Gene Colan’s Tomb of Dracula: Artist’s Edition
Writer: Marv Wolfman
Artists: Gene Colan and Tom Palmer
Cover: Gene Colan
Letters: John Costanza and Joe Rosen
Reviewer: Steve Sellers
If there is a mainstream title that might be considered the definitive horror comic, Tomb of Dracula would be one of the strongest contenders. Though a title that began during Stan Lee’s reign at Marvel editorial, it was reflective of the trends of the 1970’s. Dracula was a character that had experienced a resurgence in part because of the late Gene Colan’s legendary 72-issue run on this series.
Colan is an artist that deserves acknowledgement for some significant contributions to mainstream comics. He’d already had a notable run on Daredevil, as well as his run on Captain America, where he co-created The Falcon with Stan Lee. With Tomb of Dracula, not only did he establish a landmark version of an already iconic villain, Colan also co-created another iconic hero: the vampire hunter Blade. This Artist’s Edition volume is a tribute to Gene Colan as much as it is a showcase of his finest work.
Although an expensive volume, the Tomb of Dracula: Artist’s Edition is a worthy collection that honors this legendary artist.
Though I imagine it was a difficult choice trying to find the best Gene Colan piece, this cover is a good reflection of his body of work. It features a few of the major characters featured in Tomb of Dracula, and each of them does get panel time in the collection. It’s also interesting that they chose a cover involving a lesser-known hunter like Harold H. Harold, who’s been largely forgotten at Marvel, but it makes sense given the stories that have been reprinted here. They also wisely found a piece that gives prominence to both Dracula and Blade, as those are the most iconic characters associated with this title.
Taken as a cover, this is a strong piece of artwork that grabs attention in short order. The looming face of Dracula at the top of the page echoes the series itself nicely, much as Dracula himself casts a large shadow over the lives of the hunters. There’s a strong vibe of Gothic horror through the imagery of the castle as well as the attacking Dracula in the lower corner. As with many classic 70’s covers, this one clearly presents who the characters are and what the story is about in a single striking image. Even if the reader doesn’t know these characters, Dracula is a strong focal piece that grounds the series.
Gene Colan was a master of his craft, and that becomes apparent in every one of the six stories chosen for this collection. His style was a distinctive one, and these particular issues display a good range of the kinds of stories that Colan could draw. In the first place, Colan was able to draw credible and lifelike figures, each of them with a range of expressions and emotions. Many of these panels are so expressive, in fact, that often they don’t need dialogue at all. It’s often the body language and the facial expressions that help to sell the horror as much as the shadows and the gruesome content. We see fear and shock with Colan’s layouts, and even without knowing any of the characters, the reader never has to guess what happens in a given panel.
Another strong component to Colan’s style is the fluidity and kinetic impact he imbues into each frame. One striking example of this is when Dracula is punched in the face by a minion of his enemy Doctor Sun, and his face reels backwards. There are some speed lines that indicate motion, but there’s also a depth of perspective that gives the blow its visual power. When Colan depicts action and combat, it feels almost like it occupies a three-dimensional space within the two-dimensional frame. Additionally, we see the impact of each blow because the character shows it believably in his reaction. Colan was gifted at visual characterization in his storytelling, and there are numerous examples of that in the issues provided in this book.
While this volume is devoted to Gene Colan, it would remiss of me to overlook the contributions of inker and sometime colorist Tom Palmer. Palmer is an artist that was active with Marvel for many years, inking artists like John Buscema. His style is strongly felt on these pages, and Colan’s pencils benefit greatly from an inker of Palmer’s ability. So much of the haunting atmosphere on these pages is built on the use of deep lines, shadow textures, and the use of negative space. This establishes the tension that builds the horror extremely well, particularly in scenes of classic Gothic horror that Dracula thrives on. Palmer’s work likewise should be remembered fondly, because it brings out the best in Colan’s work in these pages.
Though the original Marvel Tomb of Dracula comics were published in color, it should be noted that all the work in this volume is uncolored. What we see presented in the Artist’s Edition are reprinted page of original art from different sources, shown here in the original black and white. At times, the pages are marked with various artist or editorial notes, though not all of them are complete or clearly attributed. This creates the impression of a volume that is almost like a Director’s Cut of Tomb of Dracula, and in many ways, the Artist’s Edition is one. Though these notes are sparse, each of them gives an insight into the process of this comic and how it was made.
Beyond that, it should be noted that Gene Colan pages show up extremely well in uncolored format. Some classic Marvel artists, such as Jack Kirby, show up extremely well in B&W format, while others suffer without the finished coloring to elevate their work. Colan and Palmer, however, work just as well in B&W format as they do in color. In some ways, it may be that this series was made for B&W, since the atmosphere of horror is built on the use of darkness and contrast. In any case, the stories are extremely readable without color, and in some ways, they may read even better depending on your preferences.
In terms of the lettering, it holds up less well than the artistic achievements elsewhere in the comic. This is not the fault of the work of the letterers, who probably were among the best available to Marvel in the 70’s. Another mitigating factor is that Marv Wolfman’s scripts, although some of his most memorable work, were somewhat on the verbose side; Wolfman had not yet refined his scripting to the level he’d achieve on books like New Teen Titans. The issues with the lettering in this series is more due to the limitations of the period and the tools they had to work with. Compared to the significant advances in technology we’d see in comics later, the lettering style in this volume feels somewhat like a throwback to Silver Age style narrative boxes.
That having been said, this is a solid example of what quality lettering was in the Bronze Age. For the most part, the narrative captions are placed in a way that allow Colan and Palmer to tell the story visually. The font styles are still unrefined compared to modern lettering, but they work visually and clearly get the story across. There are also some pleasant visual touches to the word balloons, particularly with Dracula’s dialogue. His dialogue is visually impressive when it needs to be, and the fonts are large and impactful at the right dramatic moments.
No discussion of Colan’s Tomb of Dracula can be complete without mentioning the equally legendary Marv Wolfman, who took over the series with the seventh issue. The Artist’s Edition begins with a touching and heartfelt introduction to Gene Colan written by Wolfman, who recounts their time together on the series. While many introductions often seem tacked on, this one works beautifully, and it is as much a tribute to a friend as it is a retrospective of a landmark horror comic. It’s well worth taking the time to read, as it gives a good sense of the man Colan was in life and his part in the creative process behind Tomb of Dracula.
As far as the stories themselves, this volume only reprints six of Wolfman’s issues, but they represent a good cross-section of his run on the book. While Blade unfortunately doesn’t get as much focus as many Marvel horror fans might prefer, this volume does cover most of the important hunters in Quincy Harker’s group. The first story in the volume is the introduction of Hannibal King, and if you don’t know his background, then I recommend not researching the character until you’ve read the issue. Wolfman maintains a good pace, slowly hinting at King’s secret, all in the context of a simple detective story. While Dracula is the grand figure of the narrative, many of the stories feature the human characters that are left in his wake. Much like the classic Twilight Zone series, the title character is a framing device, while the real focus is on the human stories surrounding the Lord of Vampires.
Another strength of Wolfman’s writing is also on the variety of stories that he’s able to tell about Dracula and the people he encounters. While the larger context is Gothic horror, Wolfman sometimes deviates into other genres almost seamlessly. Whether it’s science fiction, hard-boiled mystery, or even a historical romance, the character of Dracula offers versatility that Wolfman exploits to great effect. The Artist’s Edition showcases much of that range in its choice of stories, and virtually all of them reflect Wolfman’s strengths as a writer. “Night of the Blood-Stalker” and “A Song for Marianne” are among the best of the volume, but all these stories are enjoyable and reflective of the title’s overall quality.
When considering whether to purchase this book, the question is not whether you should read Tomb of Dracula. The series is a Bronze Age classic, and if you’re interested in either Blade or Marvel’s version of Dracula, you owe it to yourself to read it. Wolfman and Colan told some haunting horror stories, but they were deeply human stories that still resonate even after decades of publication. If you want to experience Tomb of Dracula for the first time, I’d suggest tracking down the entire series, which is available in TPB form as well as on digital.
The real question is whether the value of the Artist’s Edition is worth the significant price point. At $125, a book like this is a large investment. If you have the disposable income to spare and you’re already a fan of the series, then I would suggest buying this volume. The insights from Marv Wolfman, the original art from the six reprinted issues, and over 40 pages of additional material offer a worthwhile amount of value for Marvel horror fans. If not, you may want to consider just reading the series either in reprints or in digital format, where it’s currently available for a reasonable price. Still, the ToD Artist’s Edition is an excellent tribute to the legacy of one of the giants of the Bronze Age, and I’m pleased that IDW has made this available for fans to enjoy.
Written by Steve Sellers
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