Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Return From The Grave!

OR: "Who's Been Sleeping In My Coffin?"

Even when the vampire-lord Dracula wasn't fending off his regular cast of characters or involved in some power-hungry struggle, he could still be a fascinating participant in events both mysterious and macabre. Indeed, those kinds of tales might have played a vital part in keeping the pages of The Tomb of Dracula vibrant with the essence of its title character; after all, there are few better qualified to evaluate and deal with a gruesome mystery than the haughty Dracula, who brings a perspective and forcefulness that works separately yet in tandem with the more behind-the-scenes investigations of Scotland Yard--though one has only to glance at the entries to Dracula's journal to realize that Dracula is more than capable of holding the reader's interest in such situations on his own.

There are many such stories you could choose from during the title's run, though one in particular comes to mind because its cover practically (you'll forgive the word) screams "macabre":

Just as would be the case with any mystery novel you might read, there are several names in this story to make a note of as its events play out--though with writer Marv Wolfman's penchant for giving names to a story's victims, as well as describing in full their hobbies, family members, vocation, character flaws, and dreams, you'll likely need to sift through those names in order to boil this story down to its relevant participants. Given that Dracula's practice of hunting for human victims is a necessary constant, and the fact that the victims he feeds on have no other purpose in the story than to be his victims, Wolfman's technique is perhaps done to better distinguish panels of slaughter that otherwise might tend to blend together and, in time, be skimmed over by the reader. In this particular story, that may be a bit of, er, overkill. (Sorry, another word for you to forgive.) Suffice to say that our key players here are:

  • Paul Beare, deceased;
  • Theresa Beare, his wife;
  • Duncan Corley, deceased;
  • James Jackson, the Beares' attorney;
  • Inspector Chelm, of Scotland Yard

It looks like we already have a few dead people to contend with, even before we turn the cover page. But our splash page adds one more to the list: Helen Cantler, Jackson's secretary, who comes across a deadly intruder (emphasis on the "dead" part) and pays the price.

Its gruesome deed done, our bony fellow ransacks Jackson's safe for certain papers. But before he departs, Jackson comes across the scene and is also dealt with, though not fatally:

Two things to keep in mind from that first page, by the time we reach this story's end: (1) if we're to believe Inspector Chelm's deductions, Helen was actually not the first victim here, and (2) the story's title caption, perhaps worded more for dramatic impact than anything else, has made a (last word to forgive, promise!) grave error.

But now we come to Dracula, who has been taking his rest at Highgate Cemetery and is delighted to come across two grave robbers who, although we learn their full names courtesy of Mr. Wolfman, Dracula instead prefers to refer to as "breakfast." Unfortunately, they've picked the one coffin our skeletal skulker has already laid claim to:

Dracula, of course, is livid that he's been deprived of sustenance. But there's little vengeance to claim when your foe disintegrates to ashes:

In the meantime, Chelm has contacted Quincy Harker, in the belief that Dracula may have been responsible for the attack at Jackson's house. But after being assured that this isn't Dracula's m.o., Chelm later responds to a report of a street altercation, where Theresa Beare has been confronted by the same skeletal horror that has murdered three others. But in Mrs. Beare's case, it wants only a single object:

The crowd then moves to defend Mrs. Beare and attacks the creature, but soon backs off when the thing swiftly crushes the skull of one of the men. One attacker who does not back off, however, is Dracula, who spots the thing from above and plummets to gain his revenge.

Surprised and angered by the thing's abilities once again, Dracula's threatening rant is cut short by the arrival of Chelm and his men. Chelm learns that Dracula is one of two men involved in the carnage on the street; but when Chelm attempts to speak with Dracula, he's rudely rebuffed and left to watch Dracula's swift departure as he seeks his enemy.

Eventually, though, it occurs to Dracula that there's one place he's likely to find the skeleton that has earned his enmity. But while their third encounter will prove to be just as frustrating, it will spur Dracula to seek answers, rather than vengeance.

Answers at this point are what Chelm also seeks, who, unlike Dracula, has a desk and files to aid him in assembling the clues, as incredible as they are to the reasoned men of Scotland Yard:

Chelm isn't likely to share the details of his deductions with us, of course--but is there anything we've learned that will help us start putting two and two together? Not really. All that we've learned from this sequence--thanks, in part, to Dracula's lingering thoughts at Beare's gravesite regarding his former association with the man--is that Paul Beare was a satanist who studied mysticism, and that the skeletal attacker's motives have something to do with not only the Beares but also their attorney. Beyond that, we're still in the dark on certain key points. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that Paul Beare is indeed, as Chelm says, the man we're looking for. In a manner of speaking, that is.

To put that in perspective, however, we'll have to turn to someone who has resources Chelm lacks--none other than Dracula, who recalls the occupants of the decaying Beare House from the 18th century, and who travels there to begin assembling his own pieces of this puzzle. Thanks to the name inscribed on the tombstone of the gravesite where he encountered his skeletal foe, he has a good idea of who he's likely to find at home:

From separate directions, both Dracula and Chelm find themselves converging outside Beare House. Chelm has already had a brush with Dracula's skeletal adversary in the vicinity, after which the thing approaches the house and finds an obstacle that will not be so easily dealt with.

With his thirst for vengeance, we begin to see why Dracula needs a moderator of sorts to decipher this mystery. At the end of the conflict--rather, the end of this conflict, for Dracula at least realizes there may be others with this foe--he is no closer to discovering the meaning of the circumstances of Beare's relocation from his grave, or of the identity or intent of the thing which has repeatedly defied him. He only feels compelled to attend to Beare's re-burial, with no real idea as to how to proceed from that point. But Chelm arrives to fill in the gaps for all of us--and we finally learn of the man known as Duncan Corley.

It's a relatively simple ending to what seemed a complex tale, one having its roots in countless fear/horror stories in comics as well as other sources of fiction. Chelm correctly notes that Corley's attempts at conveying understanding of its motives couldn't have been understood by those it encountered; after all, assuming it were possible, you and I would have no factual concept of how the dead might interact with the living and how they might communicate their wishes or intent. Whatever pattern that resulted from Corley's actions toward Jackson or Mrs. Beare (to say nothing of Helen Cantler) would likely involve a great deal of supposition, which Dracula obviously wasn't willing to explore to the same depth as Chelm did.

But, let's get back to that title caption from page 1--something of a head-scratcher in hindsight, eh?

I mean, didn't you get the impression that Corley wanted to stay dead?

Just six issues ahead, what looks like this issue's evil twin brother!

Tomb of Dracula #16

Script: Marv Wolfman
Pencils: Gene Colan
Inks: Tom Palmer
Letterer: Artie Simek


Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of TOMB OF DRACUALA, but I hadn't seen this issue before.

david_b said...

I've never been a Drac (or any monster) fan, but love great Colan art and Marv story-telling.

Need to read these via Masterworks some day soon.

Colin Jones said...

Cor blimey guv'nor - another accurate Marvel view of London here with Cockneys, cobblestone streets, fog and Ye King's Pub (Ye...??) and not forgetting a house that looks like it was transported from Massachusetts. I chuckled over the name of one of the gravediggers, "Gordo Brown" - Gordon Brown was Prime-Minister from 2007-2010 but I don't think he was ever called Gordo :)

Comicsfan said...

Hey, try and cut them some slack, Colin, it was 1974! (When did Edwardian London finally disappear, anyway?) :D

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