‘Tomb of Dracula’ was, quite frankly, a nightmare brief. It was a horror comic published in the wake of a decision to loosen some of the strictures of the Comics Code, following a gang of intrepid vampire hunters led by the descendant of Van Helsing as they attempted to destroy the Lord of Vampires, Dracula. The problem should be obvious to everyone reading this, and it was obvious to the writers as well (which is why ‘Tomb of Dracula’ went through about three creative teams in its first five issues)…they’re going to fail, because Dracula’s name is right there in the title.
So Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, who wound up as the permanent creative team on the title for most of its run, had to do something different. They couldn’t just make the series about the monster hunters, so they made it about the monster. And the result is some of the all-time finest horror ever written, backed by some of the most gorgeous and moody art ever drawn. The series is currently available in black-and-white as part of Marvel’s Essential series, and that actually does it a tremendous favor; this was a series that really didn’t want color, let alone need it. Garish, four-color printing processes actually hindered Colan’s stark, evocative artwork; in black-and-white, you can really feel the creeping, sinister atmosphere created through the art.
And the writing as well; I’ll admit I got off on a tangent, because it’s easy to do that when talking about how magnificent Gene Colan was, but the writing was excellent. Wolfman had been working in horror anthologies for DC, and had a solid idea of how to structure a horror story; by focusing on Dracula as the protagonist, while not in any way diminishing his menace, he created a comic that was like nothing else on the stands. Dracula (the character) reads like Lucifer in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’; he’s unrepentant for his evil deeds, convinced that the whole damned world is nothing but a sham and a trap and the only way he can escape it, such as it is, is to be true to his nature and rail against the fates for condemning him to it. His battles against other vampires, mad scientists, and even Satan himself contrasted with the fights he had against his Fearless Vampire Hunter nemeses and other Marvel characters like Doctor Strange (and Iron Man, and the Silver Surfer…those were a bit weird, like watching an episode of the X-Files that guest-starred Superman, but not bad for all that) to show that he really was true to his essential self, as horrible as that was.
And there were a lot of good sub-plots and interesting supporting characters to be had. Blade, the half-vampire, got his start here, as did Hannibal King the vampire detective (who had a hook good enough to make him a protagonist in his own right–he was a vampire who refused to drink blood, knowing it would damn him); we also got Rachel van Helsing, last of the van Helsing line, and Frank Drake, the last descendant of Dracula, who teamed up to fight the Lord of Vampires. It felt like several high-concept movie mashups all rolled into one excellent book, and there really isn’t much in the series that I didn’t adore.
Ultimately, when Marvel finally got out of the horror business in the Eighties, they killed off Dracula in a grand finale that saw vampires out of the Marvel Universe completely. For a while, that is…with a series this good providing inspiration for future writers, it proved impossible to keep a dead man down.