Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Private Eye and the Vampire

One of the strengths of Marvel's 1970s Tomb of Dracula was the cast of characters that made up the vampire hunters. In the first issue, there was Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula. But as the ranks of the good guys grew, he was overshadowed by others who were frankly much cooler than he ever managed to be.

There was Quincy Harker, the elderly and wheelchair-bound son of Jonathan and Mina Harker. He was leader of the group, rich enough to pay expenses and get his wheelchair tricked-out so that it could do things like fire wooden, garlic-tipped darts.

There was Taj Nital, the big Indian who lost his son to a vampire attack.

There was Rachel Van Helsing, Abraham Van Helsing's granddaughter--an action girl armed with a crossbow.

There was Blade, of course, who normally worked alone as he stalked vampires with his bandoleer of wooden throwing knives. Because of the movie trilogy, Blade is probably the best known of the characters, though eventually he stopped using the throwing knives and went to different and significantly less cool weaponry. (We'll be looking at an early Blade story soon just to show how awesome he used to be.)

And then there's Hannibal King, who debuted in Tomb of Dracula #25 (October 1974). He's a private detective, born in the States but working in London, who is hired by a young widow to find out why Dracula killed her husband.

It's a great story in a great series. Gene Colan's art work through the run of the series was always perfect, expertly showing us the horrific elements of the stories without every being gross or overly graphic. Marv Wolfman, who began writing the series starting with the seventh issue and really helped it find its proper voice, smoothly mixed single-issue tales with extended story arcs.

King's debut is constructed as a typical hard-boiled P.I. tale, with King himself giving us the expected first-person narration. If the story has a weakness, it's that the short length means the case he investigates if pretty straightforward and isn't that difficult to solve. He stops by a tavern the dead man used to frequent and nearly gets killed. He checks out the accounting office where the man worked and pretty much stumbles over an important clue. This eventually brings him to a warehouse where Dracula and a few vampire minions are hiding out. It a very arguable point, but a more complex case in the vein of Chandler and Hammett, stretched over two or three issues, might have been better.

But there's something going on within that story to give it an extra layer of awesome.

If you don't know the character of Hannibal King, I'm afraid there's no way to talk about it without giving away the twist at the end of his first appearance. King is himself a vampire. But unlike all other vampires as portrayed in the Marvel Universe, he retained his humanity. Draining blood from corpses or stealing from blood banks, he survived without ever attacking anyone.

It also turns out he was vampirized (I may have just coined that word, by the way) by Deacon Frost, the same vampire who killed Blade's mother. It takes him awhile to get around to it, but you can see Marv Wolfman was already thinking about getting Blade (who hates all vampires with a passion) to team up with the one morally good vampire in existence.

Wolfman and Colan do an excellent job of hiding clues of King's real nature throughout the story--such as King having no reflection in a mirror that in the background of one panel.

I dislike the modern Twilight-inspired trend of turning vampires into romantic figures who make teenage girls go all atwitter. Vampires, when handled correctly, are great villains. You can make individual vampire characters sympathetic, but they still gotta be the bad guys to be effective.

So I am particularly impressed that Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan managed to give us a good guy vampire that I approve of. They do so by using him in a horror series that was already giving us strong stories, giving him a good back-story, and making him an exception to the rule that becoming a vampire turns you into a soulless monster.

No one has ever managed to come up with a group of monster hunters as interesting and varied as did the creative people behind Tomb of Dracula. Hannibal King was a worthy addition to this group.

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