Has there ever been a less anticipated – and more ground-breaking comic – ever released by Marvel Comics?
With the opening of “The Tomb of Dracula” in 1972, the company proved there was a mainstream audience for darker, more mature comics – with stories about a supernaturally cursed mass murderer who needed to feed on the blood of the living.
And what was the purpose of the Comics Code Authority again?
Oh, never mind.
This was an unusual comic right from the start. Marvel had its horror books, but they were fringe titles, anthologies. “Tomb of Dracula” was an ongoing series, though the premise in this origin issue seemed familiar, uncertain and a little grisly, all at once.
In “Dracula,” in “Tomb of Dracula” No. 1, cover date April 1972, three naive people wander into Castle Dracula in Transylvania. That sort of sounds like every Christopher Lee movie ever made, but the story by Gerry Conway (tho’ allegedly written by an uncredited Roy Thomas) is rich in noir characterizations.
Frank Drake is a descendant of the infamous count himself, a wastrel looking for purpose. His buddy Clifton is an opportunist planning to kill Frank for his fortune. Jeannie is the girl they both love but who now is with Frank. (Was this tragic trio a warped version of “The Uncanny X-Men’s” notoriously weepy triangle of Scott, Jean and Warren? If so, somebody had a dark sense of humor.)
The three awaken the beast within the castle. Dracula chucks Clifton down a deep hole, seemingly to his death. And before the main event with his descendant, he snacks on a mouthy barmaid.
This moment is significant. For all the evildoers in the Marvel Universe, how often did you see one actually kill – an innocent – on panel? Gwen Stacy’s death was a year away in “Amazing Spider-Man.”
“Tomb” let us know right from the start it wasn’t going to sweeten its protagonist. Dracula wasn’t going to be robbing blood banks, not when there were so many delicious walking juice boxes around. This would be a book with a body count.
And if you weren’t paying attention, the twist at the end drives a stake through the innocence of every reader.
Our alleged hero Frank battles Dracula – in vain – and Dracula drains Jeannie dry, turning her into a creature of the night. The once loving girl taunts her lover. And that’s where we leave Frank, seemingly broken by his ordeal.
“Tomb of Dracula” would cycle through a few writers before settling on Marv Wolfman in issue No. 7 . He would go on to write the series to its conclusion in issue No. 70 in 1979, and he would flesh out the man behind the monster – though never excusing Dracula or glamorizing his actions or making him seem cool. This was never “The Punisher” with fangs. Wolfman’s greatest addition to the Marvel Universe here would be the vampire hunter Blade, who made his first appearance in “Tomb” No. 10.
Neal Adams provided the striking cover, but it would be Gene Colan’s art that would set the mood and the tone right from the beginning. Colan would be the regular artist for the entire run of the series, and if there was ever a man born to illustrate a series, he was the real deal.
The success of “Tomb of Dracula” begat other creatures – “Werewolf By Night,” “The Monster of Frankenstein,” “The Son of Satan,” “The Living Mummy,” and, of course, the terrifying “Night Nurse.” (Hmm. I might be incorrect about that last book.)
Many years ago, before even the stories were collected in the Essential editions, I was alone for Thanksgiving, with no place to go, no one to see. With the day to myself, I impulsively pulled out one of my long boxes and read the entire run of “Tomb of Dracula” from start to finish.
It was one of the best Thanksgivings I’ve ever had, a feast of uncompromising story and art. “Tomb of Dracula” is easily one of the best titles Marvel ever produced.
This origin story has been reprinted in a number of places. You can find it in the Marvel Comics App, “Tomb of Dracula Omnibus Vol. One” or the trade paperback “Tomb of Dracula Vol. 1” (though the prices for these out-of-print editions are downright unholy) or the more affordable black-and-white “Essential Tomb of Dracula Vol. One.”
Go on. Take a bite. You know you want to.