Monday, October 8, 2012

BAB Frightfest: Tomb of Dracula 1

Tomb of Dracula #1 (Apr 1972)
Writer: Gerry Conway
Artist: Gene Colan

Karen: Dracula was indisputably the most successful of Marvel's monsters. The series lasted far longer than any of its counterparts, running 70 issues, and Marvel's version of Dracula showed up in many of their magazines as well as other comics. I came late to the TOD fold; as I have mentioned in previous posts, I really hadn't read many issues of the title until I picked up the TOD trades, volumes 1-3. The series definitely improved as time went on. The early issues featured a parade of writers, until Marv Wolfman came along in issue #7, and began to forge his long and highly acclaimed run. Of course, any discussion of Dracula would be incomplete without praising the efforts of artist Gene Colan, who truly owned the character. Colan was the penciller for the entire run! His style, making great use of lighting and shadows, fit the book perfectly.

Doug:  Well you have much more of a history with all of our ghouls this month than do I -- I am lame-o supreme-o when it comes to the monsters.  I don't know why I never got into them, because as I read this stuff now in the Marvel Firsts, the Essentials, etc. I love them!  So I'm going to be positive about making up for lost time rather than dwelling on my lack of taste as a Marvel Superhero Zombie in days of yore.

Doug:  I'll echo your sentiments toward Gentleman Gene Colan -- I've always loved him on Daredevil and already get the feeling I'm going to like him on just about any Tomb of Dracula I'll encounter. 

Karen: This first issue would introduce us to the supporting cast, who in many ways were just as popular as the title character. Dracula was never portrayed as "the hero" in the series -- complicated, intriguing, yes, but the vampire was always shown to be at his core, evil. The heroic vampire hunters who took him on were given as much face time as the Count.

Doug:  And I'll ask everyone to pardon my ignorance, as I'm not trying to be coy -- I really did read this for the first time for this review.  But it was pretty obvious that the young folks were going to be the protagonists with the Count the antagonist.  They're a little formulaic, as we'll describe, but that seemed to fit well into the tale.

Karen: Our story opens, and it is a dark and stormy night. No, really. Three travelers are driving to  an ominous castle, when their jeep goes off the road. Frank Drake, his girlfriend Jeanie, and their companion, Clifton (Jeanie's ex-boyfriend -- that won't be a problem, will it?) scramble out of the vehicle unscathed and walk back to the last village. The villagers, who would all fit in nicely in any Hammer horror film, are sitting in the local inn, speculating about these newcomers, with an old man named Burgeister saying that the castle will bring them only sorrow. The door pops open and the three bedraggled travelers enter, and Burgeister welcomes them to Transylvania! At this point I do have to note that I found it odd that the villagers seem to be Germanic, calling everyone 'Herr' -- wouldn't Transylvanians speak Romanian? Another thing -- this whole scene plays a bit odd for me, as I had the impression that the threesome had already stopped in this village, and yet they introduce themselves as if no one knew them. Did you find that odd?

Doug:  You know, I read it and re-read it, and to be honest I'm not certain.  Clifton does remark that they passed the village, but it's sort of ambiguous as to whether or not they'd actually stopped.  And how about the period costumes on the denizens of said village?  Clifton reminded me somewhat of Sir William Cecil Clayton from Tarzan of the Apes -- you just know that down the road he's going to become a major pain-in-the-butt.

Karen: Frank and the others try to get someone to take them to the castle, but most of the villagers are afraid, but one, Otto, says he'll give them a lift in his carriage if they pay him well enough. On their way there, the three young people question Otto about the rumors of Dracula. Otto says its superstition -- and yet, he won't drive all the way up to the castle. The travelers dismount and begin their long walk. Clifton notes that they're almost out of money. They better hope the castle is a real tourist attraction.

Doug:  The carriage was the perfect touch, wasn't it?  Who needs a car in a yarn like this?  I thought Gerry Conway did a nice job of building suspense in these early parts of the story.  Certainly we know where this is all headed, but there's still a sense of wariness. 

Karen: As they approach the castle, Frank muses about how they got here. He had inherited a million dollars from his father, and blown through it in three years. He'd also wound up falling in love with his best friend's girl -- but oddly enough, Clifton took it pretty well. In fact, Clifton was the only one who stood by Frank after he lost his money. Frank realized his only hope to make some money was to sell the castle he'd inherited. "Castle?" Clifton asked. It turns out Frank is a direct descendant of Count Dracula -- yes, the real Dracula. Clifton tells him that this is huge, that it could make a ton of money. Frank reads back through the centuries-old diary he's been carrying around, one that was written by Dracula's daughter, grandson, and a man named Van Helsing. It describes how Dracula became a vampire and also how he was killed. Frank keeps thinking about the body of Dracula, lying staked in the depths of the castle. He can't get it out of his head. Clifton tells him that they could turn it into a museum and make a ton of money. And so the three of them are off.

Doug:  This section of the story was great -- Conway did a nice job getting the casual reader up to speed on the mythos of the Count.  One really begins to get the sense, too, that Clifton deserves to "get it"... and soon.  He's just smarmy, isn't he?  Frank, on the other hand, is somewhat of a dubious hero isn't he?  He's certainly not virtuous in regard to heisting Clifton's girl and his financial lack-of-prowess.  Yet at this point he's all we've got.

Karen: You're right, Clifton may be a creep, but Frank's no paragon of virtue either. By the time they reach the castle though, Frank is sick of Clifton.He doesn't trust him. Frank blows up at Clifton, but once they enter the castle, he gets caught up in a feeling of deja vu. It's like he knows this castle. Suddenly a gaggle (flock?) of bats fly past them. Startled, the three separate. Clifton falls through some rotted floorboards and winds up beneath the castle. He goes down a set of winding stairs and finds Dracula's coffin. Clifton is filled with excitement. Turns out he's been planning to take the castle, steal Jeannie back, and kill Frank.  He approaches the coffin and pulls it open to reveal a staked corpse. Clifton chuckles about what idiots people were to think Dracula was a vampire. He pulls the stake out and leaves, thinking about how he'll arrange Frank's 'accident'.  Now maybe I am asking too much, but isn't it convenient that he decides to pull the stake out for no reason?

Doug:  Actually, bats travel in a colony.  Or a cloud.  Not that I knew that...  Yep, ol' Clifton's got everyone in a pickle now, doesn't he?  And how about him falling through the floorboards?  Didn't you find it odd that no one heard the ruckus and came to his aid?  Surely, too, he would have cried out.  Colan is not called a master of shadows for nothing, and he certainly shows it throughout these pages.  The coloring, full of grays and browns, is aptly moody, but Gene the Dean's blacks are fantastic. 

Karen: As soon as Clifton leaves, the skeleton in the coffin begins to change. Flesh forms on the bones and suddenly, Dracula is back. The Count stops Clifton, who shoots him, but to no effect. Dracula tosses him down a hole, "with the Others," and pauses -- he hears voices above, including a woman. Dracula flies up as a bat and turns back into his human form to confront Frank and Jeannie. He mesmerizes Jeannie and she tries to go to him. Frank knocks Jeannie out and drives Dracula away with her silver compact. Now that just seemed silly. Dracula flies off to the village and slakes his thirst with the blood of a local barmaid. Her body is soon discovered and the enraged villagers head off with torches in hand to the castle. Torches?  It's 1972!

 Doug:  Sort of B&W magazine fare with Jeannie's blouse flying open, ya think?  Loved the scene with the villagers -- just goes to show you that these scary stories are timeless!  Everyone has a part to play, I guess.  Colan's scratchy style really lends itself to the turmoil brewing as Dracula comes back from the dead and begins to do his thing.

Karen: Dracula goes back to the castle and creeps towards the unconscious Jeannie, but draws back when he encounters the golden crucifix around her neck. Frank leaps out and tells Dracula that he is his descendant. Dracula says he'll wind up a vampire too, but Frank comes towards him with the compact again. Worse, he throws the compact at him. Oh come on! Dracula, annoyed, grabs Frank and slams his head against the wall. As Frank slips from consciousness, Jeannie awakens, and Dracula commands her to remove her cross.

Doug:  The thrown compact was pretty dumb.  C'mon -- when it's your only weapon, you've got to at least use it to buy some time, huh?  Dracula does exude power, and the scene where he gets Frank around the neck just feels like it would hurt (a lot!).  Dracula has about as many powers as Ultra Boy, ya think?

Karen: The villagers reach the castle and set it on fire (a stone castle??) just as Dracula begins to leave with the girl. But Frank wakes up, and armed once again with his trusty silver compact, he drives Dracula off. Frank grabs Jeannie and carries her outside. He fears she's dead, but she rises and turns to him. He sees her fangs and she tells him that once one is bitten by a vampire, one can never die. Frank covers his face and cries as the girl disappears into the night.

Doug:  I wish I had the following issues -- Conway and Colan wove an interesting tale; certainly not without some bumps, but compelling nonetheless.  I'd be curious to see how Wolfman settled in and started to steer this in his own direction, past this introductory tale that served mostly as set-up.

Karen: I have to say that the whole silver compact thing drove me a bit crazy. The story had a lot of atmosphere, but this was - -I thought -- a fairly weak start.The art was really the saving grace. As a bonus, I'm including a pin-up from the Tomb of Dracula TPB, which is apparently the piece Colan did to convince Stan Lee he should be the artist for the book. Pretty nice, huh? 


William Preston said...

Who did the cover?

I only started reading this comic quite late in the run, but I was stunned by how good it was. Wolfman, who around the same time was writing absolutely awful stuff for Spider-man and the FF, really had a feel for this material. And Colon's style never fit anything better (though I loved his Iron Man and Doctor Strange).

This was the only monster/horror comic I read.

Edo Bosnar said...

Karen, yes, the villagers should have been speaking Romanian, or at least Hungarian. I've actually ranted about this point several times here previously, i.e. the fact that every time the setting in a Marvel comic is somewhere in the Balkans (including fictional places like Wundagore and Latveria), everyone apparently speaks German and dresses like they just stepped out of a 19th-century Swiss or Bavarian alpine village.
Another point of fact is that in 1972 Transylvania was in Ceausescu's Romania, so three young Western tourists tooling about in the countryside would have been highly unlikely - and they would have had a Securitate detail following them around everywhere they went.
Sorry, had to get that off my chest. As for the actual story, like Doug, I was late to the game on horror comics, initially avoiding them, but I did pick up some later issues of Dracula, which I thought were pretty good. Also, I appreciate that Dracula - and most other vampires - were not portrayed as heroes (unlike the current trend). And I definitely agree that Colan was ideally suited to this series.

Doug said...

William --

The Comicbook Database lists Neal Adams and Marie Severin as the penciller/inker for the cover to Tomb of Dracula #1. I can see that, although not as much as I can on next week's bow of Werewolf by Night.


Karen said...

William, my understanding is that Neal Adams drew the cover.

Here's a question for everyone: Which book would you say is Wolfman's signature work: TOD or New Teen Titans?

Edo, I'll let them get by with the hokey Bavarian costumes, as the artists likely had no good references other than old horror films, but speaking German seemed the height of mental laziness.

Dougie said...

You can still see Drac's resemblance to Jack Palance in one or two panels. The mouth is sensual but the features are heavier, perhaps more brutal, than the aquiline vampire of later issues.

The advantage of colour is the emphasis on the vampire lord's pallor.It's a design element that's simply not available to the b/w Essentials reader.

The first issue draws on imagery from Universal and early Hammer but the series template is really "Satanic Rites of Dracula", to my mind.

Garett said...

I read through the first 3 Essentials volumes a few years ago and loved this series! It seems to me the writing doesn't really take off until Wolfman comes aboard.

I also wasn't into horror stuff as a kid--perhaps it seemed old-fashioned next to superheroes. Karen's question about TOD or Titans is a tough one. For me it's a tie: two very different series, both very well written. Plus Wolfman had two excellent artists, perfect for each series.

Edo Bosnar said...

As to the question of Wolfman's signature work, my answer is New Teen Titans, simply because I was with that series from the start and followed it regularly, while, as I mentioned, I only read a little of Dracula toward the end. However, I'm aware that among many comic fans Dracula is not only considered Wolfman's best work but also one of the best series of the '70s in general.

Dougie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dougie said...

Just reconsidered my comment: too negative. I didn't enjoy Titans at all once Perez had left although I followed it avidly. Nonetheless, I was a very big fan for the first four years.

I think with hindsight that ToD was a more consistent series. Wolfman occupied a middle ground between the self-consciously "literary" writers like McGregor and the Kozmic fanboys like Englehart. He couldn't do comedy at all, however.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I have the first volume of Essential Tomb of Dracula and I've never been able to get through it. Partly it is because I find the early issues meandering, unfocused and cliched - I mean, really, villagers bearing torches in 1972?

Also the art is problematic for reasons I'll explain. I am usually a big fan of Gene Colan. His Silver Age stuff, especially on Iron Man, is top-notch. But here he loses me.

I think a big part of the problem is the transfer to the Essentials's black & white format. The color panels Doug & Karen posted are much more inviting than the bare ones I've been looking at. I don't think Colan meant for these pictures to be viewed without color. His painterly style is hard to follow in this case without it.

Based on the other comments here, I guess I would be well-advised to buckle down and read through to the Wolfman issues. This is certainly the month to do it!

Fred W. Hill said...

I have a book about the historical Dracula (Dracula: Prince of Many Faces, by Radu R. Florescu & Raymond T. McNally) and actually wrote an article about him for a newsletter last week (oddly, he was born in Transylvania, but was ruler of neighboring Wallachia, which are both part of modern Romania). Anyhow, the earliest issue I have of this series was #10, the introduction of Blade, but I didn't start regularly collecting the series until about #50. I've gotten most of Wolfman's run now but never bothered with the first several issues, mainly due to their reputation as pretty weak. I might yet get the essential collection just to check it out for myself.
I'll echo Edo et al about how Marvel routinely depicts central Europeans (aside from the WWII era) as speaking a strange mix of German & English and dress and seem to live as if they're still in the 1700s. I wonder how much Conway knew of the historical Dracula or the real Transylvania; I would think that if he realized the real Transylvania was in then Communist-ruled Romania he would have changed quite a few details about his story. Then again, he & Roy probably figured better to give the readers the archaic, imaginary Transylvania as depicted in the films rather than have to deal with the cultural and political reality of the actual place of 40 years ago (geez, and in 1972, the classic Universal film was 41 years old!).

Anonymous said...

As a kid growing up in the UK, British Marvel comics had it all over the US originals. Really. They were taller, wider, and did not have adverts between the pages (40 pages of material, all killer, no filler....compared to 17 pages of material in the US imports). Despite having vastly more material, they were cheaper than US comics, were published weekly, so you didn’t have to wait to find out what happened next (and how long was a month when you were a kid? .....I know for a fact that August 1975 lasted at least 17 months) and, best of all, they reprinted all the comics you were never going to be able to afford (starting with FF#1 & Hulk#1).

The only downside was: they were in black & white. No small downside. The one exception to this I remember was Drac, who for some reason was reprinted under the name of his big glossy mag in the UK (i.e. it was called Dracula Lives, but it reprinted Tomb of Drac). The lack of colour (and color) really didn’t subtract that much from it. It scared the bejesus out of me.

It always felt weirdly British to me, partly because it was mostly set in London and Europe for the first few years, but also because it was clearly far more Hammer Drac than Universal Drac. Marv references Hammer films directly throughout. Even when he moved it to the States, it was to Boston, the most European of US cities, and we were still in ancient stone churches and foggy back streets, rather than jumping off the Hancock tower.

I like the way that none of the heroes are really heroes. Frank, as you say, is selfish and a bit childish later. Quincy is bitter and exhausted. Later we get Blade, who is properly damaged goods and Hannibal King, himself a vampire. Probably only Rachel is actually heroic, but even she is just playing out her hand in the family destiny.

Marv’s stuff is good, but those first six issues are underrated in my opinion, compared to Marv’s start. As Fred says, it wasn’t that great, esp #10, so prized as the first Blade, is really weird and badly plotted from start to finish.

Also, considering he was so determined to give the series a strong sense of European locations, Marv could have invested in an atlas. My favourite gaffe is ‘the Transylvanian alps’ which are referenced a few times. What is funny is this: the Alps actually border on eight countries, so you have to be pretty unlucky not to hit one of them, but Marv was. Secondly, Transylvania is surrounded practically on all sides by mountains, but not the Alps. So he just needed to avoid the word ‘alp’ and he’d have been fine.

Regarding the accents, while I agree with you that it’s preposterous that everyone east of Paris is German, if they hadn’t been comedy Germans, they would have been faux-Russians, so everyoneski would have beenski speakski like thiski, tovarisch.


dbutler16 said...

I never got into the monster comics, but I think I should pick up Essential Tomb of Dracula.

Anonymous said...

I always heard San Francisco is the most European of U.S. cities, not Boston.

Unknown said...

I know I'm very late to this party, but thread necromancy seems apropos when talking about Dracula. I wanted to comment on the German-speaking Transylvanians. This is actually not a case of Marvel flattening all of Eastern Europe into a Hollywood soundstage. From about the 12th century until the end of the Ceausescu regime there was a significant German minority in Romania centered in Transylvania. They were known as "Transylvanian Saxons" and they retained their German language and culture (and after the Reformation, their Lutheran faith) despite the changing political tides of Transylvania. They made up much of the "burgher" class of Transylvanians, allying with the Hungarian nobility over the Romanian peasantry. In the 1970s, when Transylvania's population would have been in the neighborhood of 7 million, there were about 350,000 Germans in the region, so Drake and co. encountering German speakers wouldn't be that odd, particularly since they tended to live in the sort of villages that are featured in this comic. In 1990 though, after the death of Ceausescu, about 90% of the German population of Romania took advantage of Germany's offer of citizenship for Germans living abroad and emigrated to Germany. Still, the current president of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, is a Transylvanian Saxon and got his start in the "Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania," a political party representing the German minority.

TL;DR: Um, actually there were a lot of German speakers in Transylvania in the 1970s.

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