Sunday, 24 April 2011


Well, it's been a while again, but I'm finally hoping to get this blog back on a (semi-)regular track.
As befits the returning from the dead theme, today I'm taking a look at Marvel's classic 1970's Tomb Of Dracula, recently collected in a series of three hardcover omnibus collections. Be warned though, this comes with a bit of a history lesson...

Back in the mid-1950s there was a certain amount of hysteria against comic books. The general perception is that the brunt of the anti-comic movement was aimed at the horror comics, especially those published by William Gaines' EC comics, but in truth there were also complaints about the levels of violence in war and crime comics and about the sexual innuendo in what has become known as 'good girl art'.

The anger against the salacious nature of some of these titles actually led to at least two city councils - Houston, Texas and Oklahoma City - passing ordinances prohibiting the sale of crime and horror comics. Another attempt, by the city council of Los Angeles, failed when it was deemed by the courts to be unconstitutional.

In addition The United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, formed in 1953 to investigate the problem of, well, juvenile delinquency, also turned it's attention to the problems of comic books. A defining moment during the subcommittee's public hearings was Bill Gaines attempt to defend his EC comics including this infamous exchange between Gaines and Democrat Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee...

Mr. Beaser: Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?
  • Gaines: My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.
  • Sen. Kefauver [refering to the cover of EC's Crime SuspenStories #22 -pictured]: This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
  • Gaines: Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic....
  • Sen. Kefauver: This is the July one [Crime SuspenStories #23]. It seems to be a man with a woman in a boat and he is choking her to death with a crowbar. Is that in good taste?
  • Gaines: I think so.

  • The hearings made the front page of the New York Times the next day. The bad press meant that in several publishers were forced to revamp, censor or even cancel many long-running and popular titles.

    It was in response to this anti-comics fervour that the Comics Magazine Association of America was formed in September 1954. Headed by Charles F. Murphy, a noted New York attorney, the CMMA established the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which based its code upon an earlier, but largely unenforced code, which had been drafted in 1948 by the Association Of Comics Magazine Publishers. The Comics Code Authority served as a way for the comics industry to censor itself as opposed to the publishers being Federally regulated.

    The new code banned the depiction of "policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions ... in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority" and "in every instance good shall triumph over evil". Excessive violence was forbidden, as were horror staples such as Zombies, Ghouls, Werewolves and... Vampires (see where we're going here?).

    The code stayed in force until 2011, although as time went on many of the restrictions were slowly lifted. On January 28th 1971, the code was revised to allow some leeway in the depiction of criminal behavior. Also newly allowed were "vampires, ghouls and werewolves... when 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". The poor Zombie, however, apparently lacked enough literary merit and thereby remained on the banned list.

    Having nearly gone out of business in 1957 after publisher Martin Goodman made a disasterous decision to switch distributors, Marvel Comics had risen through the 1960s to be a main player in the comics field, due in no small part to writer/editor Stan Lee's new take on the superhero formula. In 1969 the Marvel line consisted primarily of superhero titles alongside a handful of Western titles (Kid Colt Outlaw, Rawhide Kid) and Teen humour/romance titles (Millie The Model, Chili). Added to the line were two horror titles - Tower Of Shadows and Chamber Of Darkness which contained new short horror stories, including adaptatons of tales by writers such as H.P. Lovecraft.

    Another new title, launched in 1970, was Astonishing Tales. An addition to Marvel's burgeoning superhero line, it was a split book featuring two stories, the first starring Marvel's Tarzan knock-off Ka-Zar, the other featuring frequent Fantastic Four protagonist Dr. Doom. While short-lived, the Dr. Doom strip paved the way for many of Marvel's future horror titles by having the concept of having a villainous figure as the star of a comic book. A format that titles such as Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night would take so much further.

    Over in the pages of Marvel's best selling title 'The Amazing Spider-Man' (#101) writers Stan Lee and Roy Thomas introduced Morbius, the so-called 'Living Vampire'. Created by scientific methods rather than supernatural means, Morbius was the first of Marvel's vampire characters. Roy Thomas had originally intended for the protagonist of this story to be Dracula himself, but Lee nixed the idea, probably due to other plans he already had for the character, as can be seen by the announcement made in the Bullpen Bulletins pages in Marvel Comics of July 1971.

    "SAVAGE TALES (our M-rated mag - for the mature reader) looks like such a howlin' hit that we're following it up with a ghoulish 50c goodie called THE TOMB OF DRACULA (or THE HOUSE OF DRACULA, we haven't decided yet). It's a wholly new concept, starring Dracula himself, as he is - was - and perhaps will be. With art by GENE COLAN, BERNI WRIGHTSON and GRAY MORROW among others, and a team of the world's most titanic scripters, headed by Marvel's merry masters SMILIN' STAN and RASCALLY ROY themselves! May we modestly say - it ain't to be missed!"

    Marvel's original concept of a 50 cent black and white magazine fell by the wayside at the last minute and the Tomb Of Dracula made it's belated debut as a regular colour comic with a cover date of April 1972. Ironically, the delays to the title's launch -partly caused by having to have Gene Colan's art reformatted for the smaller page size of the comic book format - meant that Dracula was actually beaten to the newsstand by another of Marvel's horror creations "Werewolf By Night" which debuted in the pages of Marvel Spotlight #2 with a February 1972 cover date.

    The premiere issue of Tomb Of Dracula was scripted by Gerry Conway from a plot by either Stan Lee or Roy Thomas (or possibly both). The cover art was by the legendary Neal Adams, but it was the interior art by the incomparible Gene Colan that gave the title its look. Colan, who had been a stalwart of strips such as Iron Man, Daredevil and had excelled on Doctor Strange, had lobbied to be given the title over Stan Lee's first choice of Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett. In an interview with Roy Thomas in Alter Ego magazine (Vol. 3, #6) Colan reveals how he got the job...

    COLAN: Yep. The only strip I really begged for was Dracula. He promised it to me, but then he changed his mind, he was going to give it to Bill Everett.
    THOMAS: It's funny, I don't remember Bill being the designated artist, but I'm sure you're right.

    COLAN: Oh, I said to him, "Stan, you gave me your word I could have it!" He said, "No, I'm afraid not, Gene. I actually promised it to Bill before you!" But I didn't take that for a answer. I worked up a page of Dracula, long before Bill did anything. I just sat there, and I inked it, a whole page of the character, just sample drawings of him. I fashioned him after Jack Palance, years before Palance played Dracula on TV, and I sent it in. I got an immediate call back. Stan said, "The strip is yours."
    THOMAS: It probably worked out for the best. Bill was certainly a good artist, but I don't think he'd have gotten what Stan was really looking for in Tomb of Dracula.
    COLAN: I didn't think so. I thought I was the only one for it.
    Conway's script introduced Frank Drake, last living descendent of the Dracula line. Drake travels to Transylvania with his fiancee Jeanie and friend Clifton Graves with a plan to turn the legendary Castle Dracula, which Frank has inherited, into a tourist attraction. However, things don't quite go as planned when, whilst exploring the castle Graves falls through a rotting floor and finds himself in a crypt, complete with a coffin containing a skeleton with a wooden stake in it's chest area. Graves removes the stake thus causing Dracula to rise from his tomb.
    Writer Conway only stayed on the title for one more story before passing the reins to Archie Goodwin with the third issue. Goodwin introduces us to Rachel Van Helsing, descendent of Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker's original novel, and her mute servent Taj. The two eventually encounter Drake and the three combine forces to hunt down Dracula.
    Goodwin also only lasted two issues before handing it over to Gardner N. Fox. Better known for his superhero works at Marvel's main rival DC, Fox had also written for pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. He too only lasted two issues and with Tomb Of Dracula's seventh issue the writing chores were taken over by Marv Wolfman. And it is with Wolfman's arrival the strip really takes off...
    To be continued...