Monday, July 15, 2019

The Hunt And The Horror!

In May of 1976, there was no shortage of decent Marvel comics in the spinner rack to choose from:

  • Luke Cage, controlled by the Puppet Master, was battling it out with Ben Grimm, who had just started "suiting up" as the Thing;
  • Jane Foster fought to free Thor from a Gypsy spell that had also enthralled Firelord;
  • Spider-Man faced the strange threat of Mirage;
  • The Hulk was fighting off both Doc Samson and SHIELD;
  • Over in The Defenders, Chondu of the Headmen, horrified to see the new body which his associates had transferred his mind into, took his anger out on the Valkyrie;
  • The new X-Men were having their first meeting with the Sentinels and closing in on their 100th issue;
  • Iron Man was taking on Blizzard;
  • Captain America was fighting his way through the Elite's "kill-derby";
  • And the Avengers were trapped on a parallel Earth and fighting the Squadron Supreme over the Serpent Crown.

But hopefully some of you also set aside four bits for a compelling crossover story taking place in two separate titles distributed for sale in the same month, featuring the first meeting between Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, and Dracula, Lord of Vampires--both tales drawn and embellished by artists Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, a welcome touch not only because both were highly acclaimed veterans of these characters but also because in a way you were reading a single 34-page comic (er, split into two, but you catch my drift). The fateful story begins in the Tomb Of Dracula title, where readers not yet realizing this was a crossover story couldn't have been happy to turn the final page to find a nail-biting ending that would be resolved in a book they'd failed to notice earlier.

For Dracula, this marks his first encounter with a mainstream Marvel character*, with the circumstances of their meeting proving to be shocking enough on their own--specifically, the death of Strange's manservant, Wong, attacked and drained of blood by Dracula. With Dracula located in Boston at this point in time, it's anyone's guess why Wong was such a distance from New York, roughly 200 miles away from Strange's sanctum. Yet it's admittedly a trivial matter with any number of available explanations, and certainly of no consequence in comparison to Wong meeting his death at the hands of a vampire; and while it seems certain that the only way we're going to be seeing Wong again is in an undead state, his master yet holds out hope for an alternative as he delves into the mystery of his disappearance.

*Unless you're counting his encounter with Werewolf By Night Jack Russell--or his non-meeting with Spider-Man, where the two only crossed paths but never dealt with each other directly.

And so the foundation is laid for Strange's hunt for his friend's murderer--but is it retribution he seeks, or something much more?

As Strange makes use of this simulacrum of Wong to gain the answers he seeks as to the identity and location of the culprit, we're asked to accept some rather fantastic things at face value, simply by virtue of the supposed reach of Strange's sorcery: one, that Wong's memories are still intact, even after entering a state of death that has already existed for hours, and two, that Strange's Eye of Agamotto can indeed prevent the loss of a person's "life essence" (i.e., soul) well after the time of death. The situation is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Wong has been subjected to the curse of the vampire, something which Strange regards as a spell; and that being the case, he hopes to learn enough about it to reverse it. Consequently, the state that Wong is currently in as a corpse could instead be interpreted as his body and mind adapting to its new existence. (At least that's my own take on it--your mileage may vary.)

Strange's first step, then, is to identify the killer; but in probing Wong's memories, Strange in effect becomes the victim, which must be something of a shock for him regardless of his tutelage in the mystic arts.

Now armed with the specifics, we next see Strange flying over Boston, mystically "following" the life-patterns of Dracula after departing the scene of the crime--finally tracing a mystic ghost-shape of the vampire's bat form to the mansion that Dracula has appropriated from its previous owner, Doctor Sun, whose threat Dracula recently brought to an end.

For whatever reason, Dracula has made it an early night for entering his coffin and lying in repose--otherwise, dawn would now be breaking, and Strange would have a fairly easy time of doing whatever he has planned. Fortunately, Colan and writer Marv Wolfman know their audience.

The virtual gauntlet thrown, what would normally be an unequal battle begins, though that's not to disparage either Dracula's strengths or his resourcefulness; Strange's power speaks for itself, though he's not here to destroy Dracula outright but to learn more from him about the spell of the undead. (You'd think all those tomes in his sanctum might have had something on the subject--nothing in the Book of the Vishanti?) Yet out of necessity, Strange is hampered by his writer, as well. Having had ample time to devise a plan for engaging with a vampire, as well as the element of surprise, Strange could have had ready a means of dealing with Dracula quickly and effectively, even utilizing conventional tools that had nothing to do with mystic forces (say, binding wreaths of silver and garlic, off the top of my head).

Yet what plays out here is a fairly nice display of what each man has to offer in terms of both offense and defense--and we'll find that Strange indeed has a trick up his sleeve for subduing Dracula, if not in the physical sense.

Regular Tomb Of Dracula readers have perhaps already guessed correctly on whether Strange's tactic would succeed or fail. Wolfman had to date done an excellent job of establishing that Dracula's will was nothing to be trifled with; so while Strange's attack forced Dracula to relive some of his most humbling and tragic moments, in the end it only marshalled his will to resist Strange's power to keep him at bay.** And when Dracula learns Strange's motivation for engaging with him, it serves as a final affront to his dignity that he cannot let stand.

**Not that a dramatic show of willpower would be enough to blunt the power of Strange's repertoire of spells. I chafe at the notion that this story presumes otherwise. "There is nothing more you can do to me." Oh for the love of...

With Dracula having fed, there is no apparent hope for Strange, doomed to share Wong's fate--which is as jolting a cliffhanger as we could ask for. In fact, the splash pages for both this story and that of Part Two offer some interesting symmetry (if that was the intent) between the two--with Wolfman's narrative in Part One serving as chilling forewarning of how this battle was going to end for Strange, and the beginning of Part Two bearing that out.

And in just three days' time, Strange's horror will begin anew.


Tomb of Dracula #44

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


Big Murr said...

ANY Marvel hero whose power is based on flashy pyrotechnics from their artfully posed fingertips have virtually no continuity. Heroes with strength and more quantifiable powers make the writers "colour within the lines" a little more carefully, but the energy-sparkler guys pretty much do whatever the writer wants to advance the story.

Dr. Strange is the character that is the very essence of this syndrome. One issue a bit of research and fast-draw poetry will stop a demon thing capable of popping Earth like a zit. And then he flounders before a vampire. I love the "meanwhile in the rest of the Marvel Universe" list you provided. The mention of the Defenders reminds me, though, how in that comic Strange regularly conjures a hermitically-sealed bubble to either protect his team or cage the Hulk or whatever. Seems that spell might have been the one to use on Dracula instead of mystic handcuffs.

But, for all this kvetching, it was a decent two-parter. Unlike the Silver Surfer or Spider-Man, having the occult horror of Dracula meet the Master of the Mystic Arts is a concept that jigsaws together marvellously. The next part goes a long way to balancing the scales towards "most satisfactory".

Comicsfan said...

They did jigsaw together nicely, didn't they, Murray. That's a good way to describe it.

Anonymous said...

'70's spooky Marvel at it's greatest, in my view! Makes me wanna peruse my Drac and Doc Strange mags again.
I hadn't considered it, but yeah, who knows what the limits of Strange's powers were. Kinda like the Bat utility belt from the old T.V show. All sortsa stuff in that mystical bag of his. It's best not to think about it too much.


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