Friday, August 19, 2016

The Final Stake!

In 1979, the penultimate issue of Tomb Of Dracula contained an announcement by writer Marv Wolfman that the long-time artist for the book, Gene Colan, had several months earlier requested to leave the book and move on to other projects. At the time, there was no decision as yet whether to continue TOD; its sales were consistently solid, and there was a six-month window before a final decision had to be made as to whether to bring things to an end, or change the book's format and/or frequency of publication, as well as deciding on a new creative team. In the interim, Colan had been requested (and agreed) to continue on the book through issue #72, which would allow time to wrap up the storylines that had been put in motion.

If the book had continued past #72, TOD, according to Wolfman, "would have become a very different magazine. As we had done several years ago, new characters would have been introduced, locales would have changed, directions would have shifted." And one could only wonder who would follow in Colan's and Palmer's footsteps.

Unfortunately, John Steinbeck's paraphrased line from Of Mice And Men, "The best-laid plans... Often go awry," has hit its mark often in the eighty years it's been in circulation--and the window that would have allowed Wolfman, editor Jim Shooter, et al. to make plans for any further publication of Tomb Of Dracula in whatever format it would appear in was unexpectedly slammed shut by inadvertent human error which caused the next issue, #70, to be listed as the last of the series, rather than #72. Which prompted another announcement by Wolfman, appearing in what had now become the final issue of Tomb Of Dracula:

"Anyone who reads several Marvel mags each month (and who doesn't?) probably knows we've dropped about a half dozen titles recently and replaced them with some new books soon to be out. As this was being done, TOMB OF DRACULA was accidentally killed three issues early. Our last issue was going to be just that ... our last issue.

"When Jim (Trouble) Shooter noticed the error, he notified the upstairs circulation office, but it was already too late. Computer lists had been redrawn. The expense to bring back the title would be too enormous. At the same time TOD was dropped, a decision was made to convert TOD to a large-size non-Code format magazine. I was asked if the final three issues of TOD could be put into our first new magazine. I felt it would be a mistake, and when I informed Jim of the contents of issues 70-72, which had been drawn for several months at that time, he agreed.

"Jim got on the phone once again and somehow convinced them upstairs to create a Dracula annual. It would be a double-size book, and as an annual it could get around the computer list problem. During the following week, it was discovered that we could simply number the annual #70, which would have been the next TOD issue, and so, here it is, a bit late [three months] because Titanic Tom Palmer was doing a masterful job over Gentleman Gene Colan's pencils for another magazine project--Starlord, but it's here nonetheless.

"Before you ask, yes, pages were dropped from our three issues to make this issue, but none of the dropped pages should hurt the story flow. Most of them were either subplots in #70 which would have spun off into future stories (sub-plots written before we knew TOD was being cancelled), or some action pages which would have come just before Dracula and Torgo began their grudge match. ... Furthermore, because of the Marvel style of scripting (plot followed by art followed by script), I was able to drop those pages and write the story as if they never existed. If this had been done script first as done at other companies, the missing material would be obvious. Now it is doubtful if anyone will know exactly what came from which issue as the three books are interwoven into one.

Which helps to explain why reading Tomb Of Dracula #70 gives the impression of several different things at once being hurriedly resolved and concluded without a chance to catch our collective breath--i.e., not really expecting The End to appear in print for a few more issues, only to discover that we're actually reading the very last story in the issue we're holding. Wolfman is correct: All the bases are covered, all the plots are tied up satisfactorily, and the "many situations that had been set up over the past several years ... to culminate" in the final issue indeed did so. But, given its long and distinctive run and its reputation as a top-notch series of (yes) consistently fine and compelling stories, perhaps we were all looking forward to a final issue that was exclusively reserved for bringing down the curtain, rather than its closing scenes being appended to the issue that resolved several storylines at once.

So rather than a full-fledged review, which doesn't seem appropriate (or perhaps even possible) under the circumstances, we can instead touch on a few of the issue's stronger points that help to bring its title character and some of its cast full circle, as the end finally comes for Tomb Of Dracula--as well as for Dracula himself, a centuries-old monster and nobleman who can cheat death no longer.

To put things in perspective before we go too far, Dracula has only recently regained his status as a vampire--but his status as lord of vampires has been usurped by Torgo, a vampire older than himself who inherited the title and power of the station when Dracula was forced to exist as a human for a brief period. Naturally, the vampire hordes Dracula once ruled are now loyal only to Torgo (and arrogantly so, with no love lost between themselves and their former master), forcing Dracula to challenge his successor to a duel to the death.

Before the duel begins, Dracula and Torgo exchange haughty words, with Torgo having very different ideas than his predecessor on how to attain mastery over the human race. Dracula, as we know, settled on control through the power inherent in his satanic church--while Torgo, as Dracula once did, prefers the role of conqueror and oppressor. Obviously, the only thing they can agree on is that each wishes to see the other dead. And so the duel begins, with Dracula at a severe disadvantage--but this is a contest of warriors, and the greater warrior eventually prevails.

(As we can see, it didn't take long for the rabble of lesser vampires to change their collective tune and switch horses again once Dracula emerged triumphant. Most of them must have had political careers when they were among the living.)

Another strong scene occurs in line with Wolfman's references to the culmination of storylines that had played out over the past several issues, as Dracula--who has been frustrated by the holy influence of both his wife, Domini, and his son, Janus--is forced to confront his lust for power and the direction of his life, now that he stands once more as the vampire lord and must continue to live a life that seems to hold no success for him. It's that moment which leads to a reckoning with a nemesis he's battled for decades--Quincy Harker, who has come to Dracula's ancestral castle alone in order to engage Dracula one last time (for reasons we'll learn of shortly).

Props to Quincy for somehow getting himself as well as a heavy motorized wheelchair up to this castle's battlements--a necessary development for this confrontation, but hardly realistic since Dracula wouldn't have even considered adding ramps for the infirm. (I've only toured one hilltop castle, in the Czech Republic--and even in the best of health and with two fit legs, and carrying only a water bottle, I can tell you that it was still quite the hike.) Colan does an excellent job of rendering the tower at the site, though an actual castle photo gives us an idea how Quincy would need more than firm resolve to get him up to the location:

Regardless, this book's ending makes this a highly appropriate scene for Quincy to be given--though that ending is fated to be tinged with both elation and tragedy.

The long hunt for Dracula has also been shared by the man's 20th-century ancestor, Frank Drake, as well as a woman who has fought the vampire longer and suffered greatly for it, Rachel Van Helsing. On the day of Quincy's death, Rachel receives a posthumous letter from her friend Quincy that bids her farewell and seeks to bring closure to a trial that they have both shared for so long--a very powerful series of pages that gives due acknowledgement to their tireless struggle and brings a sense of shared commitment and empathy to the two people who have lost so much in this fight. Rachel, in particular, is having difficulty coming to terms with Quincy's death, frustrated with the absence of sorrow, or pain, or even tears--things that Quincy's words, written in gentle cursive and heartfelt tone, help her to finally realize, in an awesome series of panels by Wolfman, Colan, and letterer John Costanza.

Finally, to close out both the issue and the series, Tomb of Dracula lingers among the ruins of Dracula's castle--now truly his tomb--with images that seek to bring to a close a harsh and controversial history of one who lived as both a hero and a monster. The circumstances of his end of course leave wide open the possibility of his return, with the final steps of Quincy's ritual incomplete; though with a bomb blast powerful enough to reduce to rubble a large section of a stone castle, it's preposterous to think the explosion wouldn't have been equally destructive with a body made of flesh and bone located at ground zero, no doubt severing the body's head along with just about every shred of the body itself.  (To say nothing of rendering the necessity of garlic cloves a little pointless.) Yet whatever plans Wolfman and Colan have for Dracula's return in a new book, it's fitting that they end his long story of seventy issues as if Dracula's story itself is ending. It's a set of scenes that caps nicely an incredible fictional chronicle, which any TOD reader who's followed the series from beginning to end can appreciate.

It's that final page that unfortunately falls flat unexpectedly, as it strives to raise a point that Wolfman feels should be strongly made about the character above any other, yet one which almost begs for elaboration. "Dracula was a man..." It's narrative that resonates, but what is it looking to say? That Dracula was as flawed and prone to vanity and weakness as any other man, despite his power or the exalted status that he perpetuated? Or that he did what he believed needed to be done, and cannot be faulted for that? Or that regardless of all the ways in which people described him, he was no more than a man who set his own course and was willing to pay the price to do what he felt was necessary? Imagine putting his vampiric daughter, Lilith, in his place, and ending the story with "Lilith was a woman... and never should that be forgotten." It seems the one piece of narrative that should be forgotten, in favor of something more apt.

Tomb Of Dracula ran for seven years, finding its legs after its first eleven issues and maintaining the same creative team from that point on (if I'm not mistaken). Collectively, it's a body of work that a number of readers can hold up, tap with their index finger, and simply say "Yes. This." and have their meaning instantly understood. Aside from one of cruelty and sadism, Dracula the character ended up with no legacy to speak of--but his tomb continues to chill.

Tomb of Dracula #70

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


Anonymous said...

Dracula was recently a recurring character in Deadpool but he looked completely different from the Gene Colan version and he seemed to be a totally new incarnation with no connection to the events of Tomb Of Dracula.

Anonymous said...

I was disappointed and rather baffled as to why the classic Marvel Dracula had been sidelined. It seems like the '70s version has been written out of the Marvel universe :(

Anonymous said...

Torgo, we hardly knew ye.
This was pretty anti-climactic.
Of course, Drac would soon be back like a bad rash. The last time I saw him, he was sporting a pony tail and living on the moon.
Ah, how the mighty have fallen.

Anonymous said...

Torgo was also the name of the robot the Thing had to fight in the arena when he was kidnapped by the Skrulls and taken to that gangster planet. Strange that Marvel used the name again for a different character.

Comicsfan said...

Colin and M.P., I suppose the character of Dracula as presented (or, perhaps more to the point, established) by Wolfman, Colan and Palmer might have proven too limiting for future writers and artists who might have wanted to use him in other ways than being hounded by a core group of vampire hunters while for the most part keeping his distance from mainstream Marvel characters. Even Dracula's "team-up" with Spider-Man was handled in passing, with the two never meeting but ending up working toward their ends in the same place at the same time. It would have been interesting to see how Wolfman and his new team would have had the character evolve had they continued producing the book (though Colan was reportedly wanting to return as artist). TOD often worked best as a book apart from Marvel's regular line of comics; perhaps it was simply time to see what else he could do as a comics character.

Anonymous said...

They did that with Magneto, Electro, and the Hulk, too, who were originally part of Marvel's "monster-mash" comics of the early 60's, from Journey Into Weirdness, Where Oddballs Dwell and other assorted monster titles. And who can forget Thorg? Wasn't Electro a giant ant? I forget.
On another note, this comic works. It looks like Dracula doesn't really know what to do with himself, and accepts the hopelessness and meaninglessness of his existence. What's the point, if he has is an army of ghouls? It almost seems like he let Harker kill him. Otherwise I can't figure how that happened.
Speaking of castles, I remember the one in Nuremberg. That was a climb, too. I was huffin' and puffin' going up there. They always used to put those things on hills! (for obvious reasons, I know)

Kid said...

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley." (Just thought I'd quote the original saying.) I've got the first Essentials volume of TOD, but I really must consider getting the Omnibus edition. Always found it ironic that Dracula was written by a Wolfman. Anybody else? Interesting post.

Comicsfan said...

Kid, I have one Omnibus book to my credit, and I decided to stop at that one because I felt it was too heavy to lug off the bookshelf or rest in your lap. At over 6.5 pounds, it's not exactly light reading!

Kid said...

Yes, that's the only drawback to them, CF. I bought the Silver Surfer one a few years back, and after going through it and marvelling at the larger pages, the crisp reproduction, and the perfect colour-registration, I dug out my original issues to read a few at a time. The Omnibus volumes are best read at a table, not on one's lap in the loo, but it's still great to have so many tales between one set of covers for handy reference.