Once upon a time, there existed comics with titles like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear and others. These lurid depictions of monsters - both supernatural and all-too-human - were bold and bloody. Life was grand. But then along came psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, with his book Seduction of the Innocent, and a war on horror comics was waged. Who could have guessed that it would be gay panic, not silver bullets or a stake through the heart that killed comic book monsters.
Almost immediately, monsters were outlawed from the pages of funny books. If you wanted your books sold in respectable stores, you had to wave good bye to the idea of ever seeing vampires or werewolves in your storylines. While giant monsters would have their home in Marvel Comics' anthology series (many of whom are set to return in the upcoming Monsters Unleashed! crossover), restrictions in place by the Comics Code Authority prevented Marvel from seriously dipping their toes into the horror genre. You could have Fing Fang Foom but god help you if you wanted to read a book featuring a zombie. It wasn't until an anti-drug storyline ran in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man in 1971 that Marvel was able to slip from the grip of the Comics Code Authority - running the series without the code but winning public good will all the same. The Authority, seeing as they were on the losing side of history, began to sharpen some of the edges off their restrictions in fear that they would be removed from power completely. With drug use now allowed in books, monsters quickly followed.
In 1972, after testing the new laxer restrictions by introducing the Spider-Man villain Mobius, a scientifically-created vampire, Marvel Comics unveiled a wave of horror comic books that included Werewolf by Night, Frankenstein's Monster and Ghost Rider. In Sean Howe's book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, he details how Marvel even tried to introduce a comic called The Mark of Satan that would follow the adventures of the Devil. Clearly, Marvel was ready to let their freak flag fly.
For a while, life was once again grand. Spider-Man teamed up with Werewolf by Night. Doctor Strange tussled with Dracula. Ghost Rider was on a superhero team with Black Widow, Iceman and Hercules. As quickly as the books were introduced, though, they faded from shelves once the '70s wrapped up. Marvel was chasing fads and the monster trend had run its course. Even Ghost Rider, a character who has always seemed to have a presence of one kind or another went seven years without a series during the '80s. While all of the books Marvel put out during this time are recommended in their own way (few pleasures are as keen in life as seeing Marvel bend over backward to turn actual honest-to-god monsters into superheroes), one of the finest books put on shelves during this time was Tomb of Dracula.
Inspired as much by the Hammer Films of the '60s as Bram Stoker's original novel, Tomb of Dracula was created as a collaboration between Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas and artist Gene Colan. It wasn't until Marv Wolfman took over the book in its second year, though, that the series found its footing. The comic book ran for 70 issues, ending in 1979 with Dracula's death (don't worry, though - he would return from the grave over the years to do battle with, among others, Doctor Strange and the X-Men).
And of course, Tomb of Dracula was where the world first met Blade, Vampire Hunter. Interesting bit of trivia - during Marvel's partnership with New World Pictures in the '80s, a script was written for a Blade film that would have been a Western set in Mexico and would have starred Richard Roundtree.
As it stands, though, Tomb of Dracula is a perfect finite storyline, the end offering a culmination of the vampire's damned struggles against his foes. In other words, the series was perfect material for a motion picture. Enter 1980's Japanese-produced animated film Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned as exhibit A in the case of Good Intentions V Japanese Animation. Produced as a TV movie by Toei Animation, Yami no Teiō: Kyūketsuki Dracula (translated to Dracula: The Vampire Emperor of Darkness or something like that) is a 90 minute encapsulation of the Tomb of Dracula series, mostly. While Blade never makes an appearance, much of the film is taken directly from the pages of the comic book. That said, the plot is so briskly (and, to be frank, confidently) told, that the movie loses something in translation. That something, I think, is its damned mind.
The basic storyline of the film involves Dracula messing with the Church of Satan. It's never quite established why he decides to insert himself into their business. I assumed it was because immortals get bored and there's no cure for boredom surer than messing with the Church of Satan. One night, as the Church is preparing to provide Satan with a blushing bride, Dracula swoops in and impersonates the devil, stealing the bride for himself. What follows is a series of vignettes as Dracula finds love, loses love, is attacked by his son, loses his powers, eats a hamburger, fights zombies and gains a handful of kid sidekicks. In summary, a perfect film for the criminally insane.
Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned will provide everything Tomb of Dracula fans are looking for. His adversaries, including Frank Drake, Quincy Harker and Rachel Van Helsing, are all present and accounted for. They even have a vampire-sniffing dog who wears a giant cross around its neck. Scooby Doo, eat your heart out. There are scenes in which a giant naked Satan monologues. There are scenes set in early '80s New York City discos. As mentioned above, there is a scene where Dracula has a child, that child is shot by an Satan-worshiping assassin and then promptly resurrected as a full-grown adult who may or may not be the second-coming of Jesus Christ. At one point Dracula loses his powers and has to resort to mugging people so he has enough money to buy a hamburger. Did I mention Dracula eats a hamburger in this film?
There are so many joyfully weird choices in the movie - from Dracula's fangs lighting up, cluing the audience in whenever he's about to attack - to the sudden appearance of seemingly important characters - such as a vampire in New York City who is preying on the city's men - only for them to just as suddenly disappear forever from the film.
The movie moves fast, as is the nature of so much of Japan's animated output, yet it never once sacrifices the chance for a long, melodramatic scene of a man (or vampire in this case) in near tears pining for his lost love. Tom Wyner, in a performance I just cannot get enough of, provides the voice for Dracula in the English-language dub that Vestron Video put out. Wyner has had a long career in voice acting but vampire fans may remember him as Sid the Dummy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
While this animated adaptation might not be the most perfect possible representation of Marv Wolfman's storylines and ideas, it's probably the most entertaining version audiences could hope for. Life is too short for another boring vampire movie - pick the one where Dracula spends an entire movie pulling pranks on Satan. And eating hamburgers.
The movie is not easily available - it's never been released on DVD or Blu-ray but you can find VHS copies on eBay and other second-hand online retail outlets. Do yourself a favor and seek this film out. Watch it, witness the magic and join me in demanding a Blu-ray release of this bloodsucking masterpiece. If you live within driving distance of Houston, Texas, you can join me for a screening of the film on Sunday, October 23. Tickets available here.