Blood-sucking in the '70s: Tomb of Dracula

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Continuing my look at horror comics in the 1970s, it seems appropriate to look at perhaps the best of them all. For chills, thrills, excitement and a whole bunch of characterization, there were few comics better than Tomb of Dracula. Writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan teamed up for over six years to create the most engrossing and thoughtful horror comic in history. The cover of each issue proclaimed Tomb of Dracula as "Comicdom's Number 1 Fear Magazine," and for once, a boast like that was true. The series was never better than in its last several issues, when Dracula, turned human by the devil, finds himself on the run from his enemies and from the undead creatures who had once adored him. It's a ravaging journey through a hell of both body and soul, and serves as the brilliant climax to an outstanding series.

Wolfman and Colan together worked on 63 issues of Tomb of Dracula. The team was united in issue 7 and served together, with the assistance of inker extraordinaire Tom Palmer, until the series was cancelled with issue 70. During that run, the team introduced a wonderful set of supporting characters. There was Blade, of course, who's starred in three movies, along with the embittered Rachel Van Helsing, the uncertain Frank Drake, Dracula’s adult daughter Lilith, and so many more characters.

These are all interesting characters, full of quirks and complications, vendettas and angers. But the most interesting character in the series was Dracula himself. Instead of exploring hoary horror film clichés, Wolfman portrayed Dracula as a three-dimensional character. During the series, Dracula experienced love along with hate, marrying and even having a baby. He clearly loves his wife and child, though in an ironic plot twist, the baby Janus was transformed into a force of good to be used against his father.

Dracula is also the lord of vampires; He is their king. He's no ordinary vampire. He is royalty. He is a monarch. He speaks like a king, acts like a king, expects to be treated as a king. As he says in Tomb of Dracula #66, “I am Vlad Dracula, the world’s greatest warrior. I have been called a murderer, but in my country I was a patriot. I routed the Turks who invaded us – I secured my country’s borders. It was only then some damnable gypsy turned me into a vampire.” To be transformed into human form is horrific for him; to have his servants turn against him was the ultimate betrayal. The storyline where Dracula is transformed into human form fills the final half-dozen issues of ToD, and it’s a real epic.

In ToD #63 and 64, Dracula has an encounter with the devil. This is the real devil of western religion, not some Marvelized version of the devil in the form of Mephisto or some other alternate concept. No, this is the devil, and the devil is all about torment. The devil changes Dracula from a vampire to a human. Suddenly everything that made up Dracula's self-image disappears, and he's transformed into what Dracula sees as the weak and pathetic shape of a man. As the devil puts it, this is “the worst of all possible hells” for the king of vampires: not only is he no longer king, but he is no longer a vampire!

Here is where we, as readers, see the brilliance of artist Gene Colan. The difference between Dracula as vampire and Dracula as human is striking. The shape of his face is different, his eyes more expressive, his body language more tentative and unsure. It’s obvious from Dracula’s body language that he’s devastated by being turned human. Instead of being superior and aggressive, the human Dracula is confused and trusting. A reader doesn’t need to read writer Marv Wolfman’s outstanding writing to see the agony Dracula is feeling at the change in his life. It’s clear that his whole sense of self-worth is turned upside-down. He’s torn between feeling weak and his former royal status. It’s an amazing juxtaposition.

Issues 65 and 66 reduces Dracula to his lowest ebb to that point. He is forced to trust first a junkie and then a random stranger he meets at a disco. He steals money to buy food, gets cold on a snowy New York evening, gets shot in the arm and bleeds. In an eerie bit of foreshadowing, writer Wolfman notes in issue 66 that "it is winter...and winter is a time for things to die."

With issue 67, the story really begins to pick up steam. Dracula decides to seek out his daughter Lilith and beg her to turn him back into a vampire. To say the relationship between Lilith and Dracula was strained is a major understatement. As Lilith says on page 6, "I know you are no longer a vampire -- and I'd be a damned fool to reacquaint you with the pleasures of undeath! You killed your wife... my mother - you threw me to the gypsies to be raised - and I'd rather see you rot in hell before lifting one finger to help!" Stumbling into a theatre where, ironically, the play “The Passion of Dracula” is being performed, Dracula fights perhaps the most desperate battle of his life up to that point, against the daughter he once abandoned. Dracula is weak, powerless human, desperately battling against the very woman who hates him the most. Lilith attacks him by herself, sends rats and wild dogs at Dracula, and leads angry mobs to fight him. Still, bruised and battered and nearly defeated, Dracula manages to run away from the battle. Better to survive and seek out another vampire than be forced to live life as a human being.

Issue 68 ratchets up the story yet another level with Dracula's return to Transylvania. The issue begins with Dracula standing atop the Empire State Building, vowing vengeance at the devil who had stolen his powers and self-image. His son, an odd combination of human and inhuman with amazing powers, transports both Dracula and his pursuers from New York to Transylvania. And there Dracula's troubles really begin. Instead of being welcomed as the returning prodigal hero, Dracula instead finds peril at every turn. His pursuers, sensing Dracula's weakness, press their attack with awesome vengeance. Only Dracula's superior knowledge of his castle allows him to escape his attackers and flee into secret corridors in his castle. There he finds Marissa, one of his former royal courtiers. He wakes Marissa within her coffin, but instead of welcoming Dracula with love, admiration, and a bite on the neck, Marissa slaps down Dracula. There is a new king in Transylvania, Count Torgo, and Dracula's former subjects have moved on to a new boss.

The pursuers catch up with Dracula as Marissa flies away. Dracula fights a desperate three-page battle against his mortal enemies, brilliantly depicted in fragmented, off-center panels by Gene Colan. Caught in a life-or-death struggle against his longtime enemy Frank Drake, Dracula finally is able to stab Drake in the chest. Still, the small victory gives Dracula little solace: "Each step he takes is painful. Blood oozes from his lips, burning his gums. Yet, he runs from the castle as if it were death itself. Lord, it pains him to run from Castle Dracula. More than any surface around, it cuts through him to know even his home is no longer a sanctuary. When did it all go wrong, he wonders. When did he lose the war?"

Fleeing the castle, Dracula stumbles across the countryside of Transylvania, the land he once ruled, wandering into a graveyard filled with the graves of his former victims. Sensing he is above them, the dead rise from their graves and attack Dracula -- but as quickly as they attack, the undead disappear as if into a mist. Dracula's wheelchair-bound pursuer Quincy Harker appears in the graveyard. Dracula is confused, taken aback by the old man who talks as if Dracula were his own plaything. Soon the arrogant Harker is revealed to be the devil, who had been watching Dracula closely. The devil had won. He had accomplished what he had wanted. Dracula is literally damned by his own arrogance and pride. He has come to hate the devil who he once loved. The devil tells Dracula, "You pitiable creature -- you called on a God you hate to save you -- when he has already seen to your damnation! By renouncing us who gave you power... by seeking one who refuses to acknowledge your existence -- you are now a being without a place! Nor Hell shall claim you, and that is damnation worse than you will ever suspect. Suffer that sin of pride, vampire! That has been your downfall... now and evermore!" Satan disappears in a puff of smoke. Dracula's vampiric powers have been restored, but at the cost of his own ego. As the real Quincy says on the last page, "He's a broken man...as if he faced his own mortality and lost. He'll never be the same again."

It is the grandest, most operatic and thrilling issue so far of a comic that is grandly operatic and thrilling. And issue #69 takes the level of intensity even higher. It contains perhaps the most memorable moment of the whole series, a defining moment that shows just how much the events of the previous several issues had affected Dracula.

After the grand guignol of the previous issues, issue 69 starts quietly, with Dracula skulking around a Transylvanian farm. He's being searched for by the very vampires he once ruled. Bats fly against the nighttime sky, looking for the man they once swore allegiance to. Suddenly finding Dracula, the vampires attack and Dracula flees in the only way he's able-­by turning into mist and floating away. Cut to a small Transylvanian house. A widowed mother lives in the house with her four children, one of whom is deathly ill. It's nighttime, and she shouldn't leave the house, but the child must see a doctor. Giving her healthy children crosses, the mother decides she must bring the sick child into the village, warning her other children to not open the door. The mother has a spooky ride into town on a blustery evening, frightening off a ravenous Dracula with her crucifix. Finally Dracula arrives at the family's cottage. Pounding on the door, seeing the house as his only chance to survive, Dracula demands entrance. In a brilliant four-panel sequence, the oldest child debates opening the door. Finally, he chooses mercy and lets the stranger in, not realizing he is Dracula.

This sequence in lesser hands might be a clichéd bloodbath. Creators with less self-confidence than Wolfman and Colan would have Dracula slaughter the children. Instead something much more interesting happens. The vampires start attacking the house, pounding on it with their bat wings and human fists. The house is under siege. The vampires break windows trying to get in. And at that moment of great desperation, Dracula suddenly feels some small touch of mercy. "Stand aside, children. It's me they want. I will go to them!" he says. Before he can leave, the vampires send rats at the house. Dracula tells the children to use their crucifixes to fight the vampires. He grabs one to fight them, ­and his flesh burns. His skin melts; a horrible stench of burning undead flesh fills the air, as Dracula sacrifices his flesh to fight off the evil of his former subjects.

This is perhaps the defining moment of Dracula's transformation from monster to man. Having found the humanity inside him, Dracula will sacrifice himself to save others. It's an amazingly powerful metaphor.

Tomb of Dracula #70 is one of the finest wrap-ups of a comic series ever. Given the luxury of tying up all their plotlines, Wolfman and Colan create an exciting and moving conclusion to the series. The comic is so full of surprises and plot twists, great characterization and intelligent plotting, that I hate to ruin a moment of the book by describing it here. If you are at all intrigued by my description of the pervious several issues, it's worth buying a copy of issue 70 either in its original or in the one-shot Requiem for Dracula that was released several years ago.

On the last four pages of the comic, Wolfman sums up the series as well as the current plotline in wonderfully moving words: "In Transylvania, his castle lies in ruin, but his memory cannot die. Oh, there were tales, the writers write. Tales of times past when this noble Prince of Walachia led his peasant army through Turkish lance and musket. Aye, he was a hero. A hero and a scourge. A ruler and a despot. A savior and lord of darkness. He died for his country and he was reborn without his soul. His name was Dracula, and his history was a tapestry of terror sewn across the ages... We who have chronicled his five hundred years and more have stood back and shown his existence without critique. But now that it is over we have but one thing to say. Dracula was a man. And never should that be forgotten."

And there is the brilliance of the closing sequence of one of the longest-running horror comics in the history of the medium. Dracula is the lord of vampires, their unquestioned king. He derives his power from the absolute fear he strikes in his peasants, who are completely in Dracula's grip. When Dracula has his vampiric powers stripped from him, he loses both his self-image and the power by which he derives his power over his subjects. He is an ordinary man, attacked on all sides, the victim of his own overweening arrogance. He brings on his own fall. Yet in his fall he manages to find his own redemption, carrying a burning cross that symbolizes his own internal struggles.

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