Celebrating Marvel’s Halcyon Age
♦ Tripwire’s Senior Editor Andrew Colman casts his eye over two of IDW’s classic library editions, John Byrne’s X-Men Artifact Edition And Gene Colan Tomb Of Dracula Artist’s Edition…
John Byrne’s X-Men Artifact Edition
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artists: John Byrne & Terry Austin
Gene Colan: Tomb Of Dracula Artist’s Edition
Writer: Marv Wolfman
Artists: Gene Colan & Tom Palmer Jr
Another two massive volumes from IDW to peruse, and this time from the vaults of Marvel’s ‘70s high watermark – Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men Artefact Edition, as well as Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s Tomb of Dracula Artist’s Edition. Having been around at the time, I can recall the level of approbation from fandom (although John Byrne rejects this in his foreword!) for both series. Despite their obviously being from vastly different genres, the long form, expansive storylines, and the quality of the storytelling were key to the longevity of both titles, neither of which were meant to last, at least as far as Marvel was concerned.
Byrne’s Artefact Edition has over 130 full-size art pages culled from his work on the X-Men from issue 108 to 143. This hugely celebrated run hits the mark fairly quickly, and even though Byrne’s art lacks the polish and finesse of later episodes, it’s still very easy on the eye, reminding the reader of his excellence at storytelling. It’s a shame that the pages are non-consecutive (although that’s a small quibble), as they immediately draw you in to the compulsive stories, right from the off – the humour of seeing an imp punch Wolverine into space, weapon Alpha emerging from the brush to interrupt the heroes’ downtime, leading to a brutal battle royale, the skewed unreality of Arcade’s Murderworld, and the foreboding of witnessing Dark Phoenix being manipulated by Jason Wyngarde are all present. Byrne effortlessly could shift from humour to euphoria to darkness to despair with his artwork, the humanity and characterization of the cast leaping off the page. The apex is of course the last six or seven issues, with plenty of work representing the catastrophe of Dark Phoenix’s genocidal rampage, her controversial annihilation and the emotional aftermath. Not to mention the classic Days of Future Past two-parter that, bar one issue, closed out Byrne’s tenure on the book. As always, the artwork has never looked better in this outsize, deluxe tome, the covers, unused pages, preliminary sketches and other pieces adding up to another essential purchase.
Gene Colan’s Tomb of Dracula Artist’s Edition is a book that is long overdue – a reappraisal, as friend and colleague Marv Wolfman put it, of an artist who stood alone in the industry, very much admired but rarely an influence, due to his unorthodox, instinctive style. His very detailed and impassioned foreword gets to the heart of the matter – as photo real as Neal Adams, Colan’s work was moodier and had elements of fantasy and otherworldliness – what Wolfman referred to as “created realism”. His heavier pencils lent a shadowy, gothic, subtle unreality to the storytelling, which, according to the writer, exuded character and depth and was of course perfect for such a series. This, averred Wolfman, made him a better writer, the stories almost writing themselves – the focus, as he put it, being about the hunter and other bystanders rather than the title character. Which was the inspired inversion behind the series’ success. And although Colan had already produced some superb work redefining Daredevil, amongst others, this was almost certainly the title he made his own.
The book contains six complete stories in the main section, all from the mid-seventies, mid-period part of the seventy issue run. Colan, assisted as always by peerless inker Tom Palmer, delineated a demi monde that is perpetually haunted and brutalized by the eminence grise that is Dracula, a monolithic creature that is almost (but not quite) exclusively evil. The series itself veers from crime noir (in the first featured issue, number 26) to more conventional supernatural, in issues 36 and 37, where the anti-hero is dogged by nemesis such as Doctor Sun. Regardless of the occasional mandatory departure into the eldritch, the series is rooted in the real world, the lead character’s contempt for normal humans manifesting itself when he is forced to intersect with them. Issue 26 in particular could be seen as a precursor to later horror / detective series such as the highly influential Hellblazer, the episode’s narrator an amoral Marlowe type gumshoe who is revealed to be a vampire as well.
Colan’s art throughout is filmic to the extent that it mimics cinematic hallmarks – there are straightforward pages, but his ability to dissolve or blend images into the next chapter of the story without cluttering the narrative is remarkable, even if the series’ tropes are sometimes stuck in ‘70s melodrama (irony in comics was still a few years away). Nevertheless, the format of the book shows you what quality and craftsmanship went into Colan’s pencils, his work never less than exceptional.
The book is rounded off with yet another sumptuous gallery section at the back, featuring numerous individual pages, covers, and unused, rarely seen art for the final three issues of the title (which were condensed into one book due to the title’s imminent cancellation). The six complete comics were already enough, the rest of the art conclusive proof that Colan really was one of the best, and perhaps underrated, comic illustrators of the 60s and 70s. All the more impressive when you consider how prolific he was. Once again, IDW’s Artist’s Edition imprint is without question the way to revisit his excellent work. Five stars.