Dracula, for the Mature Reader:

How Marvel Built a ‘70s Horror Book Around a Victorian-Era Monster, Part 2

Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s bestselling treatise on the horror genre, describes Bram Stoker’s Dracula as “a novel which fairly pants with sexual energy.” (73) In Dracula: The Connoisseur’s Guide, Leonard Wolf credits this sexual energy as partly responsible for the book’s initial success: “… or Victorian readers — especially for the men — Dracula had the appeal of pornography disguised as adventure fiction.” (253) To prove their points, both King and Wolf cite the scene at the end of chapter 3, where Jonathan Harker has fallen asleep in a forbidden section of the castle. He awakens to find what appear to be three young women hovering over him. Not realizing that they are vampires, Jonathan does not fear them; no, his immediate reaction is lust, “a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.” (79) Raised as he was in Victorian England, Jonathan understands how socially unacceptable these feelings are. He describes them as “wicked” and worries about confessing them, even in the privacy of his own journal. “It is not good to note this down; lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes and cause her pain.” (79)

While Jonathan pretends to remain asleep, the three vampires talk of kissing him. “‘He is young and strong,’” one says, “‘there are kisses for us all.’” (79) Kisses, to these three, mean bites. By “kisses for us all,” they are estimating that enough blood runs through his veins to satisfy all three of them. Their use of sexual terminology like “kiss” reinforces the erotic nature of vampirism. It also narrows the sexual interpretation of the blonde vampire’s next move. “The girl went on her knees and bent over me, simply gloating.” (81) Even readers who understand the vampire’s ulterior motive to drink Jonathan’s blood cannot miss the blatant sexual imagery of a female (vampire or human) kneeling down in front of a man. “In the England of 1897,” King writes, “a girl who ‘went on her knees’ was not the sort of girl you brought home to meet your mother; Harker is about to be orally raped, and he doesn’t mind it a bit.” (74) Wolf believes that the men reading the book back then didn’t mind it a bit either. “Every Englishman who ever dreamed of – and was denied – oral sex, was hoping that her lips would travel much farther down than his neck.” (253)

Unfortunately, those hopes are quickly dashed. Dracula bursts into the room to pull the women away from Jonathan. “Harker is a bit disappointed when the Count enters and breaks up this little tete-a-tete. Probably,” King adds, “most of Stoker’s wide-eyed readers were too.” (74) These readers had been teased with Victorian era taboos. Not only did Jonathan Harker appear to be on the verge of receiving oral sex, the odds favored him receiving it from three females.

Dracula’s arrival adds a homoerotic element into the moment. The Count is outraged to find these three vampires ready to feed upon Jonathan. “‘How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast your eyes on him when I had forbidden it? Back I tell you!” Dracula then ends his rant by declaring, “‘This man belongs to me!’” (82) From a practical standpoint, three hungry vampires feasting upon Jonathan would have drained him completely, which would have interfered with Dracula’s plans. But the Count is not railing about how these vampires nearly ruined his plans. No, he is chastising them for disobedience and declaring ownership of Jonathan, who passes out during this scene. He awakens in his bed in the beginning of chapter 4 with the realization that “the Count must have carried me there.” (84) More than simply carrying Jonathan from the forbidden wing back to his room, Dracula has undressed the man and put him into his nightwear before settling him into bed. “My clothes,” Jonathan writes in his journal, “were folded and laid by in a manner that was not my custom.” (84) The intimacy of the act unnerves Jonathan as it would anyone whose host has undressed them in their sleep after declaring “This man belongs to me.”

Whether or not anything sexual would have transpired between Jonathan Harker and any of the vampires, male or female, Stoker does allude to sexual relations among the vampires themselves. The fair-haired vampire, the same one who had been kneeling in front of Jonathan Harker, rebukes Dracula for the way he has been treating her and the other two. “‘You yourself never loved; you never love,’” she tells him. Dracula immediately denies this, reminding her and the others, “‘Yes, I too can love; you yourselves can tell it from the past.’” (82) The use of the pronoun “yourselves” emphasizes the fact that Dracula is speaking to all three vampires. He has obviously enjoyed some sort of sexual relationship with all three of them, who still live in his home. To prove his continued devotion, he not only promises them Jonathan in the future “when I am done with him” (82), he tosses onto the floor a bag containing an infant he has just stolen from a nearby home. “There was a gasp and a low wail, as of a half-smothered child.” (82) The scene has been omitted from many of the Dracula films as well as Marvel’s own Classic Comics Adaptation; it is a far more gruesome scene than any presented in the Tomb of Dracula series. The female vampires intend to feast upon the baby, not raise it, so the image of Dracula providing these three women with sustenance solidifies his position as their husband.

Dracula’s living arrangements at the castle mirror Lucy Westenra’s romantic fantasies. All the while, Jonathan is journaling about the strange goings-on under Dracula’s roof, and Jonathan’s fiancée Mina is corresponding with her best friend Lucy about their respective love lives. While Mina is missing her one and only, Lucy is entertaining the attention of three suitors, each of whom has proposed marriage. Before making her final decision, Lucy asks Mina, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her…?” Such a question must have shocked Victorian readers, especially the men. While the male readers understood Jonathan’s attraction to the three female vampires, Lucy’s letter about her three suitors forced these same readers to realize that women entertain similar fantasies. If, as Wolf suggests, Jonathan’s erotic encounters with the female vampires helped lure in male readers, Lucy’s non-traditional views on marriage might very well have appealed to The New Woman, who had begun to emerge in the late 1800s.

When Dracula arrives in England, he targets Lucy, eventually turning her into a vampire, perhaps because he senses a kindred spirit.  Her rise from the dead becomes the ultimate symbol of sexual awakening. Dracula and his vampiric curse have unleashed her sexuality. Professor Van Helsing and her three former suitors stake out the cemetery where Lucy was laid presumably to rest. The shock of seeing her “alive” again is surpassed by the shock of how she now looks. Dr. Seward, who is recording the moment, describes her as “Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed. The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.” (306) Given the sexual fantasies Lucy had shared with Mina, some readers would argue that Lucy had never truly been as pure as men saw her. Instead of turning her “purity to voluptuous wantonness,” vampirism had merely unlocked the lust already inside her.

As a vampire, Lucy has been preying upon small children. Although she doesn’t kill them, these children “have been found slightly torn or wounded in the throat.” (261) Lucy’s choice of small children for her victims recalls the scene in which Dracula gifts his wives with the baby he has stolen for them. Vampirism represents the ultimate sexual freedom for women, the freedom not only to act upon impulses but to do so without fear of pregnancy. Stripped of maternal instincts, the female vampire feels no duty to feed children, only the desire to feed upon them.

From the very first issue, where Dracula kills the barmaid then turns Jean into a vampire, Tomb of Dracula has portrayed Dracula as a sexual predator. That interpretation of the character comes straight from Stoker’s novel. In chapter 21, Dracula attacks Mina Harker in the bedroom she shares with her new husband, Jonathan (Dracula’s former prisoner). “On the bed beside the window lay Jonathan Harker, his face flushed and his breathing heavy as though in a stupor. Kneeling on the edge of the bed, facing outwards was the white-clad figure of his wife. By her side stood… the Count.” (389) Once again, Stoker presents his readers with an image of a female on her knees in front of a male. In this case, however, the female is the victim. The Count violates Mina in front of her own husband, whom he has left incapable of stopping him. Dracula may have singled out Lucy Westenra because he sensed a kindred spirit, but his attack on Mina comes across as punishment for Jonathan escaping his castle. “With his left hand [Dracula] held both Mrs. Harker’s hands… his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down onto his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare chest which was shown by his torn open dress.” (390) Mina is forced to drink Dracula’s blood from his bare chest; “blood… smeared her lips and cheeks and chin.” (391) Stoker reinforces the horror of this moment taking place in front of Jonathan Harker by having Dr. Seward refer to Mina not by first name but as “Mrs. Harker.” Using the married honorific underlines the point that this is Jonathan’s own wife who is being manipulated in front of him. Given the sexual value vampires ascribe to the transference of blood, Dracula has essentially raped Mina in front of her own husband.

While sexually shocking scenes such as these helped sell Dracula to Victorian England, Stephen King didn’t believe that they would yield the same results in 1970s America. “When I wrote my own vampire novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, I decided to largely jettison the sexual angle, feeling that in a society where homosexuality, group sex and oral sex… have become matters of public discussion… the sexual energy that powered much of Stoker’s book might have run out of gas.” (76) King, it should be noted, did not omit sex completely from ’Salem’s Lot. The novel’s central couple engages in sex in a public park, albeit after dark; men get erections while being bitten by vampires; and characters continually question the sexual orientation of the vampire and his assistant, who open up an antique store. If Dracula sold well in Victorian England because it offered repressed audiences glimpses of forbidden sex, Tomb of Dracula benefited from offering forbidden glimpses to a different audience which needed to suppress its sexual impulses, even in 1970s America: teenaged boys. Tomb of Dracula is remembered as one of the more mature comic books of its time, a time when comic books were not marketed to mature individuals. Throughout its 70-issue run, the comic dealt with an array of mature subject matter, subject matter super-hero comics rarely hinted at: adultery, pedophilia, unwed pregnancy, incest, sadism, and Satanism. While Wolfman said that he was writing his comic for adults, the majority of comic books at the time were bought by boys and teenagers. If they weren’t, Marvel need not have worried about the CCA’s seal of approval. For Tomb of Dracula, adolescent boys became the new Victorian audience, eager for a good scare but excited by any hint of the salacious.

Tomb of Dracula #49 (“…And with the Word There Shall Come Death!”), the series’s most interesting foray into metafiction, confronted the fact that Bram Stoker’s novel not only inspired the comic book but also existed within the comic book. The cover surrounded Dracula with other literary characters: Robin Hood, Frankenstein’s monster, Tom Sawyer, Injun Joe, and D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers. A blurb across the top promised “the most bizarre vampire thriller ever!” While Marvel has long indulged in hyperbole, this issue lived up to the hype.

The story begins with an appropriately literary image – Dracula sitting at his desk, pen in hand. Within two pages, he would be transported against his will into an otherworldly library run by a mysterious woman named Angie. Angie, we soon discover, possesses the ability to bring literary characters to life – with the exception of the one she desires most, Stoker’s Dracula. Instead, her ritual beckons the real Dracula, the Tomb of Dracula Dracula.

Angie is first seen talking to Frankenstein’s monster, who, like Dracula, also has a counterpart in the Marvel Universe. Dracula recognizes “the monster — so similar to the real Frankenstein creature I battled almost a century past.” (23) Three years previously, the Marvel Frankenstein and Dracula battled each other in The Frankenstein Monster #9 (“The Vampire Killers!”). Dracula also recognizes the musketeer D’Artagnan as “a sword wielder from that adventure novel.” (17) While the comic book Dracula seems far too busy to ever spend his night curled up with a good book, Jonathan Harker was impressed with the extensive library in Dracula’s castle.

Taking a copy of Dracula from the bookshelf in her own library, Angie remembers it as “the first book I had read to me so many years ago.” (15) The memory struck some readers as inappropriate. What kind of parent would read Dracula to a child? A few pages later, Dracula blasts Bram Stoker for turning “what I am… the power I possess into a children’s story.” Despite Dracula’s interpretation of the novel or Angie’s childhood memories, Stoker did not write his story for children. Neither, Marv Wolfman argued time and again with the CCA, was he writing Tomb of Dracula for kids.

Unlike D’Artagnan and the others, whom she considers friends, Angie has called Dracula to her library because she has fallen in love with him. More precisely, she has fallen in love with the Dracula in Stoker’s novel. “I’ve dreamed… of Dracula, with his arms around my shoulders, his powerful eyes reaching deep into my own.” (15) She describes him as “everything I could ever hope for in a man.” (22) She fails to take into account the fact that Dracula is not a man.

Furious at having been kidnapped in this manner, especially at having been taken away from his pregnant wife, Dracula rails not just at Angie but at the book itself, which he describes as “that foolish novel Stoker half-based on my diary.” (22) He then broadens his attack to include all literature, including the characters standing around him, whom he calls “fools created by equally foolish writers.” (23)

Angie cannot understand how Dracula can be “the man Lucy Westenra loved. You were so kind to her in the story. So sweet.” (26) First Dracula barely recognizes Lucy’s name, then he dismisses her with the cruelest of insults. “I’ve slain a thousand tramps such as she.” (26) Disillusioned, Angie tosses her copy of Dracula into the fireplace, which sends Dracula back to his own dimension.

This issue ultimately separates Tomb of Dracula from Stoker’s novel. By having Dracula’s most ardent fan destroy her only copy of the book, Wolfman makes a statement: TOD no longer needs its connection to the original novel. In the beginning, when Marvel was establishing its horror line, Tomb benefited from the book’s reputation as a classic. The CCA wanted horror in the literary caliber of Dracula, so Marvel gave them The Tomb of Dracula. The comic book also benefited from name recognition. Even children who had never read the book knew Dracula from the many film adaptations rerun on television. By the mid ‘70s, the comic book was selling well enough to spin-off a Giant-Size quarterly as well as a black-and-white magazine. Burning the book and sending Dracula back to his own dimension established The Count as a citizen of the Marvel Universe. Further cementing his status as a Marvel villain, the next issue (TOD #50: “Where Soars the Silver Surfer!”) pitted him against one of the most powerful superheroes in the Marvel Universe.

Issue #49 not only drew a clear line between Tomb of Dracula and Stoker’s original novel, it also critiqued the romantic image Dracula had acquired through the years. Perhaps because vampirism served as a metaphor for sexual awakening in Victorian England, Dracula had emerged not only as a sexual figure but a romantic hero, a reputation he did not deserve. Angie’s suggestion that Dracula was kind and sweet to Lucy is not based on any line of dialogue in the novel. After Jonathan Harker escapes from Dracula’s castle, Dracula is spotted only a limited number of times. We see his effect on Lucy — her running out of the house in the middle of the night, her growing weaker and weaker until she dies, and her rising from the dead as a vampire — but we only see Dracula with her once, the night when Mina spies him descending upon her in the churchyard:

When I got to the top I could see the seat and the white figure [Lucy], for I was now close enough to distinguish it even through the spells of shadow. There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. I called in fright, “Lucy! Lucy!” and something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red gleaming eyes. (158)

Nothing in this encounter comes across as “kind” or “sweet.” Maybe Angie has never been able to summon the Dracula from Stoker’s novel because the Dracula she remembers as loving doesn’t exist in the book.

In addition to “the most bizarre vampire thriller ever,” the cover of TOD #49 also promised a “surprise ending.” After Dracula reappears in his own home, unable to explain exactly where he was, the comic book cuts to a hospital where a nurse and two orderlies are running down the hallway. They check in on Angie who is sitting in a padded cell, having fallen asleep while rereading Dracula, which the nurse calls “that awful vampire story.” (31) The twist implies that any reader who entertains romantic fantasies about Dracula should be locked up for their own safety.

Marv Wolfman may also have been mocking the Comics Code Authority. Like Angie, the CCA possessed a mysterious literary power, controlling what comic book characters could and couldn’t do, sometimes deciding whether they could even be brought to life. And like Angie, the CCA had misread Bram Stoker’s novel as something it wasn’t, a mistake for which they both paid a price. Expecting to meet her romantic fantasy, Angie summoned a monster into her library. Believing that it was protecting innocent minds from corruption, the Comics Code Authority invited a sexually mature vampire over its threshold.

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Gerard J Waggett has taught classes on comic books, graphic novels, horror fiction, and vampires at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. After freelancing at varied soap opera magazines in the early 90s, he then published 11 books of soap opera trivia. More recently, he has begun focusing on his fiction with three stories published in Mystery Magazine during the past two years. He is also a two-time Jeopardy! champion.

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