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Tomb of Dracula Omnibus, Vol. II (Review/Retrospective)

It’s fantastic that Marvel have gone to such pains to collect all of the classic seventies Tomb of Dracula. The main title is collected in the first of three volumes, with this second oversized hardcover rounding out Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s run on the on-going series. Indeed, with Colan’s consistent pencils and Wolfman’s long-form plotting, Tomb of Dracula feels remarkably close to a single long-form story, one massive epic in seventy-odd chapters, with ideas hinted and developed years before they would eventually pay off. As such, the collection holds up remarkably well, and is a joy to read. While the second half of the series might not be as solid as Wolfman and Colan’s work on the first thirty-odd issues, it still makes for a satisfying conclusion to this chapter of Dracula’s story.

Out for the Count?

Of course, Wolfman is something of an expert in long-form plotting. His work on The New Teen Titans was carefully and meticulously plotted, with character arcs set up long before they would eventually pay off. If you need a demonstration of that within the context of The Tomb of Dracula, it comes within the first chapter, as a variety of subplots have forced the team of vampire-hunters to go their separate ways. Wolfman reveals that it all was Dracula’s doing. “Harker will be alone… as was planned. Yes, planned, ever so carefully.”

With other authors, we might question if the arcs had originally been intended to turn out that way, but Wolfman earns enough credit that we buy into it. At one point, the villainous Doctor Sun assures his henchman, “All the parts of the puzzle will fit into place. That I guarantee you, Juno.” He could just as easily be speaking directly to the reader, assuring them that Wolfman has a long-term plan for the title. I think that’s always clear when reading the book, even during some of the weaker moments in this volume.

Fangs for the memories…

As noted in my review of the first collection, Wolfman and Colan are the perfect fit for this book. Colan’s pencils are perfectly suited to gothic melodrama, while Wolfman writes the book in a purple prose that suits a somewhat timeless character. Although, to be fair, Wolfman does acknowledge his own tendency to milk the drama a bit. Listening to a witness statement in typically floral language, Rachel remarks, “For a pilot, he speaks almost as dramatically as you do, Doctor. Was he instructed to ham this up for our benefit?” She could almost be addressing Wolfman himself.

The biggest change in this part of the run is the shift from London to Boston. While Boston makes sense if you have to move Dracula to an American setting – it is New England, after all – it does feel a bit like a character has been removed from the drama. We are assured that city has a history “almost as long as Dracula’s” despite being two hundred years younger. More pragmatically, it also moves Dracula somewhat closer to the heart of the shared Marvel Universe, which the first collection managed to avoid mostly.

Surfer’s up!

Don’t get me wrong, the crossovers are handled well enough and unobtrusively. You don’t need to buy a dozen issues to follow what’s going on. However, there’s also a sense that Dracula is no part of a decidedly more “comic book-y” shared universe. He overlapped in the first volume with Werewolf by Night, but here the book features appearances from Dr. Strange, the Silver Surfer and Brother Voodoo.

There are references to Michael Morbius, the vampire anti-villain from The Amazing Spider-Man. We see kids trick-or-treating in Spider-Man outfits. The Son of Satan pops up. To be fair, some of these crossovers work well enough in the context of things. Stranege makes a decent foil for Dracula and a mystical force who cares for his underling. (Dracula’s seeks to abhor Strange’s concern for Wong, “You do this for a mere hireling?”) The Silver Surfer is a Jesus archetype, so it makes sense feature him in a book about a character who is presented as something akin to Satan.

He pops in for a spell…

Still, it feels a little awkward and out of place for the book to share space with so many ridiculous characters in ridiculous outfits. Indeed, Wolfman seems to poke a bit of fun at the superhero genre with the character of Francis Leroy Brown, who pops up towards the end of the collection. He is a “vigilante”, or “the Cowboy, as he calls himself.” He seems almost like a parody of a superhero with a faint cowboy theme. He hunts Dracula for a crime he didn’t commit, with little concern or regards for the facts of the matter, and only his own sense of moral authority. He does not come across well.

The other problem that arises from the decision to shift the action across the Atlantic comes in the form of Harold H. Harold, a comic relief character who would be annoying in a lighter book, but who becomes unbearable here. There’s literally no reason for the professional vampire hunters to keep him around, especially since his mistakes jeopardise theirlives. It becomes even more head-scratchingly awkward when they decide to keep Aurora around, despite the fact that she’s head-over-heels in love with Dracula.

The brains of the operation…

I know that comic relief can work well, but Harold H. Harold and Aurora don’t work well. They’re stock characters from Scooby Doo, so inserting them into an otherwise reasonably mature horror comic book simply doesn’t work. It drags everything else down around them. Wolfman does a decent job with the rest of the cast, even if none of his core group of vampire hunters are as interesting as Blade or Dracula, but the pair of comic relief characters threaten to drain the momentum and interest from the narrative.

It’s not all bad. Indeed, it seems like Tomb of Dracula has developed quite a keen social conscience at this point. Issues like feminism and corporate responsibility had been bubbling away in the background, but they’re brought to the fore here, with stories devoted to themes like environmentalism.It seems very astute at times, and surprisingly mature and considered for a comic book about thearchetypal vampire.

Dead against him…

Unfortunately, it makes the awkward use of a straw feminist villain just that much more painful to read. “I’ve got power, and mother — I know how to use it… how to milk it for all it’s worth,” our villain boasts, confusing misandry for feminism. Her business model is flawed, as Mr. Hardy from the bank protests, “You were hiring the wrong people. Right down the line — you insisted solely on women — whether competent or not.” It’s less than subtle and one of the more cringe-worthy moments of the series.

On the other hand, Wolfman’s handling of a Satanic cult feels strangely prescient as he explores a methodology and an approach that will seem quite familiar to those who know a thing or two about modern cults operating in America, and the techniques they employ against those who would oppose them, and even their own followers. When the cult is harbouring Dracula, Harker suggests the hunters can’t target the church. “If we stormed it, they would slap a lawsuit on us for breaking and entering.”

The Pirates! In an adventure with vampires!

Like so many modern cult leaders, Lupeski breaks Domini by destroying her self-worth. “Do you know what it means when you believe you are less than the dirt you walk upon?” It feels like the kind of story that has emerged from inside various extreme religious organisations since the nineties, creating the impression that Wolfman was way ahead of his time in his portrayal of these underground fanatical cults.

Indeed, even Dracula himself seems to get in on the act, seeking a religion to exploit the faith of his followers for his own advantage. “I demand followers, worshippers in a sense — but I do not want them as vampires… not as potential rivals. Humans shall come to me because I will offer them an alternative to their petty lives. I shall spoon-feed them my beliefs, sugar-coat my intentions in the form of a new religion — and this old church will be the meeting ground where human and vampire come together.” That doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the philosophies of any number of hucksters or snake-charmers. He boasts to Lupeski, “It is through religion that one may control the mind of a people.”

Ashes to ashes, dust to Dracula…

Dracula himself remains quite a draw here, with Wolfman’s portrayal of the Prince of Darkness proving stunningly nuanced and sophisticated, making Dracula simultaneously a vile villain and hopelessly tragic figure trapped in a cycle of perpetual violence. In terms of Marvel characters, Dracula reads almost like a consistently brilliantly characterised version of Doctor Doom, a fiend desperately feigning class and pride so as to avoid acknowledging his more animalistic side.

Like Doom, he pretends to be more magnanimous than he actually is. Even gloating over a foe he believes to be vanquished, Dracula offers a back-handed complement. “I’ll miss you, Harker. It will be a very long time before someone of your calibre challenges me with more of these amusing charades.” And yet, despite his alleged respect, he’s still petty and cruel enough to destroy the urn holding the remains of Harker’s daughter. Fading away, facing oblivion, he’s still so petty he uses his dying words to burn Doctor Sun, “Doctor Sun… before -choke- before I perish… know… know this… you are still… -choke- still an unworthy foe… still… an… unnggghhhhhhhhh!”

Dracula, you’re fired!

Late in the book, Dracula is transformed into a human being. Forced to steal in order to stay alive, he finds his delusions of grandeur challenged. He laments, “Damn! What am I doing? Is this what I’ve been reduced to? I’m nothing more than a common thief!” Then he collects himself. “What? Now I feel doubt? What is happening to me? I’ve always taken what I need! This isn’t any exception!” Wolfman seems to suggest that perhaps Dracula’s vampirism robs him of the self-doubt that drive such introspection, or perhaps it simply brings it to the surface – removing the cloak of superiority that he hides behind to reveal his true form. The reflection suddenly becomes visible, allowing him to see himself.

After all, this volume certainly presents a more vulnerable Dracula, a weakened monster, something that immediately makes him more sympathetic than he might otherwise be. Harker observes that the monster appears to be driven by a fear of death – something quite surreal for an undead monster. “Fascinating,” Quincy remarks. “A demon who has lived for more than five centuries — a demon who has been killed scores of times… is afraid of death.” That revelation suddenly makes him seem so much more pathetic, rather than the invincible killing machine we’d come to know so well.

A nightmare at the opera…

At times, it seems, Dracula is almost able to recognise his own failing. Wolfman hints that the monster wants companionship, even if he’s too proud to admit it. One memorable issue sees Dracula sneaking into a movie, a communal activity, only to cause a riot. Almost tragically, he muses, “Alone again… as I’ve been through the centuries. Damn my temper. I didn’t want any violence tonight.” An angel counters, “Violence follows you because you initiate it. You can never escape it.”

It’s interesting that Topaz from Werewolf by Night becomes such a key player here, given that her only really power is pretty much “extreme empathy.” Her importance is stressed throughout Dracula’s journey to hell, and Satan seems terrified by her very presence. “Within you lies the most incredible power of all — a power the could ultimately even topple us — should you learn to wield it!” The reason is explicitly identified later on. “Your empathic abilities will eventually syphon away the evil we seek to create.”

Blade gets the point…

In the world of Tomb of Dracula, empathy is the key to defeating evil. If empathy is essentially considered awareness and compassion for those around you, then Dracula is the polar opposite. He lacks any true sense of self-awareness, let alone any awareness of the people around him. If the lack of such understanding is the root of conflict, then it’s no wonder that Dracula is such a strong embodiment of hate and evil.

And yet, as shown here and developed in the supporting materials, Dracula was always a piece of work, even before his transformation. While he wasn’t as powerful and didn’t need to consume blood to survive, he was still a very evil man. He drove his wife to suicide, but he tries to evade responsibility for his actions. “I- I was a different man, then — irrational. I could not be held accountable for myself in that ancient time.”

He’s gone batty!

After a long angry rant at God in the rain, lamenting his misfortune and the sorry state of his family life, he ultimately deflects responsibility – perhaps illustrating why he is doomed to perpetually repeat his mistakes. “And in the end, I could say mankind is responsible. They forced me to conquer them — for they would not let me live… and feed as is my wont.” It seems that his violence is not his own fault, but that of humanity.

Indeed, throughout the volume, Wolfman develops an idea he suggested in the first volume – that Dracula faces this massive existential dilemma as an immortal character – the question of what he must do next. He seems like something of a shark, that most natural of predators. He must keep moving forward, or he will die. After he has defeated Doctor Sun and vanquished death, he observes, “For very long I have found the taking of blood to be too easy a task. There has been no sport to it… no thrill, no danger. And Dracula, ever a soldier at war… needs conflict, as well as blood, to survive.”

He’s got some balls to challenge Dracula…

It’s a recurring theme in Tomb of Dracula, even for other characters. Harker is so firmly tied to Dracula that he can’t imagine life without the villain, while Rachel and Drake have their own difficulties when their quest is finally completed. Even Blade has a similar dilemma after killing Deacon Frost. “I was runnin’ over my life in my head… tryin’ to decide what to do with it now that the vamp I’ve been searching for is dead.” Reflecting on what he will do next, he seems to suffer from a case of existential angst. “I’m too old to be lookin’ for a new line of work, Saf.”

Wolfman infuses the book with a particularly epic sort of theme, falling back on the recurring notion of patricide, arguably that most classical of storytelling arcs. He pits Janus against Dracula, father against son. You could certainly argue that the conflict between Dracula and Satan plays into the theme. “Meet your creator, vampire!” the fallen angel boasts. “Greet the one and true Satan!”In any story about vicious cycles, it’s nice to explore the generational conflict.

Sun set…

I love Dracula’s smug dismissal of Satan, advising Topaz, “Besides, while he talks he is no threat. Allow him his moment of self-aggrandizement.” Like father, like son, eh? Indeed, it seems Dracula inherited his people skills from his creator. Satan responds to Dracula the way that Dracula does to mortals. After one outburst, the Devil warns Dracula, “You have existed five hundred years. We have survived since the dawn of creation. Heed our worlds and interfere not.”

The similarities don’t end there. Quincy Harker speaks to Domini of Dracula as if he were describing Satan. Trying to convince her of her husband’s inherently evil nature, he pleads, “Were you there when he destroyed countless thousands of productive lives by altering good men and women into things of filth and degradation?” Indeed, it appears that Dracula has learned so much from his father that he threatens Satan in the same way that Satan once challenged God. “And therefore we were granted this existence, providing we do not upset the ultimate balance… and now you have begun to create such an upset.”

What Voodoo is this?

Wolfman explores the nature of Dracula quite a bit here, wondering what aspects of his character stem from his existence as a vampire, and which are rooted in the man who must be somewhere beneath all that evil and pride. When Dracula is made human, his supernatural powers removed, he is still “virtually indefatigable” and rejects black-and-white morality as he always did. When the police praise him for taking on some crooks, he responds, “Why do you keep calling me a hero? I merely stopped some cretins.”

We’re told, “But, even changed as he is… there is something different… something menacing about this creature of evil…”Wolfman avoids taking the easy way out and pretending that Dracula was a good man cursed with a horrible affliction. He opts not to present Dracula as a poor helpless victim gripped by powerful bloodlust. It’s a clever and a challenging portrayal, and one that works remarkably well for the character in question.

Down in front!

That said, Wolfman dares to suggest that the original Vlad the Impaler might be something more than the cartoon villain that most would imagine. Some of the morality of his actions must at least be debatable. “I have been called a murderer, but in my country, I was a patriot. I routed out the Turks who invaded us — I secured my country’s borders…” He makes the case that his actions were justified by the time and the circumstances. Given the brutality involved, his defences can’t be entirely convincing, but they do just he’s more than just a moustache-twirling villain.

Indeed, he even shows some small hints of character development towards the end of the series. He’s certainly more protective of kids, perhaps as a result of his own recent family troubles. Pursued by a horde of vampires, he moves to protect the minors in the house where he seems shelter. “Stand aside, children… it’s me they want. And I will go to them!” Even his plans to conquer humanity seem to have faded.

The die is cast…

The evil Torgo’s plan in the final chapter seems quite familiar. “We shall rule the humans,” he boasts, “herd them into farms. Humans will be bred as cattle… all to feed our, eh, needs.” Dracula has tried this sort of approach. He knows the inevitable outcome. Somewhat resigned, he assures his usurper, “It won’t work, Torgo. I realised that ages ago.” During the fight, even Torgo acknowledges that Dracula has changed. “And frankly, you have lost the viciousness needed to lead our ‘family.'”

As in the first book, Wolfman uses several devices to garner sympathy for Dracula without shying away from his brutality or violence. The most obvious one is the way that Wolfman pits Dracula against stronger (and worse) adversaries in order to allow us to root for Dracula, and also to create a situation where Dracula can be allowed to win without humanity losing. The gang expressly acknowledge this when the threat of Doctor Sun forces them to resurrect Dracula. “Doctor Sun’s intentions are even more ghastly to think about than Dracula’s,”Harker observes.

Talk about Yellow Peril…

(I do like that Wolfman goes out of his way to point out that Harker is at least indirectly responsible for any collateral damage caused after he resurrects Dracula. Always petty and spiteful, Dracula even taunts him about this, vowing, “But you, my long-time foes, shall always know that because of you, a young girl shall die.” It’s nice to see Wolfman explicitly acknowledge the logical consequences of the actions committed by the group.)

Wolfman also portrays Dracula as a man out of time, fighting his own replacements. Doctor Sun is a next-generation movie monster, a brain in a jar – taken from some cheesy science-fiction film. Dracula can’t quite adapt to the coldness of the world he now inhabits. “But that is the sorrow of this modern world. Where once man could battle man — today the fight is between cold, inanimate weapons.” Venting his frustration on the technology in Sun’s lair, one can sense the pent-up anger and rage. He has an excuse to channel his contempt for the cold modern world into the smashing of the panels and devices. “Enough of this foul machinery — this wanton display of technological waste!”

Drac is back…

Even within the vampire community it seems like things are moving on. Torgo is a vicious replacement for Dracula, a usurper claiming the vampire throne in a way that never would have happened centuries ago. Even the older Deacon Frost, the man responsible for killing Blade’s mother, is described as “a different sort of vampire.” He’s shown to be the product of scientific experiments and research, and to be conducting his own work and studies in a way that Dracula seems unwilling or unable to do. It suggests that vampires aren’t inherently out-of-touch, just Dracula himself.

This second volume of Tomb of Dracula is not quite as strong as the first collection, by it’s still a wonderful collaboration from Wolfman and Colan. It’s an example of some of the better stuff coming out of Marvel in the seventies, and it’s an illustration of long-form storytelling within the company. I honestly don’t think we’d have Vertigo without Tomb of Dracula. It’s a joy to read, and it’s great to see it collected like this.

Read our complete reviews of Marvel’s “Tomb of Dracula” collections:

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