Mustache match

It’s the only unequivocally great villain protagonist book. And interestingly, he has no redeeming features at all: Dracula is a flat-out asshole, supremacist, bigot, casual serial murderer, and megalomaniac. Against any expectation such a protagonist powered 70 issues plus annuals, and that’s not all: in addition to the monthly color series The Tomb of Dracula, there were a quarterly companion Giant-Sized Dracula, the black-and-white magazines including the companion Dracula Lives! and the continuation of the series The Tomb of Dracula (whoo, naked boobs and butts), Vampire Tales which featured reprinted pre-Code stories and the adventures of Blade and Hannibal King, Marvel Preview with its own run of “Blade the Vampire Slayer,” and Giant-Sized Chillers which included reprints from Chamber of Darkness and others, as well as Dracula stories. As a chunk, you’ve got more there than most superhero titles ever dreamed of.

What’s more, it’s not a patchwork of various writers pinch-hitting their way(s) through a flailing franchise, but nothing less than a monster-sized novel about a monster that easily meets anyone’s definition of “graphic novel” and ought to be cited and studied as such. I think it’s Marv Wolfman’s standout achievement in comics, way ahead of later work. I don’t even have to mention Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, whose 75-issue run on Tomb is legendary, and whose work in the B&W mags is breathtaking. (credit too to other creators – e.g. Mike Ploog inked by Ernie Chua, amazing)

Looking back, Wolfman presents his own whole category of character creation. It starts with a character intro that’s just a little more meaty and spooky than the average, sometimes by him, sometimes by Gerry Conway (the initial issues of Tomb of Dracula were a Lee-Thomas-Conway joint): the Punisher in Spider-Man, Moon Knight in Werewolf by Night, Spider-Woman in Marvel Spotlight. Then he or other creators pick his idea up and do odd things, or Wolfman gets it from a Conway start and does the same. Either way, the result falls completely outside the Weisinger, Infantino, or Lee models of comics writing and characterization. True, some other characters follow this pattern too without Wolfman involved, like Wolverine, but his creative career, especially at Marvel, is stuffed with the ones that do way more than anyone else’s. He had a Midas touch with depicting a new or almost-new foe as “the hero of another story.”

I saw only a little bit of it as a kid, mainly from the first year. I did have most of the Blade stories, and he made enough impression on me that I was stunned at the moronic substitute that bulked into view during the 1990s, despite having little investment in Marvel at the time. I also vividly remembered the visuals from the Doctor Strange crossover and am disappointed in my recent re-reading to find that its plot role was pretty incidental. Back then, I knew well what the issue was: mage vs. vampire? Living vs. undead? Arcane occult vs. festering abomination? No. Nono-n-n-n-no. This, my friends, was a battle of the mustaches, no small thing in that decade. I was however disappointed to find that the magnificent handlebars in my memory were actually not textually correct, as Colan apparently likes his ‘staches lean and mean.

OK, back to substance, to consider the difficulties of a villain protagonist. The beauty is that Wolfman doesn’t make him “the hero of another story,” as with most adaptations, but stays with him as a villain (I’m given to understand that Wolfman had not seen vampire movies and worked mainly from the novel – big plus there). Crucially, Drac is not presented romantically. Some of the other writers in the magazines go on about the eroticism of his bite, but Wolfman rarely does, if ever. Dracula is repulsive. His flesh is cold. His breath stinks awfully. He’s arrogant without grandeur, mean without justification. His mental dominance of a victim is depicted as straightforward captivity akin to rape. Countless feeding vignettes of “this is Angela [or Barbara, or Margie, or whoever], see her die” never depict the victim as deserving it; there is no reveling in the predator’s gaze as far as I can see. Even when his theatricality is solidly impressive, he starts talking and it’s instantly clear that he’s a psycho.

Second, obviously for serial fiction reasons, Drac can’t succeed and yet he can’t be beaten. Insofar as he needs to be impressive and interesting, this forces the nominal heroes to be hapless and always-unsuccessful. The first couple of years struggle with it: the initial line-up of vampire hunters falls pretty flat and Drac’s mockery of their efforts can get some reader-sympathy. The situation improves by adding bad-assery and wry humor with the unquestionably outtasight Blade, the first-of-his-kind hard-boiled vamp detective Hannibal King, and the surprisingly tolerable Harold H. Harold. I have to say, Rachel van Helsing, Frank Drake, and Quincy Harker never do manage to make it as credible protagonists, but they become less important most of the time.

The third issue concerns villains that we’d like to see Dracula beat, and that struggles longer, well into the #30s. Doctor Sun gets played for all he’s worth and it turns out not to be much. For all the build-up over Deacon Frost, he’s absurdly stupid and disposed of in a single issue. After that, though, there’s a huge turnaround, unusually not by humanizing Dracula but by locking his nastiness down solid. The story never gives him an excuse. He was a horrible prick as a living man, and as a vampire he’s a serial killer and a would-be world conqueror, the latter completely without purpose. It’s the one reason you can’t dismiss the ineffective heroes entirely, because not once is it possible to relish the thought of Dracula beating them; he’s just too awful. His rants are psychotic, genuinely disturbing without the bravado or idealism or arrogance that lends humanity to the best costumed-style supervillains. When this point is finally established for good, the real adversity blossoms – I’d say when it’s revealed that as a living man, he would rape women while forcing his hated wife to listen. (Um, did I mention this is shown in the newsstand comics that kids could buy? let me tell you about the scene where the junkie prostitute shoots up with a dirty needle)

Adversity from what? Well, this is a very religious comic, even if it doesn’t make much sense or come into clear focus for a while. For instance, we’re told any religious symbol will do against Drac, but evidently that means as long as it’s Christian or Jewish. The Muslim character in Claremont’s annual story never tries the crescent; the Hindu characters never try anything. The orthodox Jewish guy is clearly the most devout and in touch with “the Big It” than other characters, and it seems for a while that this is the key conflict of the title. As a minor point Harold presents an odd mashup, quoting the Bible all the time including the Gospels, but also referring to his bar mitzvah and otherwise flawlessly capturing the contemporary nebbish character type.

Then during the fourth year the whole thing takes off and gets really Christian, of the simultaneous hippie-humanist and anti-authoritarian bent that I’ve written about before. It fits right in with Starlin’s Warlock and Isabella’s Friend. (See Superstar, The big bad, and Everyday religion.) It starts with a satanic cult led by the interestingly named Anton LaVey Lupeski, then slowly works out from there into fucking bonkers mystic land. Dracula marries a cult chick. A painting of Jesus becomes a major character. Dracula’s son turns out to be hippie Jesus, or sort of him in a time-loop, although not exactly in a nice way – brace yourself for a solid issue concerning the floating corpse of a baby. It also turns out that Satan, by whom Dracula has been swearing since the beginning, doesn’t like Drac much, as being too big for his britches.

All this puts Dracula into an intolerable crunch because nothing and no one, metaphysically, is on his side. And man does he suffer for it, for the whole second half of the title. Dare I say, it actually hits the heights of thoughtful drama (I mean, with naked chicks in sacrifice rituals, just have to admit that). By the time the Big Devil Dude shows up and does something which I really swear is one of the finer plot points in comics, Dracula’s one emotional linchpin – that he is overwhelmingly lonely for family and envies his dead siblings whose children loved them – is not only placed out front, but kicked to the dirt and made to squeal.

This is where the book shines, to focus on the simultaneous admiration for and emptiness of pride, and to focus on the suffering rather than on action-horror victory or defeat. Dracula is compelling not because he’s a vampire, or far less, Lord of Vampires, but because he’s a man after all, whose only possible fate is to be crushed by history and by any particular objectified position of morality.

I didn’t know much of this, if any, in reading a few issues as a kid. I didn’t get to the late stages at the newsstand, and by the time I was buying magazines, my interest had shifted to bronze-thewed barbarians rather than movie-esque monsters. Getting hold of Tomb et cetera has been on my list for a long time, and in fact I bought the Essentials collections many years ago, before “blog” was even a word. That was no idle desire, as it turns out. “Comics finally grow up,” they said in the 80s. The Marvel monsters on the stands and in the mags, over a decade earlier, merely smile.

Links: Re-opening the Tomb of Dracula (Longbox Graveyard)

Next column: Two men (April 23rd)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on April 16, 2017, in The 70s me, The great ultravillains and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “Tomb of Dracula” (the American newstand comic book) was published as a b/w big-size magazine in Italy in the 70s. And it was magnificent. Colan and Palmer art, uncluttered by the terrible comic book colouring of the time and with much better paper and printing quality could stand on his own against the new French Graphic Novels, and the writing was “adult” in a way that was not the sex-and-sadism of Italian adult comics not the “artsy” way of highbrow magazines.
    It was, really, a totally different thing, as nothing I had read before.
    (You can see some scans here: I did hope to find the same quality of reproduction in the American Essential books, but apart from the censoring the paper and printing quality is not the same…)

    The writing improved issue after issue, too, hitting a high point with the introduction of Hannibal King… and then the magazine folded, in the general implosion of comic books in Italy in the late 70s. And for years I didn’t know how the story ended

    Hunting for back issues years later, ordering them from the USA (not an easy task at the time), I did read about the behind-the-scenes of the end of the series in the Comics Journal before reading the issues. I did know about the Shooter interference, that forced a quicker than planned end and a move to a magazine format, and I did fear a imposed bad ending as the one on Shang-Chi. But I was pleasantly surprised. Even at the time, it was clear that Wolfman had done something rather unique for Marvels (at the time, at least): a complete story, with a ending. And what a ending, with Drac holding a cross in the next-to last issue, and the last words… “I rule the scum and the diseased! I am lord over filthy woe-begotten TRASH! is THIS my awful destiny? Tu rule those I would not even deem worthy to splay? Gods in Heaven and Hell…what nobility there is in ruling the insect?”
    “There is none Dracula. We both know it”.

    Editorial and economic dictates made the return of Dracula inevitable, first in the magazine, then in cross-overs (with the x-men, of all things…), then in other comic book series, but the character was never the same. Even when written by Wolfman, even a few months after this last story. it was like Wolfman had said all that he wanted (or could) say about Dracula, and the rest of it is tired, clichéd, trash. But the comic book series stand for me as probably the only really self-contained story published by Marvel.

    P.S.: did you know that Tomb of Dracula was the direst inspiration for a Japanese anime by Toei? It lifted entire storylines directly from the comic book, even the Janus one…

    Liked by 1 person

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