Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dracula Lives!...and Lives...and Lives...

Once the Comics Code Authority relaxed its allowances for vampires and other horrific characters in 1971, Marvel Comics got into the newly-permissive waters in a big way, and their initial four-color offering was The Tomb of Dracula, hitting newsstands with an April 1972 cover date. No dummy he, Stan Lee knew that the Count was a character in the public domain, and once he decided to make their first foray a vampire title, why not go with the most famous vampire of all?

The book struggled during its first six bi-monthly issues to find a formula that worked, with writers Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin and Gardner Fox each serving as scribe for two issues apiece. (I often lament Goodwin's brief stay; he was simply one of the best Horror comic authors to ever sit behind a typewriter, but he was historically an antsy one, and never really remained on any one book for the 30-40-50 issue stints that we see from writers today.) Tomb finally found its footing - and its wordsmith - with issue #7, as Marv Wolfman took over the reins, and together with Gene Colan's fluid, atmospheric pencils and Tom Palmer's lustrous inks, the team quickly hit their stride. By #8 the book was monthly, by #10 Wolfman had introduced Blade, the Vampire Slayer, and together the trio turned out 60 more issues through 1979, and made Tomb of Dracula one of the consistently finest titles on the stands, Horror or otherwise.

But since Dracula was so inextricably linked to the trinity that was Wolfman-Colan-Palmer, what about the other members of the Bullpen that wanted to play in Drac's backyard? In 1973, when Lee decided to give some competition to Warren's black & white line of Horror, the first effort released was Dracula Lives!, a more
mature package that upped the quotient on gore, violence and sex, while allowing other creative talents to take a crack at Drac. The book usually consisted of three longer stories per issue (the early issues also featured reprints from pre-Marvel Timely titles; fans in the letter pages were anything but kind), as well as articles about the Count in cinema. Writers could put Dracula in any time or setting, with one restriction - if they chose the contemporary era, their work could not clash with what Wolfman was doing in the color title. Therefore, readers got Dracula in every time period since his vampiric creation, and in some very creative storylines...

- Steve Gerber cleverly envisioned a mission for the Count that forced him to enter that most Holy of Holies, the Vatican, as well as a tale set against Nazi Germany;

- Conway hypothesized - What if a vampire drank the blood of an addict that was laced with heroin? (He also paid the price from the readers, who kvetched whether the undead would be thus afflicted, but hey - Stoker didn't exactly explore the topic, now did he?);

- Swamp Thing creator Len Wein put Dracula in 1920's Rome, dealing with the Italian mafia;

- Tony Isabella scribed one of my favorites, a cautionary tale to all would-be hijackers - If you're going to take over a plane, best not to choose the one that's transporting the King of the Vampires' coffin;

- Doug Moench, who at some point got to write just about every Marvel Horror title, returned to his b&w Warren roots with a variety of stories, one of the best being "Last Walk on the Night Side," about a flatfoot unlucky enough to encounter Dracula while on patrol.

- Roy Thomas began a very accomplished adaptation of Stoker's novel with Dick Giordano, one that didn't see completion until almost thirty years later in 2003.

In addition, Wolfman got to work with artists other than Colan, like Neal Adams, John Buscema and Mike Ploog, the latter penciling a morbidly witty tale set against the backdrop of Hollywood. (It's also very interesting to see other artists' take on the Count. Colan famously based his Dracula on Jack Palance, but his appearance is much more varied in the b&w books, often looking David Niven-esque. Were these artists influenced by the Young Frankenstein rip-off, Old Dracula?)

Although Dracula Lives! lived the longest of all of Marvel's b&w Horror titles, it only managed 13 issues and an annual of reprints, and closed up shop in 1975. Tomb of Dracula followed suit as a color comic in 1979. It was quickly re-born as a b&w magazine that same year, but Wolfman soon exited Marvel for a stint at DC, and though Roger McKenzie, Jim Shooter and Peter Gillis scripted some very interesting work, and Colan stuck around for continuity, Marvel lost interest after a half-dozen issues and the book was canceled.

Recently Marvel issued four Essential Tomb of Dracula compilations, but that fourth one is actually the non-reprint content from Dracula Lives!, as well as a handful of stories from the b&w ToD magazine. As grateful
as I am for the Essential volumes of any of Marvel's back catalogue, I've often felt a tad rueful at seeing colorless reprints of art that was originally meant to be colored, but there's no such problem here. The often glorious art from Dracula Lives! is rendered with every tint, shade and wash intact, albeit in a size somewhat smaller than the original magazines. And here's a treat; Peter Gillis worked out a timeline that takes all of Drac's b&w material and works it into the canon. (Marvel and their continuity - how I love it!) This final Essential volume is now out of print, and the price is starting to climb, so it's well worth picking up now. Many fans have considered this b&w material as mere sidebar at best, irrelevant and substandard at worst. They couldn't be more wrong. This is from that remarkably fecund period in Marvel's history, when the so-called "Children of Stan" were allowing their imaginations to run free, producing some of the most vital material in the company's history. Dracula Lives! was filled with work that really came to life, and that's not too shabby for a Lord of the Undead.


Simon B said...

Great post, Senski! I've been promising to do one on Tomb Of Dracula myself for ages, but haven't got my act together. Your appreciation of the B&W mags is very welcome - they don't get enough attention - and your inormation on that almost forgotten time in Drac's history is fascinating. I'll have to start hitting the back-issue bins!

Simon B said...

Er, yeah, that should read "inFormation"!


Anonymous said...

Tomb of Dracula was one of the first comics I ever got into from a collection that my dad eventually passed on to me.

Great read Senski.

senski said...

Thank you, gents!