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

Darkness spreads across the land like a bone-chilling evening mist. It swirls, boils and froths.

Then, at the moment when midnight madness is at its greatest, the darkness takes form and substance and becomes a thing of hell-born horror.

This is… THE TOMB OF DRACULA.

Pray you can avoid its deadly embrace…

Sometimes classic movie monsters just look better in black and white, eh? Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan told pretty much a complete Tomb of Dracula epic in the seventy issues of the main title produced in the previous two omnibus collections. This third gigantic tome collects a lot of what might be considered “a Tomb of Dracula miscellany”, collecting various odds and ends from Marvel’s Draculacomics during the seventies to sort of expand and enhance the story told in the main title. It isn’t as consistent as that seventy-issue run, with a variety of weaving story threads, one-shots, text stories and a variety of artistic and authorial talent, but it’s still an interesting look at Marvel’s horror comics during the seventies.

Feed your Dracula addiction!

The bulk of this collection is culled from two on-going Dracula magazines, published in black-and-white and without the approval of the Comics Code Authority. Occasionally there’s a (fitting) splash of red on the pages, but – for the most part – the omnibus is collected in black-and-white. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Black-and-white does allow the reader to appreciate the line-art fully, and I tend to think that classic movie monsters like vampires have an appeal in black-and-white.

After all, the Universal horror movies stand out as the most iconic representation of these horror archetypes, rendered in stark black-and-white and making one hell of an impression on the popular imagination. Marvel’s Dracula, with his traditional dress suit and cape, seems especially suited to the format. While I don’t consider black-and-white inherently superior to colour, I don’t consider it inherently inferior either. Whether it works or not depends on the situation, and it works here.

Toothy old hag…

It’s hard to imagine that Dracula was once so popular at Marvel that he had two on-going comic books during the seventies. Sure, that’s a small number in this era of comic book franchising, but it seems phenomenal now. While Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan were telling on long-form story in Tomb of Dracula, the title was supported by the on-going Dracula Lives! It would feature contributions from Wolfman and Colan, but also from a wealth of other talents. In some ways, the title seemed designed to complement and to support Tomb of Dracula. In other ways, it was just a vehicle for other creators to tell their own stand-alone stories.

To be fair to Wolfman, Colan and Marvel, you never needed to read Dracula Lives! in order to understand Tomb of Dracula. After all, these issues were ultimately collected in the third volume after the seventy issues of the main series. Instead, Wolfman used the book to flesh out Dracula’s back story a bit, in a way that didn’t intrude too heavily on his own unfolding long-term narrative in Tomb of Dracula. You would occasionally see an asterisk pointing a reader to a particular chapter of Dracula Lives!in order to expand a plot point, but Wolfman and Colan never made it necessary reading.

The only thing worse than Nazis, is vampire Nazis!

Dracula Lives! allowed the pair to expand the character’s origin and back story, explaining his family history and relating the tale of how he turned to vampirism. These stories actually do a great deal to flesh out his character and motivation, and make Dracula seem much more sympathetic than he did in Tomb of Dracula. We discover the importance of the creature’s pride, as the Turks humiliate and humble him – his own insecurity stemming from his powerlessness. It becomes quite clear that Dracula’s arrogance and pride is an attempt to over-compensate from those catastrophic failures, to avoid being that weak again.

When the Turks plan to use him as a puppet to rule his nation, Dracula swallows his pride in order to save his family, “You wish me to humble myself: very well, then.” When his weakness leads to his wife’s death, he clearly holds his own weakness to blame for his loss. His anger towards the entire world is rooted in that one personal loss, and his desire to inflect his own suffering upon the world, “But now — all humanity shall pay for what they did to you –“

Dra-cool-yeah?

We see the origins of his fear of death as he claims the title of Lord of the Vampires.  Quincy Harker would identify it in issues of Tomb of Dracula, but Marv Wolfman explicitly identifies it here as he confronts Nimrod. “No!!” he vows. “Dracula shall never let himself die again… never!” To Dracula, death is the ultimate powerless state, and Dracula has vowed never to allow himself to be powerless again. there is something ironic in an undead monster who is afraid of dying, but it makes him interesting as a character.

Indeed, the narrative doesn’t just weave around and flesh out the character’s appearance in Tomb of Dracula. The vignettes here also dig a bit into Bram Stoker’s original novel, certainly in more depth than the main title. We see, for example, Dracula’s passage to England. We discover how the story of Dracula made its way to Bram Stoker so that he could write it. We even get a nice comic book adaptation of Stoker’s novel, serialised in black-and-white with nice moody artwork.

Not one to cross…

This brings us to the only real problem with this collection. By its nature, it feels somewhat incomplete. The comic adaptation of Dracula was not finished until the nineties, so the final chapters are not included here. It’s not really an issue that we don’t get the ending, since we all know it, but it feels like a bit of a disappointment that it wasn’t included. We’re also informed that the story was coloured and republished as well, and it might have been of interest to reprint that here as well.

There’s the simple fact that the company’s Dracula-related output is too vast to really properly collect. Although these three massive collections bring together the on-going series with “Dracula” in the title, there’s a wealth of other related content out there. For example, a footnote tells us that Lilith featured in Vampire Tales #6, a story not included here. Again, all this is understandable, as it’s really impossible to really capture absolutely everything.

Red eyes in the morning…

Still, some of the material is a shame not to see collected. Wolfman and Colan reunited in 1991 for a four-issue miniseries featuring the character. Although well outside the time-line of this volume, it would have been nice to see the pair’s last collaboration on the character included as part of the set. After all, Colan and Wolfman were the two guiding lights for Dracula at Marvel, and it feels a shame not to collect the sum of their work.

The pair have work scattered throughout this volume, but it’s not necessarily evenly distributed. Both worked with different collaborators, and both departed at different times, rather than leaving at the same point. Of course, that feels quite appropriate, given that they didn’t start at the same time either, with Wolfman arriving on the title a few issues after Colan helped launch it. Still, it would have been nice to end the collection with a “bang”, the last “hurrah”of two of the defining creators to work on the character.

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…

Wolfman’s last story here (chronologically) is a chapter in an issue of the Tomb of Dracula Magazine, the black-and-white follow-up to the full-colour comic. It’s a nice little vignette that builds off a tangential character who appeared relatively early during his Tomb of Dracula run. It’s a credit to Wolfman and Colan that I recognised the character instantly, even though she had appeared only for a few brief panels. It feels a fitting way to end Wolfman’s work on the title, focusing on one of the man smaller, yet well-defined, characters from his run.

Indeed, the short story hits on other familiar themes for Wolfman’s Tomb of Dracula run, playing off a then-current horror movie in the form of The Exorcist. A lot of Wolfman’s Tomb of Dracula work pitted Dracula against more modern movie monsters in some sort of literal expression of the character’s struggle to remain relevant. “What?” Dracula gasps, confronted with the demonic child. “She levitates the furniture — it soars right at us!” Like Regan, the monster inside the little girl swears and curses, the embodiment of dozens of parental fears. Cursing at her mother, she yells, “You lie, you whore — you filthy slut!”

When Dracula flies, do you reckon he catches the red eye?

Appropriately enough Wolfman’s last story ends with Dracula vowing to continue, feeding on the blood of an innocent as if to assure readers that he survives in that vicious cycle. “I… will be all right… my dear… all I need… is to quench my thirst… my damnable eternal thirst…” While Dracula is a monster, there’s something vaguely reassuring about that from a character perspective, the idea that Dracula will always live on. It feels like Wolfman is consciously assuring the readers that just because he has finished with the character, it does not mean that the adventure is over.

Outside of that, though, this third large volume is interesting as it allows multiple writers and artists to work with the character of Dracula without worrying too much about on-going narratives. Like the first writers working on the X-Men line without Chris Claremont, it’s fascinating to look at the talent involved as they attempt to tell their own stories, conscious of the shadow cast by Wolfman and Colan over the magazine.

Ditko Dracula!

It is interesting, after reading so much of Colan’s Dracula, to see other artists illustrate the fiend. Neal Adams, Steve Ditko and Frank Robbins all get a chance to illustrate the character and it’s nice to see a variety of approaches. Dracula is, due to his nature as a pop culture icon, a character who lends himself to multiple interpretations, and each gets to put their own slant on the fiend. I think that Colan will always be the definitive Marvel Dracula artist, but there’s a wealth of talent on display here, and it’s great to examine this black-and-white book as an exploration of the wealth of artistic talent at Marvel.

The individual stories in the collection aren’t always credited, even though the summary page does list the talent involved, so it’s often quite difficult to keep track of who is working on what. Due to the scatter-shot nature of the stories collected here, there are all manner of hit-and-miss stories. Some are better than others, but the wonderful thing about this anthology style is that even the worst stories are over fairly quickly.

He looks pretty cross right now…

I do have to admit a certain fondness for the Steve Gerber work collected here. Gerber was easily one of the best writers in the Marvel bullpen during the seventies, a decidedly “out there” writer who made in mark on titles like Howard the Duck and Man-Thing. I can’t help but wonder if Gerber’s slightly wacky ideas arrived a little too early, and if he would have made a much greater impression arrived a decade or so later.

Still, Gerber’s stories here are a pulpy joy to read, giving us somewhat surreal concepts like Nazi vampires and Dracula stalking the Vatican, the type of engaging (and cheesy) high-concepts that make for entertaining page-turners. It’s actually a shame that Gerber didn’t really do more – although I am currently lamenting the fact that his Howard the Duckomnibus currently costs an arm-and-a-leg to purchase on line, limiting my access to high-concept Gerber-y goodness.

She’s a feast for the… eh… eyes…

There are some nice vignettes to be found here, breezing by due to the format of the comics. One of my personal favourites can really only be described as “a vampire take on Black Swan, decades before the movie was produced, with Dracula biting a ballerina who discovers that her dark side has more raw and visceral talent. To be fair, it’s hardly an exact match – the ballet in question is Stravinsky’s Firebird rather than Swan Lake. Still, it’s a nice gothic story, and one that foreshadows Aronofsky’s film. It even has a similar ending. “The music ends as does Odette’s undead ‘life.’ The audience considers it a marvellous performance. It was.”

In another chapter, it seems we finally get the story of the Dracula from the stage in London, as promised in a very early issue of Tomb of Dracula. A story featuring an ageing Hollywood actor has its lead boast, “Why, my presentation on the London Stage brought down the house.” The character is a none-too-subtle nod to Bela Lugosi, the iconic vampire actor who ended up so washed up that he was appearing in Ed Wood films by the fifties. In case you don’t get the reference, the character is named Louis Belski and the director calls him a “dumb Polish ham”, making it clear that he didn’t originate too far from the real Lugosi, who was born in Hungary.

Rain of terror…

The story is a nice pulpy little adventure, exploring the fracturing sanity of a washed-up horror star, but it’s also fun for other reasons. In particular, I like Dracula’s appraisal of the actors who have played him over the decades – a collection of opinion that say as much about Marvel’s Dracula as they do about the actors he is discussing. “Lugosi showed my fearsomeness — Carradine my nobility — and Lee presented my strength.” I can’t entirely disagree with that.

The collection also provides a nice epilogue to the events of the Tomb of Dracula series, allowing Dracula an opportunity to reflect on everything that has unfolded and occurred, and an attempt to clear the slate for any writer who may wish to use him in the future. In one nice short story, Dracula returns to his castle to contemplate everything. He is less than pleased with his Brides. “How could I ever have dreamed of filling the world with such as you?” he asks. “I renounce you! I despise you!”

Dracula: Year One…

There are other nice little scraps of information that exist to further shade and enhance the character’s world. In particular, I like the revelation that Lilith can’t actually kill Dracula, despite her disgust and disdain for him. She’s his “eternal nemesis” and the punishment is perpetually hunting him, rather than killing him, extending the suffering. It also offers a wry bit of meta-commentary on the serial nature of the story she is trapped in. Were it a film or a novel she could possibly kill him. However, due to the fact it’s an on-going comic book with his name on it, she is doomed to failure.

There are lots of small crossovers and finer details added to Dracula’s back story. We get a crossover with the evil Countess Bathory, another European historical figure who has become renowned for the myths surrounding her. We see Dracula against the back drop of countless historical events, including the American Civil War and the French Revolution, helping to create the impression that Dracula is truly an immortal and eternal figure. There’s even a short story where Dracula’s murder of “Rache Van Helsing” in 1465 inspires generations of violence and revenge.

The couple that slays together…

These stories were published without the oversight of the Comics Code Authority, which means that they are free to show a bit more sex and brutality than the Tomb of Dracula book. To be fair, Wolfman managed to slip a considerable amount of sexuality under the radar, playing up Dracula’s feeding as an implicitly sexual act. Here, there’s no need for subtlety. The lust becomes overt, with Dracula commanding Sandy, “and you desire me, woman. You wish me to take you… you demand that I ravage you and satisfy your lustful passions.”

As he feeds on one victim, we’re told that “sexual ecstasy sweeps over her”, while another “feels a deep delight that no man has ever given her before.” To be fair, none of this is too jarring – Wolfman created the same impression in Tomb of Dracula without explicitly using that sort of language. Still, it is interesting to see the sexual side of Dracula’s violence explicitly acknowledged by the text, instead of remaining something merely heavily implied.

Raising Kane…

Indeed, there are overt references to sex in the first issue, with the tale of a recently single woman named Sandy. Hell, her sex life becomes an issue involving Dracula himself. “If you want to make love to me — you decide,” her would-be boyfriend declares. “Don’t let some damned vampire decide for you–!” In the next issue, we get a rather explicit illustration of a demon claiming a female sacrifice victim.

However, outside of that, the plots and scripts remain pretty much the same as they ever were, with Dracula getting involved with a new bunch of characters in every issue, jumping in an out of the lives of random citizens. You almost miss the supporting cast that Colan and Wolfman built up in Tomb of Dracula, with Inspector Chelm the only member to return for Tomb of Dracula Magazine. it feels slightly strange to have a Dracula story without those recurring characters and elements.

I shall become a bat…

That said, there are a few characters who pop up multiple times over the course of the collection, in a way that seems more random than intentional. For example, Dracula’s conflict with Alesandro di Cagliostro, “the greatest master of magic since the dawn of modern man”, pops up from time-to-time, with Dracula even hunting down a performer who claims to be a reincarnated version of the sorcerer.

There’s some nice seventies pseudo-science at work here, and it lends the book a decidedly pulpy feeling. Outside of the notion of reincarnation, the second issue even focuses on the pseudo-science of astrology. A demonic cult is using the alignment of the planets in order to determine the schedule for their macabre rituals. “It was twenty years ago when we made our first attempts at reaching Asmodeus!” Damien boasts. “All planets were within conjunction…”

Seeing red…

There are other nice touches, like a variety of one-page specials on vampires from around the world, or how to kill vampires, lending the books an endearing charm. There really is an astounding variety of stuff here, in marked contrast to the carefully structured story that Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan were telling in the seventy issue Tomb of Dracula series. As a result, this volume feels more like a recommended companion than the third part of a trilogy, bit it’s still a nice celebration of Marvel’s Lord of the Vampires.

If Marvel were interested in collecting some later stuff, especially the full-colour adaptation of the novel, or Wolfman and Colan’s final collaboration on the character, I would be all over it. Still, it’s nice to see such great work collecting the seventies work featuring their take on the iconic character. I do hope that we get a few more classic horror collections.

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

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