Wolfman was so obsessed with his supporting characters that at most times, the sub-plots were carrying the series along at the expense of the weaker main-plots. That was almost unheard of in the era before trade-paperback and hardcover reprints. In other words, you'll pick up an issue from the newstand and chances are, you'll struggle to make heads or tails of the story! The result was that it created a loyal cultic fan-base who bought, read and re-read every single issue! Characters lived and died - and everything that happened was shocking in the days before solicitations, previews, internet fanbases and Wizard magazines! It was a microcosm of imagination made up of passionate creators and their loyal readers - comics were read then, not collected as speculative commodities! There was nothing like it in the pre-Star Wars days to equal that sort of loyal fanbase - except perhaps, Star Trek on TV. One issue every two months, read, reread, dissected, meditated upon, inspiring nightmares and fever dreams...

The crowning achievement on the series, however, is the main-protagonist - Count Dracula himself. This is not the mysterious presence in Bram Stoker's novel. Neither is he the caricatured version captured in movies starring Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. This is, first and foremost, a character. Long before Neil Gaiman came along and wrote human sentiments and developing personalities into his demi-gods Morpheus, Death, Destiny, etc., Marv Wolfman and company were giving us a larger-than-life villain that you'll hate to love - but you can't help but love him despite yourself! After all, he's a serial-killer, a bloodsucker, a demoniac, a sexual predator, etc. But faithful Marvelites also recognize in him the mythic qualities that made their favourite villains such icons. He had the majestic poise of Victor Von Doom, the arrogance and regal bearing of Namor, the self-agonizing pangs of Magneto and even (to an extent) the helpless hunger of Galactus! He encapsulates the best of what makes a villain. Now, everyone who reads heroic fantasy will come upon the realization that the greatest villains is only one fine line away from being a great hero as well (that is why we cheer everytime our heroes team-up with their archfoes to defeat an even greater evil - e.g. X-Men and Magneto fighting Rev. Willian Stryker in "God Loves Man Kills"). Wolfman's Dracula is just such a character - struggling with his love for a mortal woman, fighting his own daughter and regretting that even his own offsprings detest him, showing compassion for a pair of teenage lovers in an obscure farmland, and finally driven to the edge by Satan himself, who stripped him of his vampiric powers to drive him insane! This is the reason why many writers (post-Wolfman/Colan) couldn't resist doing their continuation of this Dracula. Chris Claremont had him appear many times in the "Uncanny X-Men" series to abduct Storm and fight the X-Men. Most recently, Frank Tieri wrote the "Apocalypse vs. Dracula" miniseries pitting the two immortal villains against each other in Victorian London. Then, of course, we have the "Blade" movies, TV series, and countless appearances in comic-books post-Tomb of Dracula. But none of the other appearances can ever match the mythic aura and sophisticated horror of the original Wolfman/Colan run. Accept no substitutes, forget all the other non-canonical appearances of the characters - the original Tomb of Dracula is the epitome of superior comic-craft!

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