Review by Graham Johnstone
Marvel’s 1970s foray into horror comics gave us arguably the first serious interpretation of Dracula since German film Nosferatu fifty years earlier. They sidestepped the Hollywood movies and went back to Bram Stoker’s novel.
Tomb of Dracula also points forward to TV’s Buffy, with the blonde female vampire slayer in Rachel van Helsing, and her older mentor in Quincy Harker. Other characters here also point to Buffy’s associates. Blade, an African man hunting the vampire that killed his mother, exactly predicts Robin Wood, latterly the Principal of Buffy’s school.
The first of these black and white ‘phone books’ saw Dracula inadvertently brought back to life in the present by his descendant Frank Drake, and hunted by other descendants of Stoker’s characters. This second volume reprints roughly two years of material starting in late 1974. By this time the long-running creative team of Marv Wolfman, penciller Gene Colan and inker Tom Palmer are creating some of their best work. Colan drew every issue, and provides dizzying action scenes, with gothic atmosphere and vivid locales. He revels in this volume’s historic London and Boston settings, and Palmer renders it all impeccably in fluid lines and velvety black shadows.
As this volume starts the supporting cast believe Dracula dead, and take time to resolve personal matters. This gave writer Wolfman the chance to introduce his own characters, including Hannibal King a detective; Harold H. Harold, a hack horror writer and wisecracking nebbish wooing fashionable beauty Aurora Horowitz. These three, as it happens, are similar respectively to Buffy characters Angel, Xander and Cordelia.
The focus of these stories is mostly on how Dracula’s agenda affects the other characters. We also see a more ‘human’ side to his character, particularly through his relationship with the vulnerable Sheila Whittier, and later, a blind child. Ultimately, though, he’s a narcissist – he’s really all about himself, and can’t understand why others don’t respond the way he wants them to.
Again in common with Buffy, self contained episodes here contribute to story arcs. For most of this volume it’s the struggle between Dracula and Doctor Sun: a brain linked into computer networks, but needing blood to survive. This is the scientific strand of gothic horror, like Frankenstein, and Sun similarly breaks free of his creator to pursue his own agenda. At times this feels overlong, but it provides a powerful common enemy for Dracula and the team of vampire hunters. In a pivotal moment, they have to make an agonising decision about whether they will prolong Dracula’s existence to defeat Dr Sun.
Many aspects of these forty year-old stories remain strikingly topical: Dr Sun’s networked artificial intelligence; and references to unemployment lines, suspect share deals, bank foreclosures, and even sinister forces compromising public figures.
Several stories reprinted from a companion title lower the star rating: they’re competently written by Chris Claremont and David Kraft, but don’t impact on the main narrative, and the art by Don Heck is noticeably weak. A crossover with Doctor Strange, (then also drawn by Colan/Palmer), is welcome though.
Published between the collapse of underground ‘comix’ and the rise of the current independent sector, these were some of the best American comics of their day. The stories, and particularly artwork still impress today, and this is reflected in the high prices sought for the various reprint volumes. These Essential editions remain the most affordable option – the loss of Palmer’s subtle, moody colouring is almost offset by the chance to better appreciate his brilliant line work. A third Essential collection completes the work of Wolfman, Colan and Palmer.