I’ve often said that I miss the comics covers of old. Those covers were designed, unlike many of the ones being produced today which are merely mini-posters spotlighting the titular character without giving any indication of the story contained inside, to draw readers in and make them anxious about actually reading the stories contained therein. Of course, this was also a time when comic books could be found all over the place, from newsstands to the local drug store, as opposed to only in specialty comic-book shops, and they were largely focused on catching the eye of someone just passing by the comics rack instead of depending pretty solely on regular readers who are willing to go every Wednesday to get their weekly fix, but that’s a discussion for another time, I suppose. Anyway, “Covering Comics” is going to be a probably irregular series of posts where I take a look at various covers from the past, highlighting some of my personal favorites, or other covers of note for one reason or another.
Heading towards Halloween, I thought I’d take a look at some horror comics covers. Next time I’ll hit on some more general horror comics, but this time around I want to focus in on what I think may be one of the best horror series ever published, Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula.
The history of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic begins in 1971 when the Comics Code Authority – for those who don’t know what that is, think basically of the movie ratings board, except instead of simply issuing ratings to comics they had rules which set forth what was and was not acceptable in a comic that was going to be sold om American news stands – loosened its rules about the depiction of vampires and other monsters. Previously banned, at least for the most part, the new rules allowed “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”. This change opened the door for Marvel to “adapt” the classic (and fortunately by that point public domain) character of Dracula for their own purposes. Thus, in 1972, the color comic The Tomb of Dracula was born.
Unfortunately, though Marvel (or more specifically Marvel’s soon to be Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas) knew they wanted to do something with the character, they seem to have been unsure of exactly what that something was. The book went through the hands of three different writers in its first six issues, and it wasn’t until Marv Wolfman took over as writer with issue 7 that the book really started to find its way. Even Wolfman has stated that it wasn’t until he began his second story arc with issue 12 that he finally felt like he had found his footing on the book and figured out what he wanted to do with it, and from that point on, there was no turning back.
Fortunately, Wolfman was supported in telling his tales by veteran comics artist Gene Colan who illustrated the book from #1 all the way through until the final issue (#70). Colan’s unique style fit the comic very well, providing a grounded look to it, despite whatever fantastical elements he was called on to draw. Colan is one of those creators who knows just how to break the rules of conventional comic art in just the right way to bring a special dynamism to the page resulting in a look that is truly unmistakable, and which gives Tomb of Dracula a look and sense of atmosphere which no other artist who has taken on the character since has been able to recreate or surpass. All you need to do is take a look at the opening splash page to issue #1 (above) to see what I mean.
That said, this article is about the covers, not the interior art, so let’s start our look appropriately with #1. Unfortunately, this cover (as is true with many of the covers for this series) was not drawn by Colan. Instead, the artwork is by Neal Adams, who does a good enough job setting the tone, though it does seem very static compared to what is going on inside the issue.
Issue #3 saw the introduction of two characters who would become major protagonists (or in this case are they the antagonists?) of the series, cover-featured Rachel Van Helsing and the mute Taj Nahal.
Issue #10 introduced a character who went om to be featured in a movie trilogy that in large part is given credit for paving the way for today’s spate of comic-based movies.
As noted above, issue #12 is the one where writer Marv Wolfman (and yes, that really is the writer’s name, and no, the irony was not lost on anyone that you had a Wolfman writing the adventures of Dracula) felt that he found his way forward on the book, and one indication of that direction is on the cover of the issue where we get our first introduction to a character who would become one of, if not the, most prominent of Dracula’s adversaries during the entire run of the book, Quincy Harker. Interestingly, Harker is not really spotlighted on this cover, he being the older gentleman in the wheelchair seen in the bottom left corner.
Though one might think that the cover for issue #16, with its echo of the cover to #1 in Dracula’s stance and the pose of his helpless victim to be another shot at the character by Neal Adams, it was actually drawn by another comics veteran, Gil Kane, who was doing a number of covers for Marvel at the time.
Issue #18 featured the first part of a crossover with one of Marvel’s other horror comics or the time, Werewolf By Night.
And just for fun, here’s the cover for part two of that crossover which took place in issue #15 OF Wolfie’s own book.
Issues #19 and #20 are personal favorites of mine, because they were the ones that served as my own introduction to the series. At the time I was a huge fan of horror movies, having grown up with the Universal take on these monsters, so when I saw these issues on the spinner rack at the local drugstore it was as though I had struck gold.
I’ve noted before in these columns that at the time that these comics were coming out, distribution could be kind of wonky because for the most part the comic racks that we depended upon were serviced by the magazine distributors who were responsible for pulling and replacing these issues on the racks, and those distributors were not particularly concerned with the accuracy of their pulls, mostly wanting to ensure that the racks looked full, and then moving on to their next stop. I suspect that’s why there were actually two issues of the title on the rack that day, but whatever the reason, as soon as I saw them, I was hooked.
I don’t know that there was anything particularly special about the story in issue #23, but I really like this cover with its gothic feel and the image of the damsel trying to escape the “old dark house” which you simply knew was full of secrets, and probably was haunted in some way.
Issue #27 is one of those unforgettable covers that perfectly illustrates the reason behind my starting this series in the first place. Looking at this image, how could you not want to know what is going on inside this comic?
I mentioned above that Quincy Harker was to become one of Dracula’s main adversaries throughout the series’ run. Here he is more prominently featured on the cover of issue #32.
Interestingly, as noted on the cover, it wasn’t until issue #36 that the setting of the series moved from London and the UK to the US.
Issue #39 had seen Dracula finally defeated and killed by a character even more evil than he in the culmination of what had been a long-running story line. So what could possibly come next? Issue #40, of course.
Needless to say, Drac couldn’t stay dead for too long, as evidenced by the cover for issue #43.
One of the great things about the way Marvel used its universe was that it allowed for interactions between characters from various series, and while for the most part TOD seemed to be set off in its own unique corner of that universe, there were certain characters that it did seem appropriate to crossover into the series. One of those characters was Marvel’s Master of the Mystic arts, Dr. Strange, and issue #44 brought us the first part of that two-part crossover…
… the second part of which took place in issue #14 of the good doctor’s own book.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but artist Gene Colan, rather than using either Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, two of the actors most prominently known for portraying the good Count on the silver screen as his model for Dracula in the series, actually based his interpretation on Jack Palance, as is made very evident by this cover for issue #48.
I noted above that since Tomb of Dracula did take place inside the Marvel universe that led to the opportunity for interaction with characters from other areas of that universe, but the cover to issue #50 highlights what on the face of it seems one of the most unusual of those encounters.
Issue #54 brought another unique twist to the ongoing Dracula mythos:
Of course, just because Dracula now had a wife and child didn’t mean the Lord of the Vampires was going to be settling down into a life of wedded bliss, as evidenced by the cover of issue #59.
And, much like his father, Dracla’s son doesn’t exactly take well to being truly dead as we see in issue #61:
Issue #64 saw a very unique meeting between Dracula and the true source of his powers, a meeting which was to have a very interesting outcome…
…an outcome which would be revealed by the cover of issue #65, which saw Dracula no longer a vampire at all.
In attempting to regain his vampiric powers, Drac had to resort to trying a number of different tactics, one of which involved calling upon his estranged daughter. (Yes, in addition to a son, in the Marvel universe Dracula also had a daughter, Lilith, but the two very rarely interacted, and when they did, they were usually in opposition to each other.)
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and issue #70 was to be the end of the series. What made this ending even sadder was that though Wolfman had been told that he would have another couple of issues to wrap up his story, the powers that were really cut his feet out from under him, and not only took away the final two issues he had been expecting to have, but cut the last issue from being the triple-sized book he felt he needed to really wrap things up to only bring a double-sized issue, which meant that he had to scramble to rearrange already-drawn pages and tighten his story to the extreme. Given all of this, though, he did do an excellent job of bringing the story he has begun oh so long ago to a conclusion that, while it certainly could have been better had it been given more time and space to breathe, at least was better than having the book simply be cancelled without warning and without the chance to come to a resolution.
So there you have it: a special Halloween look at what has to be marked down as one of the most unique and outstanding series in Marvel’s publishing history, and also, in my opinion at least, one of the best takes on the character of the Vampire Lord in any medium.