Bizarro Back Issues: The Blood-Stalkers Of Count Dracula! (1974)
I know that we all love the Great Pumpkin, but if you ask me, Dracula is the Santa Claus of Halloween. I don't know what your family traditions are, but I always like to imagine the Lord of the Undead flying through the night of October 31, dragging bad children off to the depths of Castlevania and bringing the good children feasts of blood. It's... probably a good thing that I don't have children of my own.
Anyway, the point is that at this time of year, I'm even more into Dracula than usual, and I spend a pretty good amount of time diving back into comics featuring the King of All Vampires and looking for the best stories -- and there aren't a whole lot better than "Night of the Blood-Stalker."
For one thing, that's a pretty amazing title, although to be fair, it's not quite as good as the cover blurb adveritsing "BLOOD-STALKERS OF COUNT DRACULA," but that's just because you can add "OF COUNT DRACULA" to virtually any title and make it better. Seriously, check it out: The Star Wars of Count Dracula. The Dark Knight of Count Dracula. Captain America: The First Avenger of Count Dracula. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of Count Dracula! I could literally do this all night, but, despite all appearances, I don't get paid by the word. You get the idea.
Anyway, the Night (of the Blood-Stalker) in question takes place in Tomb of Dracula #25, by the unparalleled team of Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, and you could make a pretty good case for it being the single best issue of the run. It's a pretty good place to start if you're new to the series, too. Like most Bronze Age Marvel Comics, Tomb of Dracula was wrapped up in all these long, soap-operatic plots, except that things were complicated more than a little bit by the book starting with a different idea than it ended up with. The initial idea was that it would follow a team of vampire hunters that included Dracula's (human) descendant, Frank Drake, and his star-crossed lover, Rachel Van Helsing, but it wasn't too long before Marvel reached the same conclusion that most people who've read Bram Stoker's original novel ended up with: It's way more fun to read about Dracula himself than the dorks chasing him around with crossbows and garlic.
So eventually there's a transition. The good guys aren't exactly phased out, but the stories start to be less about running around after Dracula and more about Dracula having fistfights with Satan or getting into completely inexplicable tussles with the Silver Surfer. #25 lands kind of in the middle of that transition, but the nice thing is that, while it ties into everything that was going on around it, you can read it in complete isolation. And as an added bonus, it introduces Hannibal King!
Remember Hannibal King? Remember how he was in a major Hollywood motion picture before Iron Man or Thor? We have lived in crazy times.
As you can tell by the half-boiled dialogue, King is a private eye, and his latest client is Adrianne Brown -- or, as of that morning, Adrianne Walters. See, she and her husband, who was murdered by man and/or beast (spoiler warning: Dracula), only entered into the ill-fated bonds of holy matrimony that morning. And what an interesting wedding it was.
Remember when dudes in comics would just casually start chatting about spankings? Crazy times.
Sadly, before a single rope or leather harness is added to the equation, there's a knock at the door. Fred goes to see who it is, and a voice that I imagine had a suspiciously Transylvanian accent informs him that he's a repairman sent to fix some faulty wiring. Fred invites him in, and sure enough, it's Dracula, who pulls off the amazing feat of biting Fred's neck and drinking his blood while also monologuing about how he has to die because he saw some crucial accounting records detailing Dracula's past transactions.
Seriously: That is why Dracula kills this dude: Because he is an accountant with sensitive information about Dracula's recent coffin purchases. Dracula is a weird dude.
Frank is well and truly dead, and Drac turns on Adrianne in order to kill her and cover up his crime, but before he can, another neighbor walks in and sees what's happening, and Dracula decides that he doesn't want to bother with killing three people tonight -- which, I'll admit, does seem a bit out of character for "the most deadly horror the Earth has ever known" -- and flies out the window, sending Adrianne off looking for help from a private detective who happens to live in the building. King listens to all this, and informs her that she's got some vampire problems.
Adrianne is initially pretty skeptical, and again, that doesn't really fit. I mean, even though they're in London, this is still taking place in a world where four astronauts went to space, came back with super-powers, and then fought a gigantic man in a purple skirt who wanted to eat the world. Draculas aren't exactly difficult to believe once you've seen a Galactus, you know?
As for just how he knows it's a vampire, King has first-hand experience:
King agrees to set out and find out just why Walters was killed (even though she heard the line about accounts, Adrianne isn't really clear on just what Fred could've been involved in to get him neckbit to death) and make sure that Dracula won't be coming back to finish the job. With that, he sets off into the foggy streets of London, trying to get information from the cast of any given Hammer horror movie:
Unfortunately for King, it turns out that following weirdos into dark back rooms is very rarely a useful proposition. The barkeep tries to slug King, and when King decks him, he finds the other patrons gearing up for a fight of their own. The whole crowd is in Dracula's thrall, and rather than face down a mob of mind-controlled patsies, King busts out the window and makes a strategic exit.
At 10:41, King decides to check out Fred's employer to see if there are any leads there. Turns out that he was working on the docks, about 10 miles from the bar:
Sure enough, Dracula's just cold hanging out in the office, harassing the manager about letting his employees see coffin receipts. He reacts to King's intrusion the same way he reacts to most things, which is to say that he calls him a fool and a buffoon in the span of two panels. How there was never an ongoing series that was just Dracula and Dr. Doom yelling at each other for 20 pages a month, I will never understand.
There's a bit of gunplay where the manager is wounded, but Dracula is unimpressed. He throws King through a window and then leaves, but King's a little more resilient than your average PI. As soon as Dracula's gone, he comes back and does a bit of Rorschaching to get his answers:
Look, I'll be the first to agree that maybe snapping a dude's arm and then insinuating that he pooped himself is not exactly the classiest move, but if you'd been there for the panel where Wolfman tried his hand at accents -- "Get yer men tagethuh. We got a job t'do... TAHNIGHT!" -- you'd be feeling a little violent too.
King heads to the warehouse, where Dracula's been waiting for him with an entire task force of vampire servants, ready and willing to take King out once and for all:
What follows is an awesome fight scene that makes a beautiful showcase of Colan's TOD work. If you don't have this one, I'd encourage you to track it down -- it's available in the paperback Essential Tomb of Dracula in crisp black-and-white if you can't find the issue itself -- if only to see that King gets downright brutal. He's shoving busted planks through chests, and at one point, he straight pulls out a fire axe and hacks one of the vampires to death with it! The coloring actually tones it down a little, but it looks great in black and white:
It's worth noting that Wolfman goes full-horror here, too. There's great dark comedy in King's description of the "soft squoosh" of chopping up vampires, but on the next page, when he's surrounded, he recoils at the dead women's "rancid breath." It's lurid as all hell, but it works so well for Dracula.
King had the foresight to trip an alarm before he came in, and Dracula doesn't want to tangle with the cops -- which, again, is kind of weird when you consider that he's Dracula -- and he concedes the round to King. King still wants answers, but people in Hell want icewater:
Of all the great things about this issue, one of my absolute favorites is that Dracula considers explaining himself to be laughably beneath him. Why should he? He's Dracula, and you were not put upon this Earth to "get it," Mr. Burton. Also, Ghost Rider apparently fought Satan that month, so I guess we know what horror selection I'll be writing about next Halloween.
King puts as much of the story as he can together and lets Adrianne know that her husband was basically in the wrong place (a coffin dealership) at the wrong time (when Dracula was there), and that he wasn't mixed up in anything terrible. And with that, the story ends... with the final reveal that King himself was a vampire all along.
I absolutely love this twist. It's not too surprising when you look back on it from today, after 30 years of Hannibal King being Marvel's resident Vampire Detective, but Wolfman and Colan set it up so beautifully in this issue that it rewards going back through and paying attention to the hints they drop. The vampire killed everyone in the building that King was in -- including King himself. Colan draws him without a reflection in the pub. He moves ten miles between 10:41 and 10:44. He pauses to read the "Welcome, Come In" sign before he enters the building. Dracula, Lord of the Undead, refers to himself as King's "master." He hears heartbeats.
It's all right there, masterfully hinted at before the big reveal, in a way that's very easy to gloss over the first time you go through it.