Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Tomb of Dracula 4 (September 1972)

Archie Goodwin's second, and final, issue of The Tomb of Dracula is titled Through a Mirror Darkly! The literary near-allusion is apt: the protagonist of this two part story - Mrs Strangeway - is incapable of seeing what she has in her favour until the book's conclusion, at which time she looks back on her decisions with a sudden clarity; and there's a literal 'dark glass' through which Dracula passes.

In search of her lost youth, Mrs Strangeway believes that becoming a vampire will keep her young. She quotes Bram Stoker to the Count in support of this 'theory', questioning him as to the passage's truth, and bargains with Dracula offering to tell him the secret of the Dark Mirror she has in her collection of occult items. Dracula warns her that "there is worse than ageing", but vanity prevails and the deal is sealed - she gets her wish.

Upon her revival she shares the secret of the Dark Mirror; that it's a portal through time which Dracula could use it to return to the 19th century. Seeming to be unimpressed, he leaves Mrs Strangeway to "reap the reward of being a vampire". Later she realises the truth the comments about ageing when she discovers that she'll only ever be as you as when she first because a vampire. In anger she kills Clifton and then begs to be finished off herself, a final wish that is granted her by Rachel van Helsing.

Prior to all this the local police had started to investigate - Mrs Strangeway's servant having been struck down during the earlier events - with the help of the remainder of the regular cast. They'd tracked down Clifton, who was still in Dracula's employ, and then moved on to hunt the Count himself. Dracula cornered and attacked Drake but was driven off by Raj who was armed with a specially adapted torch, one that casts the shadow of a crucifix from its beam.

The issue concludes with the Count making his way towards the Dark Mirror, intending to escape his pursuers. At the final moment Raj leaps at him. During the grapple the pair of them fall through the mirror - we're left with a final panel of Raj's hand emerging from the mirror's inky surface....

By this fourth issue The Tomb of Dracula was starting to lay the foundation work for the remainder of its run. A large part of the cast are already in place, and the story lines are establishing a template that would be relied upon heavily in later years. Even the creators are mostly in place, with the noticeable exception of a writer. The next issue sees a new author in place, the third in an extremely short period of time.

Despite only working on two issues, Archie Goodwin leaves a long lasting legacy for the title in the form of the characters he's created. Around this period he was scripting a wide variety of books for a number of publishers. Although he wouldn't return to the colour title, Goodwin would continue to turn out the occasional vampire story; earlier in 1972 he'd been working on Vampirella at Warren. Coincidentally the month following his final The Tomb of Dracula saw a reprint in Creepy of a 9-pager he'd done some years earlier titled The Coffin of Dracula.

The Tomb of Dracula 4 sees a near-solid team starting to pull together. The story picks up quickly from the previous issue and moves along at a steady pace. The plot, thin though it may be, works providing disbelief can be suspended for 20 pages, and the art team are already delivering at near the peak of their powers. Palmer's inks suit Colan's pencils perfectly, and that excellent pairing would, with a few breaks, take us through the next five years.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

The Tomb of Dracula 3 (July 1972)

After two issues, The Tomb of Dracula finds itself with a new writer and inker. This is Tom Palmer's first assignment on the book and the difference in quality of finished art is immediately apparent. The misfire of the previous story's Vince Colletta inks is quickly forgotten; Palmer applies a slick and liquid look to the pages. Shadows look like shadows, fog looks like fog. The cast take on a more realistic and human (or inhuman) look.

The new writer is Archie Goodwin, a highly respected writer who had earned previous experience in the genre through his years at Warren. The effect his writing has is remarkable; after two issues of meandering we start moving forward. New characters are introduced along with motivation for their actions. The story is driven forward and seeds are sown for future developments. Unfortunately, despite the letters' page statement that Goodwin would be on the book for the long term, he's gone by the fifth issue.

This multie-part story opens in the American comic-book stereotype of London - all swirling fog, 'Big Ben', and the Thames. Distraught over the death of his fiancé at the end of issue 2, Frank Drake is looking to commit suicide by leaping in to the river. He's saved from this by a pair of characters who'll play a big role in the rest of this series - Raj and Rachel van Helsing. The focus moves to Dracula and Clifton. It's another cockney interlude (not a rarity in this title, though, to be fair to Goodwin, the language used isn't too far off the mark) by the end of which Dracula has attacked Clifton and turned him in to his 'slave'. The issue moves to wards its set-piece - another fight between Dracula and Drake, helped by Raj and van Helsing.

Naturally Dracula escapes. As the story moves on we meet a sceptical police officer from Scotland Yard - another truism of any story set in London it seems - who's persuaded as to the validity of Drake's story when one of Dracula's victims wakens in the morgue. Dracula and Clifton have escaped north, travelling to confront a Mrs Strangeway, the new owner of Castle Dracula, a woman with an interest in the occult. The issue ends with Mrs Strangeway inviting Dracula in to her house, with the promise of a mutually beneficial deal being discussed.

Although this is only the first of a two-part story, and therefore has no real conclusion, Goodwin acquits himself excellently. Despite having to follow two separate groups, the narrative never gets bogged down with (re-)introductions, and the plot (in terms of vampire comics) makes a lot of sense. Coupled with the art team of Colan and Palmer, Goodwin gets Tomb of Dracula back on track. The promise implicit in the premise is starting to be realised.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Tomb of Dracula 2 (May 1972)

The story in Tomb of Dracula 2 is something of a retread of the first issue's. In fact a high degree of repetition is something the entire series suffers from. The basic storyline of 'Vampire hunters chase Vampire; Vampire escapes' doesn't lend itself to much varied interpretation. It is to the credit of the creators that they occasionally create such compelling stories out of so unpromising material.

The story starts a short period after the end of the first issue - the exact length being unclear, though there is a reference by Clifton to having been in the pit for a number of days, where Dracula threw him to hold as 'food'.

We open with a newly confident Frank Drake searching the ruins of the castle with an apparently mute helper named Gort. Seeking revenge for the 'death' of his fiancé, Frank removes the vampire's coffin, believing that without it Dracula will die. Pausing only to rescue Clifton from the pit, Drake is soon off to London with his prize.

The coffin plan is a failure, as Dracula soon remarks (to himself, in grand style) as it's the earth in the coffin which sustains him, not the coffin itself. After a three page interlude where Dracula is compelled to visit a pub stocked solely with Cockney stereotypes ("Oh Bart, where's your blinkin' manners?") we move rapidly towards the issue's dénouement.

As with the premiere issue, we end with the death of Jeanie, the female lead. This time she gets a 'proper' death at the hands of Frank, the issue concluding as her body turns to ashes.

Once the story ends you realise that, in the broadest sense, this issue is a retread of the first. The characters act in the same manner, the narrative is driven by similar events, and the conclusion is identical. The details betray some differences, and the location has moved from Eastern to Western Europe, but overall we are already treading water, despite this being only the second issue.

There is one part of the package marks this issue out as being inferior to the first - the inking of Vinnie Colletta. Colletta is something of a controversial figure in comic fandom, largely because of the high profile work he did with Jack Kirby throughout the 60s on Thor; work that was continued for the first half of the 70s over at DC on the Fourth World books. Some object to his work because they feel that, in search of speed, he (or his studio) would cut corners - usually by obliterating detail. Others object simply because his style, especially when matched with more powerful pencilers (Kirby and Toth spring to mind) was simply unsuitable. In his favour he was well known for delivering a job on time. Occasionally, especially romance jobs, his work gave the pages a 'feathery' look that was well suited to the subject.

However, one thing he was not suited for was shadow and mystery - the archetypal key components of any vampire story. The pairing of Colan and Colletta on this issue just doesn't work. The inks are too thin and light. What should be shown as a deep shadow becomes instead an area of crosshatching, thus robbing a scene of its power.

Outside of this, the rest of the creators do what is expected of them. Despite the familiarity of the plot, the issue flows quite well, and the dialogue is workable, if clichéd. Strangely Gort appears to have been introduced and abandoned after 5 pages.

This would be Gerry Conway's final colour issue of The Tomb of Dracula, though he would pop up again on other Marvel vampire magazines. Barely 20 years old at the time these comics were published, he would eventually go on to write a well received (and controversial) run of The Amazing Spider-Man, and, briefly, become the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel's comic book line.

Issue 2 of The Tomb Of Dracula leaves us pretty much back at square one. Dracula himself has been revived, but the supporting cast around him is barely there. From the third issue this would change radically.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Tomb of Dracula 1 (April 1972)

It all starts in a rainstorm. As the wind howls around a European Castle, illuminated by lightning, three American tourists approach a small town in a small country. Through a series of flash backs we learn that one is a direct descendent of the legendary Count Dracula; the others are his girlfriend, along for the ride and who has recently split up with the third traveller, a supposed friend who hides his thoughts of bitter revenge against the man he sees as having stolen his girl.

It all starts in 1972 with the weakening of the tight grip the US Comics Code had over the colour comics industry. Never one to miss out on a marketing opportunity, Marvel Comics start to flood the market with titles taking advantage of these new found freedoms. Horror is the order of the day, or at least a boiled-down version of the same that this major Superhero house is comfortable with. Mostly short lived, the boom dies within a few years, there being both a lack of talent and of publishing will to continue through the lean periods. However, one series lasts - The Tomb of Dracula.

As with a lot of series published around this time, it seems as if the title came first with little thought as to the direction the book should take, nor the creative teams who should develop the same. One fortunate decision was made in favour giving the publication a reasonably evocative title - The House of Dracula was also considered at one stage. Further early thoughts included publishing it as a 50c magazine, in the style of Savage Tales and the Warren books. The Tomb of Dracula would have to wait seven years for that, by which time its moment had gone.

Its first year was something of a misfire. Gene Colan brought his incredible art to the book from the very first issue. In fact it was something he chose to audition for, being a fan of the old style movies. Colan was the best thing that could've happened to the title. His striking and, by mainstream comics standards, unusual style lends itself to work where mood as much as plot is the driving force behind the narrative. But the bi-monthly book suffered a raft of different writers over the initial six issues, all with their own ideas as to how the main character should be portrayed, all different from one another. Starting with issue seven it found a perfect match in Marv Wolfman.

This first story has no given title, though the cover's footer Night of the Vampire will do as well as anything. Written by Gerry Conway, the story is interesting insofar as it acts as an introduction to characters who are destined, for the most part, to be part of the regular cast, yet at the same time it feels like a one shot, as if Marvel were hedging their bets up until the final moments before publication.

The arc of the story is a familiar one - Frank Drake, related to the legendary Count Dracula by blood, seeks his inheritance, a castle in an un-named European country. Formerly wealthy, but now penniless, he's persuaded by his friend that the castle is "[...] a gold mine. [..] ready-made tourist industry!". As could be predicted, a mixture of greed and stupidity shapes their destinies.

Ignoring the warnings of the fearful villagers, the bones of Dracula are found and his body reanimated. Within moments the girlfriend (Jeanie) is (willingly) almost seduced by the count, only to be saved from herself by Frank. Stymied, the count looks for fresh blood and finds it in the shape of the only other female character we're introduced to. Her death prompts the villagers to take to arms and burn the castle, the castle where Dracula is having another showdown with Frank (having previously disposed of Clifton - the third member of the group - by simply throwing him in to a pit). Although Dracula is driven back, ultimately the victory is his as learn that Jeanie has, indeed, fallen for his charms and will join the undead.

So, what do we have? Inside of 25 pages we have most of the stereotypes of Vampirism - specifically movie vampires, with an emphasis on Hammer films.
  • Old Castle
  • Lightning
  • Fearful villagers
  • Cobbles
  • A Burgemeister
  • A busty wench
  • Horse-drawn transport
  • Bats
  • Coffin in the cellar
  • Vampire in the coffin
  • Vampire in an opera cloak
  • Vampire turning in to a bat
  • Vampire driven back by (i) silver; (ii) crucifixes; (iii) his (non) reflection
  • Weak minded woman, unable to resist, allowing herself to be seduced
  • Unruly mob (and flaming torches)
No pitchforks though. Shame...

Despite all of this, the issue cannot be said to have failed. Even if it does touch on all the standard clichés, it at least does so unashamedly and with some panache. And we have Gene Colan's art to guide us through the weaker moments, a rare case in mainstream comics of the artist being in total sympathy with his subject and, more importantly, able to carry it off with confidence. Although this isn't his best artistic effort, it immediately sets the high standards that he would constantly match and, in one or two cases, exceed over the next seven years. This first issue is unusual insofar as he inks his own work. After a few issues - and a few missteps - Tom Palmer comes on board to expertly finish Colan's pencils.

The Tomb of Dracula would get better than this, but for a first issue this does its job admirably.

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