Monday, April 30, 2012

Top 11 Comic Book Vampire Stories:

 Today is April 30th, and when evening comes it shall be Walpurgis Night!
 For those not in the know, Walpurgis Night is basically the springtime equivalent of Halloween. While there is some question as to which night has more occult significance (some go with May the 1st instead), who could resist the chance to (for all intents and purposes) celebrate Halloween a good five months in advance?
 One of the most famous uses of Walpurgis Night in popular culture comes from Bram Stoker’s short story Dracula Guest, which (debatably) was intended to be an early chapter in the book but was excised. While there was a fine comic book adaption of Dracula’s Guest in the 60s which I could have posted, that story is readily available online if you know where to look. I was originally going to post a review I’d done of Tomb of Dracula, but then I decided it would probably be more fun to compile a list of my 11 favorite vampire stories from comics. I’m going to be sticking to anthology horror comics (with one exception) and will avoid superhero comics and series expressly devoted to vampires, so you better not whine about me not including 30 Days of Night or the ‘Morbius’ stories from Spider-Man. Also, a lot of these stories are favorites of mine precisely because of the endings, so spoilers abound. As with most of my lists, none of these are ranked in any particular order.
 So it’s time to heat up some Robber’s steak, start playing “Dinner with Drac” on the jukebox (along with “Screamin’ Ball at Dracula Hall” by the Duponts, or ‘Dracula’s Daughter” by Screaming Lord Sutch), and dig in.
1) “Midnight Mess” from Tales from the Crypt #35 (19): A man goes to visit his sister, but finds the entire town mysteriously deserted. He then decides to eat at a local restaurant, only to discover the town’s dark secret…
 Due to frequent reprintings, as well as being adapted in the 1973 Vault of Horror movie from Amicus (which altered the plot to make the protagonist less sympathetic), this is probably the most famous of the EC vampire stories. Admittedly, this story is thin on plot (the town is deserted during the day because *GASP* *CHOKE* Good Lord* most everyone in town is a vampire!!!!), but it’s all worth it for one of the most famous final panels in EC history:
 This scene’s infamy actually extends well beyond the world of comics; for many years, stills of the VOH film’s recreation of the panel were used in various monster magazines during the 70s and 80s, becoming well known to people who never even saw the film or read the comic. A whole generation of horror fans longed to see the sequence in motion. Yet, oddly enough, for many years, various releases of the film cut the sequence out! Some fans even debated whether or not the scene had even existed at all and wondered whether or not it was just a promotional still. Thankfully, the scene has been restored on some bootleg copies:
 Wow, all that fuss over one little panel!
 2) “One Last Fling” from Vault of Horror #21(10): Harry and Olga are a husband and wife knife throwing team who fall prey to a vampire, and Olga becomes one. However, Harry still loves Olga and covers up for her murders, but is soon plagued with guilt.
 After she turns on him, he realizes there is only one way out…
 Yeah, you can see where this is going, so I didn’t mind spoiling this one. Nevertheless, you have to admit that that’s a pretty clever way of disposing of a vampire in public. Scenes of wonderfully pitch-black humor like this don’t hurt either:
 What makes this story stand out is that, rather than being your typical hateful and bickering couple found in most EC stories, Harry and Olga seem to genuinely love each other, and Harry’s guilt is believably portrayed. Don’t get me wrong, both characters are two-dimensional ciphers (most of Olga’s dialogue consists of “Yes Harry”), but this story has more pathos than was the norm for EC, with one exception…
3) “Two of a Kind” from Vault of Horror #26 (15):
 Actor Brad Phillips falls in love with reclusive stage actress Willow Dree, who is a vampire, while he is secretly a ghoul. One day, they find themselves snowed in at a cabin…
 This story is somewhat similar to “One last Fling” in that it has romantic elements and is drawn by Johnny Craig, but it is far better written and drawn, with the ending being both fiendishly clever and carrying some genuine emotional weight. To be fair, a lot of that comes from the fact that we don’t really get to see either of the two fiends doing anything evil (the reader never even gets to see Willow’s fangs), but it works. A very sick, but oddly moving story.
4) “V-Vampires” from Mad #3: Vampires walk the streets of London, engaging in bizarre antics, but who are the vampires? Meanwhile, a cockney couple named Renfrew and Godiva try to enjoy their time together. Not everyone is who they appear to be. Hilarity ensues.
 To be honest, most of the gags in this story consist of dumb puns and exaggerated British accents. Plot wise, it’s pretty much your average horror comic book story with some self-referential gags thrown in (our hero Renfrew learns how to kill a vampire from a copy of Vault of Horror). With more realistic artwork and some of the more overt humor cut out, this could almost be played straight.
 But what makes this story stand out is Wally Wood’s artwork. He manages to make weak gags amusing, good gags great and great ones hilarious. He singlehandedly saves this otherwise average “parody”. He also doles out the atmosphere, coming up with a few scenes that are actually better at building suspense than your average “serious” horror comic story. There’s a 3-D version of this story that needs to be seen to be believed. Rarely has London looked this atmospheric in the comics. It might be odd to say this about a humor story with cartoony art, but V-Vampires may just be the most beautifully drawn vampire story in comic book history.
 Also, Wood’s talent for drawing babes is in full force here. Godiva from this story would be a recurring background character in Wood’s work and in early issues of Mad, and she inspires fan-art to this very day.
5) “He wished he was a Vampire” from Strange Tales #7:
 A young boy named George is obsessed with vampires. Loathed by all around him, especially his abusive parents, he spends his days going to horror movies and obsessively re-reading Dracula. However, as of late, he has found himself actually feeling as if he is a vampire…
 Now this is a Stan Lee story that actually was ripped off from something; Richard Matheson’s short story “Drink my Red Blood” (also known as “Blood Son” and “Drink my Blood”) to be precise. Just change the protagonist’s name to Jules instead of George, and it fits. The biggest difference being that in the original story Jules’ parents were not abusive (just neglectful) and it’s left ambiguous if there’s anything supernatural going on at the end. Here, it’s explicitly supernatural.
 Nevertheless, this is still a wonderfully atmospheric story that probably provided a lot of wish fulfillment for kids in the 50s who read it; I imagine that a lot of kids whose parents objected to their reading horror comics probably were treated not too differently from George. One also has to wonder if this story inspired another George; Romero in this instance. Romero’s 1977 film Martin has many similarities to this story, plus Romero is an admitted horror comics fan.
 Amusingly enough, Marvel itself has recognized the similarities, and even brought the story into continuity! In a list of vampires in the Marvel Universe, George was given the last name “Amplas”, which is the last name of the actor who played the titular character in Martin. Quite an achievement for a five page horror story!
6) “If…” from Suspense #27:
 A man named Burt Lang crosses the street one night, and passes a beautiful woman. Perhaps he will fall in love with her, perhaps he will find out her family consists of vampires and werewolves…. How does he avoid it?
 When they tried, Atlas/Marvel was just as good as EC at horror comics. This morbidly humorous story might just be one of the most cleverly plotted horror comic stories of the 50s! You really won’t see the ending coming here, and not because it was pulled out of the writer’s ass with no build up. Arguably a more successful blend of (intentional) humor and horror than ‘V-Vampires!”.
7) “The Hidden Vampires” from Journey into Mystery #11:
 There are a whole slew of fine Atlas vampire stories I could have gone with, ranging from the various stories depicting vampires as members of tribes, to Bill Everett’s two darkly funny masterpieces “Burton’s Blood” from Menace #2 and “Vampire Beware” from Suspense #23. Yet, I’m going with this silly, merely adequately drawn story by Tony Dipreta instead. It bends the rules of vampire lore to a ridiculous degree and is filled with such goofiness as vampires pretending to have reflections by painting hyper-realistic portraits of themselves which they put inside mirrors.
 The story concerns a family of vampires who have sucked their whole town dry (somehow this doesn’t turn the victims into vampires themselves) and pose as normal members of the community. I’d love to read some kind of communist witch-hunt allegory into this, but I have to admit that I love this story simply because of it’s own goofiness. If you want to read a cheesy 50’s horror comic with vampires, make it this one. It was reprinted in the ridiculously easy to find Where Monsters Dwell #17 (I’ve seen copies of that damn comic in the comics bin of every single flea market and antique store that I’ve been to). Part of me wonders if this story’s ending inspired the ending of Hammer films’ Kiss of the Vampire (1963).
8) “The Coffin of Dracula” from Creepy #8-9:
 Ah, our first Warren story. While Warren published a great many vampire stories, many of which were good enough to have made this list (notably “Vampires Fly at Dusk” and “Pursuit of the Vampire” both from, believe it or not, the first issue), this two-parter (a rarity in horror comics) is just too much fun to resist; not only is it a direct sequel to Stoker’s novel, but features some fun references to other prose vampire stories like Varney the Vampire and Robert Bloch’s The Cloak.
 An evil aristocrat named Adrian Varney buys Dracula’s coffin from gypsies, and becomes possessed by the count’s spirit. The heroes of the original novel must pursue him, but thankfully Varney only has Dracula’s mind and possesses none of his powers….yet.
 Yeah, there are some silly moments (apparently Dracula has already become part of popular culture within the same universe as the novel, only a few years after the events took place) and it’s incredibly rushed, but it’s a ton of fun. This version of Dracula would end up appearing in Vampirella and would even get his own series in Eerie.
9) “Early Warning” from Creepy #13: A man stops in a strange town during a snowstorm, and soon finds himself accused of being a vampire. Is this some sort of dream, or something far worse?
 Graham Ingels, Bill Everett, Richard Corben, Jack Davis, Bob Powell and Bernie Wrightson are all justly celebrated masters when it comes to horror comics, but my personal favorite horror artist is the unjustly ignored Jerry Grandenetti. The man’s mastery of layout, architectural design, atmosphere and nightmarish imagery is unsurpassed in my opinion. His art genuinely gave me nightmares as a kid. This is one of his best efforts. The snowbound setting and hallucinogenic imagery makes this story one you won’t soon forget.
10) “My Ghostwriter: The Vampire” from The Unexpected #197: A writer of vampire stories soon meets with resounding success after hiring the ultimate ghostwriter; an actual vampire.
 DC’s horror comics were usually dreary affairs mostly enlivened by good artwork. This story, despite it’s similarities to Warren’s “The Success Story” from Creepy #1 and Anne Rice’s Interview novels, is a diamond in the ruff.
 But you want to know what really makes this story stand out? It was adapted for an episode of TV’s Tales from the Darkside!!! As much as the general public looks down on horror, this represents a landmark for comic books: A non-superhero story from comics adapted to television. How many other comic book stories can you say that about? This is especially funny considering that the early 80s was hardly a good time for horror comics.
11) “Vampire with Iron Teeth” from Dark Mysteries #15: A vain, evil duke in the 18th century is obsessed with both maintaining his wife’s beauty and snuffing out a local vampire. When the duchess’s teeth become rotten, the court surgeon replaces them with iron teeth. Initially, the duchess is grateful, but soon grows ashamed of her new teeth and instead requests ivory teeth, so the surgeon removes the iron teeth. The surgeon is unable to find any ivory teeth, so he decides to give the duchess the teeth of his dead daughter…who had been killed by the duke along with residents of an entire village out of fear that one of them may have been the vampire.
 Yeah, this is a pretty silly story as you can tell from the plot synopsis. Whereas “The Hidden Vampires” is silly but charming, this story is just plain slapdash, with gaping plot holes and pointless scenes, not to mention the fact that the entire point of the story is that the duchess becomes a vampire after she gets rid of her iron teeth and has them replaced, so even the title is inaccurate.
 But being a So-Bad-It’s-Good story is not the reason this story made the list. The reason this story made my list is because it might actually be one of the few genuine cases of the 1950s anti-horror comic book crusaders being right about horror comics influencing kids. In 1953, an incident in Glasgow occurred in which a group of local children went on a vampire hunt, vandalizing graveyards, specifically looking for a 7 foot tall vampire with “Iron Teeth”. This incident has become known as the “Gorbals Vampire scare”. Could the children have gotten hold of Dark Mysteries #15 and read this very story?
Well, it’s certainly possible. Then again, as I’ve pointed out, the vampire in this story does not have iron teeth, and at no point is she mentioned as being 7 feet tall. The children’s stories also made no mention of the vampire’s gender either. It’s also been pointed out that monsters with iron teeth are actually fairly common in folklore, with several even being centered around Scotland (There’s a poem called “Jenny with iron teeth”, and legends of an “iron man” who eats children), and one even being found in the Bible. So, is it a coincidence or not? You decide!
 Well that’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed the list. As Zacherle would say, good night whatever you are!

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