This month, I’m going heavy with the throwbacks. I’ve sporadically continued my Marvel Firsts series over the last year or so, but this February, I’m diving headfirst into Marvel’s history to see where some of its most iconic characters got their starts. First up is a character whose status as a literary icon far precedes his appearance in comic books, Marvel or otherwise: Dracula. Let’s see how the most famous vampire of all time fares in the Marvel Universe.
The Tomb of Dracula #1 is written by Gerry Conway, drawn by Gene Colan, lettered by Jon Costa, and edited by Stan Lee who gets top billing for his role on the book. There is no colorist credit, though, and a bit of further research shows that there was another uncredited creator at work here: Roy Thomas, who reportedly plotted this issue with Stan Lee. In their take on Bram Stoker’s legend… well, the character is just that: Bram Stoker’s legend. Instead of trying to fully recreate Dracula, the novel Dracula exists within the reality of this story, and plays a part in the lead character’s motivation. This puts the reader in the characters’ shoes as they first encounter the fearsome vampire – which is a helpful tool, because while the story is interesting, the characters are unlikable because of their self-centered and vapid motivations, as well as the narrative inconsistency of their actions. But – and stay with me here – that might be the point.
The narrative focuses on Frank Drake as he travels to Transylvania to sell Dracula’s castle, which is the only remaining asset of any value from his family inheritance that he hasn’t already blown. He goes into the castle with his current girlfriend and her ex, a former friend of Frank’s who is very obviously trying to set him up. The dynamic is interesting, but like I mentioned before – it doesn’t quite go anywhere, and here’s why I think that is. This comic was unlike the other issues I’ve read for the Marvel Firsts series, in that most of those #1s seem designed to create interesting characters that we can root for – who we want to see again and again. The Tomb of Dracula #1 doesn’t seem interested in that. Instead, it effectively paints a moody experience, functioning basically as a one-off horror story. The lead character, Frank Drake, seems to be set up for more stories at the conclusion of the issue, but the story doesn’t hinge on him in the same way The Incredible Hulk does Bruce Banner, or The Amazing Spider-Man does Peter Parker. There is some meat to the characters, but even their relationships are designed to set up not to have any payoff or arc, but rather to set-up the characters – and the reader – to experience the most terror. The Tomb of Dracula deals with characters the same way that many horror anthologies, I’ve noticed, tend do to: the ‘bad’ characters die as a direct result of their wickedness, and the women die as a direct result of their proximity to the wicked men. Horror comics love that sort of Grimm Brothers version of morality, and The Tomb of Dracula is no exception.
I’m a big horror fan, and probably 90% of every superhero I enjoy is published by Marvel Comics, so I really wanted to love this comic. I liked it well enough, especially visually – the name Dracula appearing in the lightning strike on the first page is exactly the type of shit I was hoping we’d get with this issue. However, when all is said and done, I enjoyed the scares, but I prefer both horror and comics that focuses more squarely on character so that when the monster steps out of the shadows, I feel as if something I care about is at stake. I think there is potential for that here, moving forward, though. At the end of this first issue, Frank Drake remains an untapped character who can really go anywhere from here – he has an interesting familial relationship to Dracula that can be mined for great drama, his girlfriend is out there as a potential fanged enemy, and a town of angry people might just blame him for waking a monster they believed was mere legend. While I have yet to read Frank Drake’s further adventures, I do know that Dracula goes on to be a supervillain in the larger Marvel Universe, causing havoc and horror for folks such as Blade, the X-Men, and more – and, to me, that’s the true appeal of bringing this character into Marvel. Literally anyone can do a new take on Dracula (hell, one of my most popular series as a writer so far has been Van Helsing) but how many creators can make it so that Count Dracula and Rocket Raccoon exist in the same universe? Raise a glass for Stan Lee, dammit.