The best stories are driven by conflict, and comic books are no exception.
Good vs. Evil, life and death, the fate of our civilization, the world, the universe, all reasons why readers keep coming back year after year.
And yet one of the most horrific acts of violence, one that has stayed with this reader all these years, centered on the flipping of an urn.
It remains distressing to this very day.
By 1975, Marv Wolfman had been writing Marvel’s “Tomb of Dracula” for a couple of years. He had taken a middling book to a Must-Have every month, with surprises and shocks in every issue. He took the series to new heights with a critical two-parter that started in No. 32 (cover date May 1975).
“And Some Call Him …. Madness!” marked a turning point to several stories that had been percolating for more than a year. Dracula had been slowly, mysteriously losing his powers; Frank and Taj were both called away on mysterious and dangerous quests.
Readers didn’t know how much these stories were all connected. Dracula shows up on the doorstep of his old foe Quincy Harker because he knows Quincy has information on the source of his power drain.
Quincy’s feud with Drac goes back years, and readers know and sympathize with him. Dracula did turn Quincy’s daughter Edith into a vampire back in the classic “Tomb of Dracula” No. 12 in 1973, forcing the vampire hunter to put down his only child.
This two-parter, however, narrated primarily by Quincy himself, goes far in developing his character – and the tragedy of his life.
Quincy is despairing. He knows he is nearing the end of his days, and despite Dracula’s impending visit – despite his belief he can defeat the vampire forever – he wonders if the cost has been worth it.
Dracula figures the old cripple will be easy to kill. Drac hasn’t bet on his rival rigging the home with all sorts of nasty surprises, including vents that drop cloves of garlic, a dog wearing a collar studded with crucifixes, and, my favorite, a pool table that converts into a giant cross.
One of Quincy’s wooden blades finds its mark. Dracula is mortally wounded, his body rotting before him.
But Dracula has planned ahead. On the phone, Quincy learns Dracula’s “brides” hold Rachel Van Helsing captive.
Allow Dracula to live or she dies.
“Tomb of Dracula” No. 33 (cover date June 1975), “Blood on My Hands,” picks up from this dark cliffhanger, with Dracula looking like mottled cheese and seconds away from the end of his undead existence.
Quincy reflects on his tortured past with his undead enemy.
Hey, there’s always time for a well-written flashback.
We learn his own wife had been attacked by Dracula, and years later, still traumatized, she took her own life.
Another loved one lost to that infernal demon.
How many innocents will die in the future if Quincy lets Dracula live? And yet he cannot let a woman he considers a second daughter perish because of him.
He saves the life of his hated foe.
His strength, vitality and skin complexion restored, Drac behaves almost courtly. It’s as if the two gave up on a game of chess instead of this life or death battle.
And then this happens: Dracula admires an urn on the mantel.
Nothing crazy about that right? Oh, Quincy’s being hypersensitive.
Dracula whirls: “Very well, Harker, I’ll put it down. But not before I scatter away the ashes of your stinking offspring, you stupid, insignificant fool! Here – take your damnable daughter and be done with her!”
The urn shatters at Quincy’s feet: “And may she ever rest in peace!”
The cruelty, the sadism, the emotional horror scream from the page.
People don’t act like this! Villains are supposed to abide by a code! You wouldn’t see Doctor Doom or Lex Luthor behaving this way.
That’s the point. Dracula’s charm is a veneer, about as deep as his billowing cape. Dracula is a monster.
Quincy Harker is utterly broken in this moment.
It cannot be said enough: Artist Gene Colan was a master.
Dracula’s vicious action exemplifies a telling point: Why go in for the kill when you can go in for the hurt?
At a time when comic books are serialized in six-issue arcs for graphic novel consumption, Wolfman’s slow, expert burn remains an utter pleasure. I can’t think of a series today – perhaps Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” – that takes such time to tell such complicated stories.
You can find these issues on the Marvel Comics app. Marvel has finally gotten around to releasing almost the entire run of the series, which is a boon to those of us building our digital library.
All these years later, I’m still wondering how Quincy got Edith out of the rug.