Friday, June 5, 2015

In Death Do We Join!

Looking at the cover art to Tomb of Dracula #16, it almost seems like issue #22 is its evil twin brother:

The stories are very different, of course--but the two do have something in common in that the regular cast of vampire hunters are virtually absent from their pages (with the exception of a brief, unrelated scene in each tale), which means that Dracula must "carry" both stories on his own. And Dracula, as written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, comes across as such a fascinating character that he's often able to accomplish that. In "In Death Do We Join!", Dracula is even more isolated, since there is no distraction of even a police inspector to balance the pacing of the story. That leaves us with only Dracula and the story's villain, Gorna--an abusive husband who is turned into a vampire and attempts to reclaim his wife, Petra, as one of the undead.

Inbetween, Wolfman places a large part of the story's burden on the townspeople of the Russian village of Kamenka, as well as on the girl's stern family--all of whom are familiar with vampires, but whose ability to deal with one consists of little more than attempting to drive it off. For instance, when Gorna dies from a vampire bite, a robed procession carries his coffin to the cemetery and a funeral is given for appearances' sake (so as not to alarm Petra of Gorna's impending transformation)--but, even knowing that Gorna will rise again as a vampire, no one takes any precautions with the body. Instead, the grim robes and death masks of the pallbearers are worn to represent the dread that is likely to come--the "services for the undead," as Petra later learns. Small wonder that she later finds herself in danger from Gorna, as the people of Kamenka seem to regard such things as inevitable.

Such shortcomings in this story are mitigated, however, by an editor's note in the issue's letters page which helps to explain things:

The current issue of TOMB OF DRACULA is somewhat different than most in that for the first time we've done an adaptation of an actual case history of a Russian Vampire. There were changes made for the sake of action and characterization, but the general theme to the book is from actual lore.

And if there is enough reader demand, we'll be glad to try another true vampire tale and fit in [sic] into our Dracula lore. So, please write.

Given this new information that what we're reading is an adaptation rather than a plotted story that more fully takes Dracula into account, the loosely structured way in which the story comes across is understandable. For instance, we know that Gorna must encounter Dracula, or vice versa--but under what circumstances? We see that encounter as early as page eleven; but the situation between Gorna and Petra (and her family) has yet to be resolved, which means that Gorna's meeting with Dracula will likely be inconclusive. Not to mention ill-considered. Petra seems helpless to prevent Gorna from claiming her, and neither her parents nor the other villagers seem equipped to handle the likes of a vampire--but in his attempts to claim Petra, Gorna is easily startled into fleeing or otherwise driven off by primitive means. Yet we're to believe that this man is confident enough in his power to challenge Dracula?

For his part, Dracula is introduced in the story almost immediately, and given ample exposure to satisfy the reader that he'll yet play a part in this tale. Though when looked at in the context of Gorna's designs on Petra, it almost feels like the story is trying too hard to give Dracula his foothold on it:

As for Petra, she is portrayed as very much the victim, bemoaning her state of affairs and having little hope that she'll survive. From what we've seen of Kamenka so far, she probably has every reason to feel that way--and a victim of domestic abuse would likely feel even more despondent at knowing that her husband, now a vampire, will not rest until he claims her life.

And so the time soon comes when Gorna again invades the Vornik dwelling. Again, Petra is left alone in her room--no cross on the window, nothing to ward off Gorna's approach. The villagers had better hope that word doesn't get out about Kamenka, because vampires would probably see it as the ideal vacation spot. But we needn't worry about Petra just yet, because her father has all the time in the world to prepare and aim a wooden stake--and a vampire who has survived an encounter with Dracula has conveniently forgotten his own formidable abilities that would ordinarily allow him to easily deal with these two virtually unarmed peasants:

But with Gorna foiled once again, and with the story drawing to its close, it's the perfect time to bring Dracula back into the picture. Dracula, who's tracked Gorna to this farmhouse. Dracula, who deals with Petra's stake-wielding father before he's even fully turned in his direction. Dracula, whose appearance and assertiveness in these final stages brings this story back to life.

Dracula of course pursues Gorna out of vengeance more than giving any real thought to Petra's situation--assuming there's anything left of Gorna to pursue, after being barbecued by Vornik's stake. But it turns out that when it comes to facing Dracula, Gorna is back to his old formidable (if charred) self, and more, since this time it's he who wields lightning as a weapon:

During this confrontation, a scene which practically screams "too little, too late" has Vornik and his robed, masked friends gathering Petra and the other villagers and traipsing off to locate Gorna's coffin and put a stake in him--initiative that curiously failed to materialize when they had this man at their mercy after his death and instead gave him a funeral. Fortunately, Dracula is ten steps ahead of them:

In light of how Gorna has been portrayed, his reaction at seeing that his lightning and flames haven't harmed Dracula in the slightest, as well as his failure to save himself from the same fate, aren't all that surprising, since Gorna is a fraction of the strategist that Dracula is, and probably wouldn't have thought to, say, turn into mist to sidestep such an attack.  (Though I dare say that, in Dracula's case, sentient mist would still react adversely to a lightning strike.)

To Dracula, the matter is concluded, nor does he linger with the sun's rise imminent. As for Petra, it almost feels as if the story doesn't know quite what to do with her in the space remaining; but we can at least assume that she at last feels relief that her nightmare is truly over. And since the "actual case history" of this adaptation probably contained little to no embellishment, the story simply settles for a measure of closure.

If memory serves, this experiment in adapting lore was never repeated. Strangely enough, letters pages in subsequent issues curiously leap-frogged over this story and failed to publish any readers' letters that might have made mention of it, instead featuring letters on prior or succeeding stories (or just missives on the subject of Dracula in general)--even in a letters page featuring art panels from the story. That could have been either a conspicuous oversight, or an indication that Tomb of Dracula would from this point on remain a work of pure fiction.

Tomb of Dracula #22

Script: Marv Wolfman
Pencils: Gene Colan
Inks: Tom Palmer
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...

I believe this is based on an actual vampire legend. In those old stories, a person could become a vampire upon death without being bitten, if he or she had any number of unsavory qualities: drunkenness, violence, failure to go to church, thievery, general rotten behavior or even having been a werewolf in life (watch out, Jack Russell). If the cows started getting sick and dying after you buried Klaus, it was time to dig up Klaus and, er, make sure he stayed put.
Gorna qualifies as achieving an un-dead status by simply being a low-down S.O.B during life, without having been bitten by another vampire, which maybe why he wasn't too impressed by Dracula. Gorna was like the last ghoul that Dracula fought...the unquiet dead.
I enjoyed stories where Dracula was fighting entities as evil as he was, like Dr. Sun, other vampires or even Satan.
It would have been a kick to see him tangle with other super-villains in the Marvel Universe, like the Red Skull, Magneto, or (dare I say it?) Dr. Doom!

Colin Jones said...

The Red Skull and Magneto were my least favourite Marvel villains - I just found them boring for some reason. I'm rather glad that Dracula didn't interact very much with the wider marvel universe (except Dr. Strange and Werewolf By Night) - if he had been up against Marvel villains on a semi-regular basis he would have seemed not that different from a super-hero.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think I kinda see your point Colin. TOD wasn't a superhero comic, there were plenty of those already. TOD was great because it was different.
The Dr. strange crossover worked because Doc Strange wasn't your average superhero. It was a story about the supernatural. The Silver Surfer story WAS kind of pushing it (although I enjoyed it in my own goofball way! I'm a sucker for over-the-top weirdness)
Yeah, Marvel was probably right in leaving TOD just where it was. Bringing in the guys in capes and long underwear probably would've screwed it up.

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