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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "WHERE LURKS THE CHIMERA" (TOMB OF DRACULA #26-28, 1974-5)

The 1971 modification of the Comics Code sprang from both economic and cultural forces. As I pointed out in this essay, in the late 1960s American comics-publishers needed new outlets beyond the standard juvenile audience. The original Comics Code came about because the genres of crime and horror brought the industry unwanted publicity. Crime never made a major comeback, but horror never entirely left, surviving throughout the Silver Age in relatively restrained “mystery” tales. But the Warren line of black-and-white magazines, beginning with CREEPY in 1964, consistently demonstrated a market for more visceral horror. Thus it was only a matter of time until other publishers sought to capture that market in four-color comics. It would be interesting to know what cultural indicators convinced the industry leaders that the game was worth the candle, but in any case, the early 1970s saw a marked increase in horror-titles from “the Big Two." With a few exceptions DC Comics focused largely on anthologies, while Marvel usually chose to feature particular characters related to the theme of terror.




Marvel’s most long-lasting success in this department was TOMB OF DRACULA, launched in 1972. In some respects thiis version of the vampiric count had a lot in common with Marvel’s world-beating villains, in that Dracula preened and postured almost as much as Doctor Doom. But Marvel’s count was crafted so as to take advantage of certain constant themes in vampire mythology—in particular, that of religion.

“Where Lurks the Chimera” is the title of the first of three stories running from TOMB #26-28. Though the title displays a cookie-cutter portentousness typical of Marvel story-titles, this time it’s actually relevant to the theme of the story.

In Greek myth, a chimera is a fearsome monster, notable for being a tripartite beast, with a goat’s head, a lion’s body, and a serpent’s tail. In the Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan story, the chimera is a magical statue created long before the nation of Greece existed. Wolfman possibly chose to name his fictional statue after the Greek creature to address a major plot-point: that in the past the statue has been broken up into its three constituent pieces, and that only recently have the pieces been recovered and brought together. The statue is rumored to confer immense powers upon its owner. This is reason enough for a certain world-beating vampire to chase after it.

Though vampire stories appear around the world, the tradition of the fictional vampire is rooted in Christian belief and folklore Most of the TOMB stories prior to this one did not stray far from these origins, but Wolfman expanded the compass of the central character’s adventures. This time Dracula contends not only with a rival villain who also wants the Chimera—later revealed to be an evildoer named Doctor Sun—but also with a young Jewish man who seeks to protect the statue from falling into evil hands.

Though many comics-professionals of the period were Jewish, including Marv Wolfman, Jews were not given much literal representation in comics until the 1970s. The statue of the Chimera, though, is first seen in the hands of two yarmulke-wearing Jews living in London: young yeshiva-student David Eschol and his father Joshua. Joshua is the image of the saintly old learned Jew, confident in his unwavering faith and his ability to remain uncorrupted by the availability of the Chimera’s power. He might be deemed a descendant of the “Rabbi Lowe” character of the classic "Golem" narrative. 


David is much more uncertain about handling a “creature of nightmare,” and as things turn out, he’s proven right. Joshua’s acquisition of the Chimera’s three sections prompts Doctor Sun to send a gang of thugs to the old man’s shop. The thugs kill Joshua, club David unconscious, and abscond with the Chimera—or rather, two parts of the Chimera, for David manages to keep hold of the tail-piece.

Dracula arrives at the Eschols’ shop too late to claim his prize, but he does see that David still possesses the one segment. While Dracula himself goes to look for the other two segments, he sends one of his human agents—a previously introduced young woman, Shiela Whittier-- to contact David and to keep tabs on him. Shiela, in contrast to most of Dracula’s pawns, is actually in love with the vampire. The count is at least slightly moved by her loyalty, though, given his aristocratic ego, he believes that he’s owed such fealty from all those who serve him.

I’m omitting various irrelevant subplots, as well as Dracula’s peril when he tracks down Doctor Sun and is almost slain in a death-trap. But once the vampire recovers, he tracks down David and Shiela. As if seeking to assuage his ego—he was almost killed by Sun, after all—Dracula confronts David and demands the tail-piece. He then demonstrates his ability, even with the incomplete segment, to conjure forth a giant fire-lion in the sky, which spits fire down on London, and then sends a shower of rain to put out the fire.




Wolfman’s script is a little vague as to why David so quickly yields the segment to Dracula, even though the vampire does not use his hypnotic power on the young man. Why does David do so?
Early in issue #26, one of Wolfman’s captions reads: in part, “for all these years David Eschol has never once strayed form the path outlined by his forefathers. But before the night is done, the path of his youth shall venture down many new roads—all but one of which shall lead to hell.”  If his father is the face of the unwavering Believer, David is cast in the role of the Doubting Thomas. As David comes to a realization that Dracula incarnates the evil his father foreswore, David defends himself, using a Star of David to hold off Dracula after the fashion of the more popular cross.


Yet Dracula’s evil is seductive. He plays upon David’s religiosity by claiming that the Jewish god, if he created the world, is therefore also the creator of all evils. David weakly refutes the charge with the “free choice” argument. Dracula fires back with the “great man” argument:

“Man does not have his choice in things. He follows the will of his betters—and he is destroyed if he does not.”

Despite never having met David Eschol before, the count intuits that the young man is gnawed by doubts, and promises to give David a sense of ”order,” much as his own father did, albeit in a thoroughly demonic mirror-image. David does not exactly give in, but he lowers his guard, giving Dracula the chance to attack. However, David wounds the vampire with the Star of David—at which point the henchmen of Doctor Sun arrive, capturing all three; David, Sheila and the vampire.

If the story;s second part is largely about David’s temptation, the third places its emphasis upon lovelorn Shiela—though the last part of the “Chimera” tale suffers from incredibly poor plotting by Wolfman. The story opens with Doctor Sun—still not as yet named or seen on-panel—gloating over his captives and boasting about the fact that he now possesses all three parts of the Chimera, giving him access to “the power of the cosmic eternal.”


Yet, the only thing Sun does with this power is to torment his captives with horrific visions. Dracula is surrounded by all of his regular enemies—Blade, Rachel Van Helsing, and so on—who try to destroy him. David sees his own father speaking the same heretical words Dracula spoke earlier, such as, “There is no God! There is no supreme being! I lied!” Only Shiela is actually shown a vision that reflects an unwelcome truth: a vision in which Dracula seems ready to make love to her, and yet turns into a skull-headed avatar of Death in the end.

Since Dracula is the star of the comic, he alone manages to break free of the false visions. He overcomes Sun’s henchmen, though the master villain escapes. Dracula reclaims the Chimera-statue, but his blasé trust in Shiela’s unconditional love causes him to drop his guard. Shiela snatches the statue from him and shatters it. Dracula is of course enraged, but even David reviles Shiela for her actions, saying that, “you had no right”—showing that he has to some extent internalized his father’s mission of being the custodian of arcane objects. Only Shiela is practical enough to realize that that the Chimera could bring only death to the good and the evil alike.  She and David leave together, and Dracula is too overcome with indecision to stop them. To be sure, though, both young people meet unhappy fates in the next issue, in keeping with the tone of a horror comic.



On a minor note, Wolfman’s history for the creation of the Chimera hearkens back to the pre-historical eras of Robert E. Howard, whose works Marvel had the license to adapt during this period. The statue’s maker is given the name “C’thunda,” and since a lot of Marvel writers back then made ample use of Lovecraftian references, this name might be a shout-out to Lovecraft’s demon-god Cthulhu. On the other hand, “C’thunda” also sounds a lot like the Greek word “chthonic.” This signifies things pertaining to the earth and the underworld, and, coincidentally enough, a Marvel writer later used this word to make up their own earth-deity, “Chthon.” It doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to the creator of the Chimera, an airborne beast, unless one sees the creation of its demonic power to be nothing but another road leading to the domain of Hell. Regarded in this light, the answer to the question "where lurks the Chimera" would seem to be "in the depths of the human soul."

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