Monday, October 17, 2016

The Mirror Attack'd

If you were a reader of the PPC three years ago, you might have felt you were left hanging after reading the story of Ilsa Strangway, a woman who struck a deadly bargain with Count Dracula for immortality and paid the price for her rash choice. Because while we indeed learned in full of the tragic fate of Ilsa after she came to realize her misguided conclusion regarding the bite of the vampire, there was another's fate left to be resolved--the fate of Dracula himself, who fell into Ilsa's trap by making use of a demonic mirror which he could step through in order to transport himself to another century. Ilsa had intentionally omitted crucial information regarding the mirror's operation--and Dracula, seeking escape from his enemies, made use of the mirror to vanish from their midst without knowing that he was headed toward his doom.

To complicate matters, there was one other who burst in just as Dracula was disappearing--Rachel Van Helsing's faithful aide, Taj, who grappled with Dracula just as the dark mirror's incantation was taking effect. Caught up in their struggle, neither of these men realize that the mirror is transporting them to a realm that will mean their deaths--the world of the demons who created it.

No, I don't know why Rachel feels compelled to point out at this moment that Taj is mute, or even that Taj is her servant. Does she think that Frank needs reminding of either?

Writer Gardner Fox, whose prolific work in the industry dates back to comics' Golden Age, had only a few stories of the new Tomb Of Dracula title to his name--but when he stepped aboard, he was an old hand in the comics medium, and his take on the character is notable even in these early stages where Dracula is still somewhat two-dimensional as a vampire who seeks revenge and blood (not necessarily in that order) while constantly on the defensive against those who seek to remove his threat. Tomb Of Dracula was still mostly driven by its supporting cast, rather than the title character, with Ilsa's story being the first to swivel the spotlight more in the Count's direction and take advantage of his potential to provide the book with a mix of mystery and the macabre.

In this story's beginning moments, however, there's no room for either, as Dracula and Taj must fight for their lives from the moment of their arrival when they're set upon by centuries-old demons who swarm against them on sight.

With the silvery pathway offering a respite from the merciless attack of the demons, Dracula is free to seek out another mirror-gateway and, with it, an escape from almost certain death. Meanwhile, Rachel and Frank are intent on finding a means of pursuit through the mirror, which means finding the lost incantation that Ilsa provided Dracula with--and thanks to her butler, they locate a wall safe in her residence where it might reside.

At this point, it would seem that this story will revolve around the dark mirror, and a race against time--but Dracula finds what he seeks in reasonably short order, as the mirror plays a part in facilitating the Count's revenge against the enemy he holds responsible for the many years he spent in his tomb.

It seems like the best of all worlds for Dracula, at least for the time being--escape to a century more to his liking, while arriving at a period of time where his enemy doesn't even know that he's returned from the grave. The story arranges for Abraham Van Helsing to be in Bucharest for a week*, leaving Dracula free to choose victims at will from the Transylvanians who believed they were free of Dracula's terror for good. Yet the greater story might have been for Van Helsing to face off against Dracula once more, or perhaps to simply have the two of them spend a few pages in a confrontation of wills and character; I, for one, would have enjoyed learning just how Van Helsing managed to be such a credible threat to Dracula, since all the cards seem stacked in Dracula's favor. These two must have a few things to talk about, with Dracula this time having the edge in the element of surprise. Unfortunately, Van Helsing is only given token panels toward the end of the story.

*The city was later changed in the story to Budapest. Quite a difference, as they're the capitals of two separate countries 500 miles apart--but Fox is in good company. Bucharest would seem more likely, given its proximity to Transylvania.

In the interim, it's the townspeople who must face the fact that a vampire--the vampire--is among them once more, and they alone are left to deal with him. And while "angry villagers with torches" have become a cliche in horror films insofar as the threat they posed to an evil scientist or a monster on the run, against Dracula there is another more fitting term for them: "breakfast."

We get a sense in these scenes scripted by Fox of the approach Marv Wolfman would later take with the character. Dracula is haughty, overwhelming--savage in his need to prove to those who attempt to rise up against him the contempt he holds them in, that their lives are held in his hand on a whim. In this instance, he proves his case irrefutably, slaughtering nearly all of the people who confronted him--with many of them, no doubt, fated to rise as vampires themselves, to do his bidding. Van Helsing has his work cut out for him.

Back in the 20th century, Rachel and Frank have made progress in their efforts to follow the Count to his final destination--and at this point, they may be Van Helsing's only hope.

Yet their arrival has not gone unnoticed by Dracula, for whom the time has come at last to take his revenge on Van Helsing. To prevent Rachel and her party from reaching her grandfather first, Dracula dispatches Lenore to deal with them--a vampire he's kept in his castle for centuries, corked in a bottle of blood, in the event that he might have need of her at some point. As with Van Helsing, Fox spends very little time on Lenore, who conveys a strong impression that she's far more than she seems, at least in the sense of having a special status apart from Dracula's regular pack of vampire followers.

Lenore turns out to indeed be a threat to be reckoned with, coming close to killing her human targets until Frank and Taj manage to drive her away with a makeshift cross.

Regrettably, just as things are reaching a climax, Fox begins wrapping up the story at a fever pitch, even after making certain the stage is set for a climactic finale that never materializes. Lenore's dramatic introduction has already been nullified by her being thwarted like any other vampire; and now, just as the time comes for Dracula and Van Helsing to face each other, the cavalry arrives, with a buildup for Dracula's end that has the wind taken from its sails all too quickly.

It's a reset button in progress, with everyone finally returning to the 20th century--yet it really makes no sense for Dracula to risk another trip through the mirror, given the chance that he might again arrive in the demons' realm. He's also in precisely the time period where he might flourish, once Van Helsing is dealt with. Further, he and Lenore are bats, flying at night--how would their pursuers keep them in sight, even on a moonlit night? And three humans--one severely weakened--against two vampires? Dracula himself took care of a mob of villagers--striking from above in the dark, he and Lenore could pick off Rachel and her friends with very little difficulty or risk to themselves.

We can take a peek at a few relevant pages of the next issue, where everyone returns to our time but with the main plot of the new story already supplanting the events of the previous one.

As for Lenore, we would never learn the circumstances of her association with Dracula (even through flashback, which would have been right up Wolfman's alley). Whatever their connection with each other, it became clear that Dracula's need for self-preservation outweighed any concern he might have had for her continued well-being.

With Lenore's dying words, again the implication that she held some privileged status with Dracula, however minor. (One doesn't usually cork into a bottle a trusted aide and leave her stashed away on a shelf.) At any rate, the dark mirror was forgotten about, as well--a relic of time travel that gave way to more contemporary methods that fortunately didn't involve a demonic reception committee.

Tomb of Dracula #5

Script: Gardner F. Fox
Pencils: Gene Colan
Inks: Tom Palmer
Letterer: Artie Simek


Anonymous said...

One of the interesting things about ToD is that Dracula often found himself in conflict with evil or demonic entities that were as evil as himself, or worse. It allowed us to occasionally root for him as a protagonist.
I was unaware that Gardner Fox wrote any of the issues of this series; it seems from this review he did a capable job. Tomb of Dracula, along with D.C. Comic's Swamp Thing, is my favorite horror comic, although there are some big gaps in my collection. That's why it's always cool to see an issue reviewed here I haven't seen before, like this one. Great fun! Thanks. Looking forward to more spooky stuff here in the days leading up to Halloween.

Anonymous said...

Lenore ? Can't imagine where they got that name from.
Quoth the raven "Nevermore"...squawk :D

Comicsfan said...

M.P., I'm in full agreement with you regarding Dracula's foes--but I'd also include those obstacles that balanced that aspect, foes that he was daunted by or otherwise incapable of dealing with on their level, whether supernatural or otherwise. All in all I think it was the variety of antagonists of Tomb of Dracula which served to define Dracula for the book's readers as more than a simple vampire.