Friday, October 5, 2012

October is Spookey Month: "Tomb of Dracula," a Halloween reading suggestion

Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, Tom Palmer, Tomb of Dracula #31 (April 1975)

 Your perfect Halloween reading is Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan.  I’m a Halloween traditionalist.  As far its denizens go, I tend to avoid all slashers other than Michael Myers (or is he more of a stabber?) and stick with the classics—werewolves, ghosts, mummies, witches and vampires.  And vampires don’t come any better than the main man himself, Vlad Dracula.  Forget those Varneys, Ruthvens, Yorbas, Mamuwaldes and all those other pretenders to the throne.  Barlow?  A clown.

But when you want the true Lord of the Undead, there’s no other choice for choosy consumers.  You want Dracula.  He’s packed with vitamins, stays crunchy in milk and has a taste that can’t be beat.  Kids and moms agree-- the wholesome goodnesss of Dracula is part of your complete breakfast.  And Wolfman’s purple prose funny book serial is the third finest Dracula tale after Bram Stoker’s novel and the Hammer Films series starring the greatest of the screen Dracs, Christopher Lee.

It’s got gothic elements and touches of Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, and occasionally Sax Rohmer by way of Ian Fleming.  Disembodied Communist brains?  If the series unfortunately takes place in the Marvel universe at large—Johnny Storm, the Kree Empire and vampires have no business co-existing, sorry (although we might make a case in favor of a Fin Fang Foom crossover)—Wolfman wisely and largely keeps the colorful longjohns crowd at bay,  beyond a brief visit by Brother Voodoo and a tete-a-tete with earth’s Sorcerer Supreme Dr. Strange.  Chris Claremont’s tales in the Giant-Size issues tend to draw on H.P. Lovecraft as well.  They’re okay, not really Claremont’s finest—the man mastered mutants, not vampires—but then again, he didn’t have the benefit of Gene Colan handling the art.

Colan made his horror bones—so to speak—drawing some memorable ink-washed Creepy tales for Warren, but he made his mark at Marvel pencilling Daredevil and Captain America.  Tomb of Dracula, however, is the man’s masterpiece.  Tomb was an assignment he sought, and he was right to do so.  While his superhero work showcases his ability to depict bodies in motion, Tomb proves him a master at distorting them through foreshortening.  Constrained from showing gore by the Comics Code, and due to the talky nature of a lot of scenes-- vampire hunting requires planning while sitting around coffee tables-- Colan would choose the most difficult angles, then stretch page design to its outer limits by framing them with panels of odd shape, or going for collage-like effects.  But always under control, always moving the reader's eyes across the page in a way that makes sense and lends to a clean reading experience.  Actually, reading a Colan Dracula page is like reading a movie.  

His chiascuro style—heavy on shadows and mood—finds its ideal match in the sinuous ink line of Tom Palmer.  Through Palmer's finishes, Colan’s art coalesces further into the kind of dark beauty that also prints well on the cheap newsprint comics companies used in those days.  When you find them in black and white in an Essential Tomb of Dracula or one of the slick collections in full color, you see just how endlessly attractive and rewarding of close study these pages truly are.  

Palmer interprets Colan's shaded modeling with parallel feathering and cross-hatching to create a feeling of form, depth of field, added clarity and emphasis.  At times he seems less an inker than an extension of Colan’s artistic consciousness.  There are other pencil-ink teams where the partners’ sensibilities mesh so well.  Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, George Perez and Romeo Tanghal, Jack Kirby and Mike Royer, John Byrne and Terry Austin, Steve Rude and Gary Martin.  But Colan and Palmer made Tomb of Dracula Marvel’s most consistently gorgeous book of the 1970s.

Wolfman takes a novelistic approach to his cast of characters, especially lead Frank Drake.  When we first meet Drake in Tomb #1 (April 1972), he's a cjaded, shallow rich boy who's squandered his fortune.  Only Castle Dracula remains, but betrayal by a close friend leads to Dracula's resurrection and sets the series in motion.  Drake is at times selfish, mule-headed, morose and self-reproaching.  When he moves to embrace outright heroism, he does so in about as jerky a way a person could, alienating his friends.  The quest to stop Dracula changes him over the course of his adventures.  The same can be said of  Rachel van Helsing, whose character transformation finds stark symbolism in facial scars she eventually acquires, marring forever her icy blonde beauty.

Like many open-ended narratives, Tomb seems content to spin its stories out, changing direction abruptly, introducing new characters like shlubby Harold H. Harold, the hacky writer, and Blade, the half-vampire vampire hunter who proved popular enough to inspire a Wesley Snipes-starring movie franchise and a syndicated TV series, then following them down twisting story paths until things conclude rather abruptly in Tomb # 70 (August 1979)-- which was supposed to be a three-issue arc, but ended up mutilated into a double-sized single issue thanks to a Jim Shooter decision.  The stitched-together seams show badly, but the series ends up having a strange Victorian serialized novel feel, which is appropriate for vampires.

Dracula himself would go on to appear ever more ridiculously in issues of The Uncanny X-Men and ---, a kind of supernatural Dr. Doom, every new iteration watering down Wolfman's indelible characterization of a proud, misanthropic anti-hero until Drac becomes just another super-villain in the Mighty Marvel manner.  He even fights Apocalypse at one point.  Sheesh.  But during the run of his own title, Wolfman, Colan and Palmer found majesty in a character who suffers from being overly familiar to the point he's inspired parody and mockery.  Besides Dracula himself, obviously Blade is still kicking around.  I'm not sure what's up with Frank Drake, although he resurfaced in 1991 for a four-issue Epic miniseries also called Tomb of Dracula, where we find him trying to put the past behind, only to have the infamous vampire reappear.  Wolfman deliberately ignores all the Drac appearances in between, having the vampire lord reappear at precisely the same place he apparently perished in that last issue of Tomb.

I, for one, applaud that choice.

Which is why every October I find myself brushing away the cobwebs, creeping down the stone steps weeping condensation, the darkness breathing chill air like a dying man… and opening the tomb.  This Halloween, if you haven’t already, you should, too.

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