I’m sure if you’re an AIPT reader, you’re well aware of the strange history of the Comics Code Authority, starting with tragic malcontent Frederic Wertham’s paranoid insinuations of hazy morals in funny books and ending in January of 2011, when final holdout Archie Comics announced they’d no longer feature the Comics Code Seal on their covers, effectively closing the door on the Authority’s laughably outdated, narrow-minded edicts.
The Comics Code was a major force in the development of American comic books, both as a medium and as a product. Its influence can be traced throughout the catalogs of those publishers, beginning with the Code’s creation in 1954 and never quite terminating, even now.
For instance, Tomb of Dracula, a book that was, in the 1970s, one of Marvel Comics’ major earners. With the final volume of the Complete Collection, out this week, it bears a firm reassessment for the fact that the book launched in 1971 — the very year of a major revision to the Comics Code.
You see, way back in the 1950s, the Code was all but dedicated to wiping out then-popular publisher EC, of Tales From the Crypt and Mad Magazine fame, and one easy way to do so was to identify certain words as ‘banned’ from appearing in Codes-approved titles. Words such as horror or terror (or, perhaps, tomb) — so be it if that decimated the EC stable. Certain subject matter was likewise verboten: sex, drugs, sympathetic criminals. . . oh, and werewolves, ghouls, zombies, and vampires.
In that nearly twenty-year stretch between 1954 and 1971, the comics landscape was barren of the supernatural. It’s no surprise, then, that Tomb of Dracula #1 (released in November of 1971, nearly before the ink had dried on the new Comics Code) must have made such a big impact on comics-buying fans. Sure, the company had tested the waters with Morbius, a living vampire, just a month earlier, but the fans needed an undead fix.
Do I think the lone reason for Tomb of Dracula’s popularity is that it was a return to vampire fiction in the medium? Not exactly. If a fair sample of the book were to be taken, I think a good percentage of the book would be higher quality than one might think a comic book about a public domain vampy boi might be.
The Complete Collection, Volume 5, however? It’s a rough sample.
Featuring the final fifteen issues of Tomb of Dracula, plus some bonus magazine appearances and the latter portion of an adaptation of the novel, the book isn’t exactly cohesive—though I find the Complete Collections are much less interested in providing a point A to point B narrative and instead try to live up to their name by providing every little bit there is of the subject.
What makes it rough is how instantly lost a reader might be if they haven’t read every little bit before this collection began—not just in Tomb of Dracula (where Drac’s got a wife, a baby, and a religious following from page one) but in that adaptation, as well, which begins here with its eighth chapter.
You see, the adaptation (of one of horror literature’s finest and most important volumes) had been appearing in the Dracula Lives! magazine in 1974-1975, and abandoned for thirty years until Marvel got the team back together to finish the story as a miniseries in 2004; what’s contained in Vol. 5 is the tail end of that work.
It seems a little obvious, in a review, to say ‘don’t read this volume until you read the volumes preceding it’, but somehow I find myself saying that—particularly because so many of Marvel’s ’70s horror books, read as small, no-context treats, can be so utterly rewarding in their barely-sequential charms. Tomb of Dracula is not that type of Marvel horror comic—which, of course, makes it all the more special.
You see, Wolfman and Colan poured a lot of their heart and soul into this series. By all accounts, they were both dedicated and excited to be there, which means that Dracula got perhaps the most solid ongoing narrative of any of his monster buddies, with long-running supporting casts and subplots that may have been disregarded if other creators were brought in.
This means that, despite its woeful expository speeches, its proto-goth (less Byronic and more Hot Topic) moaning, and its utterly baffling POV switches, the book is made strong by delicate care. Every so often, The Tomb of Dracula: The Complete Collection Vol. 5 presents a story divorced from Dracula’s housekeeping troubles, in which a new protagonist is faced by the unholy horror of vampirism, and the tragic repercussions fully illustrate Wolfman and Colan’s understanding of the themes of the original novel—and these issues are near masterpieces of their time.
The Tomb of Dracula: The Complete Collection Vol. 5 is a record, then, of two old masters spinning an elaborate, long-form tale neglected by modern creators in favor of opulent, ’90s Blade vampire raves in the heart of Chernobyl. It’s the final piece of an intricate—if clunky—bit of comics wizardry.
But I honestly don’t recommend giving it a read unless you’ve got a lot of time to do homework beforehand.
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