Friday, March 1, 2013

Vampires 101: TOMB OF DRACULA

Dracula has pretty much had his way with Hollywood since Bela Lugosi brought him to the big screen in 1931, but his path to comics has been fairly bumpy. Even though the character has been in the public domain in America since 1923, publishing standards kept Dracula - and all other vampires - out of comics for almost 20 years.

Adopted by comics publishers in the1950s, the Comics Code Authority was a misguided attempt at self-regulating an industry that had developed a lurid, exploitative reputation. Congressional hearings helped portray comics at the chosen entertainment of juvenile delinquents and perverts, the less-literary sibling to pornography. Though the terminology didn't exist at the time, comics were portrayed as a kind of "gateway drug" of careless publishers. Let your kids read BATMAN, guys like physiologist Frederick Wertham argued, and your kids will soon be carrying switchblades, listening to jazz and sucking off sailors for cigarettes. It doesn't matter that the "evidence" in these suppositions were flawed (if not entirely fabricated,) the damage was already done.

The Comics Code Authority created prohibitions that essentially killed crime and horror comics. Here's a sampling of some of the content that would no longer be allowed in comics after 1954:
  • Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated
  • No comic magazine shall use the words "horror" or "terror" in its title
  • All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted
  • All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated
Also banned were the words "crime," "horror," and "terror" from comics titles, and vampires, werewolves and zombies also became persona non grata. EC Comics was forced to scuttle TALES FROM THE CRYPT, VAULT OF HORROR and the rest of its line of comics, leaving only MAD MAGAZINE standing. Vampires, werewolves and the like occasionally surfaced in non-code approved books, which is how Gold Key managed to get its run of DARK SHADOWS comics on a limited number of shelves. For almost 20 years, horror was essentially dead in mainstream comic books.

That changed in 1971. For reasons unknown*, the Comics Code revised its prohibitions to allow  vampires, ghouls and werewolves to appear in comicbooks. The stipulation? These monsters must be "handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world."

With those changes in mind, ROY THOMAS, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics in 1971, was tasked by publisher STAN LEE to immediately add a vampire to the company's flagship title, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. The original plan, Thomas explained in an interview with The Collinsport Historical Society, was to add DRACULA to the book as a villain. Thomas decided instead to create his own vampire. Issue 101 of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, dated October, 1971, featured Spider-Man facing off against MORBIUS THE LIVING VAMPIRE. Because Thomas rooted Morbius' powers in science rather than the occult, readers have long believed he used the "living vampire" element to somehow circumvent the Comics Code. But, by the time Morbius debuted, Thomas said that kind of subterfuge was no longer necessary.

DRACULA made his Marvel debut a few months later in his own title, TOMB OF DRACULA. It's a simple book with a confounding sense of morality. The book's antagonist is an unrepentant monster being pursued around the world by his ancestor, Frank Drake, and an ever-growing roster of vampire hunters. Even though the book never presents Dracula as anything but greedy and sadistic, he's also the book's central character, allowing him to take a certain amount of non-consensual sympathy from the reader. The reasoning, I guess, is that if Dracula is killed, the book will end ... and so will your fun.

It took a while for the book to find it's voice, though. The first six issues were penned by a revolving roster of writers, with the creative team coming into its own in issue seven with writer MARV WOLFMAN joined artist GENE COLAN. The pair would go on to write and draw the series until its cancellation in 1979, with TOM PALMER inking almost all of those issues.

Dracula's place in the Marvel Universe was iffy during the early years, but was notarized (for lack of a better word) when Dracula faced off against Spider-Man in GIANT SIZED SPIDER-MAN #1 in 1974. He'd go on to harass Doctor Strange, the X-Men and even Howard the Duck, but TOMB OF DRACULA created a mini-universe of its own that didn't need superheroes.

The book's most notable supporting character was BLADE THE VAMPIRE KILLER. Modeled on Ernest Tidyman's SHAFT, Blade didn't break any molds when it came to character development. Wolfman relied on the "angry black man" stereotype, but the character's past - and his ruthlessness - set him apart from the book's other vampire hunters. Blade was an exercise in ethics and villainy. Not much set him apart from the monsters he pursued, and Blade constantly demonstrated that he was willing to stoop as low as his enemies in order to achieve his goals.  His mission of revenge was focused from time to time on finding the vampire who killed his mother but, in the meantime, any old vampire would do.

TOMB also tied in very neatly with Bram Stoker's original novel, introducing an aged (and disabled) QUINCEY HARKER as the leader of the book's vampire hunters. The son of Jonathan and Mina Harker, Quincey was mentioned briefly in Stoker's novel in it's final pages. He is joined in TOMB by Abraham Van Helsing's granddaughter, RACHEL, and TAJ NITAL, a giant whose throat had been slashed by Dracula in combat, rendering him mute. The was also occasional appearances from vampire HANNIBAL KING, a private investigator and vampire hunter.

Dracula proved so popular that Marvel gave him a second series. While not as successful as the color comic, the B&W magazine DRACULA LIVES ran from 1973 to 1975, telling stories in different times (including the obligatory comicbook "origin" story) in Dracula's long life.

When TOMB was cancelled, he lived on briefly in a new TOMB OF DRACULA magazine, while also bouncing around the Marvel Universe. After menacing the X-Men, he butted heads one last time with Blade, Hannibal King, Doctor Strange and a handful of members of THE AVENGERS. When the dust settled, Dracula - and all other vampires on earth - have been destroyed. Needless to say, all of these characters slowly returned to the pages of Marvel comics over the years, but with mixed results. Wolfman and Colan re-teamed in 1991 for a controversial, disturbing mini-series revival of TOMB that remains one of Dracula's few high points since the cancellation of the original series.

A movie starring WESLEY SNIPES as Blade launched Marvel's venture into feature films in the 1990s, but the series suffered from dwindling returns. The final film, BLADE TRINITY, made a half-hearted effort to appropriate some of TOMB's more interesting characters, but you had to be paying attention to notice. Writer/director DAVID GOYER tried to distance himself from the failure of the Hugh Jackman film, VAN HELSING by changing Rachel Van Helsing's name to Abigail Whistler, while Dracula was called "Drake."  Only Hannibal King, played by RYAN REYNOLDS, held onto his name, though he was no longer a vampire.

The most curious footnote in the history of TOMB OF DRACULA came a year after the original book was cancelled. A feature-length anime special titled DRACULA: SOVEREIGN OF THE DAMNED was broadcast in Japan. The movie was not ... good. Or terribly faithful, either. The cartoon was briefly on videocassette in the 1980s but mercifully disappeared for many years. "Luckily" for us, you can watch the wretched thing on Youtube. Don't say I didn't warn you.

* I've long suspected that DARK SHADOWS, which brought vampires, werewolves, witches and zombies to peoples homes five times a week, played a significant role in the CCA decision.

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