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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Death Panels, Part II: Comics Continue to Resurrect the Vampire Legend

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2011 at 9:00 AM

October calls for scares, and despite the very scary state of the world, there is still a desire for entertainment that frightens us. Here we look at the broad, deep legacy of horror comics in a series that delves into the genre's many variations and highlights from the 1940s to the present.

  • Jack Cole

The creak of a coffin lid. The silky whisk of a black cape. That whole Cure aesthetic, all sickly pale with doomed eyes. The slow, sensual draining of human life to sustain that of the parasitic yet tragic undead ghouls who take it -- shape-shifting phantoms who have seen the centuries pass by like so many weeks or hours, watching the world evolve from towering edifices long believed either abandoned or haunted.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula
  • Bela Lugosi as Dracula

These Romantic notions, charged with sex, atmosphere, and dread, are exactly the reasons why -- just as we start to think that we are sick to death of vampires -- we are sucked right back into their ominous black folds.

Horror comics have not been immune to the charms of the vampire, having contributed mightily to their cultural oeuvre. After comic books gained strength in the 1930s, vampire stories were often featured in the Golden Age horror anthologies. Later, even the most well-known comic book superheroes have come face-to-face with vampires. Today, in the age of reboots and belated sequels, some comics continue to expand on -- rather than regurgitate -- the vast edifice of vampire lore.

"The Flapping Head" - AL WILLIAMSON
  • Al Williamson
  • "The Flapping Head"

The oddly titled "The Flapping Head," from the sixth issue of Forbidden Worlds (May-June 1952), features the usual decrepit castle, although in this case it's just been restored by an enterprising American architect living abroad. He (Bud) and his girlfriend (Sally) are going to honeymoon in the recently restored pile, only to discover the titular head flitting about in search of its long-buried skeleton. There's a lot of talk about a curse and the thing's abandoned bride, who still haunts the castle, but really the most interesting parts of the story are the flapping head itself and Bud's repeated exclamation, "Great guns!" After locating his bones, the head is reconstituted as the vampire he once was. Typical of some depictions of this era, the (unnamed) vampire is grotesque and bestial in appearance, bearing no trace of Central European élan.

"Great guns!" - AL WILLIAMSON
  • Al Williamson
  • "Great guns!"

In the late 1960s and early '70s, England's Hammer Film Productions helped keep the vampire undead in our collective memory with a series of Dracula-inspired titles starring Christopher Lee. These films were a clear influence on the daytime Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971), which received a 35-issue comics adaptation from Gold Key Comics that ran from 1969-1976. (The show was also adapted as a daily strip in 1971-1972 by Ken Bald.)

Moody vampire Barnabas Collins - JOE CERTA
  • Joe Certa
  • Moody vampire Barnabas Collins

The main protagonist of Dark Shadows is the vampire Barnabas Collins, an anguished figure who could very well be the model for every Goth kid who ever groaned in self-pity while listening to Morrissey. The key difference, of course, is that mirrors are anathema to Collins, and quite the opposite to Goths.


The Gold Key Comics series is in the midst of being reissued by Hermes Press, which has so far released two volumes reprinting seven issues each. Like the television series itself, the Dark Shadows comics are rough around the edges. The art by Joe Certa is evocative of the series (characters look quite a bit like the actors who portrayed them on television), but it's also perfunctory and sometimes downright sloppy. And yet, also like the series, the comics get better with each issue. The stories become more complex and confident, and indeed they sold well, going from a quarterly publication to bi-monthly.

  • Gene Colan

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