Thursday, July 28, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Eleven

The Tomb of Dracula #55, “Requiem for a Vampire” is highlighted by the stunning artwork of Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, which is exceptionally beautiful even by their high standards. Marv Wolfman’s script cleverly builds on the conflict between Dracula finding marital bliss with his wife and their infant son and the nagging doubt that he was capable of siring a child in his undead state. Adding to his concerns is the fact that his son resembles the angel he battled several issues earlier. Only the vampire’s lust for power distracts him from pondering this further. Anton Lupeski’s growing awareness of Dracula’s madness convinces him he must remove him once and for all before the vampire turns on him. Meantime, Quincy Harker is recovering from his heart attack and meets with Frank Drake, Rachel Van Helsing, Harold H. Harold and Aurora Rabinowitz to discuss their next move. Harold successfully infiltrates the Satanic christening ceremony held in the Dark Church where Lupeski christens Dracula and Domini’s son, Janus and declares the child is the promised anti-Christ. Dracula realizes that Lupeski is setting up his infant son as the focus of the cult to minimize the vampire’s influence and rebukes Lupeski publicly, abruptly departing the ceremony with his wife and son and leaving the High Priest fuming over his humiliation. What follows is a wonderful piece of writing with husband and wife alone together, bearing their scarred souls to one another. Dracula opens up about his fractured relationship with his daughter, Lilith and Domini goes into greater detail about how she fell into the Church of Satan. Wolfman is as bluntly honest as the censorship of the day would allow in depicting real life sexual abuse by cult members. The literate, moving dialogue combined with Colan’s realistic artwork combine to make this issue a landmark installment in this fine series. It seems impossible not to be moved by these two lost souls whose one desire is to find peace after living lives of degradation and abandonment. Of course, moments of peace are short-lived in broken lives and Lupeski is overheard by another vampire plotting with one of his cult member to kill Dracula once and for all. The loyal vampire reports Lupeski’s betrayal to Domini who chooses to pay a clandestine visit to Lupeski herself rather than inform her husband that the High Priest is plotting his murder. The issue ends with the vampire prowling the night skies in bat-form ruminating as he had at the start of the issue over the points that continue to cause him unrest. His melancholy mood is tempered by the belief that he has a loving and devoted family and has finally found some semblance of peace.

#56, “The Vampire Conspiracy” is the title of Harold’s fictionalized account of his encounters with Dracula. This is really just a humorous filler issue which neatly summarizes the Boston-based storyline thus far and wrings some humor out of the contrast between Harold’s narration (where he depicts himself as capable, heroic, and distinctly Sherlockian) and the reader’s recollection of what has occurred in the narrative up to this point. It is interesting to note that Harold portrays Rachel and Aurora as helpless damsels in distress in a fashion that is very familiar to those who grew up on a steady diet of Universal and Hammer horror. Most intriguing is a purely fictionalized encounter between Dracula and Satan who appears in the form of a black panther. While no such event has occurred, it does prefigure the direction Wolfman is about to take with the storyline in coming months. As it is, the issue remains a diverting time-filler.

#57, “The Forever Man” starts with an intriguing prologue depicting the curse that befell Gideon Smith in the 18th Century which left him doomed to a series of violent reincarnations which deny him peace. We follow Smith through the generations to the present (Boston in the mid-1970’s). A brief segue sees Domini confronting Anton Lupeski over his plans to assassinate Dracula, but the High Priest of the Dark Church succeeds in intimidating her into remaining silent for the time being. Meantime, the storyline picks up with Dracula hunting the streets of Boston when he runs into a series of unfortunate encounters that lands him in a hospital room next to Gideon Smith. Gene Colan’s artwork in this issue is impressive from beginning to end, but certainly reaches its peak with Dracula’s rampage through the hospital. The issue ends with poor Gideon Smith reduced to a catatonic state after witnessing Dracula’s frenzied reaction to being mistaken for an accident victim when discovered unconscious. A sidestep is necessary before we cover the next issue. The reader should first acquaint themselves with several solo adventures for Blade that were published in a couple different magazines (free from interference from comic censors) prior to enjoying the character’s solo spotlight in the pages of the next issue of the main title.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Ten

The Tomb of Dracula #49, “And With the Word There Shall Come Death” is an intriguing issue which nicely develops Anton Lupeski’s ambition to see the Church of Satan grow into a cult that could become a One World government. Of course, Lupeski sees Dracula as both his means of achieving this goal and an obstacle to remove before he vampire is firmly entrenched as the head of the church. Dracula returns home to his pregnant wife, Domini, but is almost immediately mystically spirited away to another dimension. The subplot with Blade and Hannibal King battling Blade’s vampire doppelganger ends with Blade disappearing into his undead twin leaving only the vampire Blade to confront King. Meantime, Frank Drake and Harold H. Harold are captured by Lupeski’s followers when they infiltrate a Black Mass. Rachel Van Helsing is seen about to attempt their rescue while Dracula materializes in the library of a woman named Angie Turner who possesses the apparent ability to summon literary figures to life from her library. The vampire lord finds himself encountering the likes of the Frankenstein Monster, Zorro, D’artagnan, and Tom Sawyer. Dracula is confused as to the nature of Angie’s powers. When she burns Bram Stoker’s novel, the real Dracula is returned home to Domini and the reader learns that Angie Turner is a mental patient locked in a padded cell in a nice twist ending worthy of Rod Serling or Richard Matheson at their peak. Marv Wolfman’s concept of comic book/literary reality vs. the real world the reader escapes from raises what would otherwise be considered mere filler to genuine delight.

#50, “Where Soars the Silver Surfer” is yet another crossover with a more mainstream Marvel character. The interconnected Marvel Universe concept is one I always enjoyed, but felt it never really worked outside of superhero books. Happily, Dracula’s meeting with the Silver Surfer comes off more satisfying than expected. The story gets off to a strong start with a predatory Dracula scared off by an angry crowd who come to his helpless victim’s rescue. We then switch to Anton Lupeski explaining to four unseen guests his plan to kill Dracula once Domini gives birth to his heir. From there we switch scenes to the ongoing fight between Blade’s vampire doppelganger and Hannibal King and then we view Lupeski and his four unseen cohorts performing an occult ritual to summon the Silver Surfer to their dimension. Dracula is finding life as head of the Church of Satan to be frustrating. Writer Marv Wolfman does well in portraying Satanists as regular folk and high-ranking politicians and not just stereotypical occultists. The ongoing subplot involving the portrait of Christ in the deconsecrated church is developed further. The Surfer enters and exits through the portrait as a portal between dimensions and understands that Christ has a plan for Dracula that involves both Domini and their unborn child. The decision to have the mystical Surfer possess an understanding of Christ is as effective as the suggestion that both the Church of Satan and God are using the Surfer for the same purpose. Wolfman was walking a tightrope in these portrayals and offended more than a few readers along the way. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide whether his bold experiment worked or failed, but I found his integration of mainstream religion with supernatural fiction to be a highly effective one that harkened back successfully to the vampire’s literary roots in Stoker’s Victorian classic.


Friday, July 15, 2011

The Black Coats: An Introduction

Les Habits Noirs is a series of seven landmark novels in pulp fiction history that have sadly been neglected outside of their native France. A fair degree of skepticism among modern readers is to be expected. Translations of obscure French novels can be a spotty affair and the verbose literary style of Victorian literature with its lengthy philosophical or historical passages are often wearying for a 21st Century audience. For every Fantomas that still captures modern imaginations, there are countless Dumas or Hugo pastiches whose only redeeming quality is their historical value to the avid student of fantastic fiction. Happily, Les Habits Noirs is one of those rare treasures that are as enthralling today as it was 140 years ago.

Paul Feval wrote all seven books in the series. He was an amazingly prolific author who turned out swashbucklers, vampire tales, crime fiction and religious works of vastly varying quality. Brian Stableford has spent much of the last decade translating his works into English for publication by Jean-Marc Lofficier’s Black Coat Press, a pulp specialty publisher who chose the English-language title for Les Habits Noirs for their imprint. Many critics have compared Les Habits Noirs to Mario Puzo’s Godfather series. My own best comparison would be to consider it the antecedent to Norbert Jacques’ Doctor Mabuse, the Gambler and especially the three films Fritz Lang made from that seminal work. Like Lang’s three masterpieces of crime, Les Habits Noirs bridges the gap between Pulp and Art.

The seven books in the series were published between 1863 and 1875 and concern members of a secret society headed by a crime family led by the patriarchal Colonel Bozzo-Corona. The first book, entitled Les Habits Noirs in France, was re-titled The Parisian Jungle by Black Coat Press for their English translation. The book introduces the criminal brotherhood, The Black Coats as a cross between the Mafia and the Illuminati. Modern readers weaned on Dan Brown’s intriguing if hopelessly hackneyed neo-pulp thrillers will marvel at what a true master of the conspiracy thriller sub-genre is capable of crafting. Colonel Bozzo-Corona is as intriguing a criminal mastermind as any fiction. A feeble grandfather figure that can strike as quick as a cobra, Bozzo-Corona is always portrayed as displaying an uncommon brilliance. His fatal flaw is his borderline Messianic complex which promises to be his ultimate undoing. Feval’s fatal flaw was his inability to maintain the high standard of quality he demonstrated with this series. Too much of his non-series work was derivative and, after leaving his fiction works behind following a dramatic religious conversion, he doomed his reputation to be little more than a literary footnote. From that perspective, Black Coat Press and Brian Stableford’s work seems little short of evangelical in its mission to bring Les Habits Noirs to a wider audience who will appreciate this seminal work for its richness and mesmerizing tone.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Nine

The Tomb of Dracula #44, “His Name is Doctor Strange” kicks off the series’ crossover with Marvel’s flagship occult title, Doctor Strange. The crossover was a natural choice given the characters and the fact that artist Gene Colan had a past association with Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts. Admittedly, the physical resemblance between Colan’s rendition of Stephen Strange and the Lord of Vampires is a bit too close for comfort, but Marv Wolfman delivers a solid script that makes the crossover fun despite failing to live up to the potential of what the meeting between these two characters might have been. The story gets underway with Strange retrieving his faithful manservant, Wong from the crystal ball he had mystically disappeared into only to find his valet has been bitten by a vampire. Strange enters the crystal ball and visits the past to see Wong interrupting Dracula’s attack on an innocent woman and then watches through Wong’s eyes as the vampire turns on his manservant. This intriguing set-up sets Strange off to put an end to Dracula’s reign of terror. From here, we segue to a largely pointless comic relief subplot where tabloid journalist Harold H. Harold is incensed to learn that his publisher’s sexy, but dimwitted receptionist Aurora Rabinowitz has sold her story about their encounter with Dracula and earned a byline. From there, we move to the much more interesting subplot involving the white-haired vampire who is being sought by both Blade and Hannibal King. The actual conflict between Dracula and Dr. Strange comes off rather well with the sorcerer tracking the vampire to his coffin and entering an astral battle with the vampire in 15th Century Wallachia. Unsurprisingly, Strange underestimates the vampire’s hypnotic powers and is attacked and bitten by Dracula. The issue’s real climax sees Blade and Hannibal King meeting for the first time on the trail of the white-haired vampire who ruined both of their lives.

Doctor Strange #14, “The Tomb of Doctor Strange” concludes the crossover with Steve Englehart’s script fitting as seamlessly into Wolfman’s storyline as Wolfman did with his in the first part. This uncommonly effective crossover can be contributed to the fact that Wolfman edited both titles. As the story gets underway, we learn that Strange’s astral form is still free while his physical body has fallen victim to the vampire. More significantly, Dracula first stumbles upon the deconsecrated Boston church in this issue which will play such an important role in the next story arc. Englehart also begins a continuing storyline with Dracula being pursued by an unseen spirit who taunts him with visions from his past. Dracula returns to feast on Strange and the magician’s astral form re-enters his body, awakening him. Strange calls on Jehovah and creates an astral cross which causes the vampire’s death. The effects of Strange and Wong’s vampire bits are reversed with Dracula’s death at the issue’s rushed conclusion.