Comic books — that great gutter medium — have always been worlds of fads and crazes. Cowboys, cops, romances, and, starting in the late 1940s, horror. Publishers like EC, Avon, and Atlas churned out lurid tales of murder, betrayal, and inky gore for the next few years.
And then, sweeping across the moors in 1954, howling dogs of American morality led by censorious psychiatrist Fredric Wertham drove the industry into a panic. Desperate to survive, publishers adopted the Comics Code, a strict system of rules describing what could and could not appear on the newsstand.
Seemingly overnight, ghouls, creeps, slashers, and vampires were eradicated from the pages of the funnies, replaced by anodyne teen hijinks and long-underwear heroes.
But one creature of the night ended up rising again… and again… and again….
Out of the tomb
The Comics Code was revised several times in the early 1970s — once at the behest of writer Marv Wolfman, who could not be credited for his stories because “wolfman” was a forbidden concept — but most germane to our tale was a 1971 adjustment that noted “vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition.”
That “classic tradition” was just vague enough to inspire Stan Lee to launch a new line of horror-influenced characters including Ghost Rider, Werewolf by Night, and Man-Thing. Among those efforts was the publication of Tomb of Dracula #1 in April of 1972. After a fairly generic first few issues, the book introduced its durable supporting cast of vampire hunters like Quincy Harker, Hannibal King, Frank Drake, and the daywalker Blade.
Dracula’s first interaction with the regular Marvel universe came in 1974’s Giant-Size Spider-Man, where the wall-crawler winds up at a costume party on a cruise ship with the vampire lord and a passel of gangster goons looking to steal an experimental vaccine, the kind of thing you would absolutely bring to a masquerade on the high seas.
Meanwhile, Count Dracula was also getting weird in his own book. In issue 21, we meet Doctor Sun, an evil Chinese scientist who had his brain removed and placed in a jar, giving him a thirst for blood himself. Sun hatched a goofy scheme to steal Dracula’s powers and, in issue 39, had his henchman Juno kill the vampire for the first time with a silver lance through the heart.
What’s Tomb of Dracula without Dracula? Just a tomb? Our protagonists battled Doctor Sun for a couple issues before they realized that they needed the help of their former foe, and in #41, supporting character Aurora Rabinowitz cried virginal tears into Dracula’s ashy coffin, returning the lich lord to unlife and letting him lay a well-deserved ass-whooping on Sun. Dracula then fought Doctor Strange a few issues later and faked his own death to get out of the confrontation, which doesn’t count for the running tally we’re going to be keeping. He does that a lot, for attention probably.
Tomb of Dracula came to a close in 1979, during a contraction in the business that led to the cancellation of most of the company’s odder titles (including Howard the Duck and John Carter, Warlord of Mars). New editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, a superhero fanboy to the core, set about trimming what he considered to be the fat of the line. In the final issue of the series, Quincy Harker finally gets his revenge on the demon, stabbing him through the chest with a silver stake to kill him for Dracula’s second death, exploding Castle Dracula around him.
Tomb of Dracula got six more issues in black-and-white magazine format, which was where Marvel threw stuff they didn’t know what to do with, but those stories are mostly out of continuity. The vampire also appeared in a Defenders story and crossed paths with the aforementioned Howard the Duck.
Stakes is high
Even with his own series gone, Dracula was now an inextricable part of the Marvel universe, and he next showed up in X-Men courtesy of writer Chris Claremont, who never met a mind-control plotline he didn’t like. In issue 159, Storm is found unconscious in an alley, with two little punctures on her neck. Dracula has bitten Ororo, and the team must aid her in breaking his thrall.
She does, because the only thing Chris Claremont loves more than mind control is a strong female protagonist, but Dracula was here to stay.
Here’s the thing, though: A superhero universe is a delicate balancing act. You can’t let either the good guys or the bad guys get too powerful. So having an immortal vampire of legend bopping around kind of throws off the vibe. After the Count had a few more clashes with Thor and the Silver Surfer, Marvel editorial decided it was time to show Dracula the door.
Roger Stern was tasked with cleaning things up in the pages of Doctor Strange, and he brought out the big broom. In a 1983 storyline running through issues 58-62, Strange hunts down the legendary Darkhold, a book of evil mystical power responsible for creating vampires in the first place. While he fends off Dracula on the astral plane, his allies recite the spell known as the Montesi Formula, which ends the existence of every single vampire in the Marvel universe in one fell swoop.
Evil walks once more
You know what they say about fell swoops, though. In 1986, Marvel was acquired by TV and movie conglomerate New World Entertainment. As part of the deal, numerous comic book characters were spun into development for prospective movies and TV shows. One of those was Blade, which Variety originally reported as a south-of-the-border thriller with Blaxploitation icon Richard Roundtree as the hero.
For the movie to be successful, Blade needed to be visible in the comics of the Marvel Universe. And with no vampires around, that might be an issue. What’s a Blade comic without Dracula? Just him doing his dishes? Marvel needed to reverse course on the Montesi Formula, and fast.
Dracula was reborn in 1990 courtesy of Roy Thomas and Dann Thomas, who wrote a story that:
- established Doctor Strange had a younger brother we’d never met, and
- that younger brother died in a car accident 10 years before this story, and
- Doctor Strange put him in cryogenic sleep so he could revive him in the future, and
- while reciting magic spells at random, Doctor Strange accidentally revived his brother, and
- his brother was now a vampire.
This five-part story, titled “The Vampiric Verses,” is probably most famous for Christian pop singer Amy Grant threatening to sue Marvel for using her image on the cover of Doctor Strange issue 15. In the end, the story arc is an ungodly mess, replete with goofy coincidences, but these events did mean that the Montesi Formula had been reversed and Dracula could come back-ula.
That led into a new Tomb of Dracula miniseries by Wolfman and artist Gene Colan, as well as 1992’s Nightstalkers series, which reunited Blade with Frank Drake (now wielding a “nanotech gun” named “Linda”) and Hannibal King (now a “neo-vampire”). That same year, Variety announced that LL Cool J was interested in playing Blade. The Nightstalkers were primarily occupied with Dracula’s daughter Lilith for the first few issues, but it was only a matter of time before the big guy returned.
In the pages of Nightstalkers, terrorist organization HYDRA tested the waters with a Dracula clone named “Bloodstorm One” in 1994 (hilariously called “a vampire for the ’90s” in one issue), and through an ungainly series of events the clone merges with Hannibal King and Frank Drake to become one gross life form that hosted the consciousness of the original Dracula. We saw more of that guy in the 1994 Blade series.
Dracula got his own book again in 1998, with three issues of Dracula: Lord of the Undead. He managed not to die in that one, despite being infected with a thinly-disguised HIV metaphor.
His luck was about to run out, though.
Evil walks once more once more
In 2004, Marvel launched another Tomb of Dracula joint, a four-issue mini written by Robert Rodi. In it, Dracula is preparing for a mystical convergence that happens every thousand years in which a vampire can ascend to godhood. He dies at the end, again, but it’s worth noting that one of the plans to take him out involves a nuclear bomb in Transylvania.
Annoyed at all the hassle of living (and dying) on Earth, Dracula came back to life by undisclosed means and then relocated his base of operations to the moon, where he tried to conduct an invasion of England in the pages of Captain Britain and MI13. This 2009 arc is one of the absolute best Marvel Dracula stories, full of double-crosses and wild set-pieces like vampires careening to Earth like thirsty missiles from orbit. At the end, Dracula’s ambitions are stifled, and he’s stabbed through the heart with Excalibur and killed once more.
Captain Britain and MI13 writer Paul Cornell loved using the vampire king, saying in an interview with Polygon, “One of the joys of the Marvel Universe for me is how all sorts of different genres are gobbled up by it, from ancient astronauts to H.G. Wells to Bram Stoker. I think it gives a real energy to the universe, which doesn’t so much move between genres, like Doctor Who does, as represent all genres at once, rather like the real universe.”
The next year, Marvel published the Death of Dracula one-shot as part of its “Heroic Age” line-wide sales cash-in relaunch. In that book, written by Victor Gischler, we meet Dracula’s extremely early-2000s son Xarus. Miffed at his old man’s inability to conquer the world and turn humans into portable Big Gulps, Xarus kills Dracula, unites the vampire clans under his leadership, and sets out to rule the world.
Just a few short months later, our man was back up and about. In the X-Men story “Curse of the Mutants,” Xarus attacks the X-Men’s home base of San Francisco with a plan to turn all the mutants into vampires. The good guys win, courtesy of a convoluted scheme that involves shutting off Wolverine’s healing factor without his knowledge. On the way, Scott Summers retrieves Dracula’s body and severed head and squishes them back together, bringing him back to life as an insurance policy against his son.
Here’s the thing, though: The X-Men won without Dracula’s help, making the whole event seem a little pointless. But what’s a stake without a point? Just a dumb piece of wood.
Evil keeps on walkin’
What do you do after you’ve returned from the sleep of death? If you’re Dracula, you get married. In the virtual pages of 2014 Marvel digital comic Deadpool: The Gauntlet, things went south for the vampire king when he was forced to hire Deadpool to bring him his new bride: Shiklah, Queen of the Monsters. Unfortunately, as typically happens in Deadpool stories, things got a little out of hand. He wound up married to Shiklah himself, which naturally didn’t please Dracula too much. Not to worry, though — we get a juicy fight scene that ends with Deadpool staking Dracula with his own severed hand. RIP bozo.
After returning to his castle in Romania, Dracula once again set out to create a vampire kingdom, only to be foiled by Wolverine and Jubilee (who was also a vampire at this point) of the X-Men. After a bloody battle, Wolverine decapitates Dracula and has his head thrown into the sun.
Don’t worry. He’s fine. They didn’t even bother to explain this one. Instead, he moves to Latvia and becomes obsessed with online gaming. After another run-in with Deadpool, Dracula reconciled with Shiklah and the two got married, only to abdicate their merry monster kingdom and presumably divorce off-panel.
At press time, Dracula is walking the Earth once more, living in radiation-polluted Chernobyl with his vampire army and plotting ever more nefarious hijinks. I wouldn’t get too comfortable, dude. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from all this, it’s that an immortal vampire lord might be the most dangerous thing to be in the entire Marvel universe.