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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