Friday, May 27, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Three

The Tomb of Dracula # 13, “To Kill a Vampire” really delivers on the promise of Marv Wolfman’s continuing storyline. Quincy Harker , Rachel Van Helsing, and Taj Nitall are overcome with grief over the loss of Edith Harker. Frank Drake is consumed with rage for his hated ancestor and Blade has no patience for their grieving and is eager to take the reins of the group or resume the hunt for Dracula alone. Clearly the group will continue to have issues functioning as a collective thanks to Frank and Blade’s respective personalities. Meantime, Dracula continues his reign of terror in London while an unseen Chinese criminal genius, Dr. Sun dispatches his minions to the morgue to reclaim the body of the vampire Brand.

There is a nice bit where Dracula attends a prize fight and is sickened by the spectators’ reactions to violence as entertainment. He fails to appreciate boxing as a sport from the perspective of the medieval conqueror he once was or the predator he has become. Following Edith’s cremation, there is a quiet interlude among the group of vampire hunters where Blade reveals his origin. His mother was killed by a vampire while giving birth to him. That one brief flashback provides all the information the reader needs to understand the character, his anger, and what drives him to obsessively hunt vampires. Again, Wolfman’s masterful skill with characters combined with Gene Colan’s stylish art sets this series well above the standard maintained by most comics of the era.

The issue races to a breakneck conclusion with Harker and his band of vampire hunters following a lead that takes them to Dracula’s hideout. The ensuing battle is particularly vicious. The vampire apparently has the upper hand thanks to his strength and supernatural powers when suddenly and unexpectedly Blade puts a knife through Dracula’s heart and kills him as the issue comes to an abrupt finish.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Two

Marv Wolfman took over scripting duties on Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula with Issue 7. Despite the name, Wolfman was an unlikely choice for a horror title as he had never been much of a horror fan and had limited exposure to the character outside of Stoker’s original novel. Nonetheless, the decision to pair Wolfman with artist Gene Colan and inker Tom Palmer elevated the series to classic status and insured its reputation for decades to come.

Issue 7 quickly sets the stage with the introduction of Quincy Harker and his daughter Edith. Quincy is the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker born at the end of Stoker’s novel. Here he is a nearly blind old man confined to a wheelchair with his daughter and faithful dog Saint as his constant companions. He functions as a mentor to Rachel Van Helsing and Taj Nital and has welcomed Frank Drake into the fold. Quincy is an amateur inventor whose vampire hunting gadgets give the story a Bondian edge that works very well. Wolfman’s sense of history and character instantly deepens the story and gives the reader a reason to empathize beyond the immediate sense of good vs. evil.

His innate understanding of people as an amalgamation of family history, mistakes, joys, and tragedies is Wolfman’s greatest strength as an author. Even his Dracula, for all of his cruelty and savagery, is imbued with such humanity and dignity that one can’t help hoping all of them can find peace. Wolfman may be the first writer since Stoker to successfully treat the characters as real people that readers recognize as something other than stereotypes. Finding the key to that empathy is what elevates his take on the property above so many others.

The issue itself builds to a truly terrifying climax with the vampire hunters having a confrontation with Dracula that far exceeds simple cat and mouse games between hunter and prey. Dracula hypnotizes a group of school children earlier in the story and turns them into an attacking army that no adult would want to fight against is a masterstroke of evil and a harbinger of the level of writing to come from the series.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part One

Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula is beyond question the finest horror comic series ever produced – a fact made all the more amazing when one considers that since the original series ended, none of the many revivals (even those with the original’s classic creative team) have succeeded in bottling lightning a second time. Much of the success of the book is down to the surprisingly literate scripts by Marv Wolfman and the stunning artwork by Gene Colan and inking by Tom Palmer. However, Wolfman did not come aboard until Issue 7 so this first installment in an ongoing series looking at this influential comic will focus on the first six issues of a title undergoing the pangs of development.

Roy Thomas deserves the credit for bringing this series to life. It was Thomas who convinced Stan Lee that the loosening standards of the Comics Code Authority and renewed interest in the occult could make an ongoing horror comic featuring Bram Stoker’s infamous vampire count the runaway success of 1972. The Comics Code Authority came into being in the 1950s as a reaction against crime and horror comics as a result of the rather disturbed fantasies of Dr. Frederic Wertham. His 1954 study, Seduction of the Innocent imagined underage sex between Batman and Robin and convinced countless parents that juvenile delinquency was as much to blame on comic books as it was Rock ‘n’ Roll. The fact that Wertham’s book revealed more about himself than the actual content of comic books was lost on parents, whether over-protective or neglectful, who were quick to latch onto an excuse for why the post-war nuclear family was struggling. The result was the neutering of comic books for nearly twenty years and a ban on crime and horror as entertainment suitable for children.

Prior to The Tomb of Dracula, most comics companies would have turned the character into a misunderstood superhero. Marvel already had one of those with Morbius, the Living Vampire, but The Tomb of Dracula was determined to prove as revolutionary to Marvel as Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith’s adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Both titles were far more adult and, at the outset anyway, far removed from Marvel’s established continuity. They were gambles that paid off in an era when Marvel deserved to call itself The House of Ideas.


Friday, May 6, 2011

John Devil and the World of Paul Feval

John Devil was my first introduction to the works of Paul Feval. At nearly 650 pages, it is a massive tome and without the efforts of scholar and translator Brian Stapleford and editor and publisher Jean-Marc Lofficier and his Black Coat Press imprint (named after Feval’s long-running crime series) it is likely few readers outside of France would ever have discovered the work or any others by its author.

John Devil is noteworthy as a book of firsts. Written in 1861, Jean Diable is believed to be the first novel detailing a police detective hunting down a master criminal. That is not to suggest that John Devil offers anything approaching standard fare for the genre. The novel was originally published as a serial and consequently is heavily padded with literally dozens of characters, dual identities, and countless interconnecting plotlines. While certainly not as difficult a read as the seminal penny dreadful, Varney the Vampire, John Devil is nonetheless a far cry from Feval’s later more polished works.

John Devil is the code name for a long line of brilliant, but savage criminal masterminds. When one John Devil is killed or imprisoned, another comes along to take his place. The character reads like a dry run for both Dr. Mabuse and Fantomas. Feval’s emphasis on contrasting the lives of the aristocracy with that of the common working class very much put me in mind of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s Fantomas series in particular. The similarity is emphasized by the cover art for the US edition of John Devil from Black Coat Press which deliberately recalls the famous artwork for the original Fantomas.

While Fantomas is a madman and anarchist whose control of the criminal underworld is based solely in terror, John Devil is rooted deeply in Freemason conspiracy theories. Feval presents a world in which no one is who they claim to be, loyalties are constantly divided, and an undercurrent of paranoia exists around the belief that Freemasons are the puppet masters controlling not only the criminal element, but also engineering political and military maneuvers.