ZOMBIES AND DRACULAS AND ROBOTS (OH MY) - Marvel Zombies 5 #4 / The Death of Dracula One-Shot

Unless you've been buried alive for the past decade you've probably noticed that various incarnations of the undead in fiction have experienced bursts of popularity in the last several years. And that this in turn has led many publishers to churn out zombie and vampire books in order to try to get their own share of that sweet sweet terror from beyond the grave consumer dollar. While that's led to some books of dubious quality, it's also led to a negative stigma being attached to all books featuring the undead. Simply because a story features appearances by a shambling corpse with a taste for human flesh or a pointy-toothed pale immortal with a thirst for blood is no reason to prejudge it as awful.

Marvel releases two books this week that some might avoid out of a sense of undead fatigue. And that's a shame, because one of those books is a lot of fun, takes it own path to playfully poke fun at several genres, and isn't at all a desperate attempt to leech off the popularity of other works. And the other book is "The Death of Dracula.""Marvel Zombies 5" #4 is the penultimate issue of the latest limited series in the "Marvel Zombies" line. First released back in 2006 at the height of the zombie craze, the series has shown a surprisingly stubborn will to continue existing. Up until the current arc I've honestly not been a big fan of the book, but writer Fred Van Lente, who's been on "Marvel Zombies" since its third volume, is doing great work on this collection of connected one-shots starring Machine Man, Howard the Duck and universe-displaced wild west hero Jackie Kane.

The fourth issue brings the team to a futuristic cyberpunk-inspired version of the Marvel Universe, opening with a scene of an aging Amadeus Cho traversing a cyberspace landscape straight out of Neal Stephenson's "Snowcrash" or the works of author William Gibson. What follows is actually less a send-up of zombies than it is of dystopian sci-fi, along with some great riffs on illegal file-sharing and mystery-centric serialized TV shows in the vein of "Lost" or "Battlestar Galactica."

Underneath those jokes there are also some great moments of character development, as Machine Man encounters this world's version of Jocasta, the robotic ex that he's not quite over yet. He's forced to confront feelings uncomfortably similar to those of a squishy human. And then layered underneath those heartfelt character moments are more jokes, this being Machine Man we're talking about. This is the best issue yet of what's been one of the most surprisingly fun books Marvel's released this year, and I strongly recommend going back and reading them all if you haven't, or at least giving this one a read as it stands up relatively well on its own.

And then there's "The Death of Dracula," the one-shot leading into the upcoming vampire versus mutant showdown that's going to be coming soon to an X-Men book near you. It's not surprising that Marvel wants to capitalize on the popularity of the "Twilight" and "True Blood" series and throw some smoldering fanged villains onto the shelves. What is surprising is how they're doing that.

Apparently Marvel's taken notes from someone's campaign of White Wolf's "Vampire" pen and paper role-playing game and then just changed the name of some of the vampire clans in order to make it legally distinct. Said clans, referred to here as sects to keep things mildly original, have gathered for a once in a century meeting overseen by Dracula himself. Who's killed almost immediately after his first appearance when his son Xarus, Dracula Junior #1, takes the meeting as a chance for an opportune act of nosferatupatricide and convinces a few of the other sects to help him go Ides of March on dear old dad.

This doesn't sit at all well Dracula Junior #2, Janus. Janus isn't exactly Good Dracula Junior to Xarus' Bad Dracula Junior, as he's also vampire who's a trained killer and deeply involved in the game of overly complex vampire politics just like his brother. But based on the fact that Xarus' allies consist of the vampire sects that look like monsters plus the one entirely composed of sexy ladies while Janus is our POV character and allied with the vampire sects who look like humans and wear business suits or overalls, it's safe to assume he's intended as the Less Evil Dracula Junior to his ambitious Ozymandias-lookalike brother's More Evil Dracula Junior.

There's all sorts of political maneuvering, double-crossing and triple-crossing, but as of yet nothing connects it to the upcoming event. Which is what makes this most uncomfortable for me. The whole idea of secret vampire conspiracies in the Marvel Universe always has seemed an awkward fit, particularly in this case where almost every page screams "we've lifted this out of a World of Darkness rulebook and cut and pasted it into a Marvel comic."

It's all well and good in a world where vampires and other supernatural monsters are the only thing out of the ordinary, but in a Marvel Universe populated by superheroes, supervillains, cosmic world eating monsters, shapeshifting alien conspiracies and secret spy organizations both good and bad all fighting to save and/or rule and/or destroy the world you can't just toss in the same old cookie cutter vampire conspiracy. Because that conspiracy's founded on the expectation that the world is otherwise filled with ordinary humans who aren't constantly on guard for mysterious and dangerous threats and would dismiss evidence of the existence of such a thing as crazy talk.

You've got to tailor it to work in the very unique, very bizarre world that already exists and no such effort has been made here. And the fact that the insert ad for the upcoming X-Men series looks like a "True Blood" advertisement with ruby-quartz visors and X-badges hastily added in isn't encouraging, either. I don't see much evidence that the X-Men vampire storyline is going to try anything new or original in terms of giving vampires a distinct identity that makes sense in the Marvel Universe instead of trading on recognizable and financially profitable cliches and archetypes.

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