Tomb of Dracula #2A column article, Cheap Thrills by: Jason Sacks
In these economic times, finding inexpensive entertainment is difficult. Thank goodness for the local comic shop and a slew of comics nobody cares about anymore! This week Jason Sacks headed on out to Dreamstrands Comics in Seattle and grabbed a comic from the bargain bin (3 for a dollar) to see what kind of bang he can get for his third-of-a-buck. This is that tale.
May 5, 2012 -- paid 33 cents for:
TOMB OF DRACULA MAGAZINE #2
Published by: Marvel Comics
Written by: Marv Wolfman
Pencils by: Steve Ditko
In December 1979 smallpox was declared to be eradicated worldwide, the first disease ever eradicated by mankind. Yay, people! Also that month was the famous riot at a Who concert in Cincinnati, Ohio, in which 11 people were killed when the crowd rushed to grab unreserved seats. Boo, people. Also, in that vast middle ground where most stuff lives, Star Trek: the Motion Picture premiered, we all got to celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or whatever holiday we celebrated. And Marvel Comics brought us a very strange late gift for Halloween in the form of maybe the strangest comic that the great Steve Ditko ever created.
What is the weirdest story that Steve Ditko ever illustrated? There are many strong candidates for that category, and before I read Tomb of Dracula magazine #2, I could think of a few crazy stories that fit that description. But after reading "The Dimensional Man," the feature story in this bargain bin book, I had no doubt that I'd read the strangest story in his career. Why was it so strange? One simple and completely baffling phrase: ritual rape by a Cthulu-like creature.
Yes, you read that right. Steve Ditko drew a story that depicts a scene of such raw evil that I feel uncomfortable even describing it, let alone thinking about what it would have been like to experience it.
We'll come back to that otherworldly rape, maybe the most bizarre sexual act in the history of American comics – and yeah, I'd include underground legends like Crumb and Clay Wilson in that list - in just a bit. First, let's step back in order to allow the story of this comic build like a classic horror story. Maybe it will make a bit more sense if you can see this bizarre scene in some sort of context.
When Marv Wolfman refitted his classic Tomb of Dracula series from a comic to a magazine in 1978, he obviously made a choice to shift the tone and approach of the series. The ToD comic had boasted one of the richest and most interesting sets of supporting characters of any series from its era. That comic is a classic series, and it made my list of the Top 10 '70s Marvels on this very website a few years ago. But the ToD magazine was an entirely different series from the comic. The magazine jettisoned all of the original series’ supporting characters in favor of an anthology-based format. That format brought the single extremely bizarre issue illustrated by the great Ditko.
This issue doesn't even really focus on Dracula. The Lord of Vampires is pretty much a supporting character in his own magazine. Instead, the story focuses on a mysterious man named Joshua, whose whole being is taken over by an enigmatic parasitic force of evil.
As the issue begins, Joshua's body has already been consumed by this malignant force and his face is beginning to become more inhuman. As Wolfman has Joshua describe the scene, "one quarter of [his face] glistened with a dark abyss, worlds floated within the black expanse … miniature suns seem to shimmer with intense ferocity." Ditko illustrates this peculiar face with an incredibly imaginative and uniquely Ditko-esque flair. Joshua's face is an interlocking web of black circles joined by irregular, nervy, abstract lines that seem to shift from panel to panel. The overall effect of the face is very similar to that of Ditko's full-mask heroes, especially the Question. Like with Vic Sage, the lack of physical affect on our protagonist's face adds to the drama of his situation. It makes him feel universal. A faceless man could be any one of us, which means the evil he embodies could be visited upon any of us.
Adding to the power of the image is its stark black and white rendering. Though Ditko draws the whole story in an intriguing and frequently lovely wash style, Joshua's face is illustrated strictly in black and white. This rendering makes the man stand out on the page, almost glowing at times against a backdrop of grays and whites.
For those of us who love Ditko's gorgeous wash art from his days illustrating classic stories like "The Spirit of the Thing" and "Where Sorcery Lives" for the Warren mags, his wash art on this comic is disappointing. It looks like Ditko worked extremely hard to make his art feel lush and exciting, but unfortunately the printing makes the grays look bleached out. As Marv Wolfman recollected in an interview published in Comic Book Artist #13, 2001:
I was hoping it would be as good as Steve's Warren material, which I thought was brilliant, but the wash was not as good. The drawing was great, his storytelling is flawless. I loved working over his work, but his rendering using the blacks didn't work as well, and it looked faded. But his drawing was so good I didn't care, and his storytelling, as I say, was just wonderful.
What makes it more frustrating is that at times the art is breathtaking. The sequence on page two of this story is as starkly beautiful as a scene from a Val Lewton horror film. The villainous cultists are rendered in the sensuous shades of black and gray. And the Cthulu-like creature in the story's conclusion is depicted in a thoroughly mesmerizing combination of lighter and darker shades of gray. Ditko’s use of blacks and grays in this story is different from the starker rendering he presents in the contemporary “Shroud” story that I wrote about two issues ago. Ditko's art in ToD #2 is lusher and richer in texture than his work in the "Shroud" story, less black-and-white and more suffused with a luscious grayness that seems to permeate every panel.
Ditko's illustrations are wonderfully off-model. They're not influenced at all by Gene Colan's long and influential run on the character. Ditko's Dracula is a strikingly handsome man with a pencil-thin moustache and slicked-back hair. In this story he's literally a lady-killer, and Ditko does a brilliant job of having Dracula's supernatural charisma jump off the page and into the eyes of the reader.
As I've mentioned, Dracula is essentially a supporting character in this dark story that has evil opposing even more horrific evil. We first see Drac on page 12 of this issue as he meets a beautiful girl named Angela at a séance. Angela's name is well chosen because she has an inner angelic goodness that even Dracula has to respect. It’s a goodness that Dracula treasures but around which he really can't trust himself; as the vampire says: "You are a lovely child, one whose beauty shines like a beacon in the night. It is for that reason that we will never meet again." But, enchanted with the girl, Dracula makes a solemn promise: "If you need me, call my name and I will come."
Incidentally, Ditko illustrates the comment above with a wonderful panel that focuses just on Angela and Dracula's hands moving apart while force lines surround the image. It's a wonderfully subtle way of showing the power of the image and of foreshadowing the horror that will soon come.
The problem is that Angela is the sister of poor possessed Joshua, and, you guessed it, will soon be the victim of the unbelievably heinous crime I described above.
The crime is a shocking Satanic twist on the virgin birth of Christ. Damien needs the pure Angela to give birth to him on Earth as both bride and mother – and how creepy is that? As Damien says on page 23: "Our master has spoken, Joshua. He is ready to walk the Earth anew. He desires a woman pure, untainted by his presence. It suits his fancy that through one such innocent shall be born the darkness. Asmodeus has chosen your sister, Angela. It is she who shall bear his child who is himself." This is an evil of almost unspeakable blackness, the absolute corruption of an angelic soul in order to serve his own horrific goals.
After Dracula leaves Angela's house, she wanders upstairs and finds a group of mysterious cloaked people waiting for her. Their cloaks are illustrated in dark shades of gray, they wear inverted crosses, and their eyes glow with an inner, seething evil. Damien is their leader, and he forces the living angel to disrobe. As Damien begins to torture Angela, Joshua emerges into the room with the cultists, his head glowing with an energy that's in a breathtaking contrast with the darkness of Damien's cult. Damien and Joshua fight, which causes the hoods to fly off of the faces of some of the cultists. The cultists are literally scarred by their evil – ravaged physically by the very evil they embraced.
The cultists defeat Joshua, which allows Damien to tell the horrific story of Joshua and Angela's parents. Their parents were Jews who fled from the Nazis in Hungary, pledging their lives to Satan in order to escape with their lives. Soon pregnant, their mother pledges the souls her children to dark Asmodeus. She was literally born, as Damien says, "to be the bride of Amodeus himself."
After an interesting six-page interlude in which we see the darker side of Dracula once again, the Lord of Vampires answers Angela's call, only to find a mind-bogglingly bizarre scene: Angela crucified, head-down, while a astonishing, many-tentacled spawn of Hell straddles the lower half of her body in a scene that's almost indescribable in its breathtaking horror It's the ritual rape by a Cthulu-like creature I described at the beginning. But now that you know the whole story behind this scene, isn't it even scarier and stranger than it appeared at first glance?
Dracula flies in to the room on bat wings, using the rain and the very elements to destroy the horror. But the King of Vampires, for all his power, cannot defeat Asmodeus – he can only fight him to a standstill. As the intense, fiery, kinetic battle rages through the latter half of the story, Joshua suddenly realizes that he, and he alone, can save his sister, by sacrificing himself. Joshua embodies eldritch evil already, yet must now send himself to Hell and sacrifice his soul in order to save his sister. Joshua’s final words are haunting:
And so I fall … deeper, ever deeper … the waters now surround me … the flames burn all about me … I am in the land beyond all endings … I am lost to the world above, and I cry. God, do I cry. For Hell on Earth has only just begun.
Thus ends perhaps the darkest and strangest comic of Steve Ditko's entire career. As we all get ready for Halloween by watching our favorite horror movies and reading our favorite horror comics, take a moment to dig this comic out of your collection and revisit a comic where Dracula, Lord of Vampires and physical embodiment of evil, fights on the side of an angel. Marv Wolfman's masterful writing makes this story thoroughly terrifying on a whole bunch of levels.
Angela's ultimate fate is never revealed, as far as I know. Tomb of Dracula #3 presented a story that happened years before, and I know of no other appearances of Angela, Joshua or any of the other main characters in this story. Did Angela become pregnant with Asmodeus's Earth-side self? How did she deal with the horror of these events? Was she corrupted or become a disciple of Dracula? We'll never know – but doesn't that mystery make this story even more intriguing?
Again and again when reading this story I was struck by how unlike Ditko this story seems. "The Dimensional Man" has a pervasively bleak, almost despairing, mood. There are many levels of pure horror in this story, and really no character redemption. Wolfman said in his CBA interview that this story was co-plotted by Ditko, but I see none of Ditko's passion for depicting pure heroes fighting corrupt evil. Like the gray shades of art in which the story is rendered, there are only many gray shades of evil and no shades of good in this story. If Ditko did indeed co-plot this story, it sheds an intriguing light on his state of mind in 1979.