"Celebrating Marvel Comics' 'The Tomb of Dracula''s 45th anniversary Part One o
In March 1972, Marvel Comics launched its new book, The Tomb of Dracula, a four-color based on Bram Stoker’s vampiric character. The comic floundered at first, going from one writer to another. With cancellation imminent, as writer Marv Wolfman took over, throwing caution to the wind and creating a series that outlasted all of Marvel’s other monster books. The Tomb of Dracula was considered one of the best books of the 70’s, and created new characters such as Blade, Hannibal King, Quincy Harker, Dr. Sun, Lilith, and Rachel Van Helsing. With its gorgeous, gothic art and intelligent writing, The Tomb of Dracula reached literary standards not often associated with comics at the time.
The 1970’s saw new developments for “The House of Ideas” (as Stan Lee humbly nicknamed Marvel), some negative, some positive. Despite losing Jack Kirby to DC Comics and Stan Lee more or less retiring from writing, Marvel had a new generation of talent and with it, new characters they created. Helping things out was the relaxation of the Comics Code in 1971. These alterations provided depictions of previously prohibited things and situations such as drug use, sympathetic depictions of criminal behavior, and criminal activities that led to the death of law-enforcement (although all of these could not be portrayed in a seductive manner). More importantly for Marvel’s horror comics, the Comics Code allowed “vampires, werewolves, and zombies” if they were handled in the classic tradition such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and other “literature.” This inclusion led to Marvel Comics launching a new line of comics featuring monsters such as Frankenstein’s Monster, a werewolf, and vampires.
Given the comic’s unusual premise, it’s easy (particularly in hindsight) to see why it stumbled in its first few issues. Dracula has universal recognition but what was the comic book about? Dracula wasn’t a hero (as he was in a 1960’s comic book). Who were his adversaries? Early on, the book established Frank Drake, Dracula’s descendant as someone who crossed paths with Dracula and saw Dracula kill his girlfriend. However, the thought of Drake battling Dracula by himself didn’t seem to have much longevity.
That changed with the title’s third issue, when things began to pick up. The characters of professional vampire hunters Rachel Van Helsing and her bodyguard Taj expanded the cast. Van Helsing was a strong female character (except for her crossbow which routinely failed to hit Dracula) and brought a nice dynamic as Frank Drake interacted with her, an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary adventures and clearly out of his league. There was the usual romantic tension found anytime a male and female character interact, but their relationship included some feminist themes reflective of the 70's.
Early issues established that the book could be much more than “Let’s stop Dracula from fanging someone.” An early story saw a woman with a magic mirror ally herself with Dracula, seeking eternal youth in exchange for giving Dracula access to the mirror through which he could hide himself in any time period. This story fleshed out the vampire mythos as it established people who are vampirized continue their physical appearance once transformed. Thus the old hag was immortal but still looked like an old hag.
The Tomb of Dracula’s early issues were uneven compared to the Wolfman/Colan run. Still, they’re all worth checking out. Once Marv Wolfman got underway, you could see both a direction and an improvement in the stories. Wolfman created a fascinating set of characters who opposed Dracula’s schemes. Reading the book, you couldn’t help but feel the characters’ weariness as they battled an immortal and ruthless enemy. Each character carried physical and psychological scars from their battle with the Lord of Vampires.
The Tomb of Dracula featured two characters who would go on to appear in film, Blade and Hannibal King. Blade was one of Marvel’s first successful film features and while Hannibal King was much different than his comic book counterpart, he did show up (as did Dracula). Blade also appeared in a short-lived TV series. With Marvel featuring secondary characters on television, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Blade return to the small screen. A Tomb of Dracula series (particularly one set in the 70’s) could be successful if it captured the character-driven stories of the comic.
As good as the writing was, the book’s artwork was equally fantastic. The talented Gene Colan’s shadowy style was perfect for the title. The versatile Colan was embellished by Tom Palmer, arguably the best match for Colan’s pencils. The pencils and inks were aided by some great coloring and lettering too. The Tomb of Dracula was one of those comic books where everyone involved seemed to take things up a notch.
Join us soon as we look at the book’s origins and some of the people involved with it. In the meantime, check out my Tomb of Dracula site for an issue-by-issue synopsis and analysis.