Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

07 August 2010

Essential Tomb of Dracula, v. 4

Collects: Stories from Tomb of Dracula Magazine #2-6 and Dracula Lives! #1-13 and Frankenstein’s Monster #7-9 (1973-5, 1979-80)

Released: March 2005 (Marvel)

Format: 576 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785117094

What is this?: A chronological retelling of Dracula’s life, from Marvel’s pre-1980 stories (except Tomb of Dracula)

The culprits: Too many to list; includes Marv Wolfman, Mike Friedrich, John Buscema, Gene Colan, and Gerry Conway

The release of Essential Tomb of Dracula, v. 4, was a bit of a surprise, given that the previous three volumes had completely collected the comic book series. But Marvel still had some vampire material lying around — mostly from black and white magazines it published in the ‘70s — so they bundled those stories together into another, presumably final, volume.

One aspect of v. 4 that sets it apart from other Essentials is that rather than reprinting the stories in the order they were published, Marvel ordered them by when they occurred in the life of Dracula, the central character. After reading through the stories, this is not only the better way to organize the stories but really the only way; Dracula Lives, for instance, published stories of Dracula’s past as one feature and a continuing serial of his present as another in the same issue. To publish those in periodical order would have split the present-day stories, ruining the flow.

Essential Tomb of Dracula, v. 4, coverOrdering the stories this way works best if there is a narrative flow to them. Other than that present day feature, however, there is none. Worse yet, there seems to be no real plan behind Dracula’s reign of Euroterror. Dracula attacks and attacks and attacks; occasionally, he is attacked. Despite his claims to nobility and character, Dracula is constantly at the mercy of his animal nature. However, Dracula never seems to own up to this, and there is really no one to call him on it. Worse, there seems to be no consequence to the stories. New vampires are created and disappear before the next story. Dracula is staked and returns to unlife for the next tale.

After going through Dracula’s first few centuries, it’s easy to feel there’s no point to his stories — it’s just rehashing the same plot points over and over. There are few horror-comic plot twists or really cruel endings for Dracula’s victims, as if the writers feared making Dracula too awful.

Then there are the slips on vampire lore. Chirping about continuity problems on most comics can be seen as nitpicking, but the weaknesses and restrictions on Dracula and other vampires are part of popular culture. Does Dracula need to be invited inside a home? Sometimes, but not always. How long does it take for a vampire to rise from the grave? Everyone, including Dracula, says three days, but frequently they arise the next night. How effective are crosses — can Dracula attack someone with a cross, or does he need to have a proxy attack? Sources vary. Running water poses no problems; occasionally, no thought is given to the coffin filled with earth Dracula needs to rest in. How much power does daylight have — does it destroy a vampire, like decapitation, or does it merely immobilize the vampire, like a stake? Dunno. And this is putting aside things like Dracula not using his hypnotism or turning into mist or other errors in tactics.

But I don’t want to dwell on the negative, because I’m a negative person and have truly impressive negative dwelling skills. “Bounty for a Vampire,” by Tony Isabella and Tony DeZuniga, is an effective and nuanced Weird Western from Dracula Lives #13, with a former marshal who has seen weird things hunting vampires in Transylvania. Peter Gillis and John Buscema’s story of a ballet dancer who loses her humanity and empathy (“Pavanne from an Undead Princess,” Tomb of Dracula Magazine #5) is the most moving story in the collection. “A Death in the Chapel” from Dracula Lives #6 features the final combat of Dracula and Father Montesi, the discoverer of the vampire-destroying Montesi Formula. The continuity and continuing stories in Frankenstein’s Monster #7-9 (by Mike Friedrich and Buscema) and the modern tales in Dracula Lives! was a welcome respite from the episodic stories that dominate the collection. And although the story in “The Pit of Death” by Doug Moench and DeZuniga (Dracula Lives #10-1) didn’t make much of an impression on me, the protagonist’s revenge on Dracula was nicely innovative.

Also, Marvel does include some supplementary material to the collection. There is a prose recap of Dracula’s history near the beginning of v. 4, and there is an extensive cover and promotional image gallery near the end. Gene Colan’s original pencils from unused pages of Tomb of Dracula #70-2, which were collapsed into #70 when the title was canceled, are included for those who wondered how the story might have ended up had Colan and Wolfman been allowed a little more space for the stories.

The art, overall, is uneven, but Dracula art from Colan is always welcome. Colan contributed seven stories that appear in the collection, most of them in the book’s second half, and they are uniformly highlights — shadowy, evocative, with a Dracula who is simultaneously bestial and suave. Buscema drew the three issues of Frankenstein’s Monster, and although those issues are not going to go down as his greatest, they are John Buscema drawing Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and shapely gypsy women, and there’s nothing wrong with that; his pencils on other stories in the collection, such as “Death Vow” (inks by Klaus Janson) from Tomb of Dracula Magazine #4, are more impressive, evocative and as shadowy as Colan’s work. Other artists who manage to convey more than a modicum of horror or menace include DeZuniga and Vicente Alcazar in “Here Comes the Death Man” in Dracula Lives #7.

Still, those enjoyable parts can’t really save the book. There’s a lot of repetition and stories that just aren’t worth the time. Also, the reproduction on v. 4 is strangely murky, making it difficult to read. I would have thought that since the original material was originally from black-and-white magazines, that wouldn’t have been a problem, but I was wrong.

The question you have to ask yourself is: how much do you want Gene Colan and John Buscema stories? If the answer is a lot … well, you might want to buy the original magazines. But if that isn’t an option and you still want to see them and are willing to wade through a lot of forgettable Marvel vampire stories, buy this book. Otherwise … borrow it from a vampire fanatic and skim it.

Rating: Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (1.5 of 5)

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Blogger Marc said...

Great review. I always expected this book would be more interesting in Essential format than the actual Tomb of Dracula series because of the B&W art and the fewer content restrictions, but now I'm reconsidering. More and more lately it seems I'm hearing people say that Marvel really didn't know what it was doing in those magazines at all (even Roy Thomas, editor of those magazines, in an interview he did with Stan Lee that I read recently). Too bad, because I think there's a lot of potential there.

On another note, I've been interested in the Essential Monster of Frankenstein book for a while, and I notice a few issues from that collection appear here as well. Do you think it's worth looking into?

11:18 AM  
Blogger Raoul said...

If the entire series were like the issues of Frankenstein's Monster in this collection, I would say yes. The stories are not groundbreaking, but they play with the normal themes of Frankenstein's Monster -- acceptance, freakishness, etc. -- while introducing Dracula to the mix. And it's got John Buscema art.

But what's reprinted here is three of Buscema's four issues on the title. Most of the art is by Michael Ploog and Val Mayerik. I don't know anything about Ploog, but Mayerik does a lot of fantasy art, so that might be OK. The main writers are Gary Friedrich (who did fine in these issues, which is all I know him from) and Doug Moench, whom didn't particularly move me in Moon Knight.

Tentatively, I would say yes, it's worth looking into. I've considered buying the collection several times but haven't yet, though.

1:57 AM  
Blogger Marc said...

Great, I think I'll be getting it then. I love the original Frankenstein novel, as well as Stoker's Dracula, and it seems like Marvel did a really good job of capturing their essences when they first started publishing comics about them.

Oh, and Ploog is a wonderful artist who did a lot of work on Marvel's horror titles in the '70s; you can see some of his best work in the Essential Man-Thing and Werewolf By Night trades. After that he quit working in comics for a long time and did visual design work for movies like Dark Crystal and John Carpenter's The Thing. I'd highly recommend anything by him that you can get your hands on!

1:54 AM  

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