A blood-drenched Japanese tragedy with plenty of bite, this one-shot from 2011 is worth seeking out.
I must confess that I know very little about the current state of the vampire clans in the Marvel universe. I’m currently working my way through the Wolfman/Colan Tomb of Dracula on Marvel Unlimited and I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Hulk vs Dracula Fear Itself mini (also written by Victor Gischler) a few years ago. I am also aware that Dracula is (although perhaps not anymore) dead, if the title of the Death of Dracula trade paperback collection on my shelf is anything to go by. Beyond that, it all gets a little sketchy.
The decision to make the literary figure of Dracula a part of the Marvel universe and then give him his own comic series must rank as one of the strangest but most richly productive decisions made by the company’s editors in the 70s. Dracula has gone through a number of revisions and iterations in the intervening years until we see him now as almost a supernatural supervillain reigning over his kingdom through sheer power and the careful political balancing act of managing the ambitions and expectations of a number of rival vampire clans or sects.
This is the situation at the start of Throne of Blood, when Dracula is approached by a member of Claw Sect for background information on Raizo Kodo, a renegade vampire who has somehow escaped the Claw Sect and whom the clan want killed. What follows is Dracula recounting Raizo Kodo’s origin story precisely as Kodo has, at some earlier point, related it to hm. It is a tale which is, as both the title and cover suggest, set in feudal Japan and steeped in both blood and tragedy.
It’s a bold move naming your story after an Akira Kurosawa film based on perhaps Shakespeare’s most violent play, but both writer Victor Gischler and lead artist Guran Parlov are more than equal to the task.
Raizo’s story starts with him and his brother Ryuhei approaching the camp of Jakkaru, a mysteriously powerful warlord who has grown in influence and now threatens the Kodo clan. In the first page of the story proper, Gischler uses dialogue and first person narration economically to set up the fateful confrontation that is about to take place as well as make clear the mutual respect the two brothers have for one another. What is striking, however, is the art which portrays the brothers’ progress through the bucolic landscape in wide swathes of yellow and light brown. When the conversation moves on to the second page, we are presented with a two-thirds of a page image of the brothers looking down on Jakkaru’s camp. It is impressive, not just for Parlov’s art, which presents the sheer size of the camp and thus the scale of the task facing the two brothers, but also for Lee Loughridge’s colouring of the camp in a lurid yellow, punctuated only by thin, wavering white wisps of camp smoke. The colour yellow is, of course, a strangely ambiguous one, associated with value and brightness but also sickness and corruption. While the yellow here could represent golden corn fields, the productive farmland of the Kodo clan which Jakkaru is threatening, the sense of interpretative uncertainty remains.
Disguised as peasant farmers, Raizo and Ryuhei infiltrate the camp but get challenged by Jakkaru’s elite guard when they try to enter his tent. The resulting combat is short but entertaining. On entering Jakkaru’s tent, however, both the mood and the colour palette changes. Gone are the bright yellows and greens of the external camp setting. Instead we are given dull reds, dirty pinks and muted midnight blues. Jakkaru is considerably more formidable than his guards. The ensuing combat is powerfully drawn and narrated. The brothers have to work together and it is Raizo’s reckless bravery that provides the opening for what should be a final killing blow.
But, of course, it isn’t, because Jakkaru is a vampire and, although sticking your katana through someone’s chest is generally a great idea, unless it’s made of wood in this instance, it won’t make a bit of difference. With a grim sense of inevitability, we see Jakkaru rise from the ground and bite Ryuhei in the neck. If the combat that preceded this moment was desperate, what follows it is downright grim. In a nice serendipitous twist, Raizo is so freaked out by what’s happening that he grabs a wooden practice sword from the rack by mistake and, noticing that it actually seems to have some effect, rams it through Jakkaru’s back and out the other side. While Jakkaru is… ahem… dismayed by this development, Raizo decapitates with him with a normal sword, thus ending his threat to the Kodo clan for good.
Readers who have been paying attention, though, will be worried about that bitemark on Ryuhei’s neck. And with good reason.
Ryuhei is weakened and Raizo manages to get himself and his brother on a horse and escape the camp evading the arrows of Jakkaru’s enraged minions along the way. The dialogue between Ryuhei and Raizo on their homeward journey is brief but it is enough to make clear the close friendship between the two of them. That it takes place in the context of panels whose yellows are more muted than those on the outward journey hints at the sickness already taking root in the family. The brothers’ final approach to their family home is beautifully rendered by Parlov and Loughridge. The brothers are in the foreground and their home is laid out before them in a valley that looks wonderfully bucolic. But the yellow is in the foreground, almost as if threatening to engulf the two brothers, and its vigorous but subtly sickly colour is considerably more vibrant than the dull greens and browns of the valley. The sense of threat, of inundation, is palpable.
Over the next few pages we are introduced to Raizo’s family and servants, all of whom come across as well-rounded and well-scripted characters – although, for purely plot reasons, Raizo’s father is far too dismissive of everyone’s fears about Ryuhei and his mysterious listlessness. Time passes and things become more tense. We meet Suzume, Raizo’s betrothed for whom he clearly has strong feelings. But his desire to get to the root of what is happening in his family leads him to leave it and embark upon a three day ride to Jakkaru’s castle.
These panels are yellow-drenched works of art, eerily atmospheric and positively throbbing with foreboding. Gischler’s narration is suitably gothic, too. Raizo says he feels an “oily dread oozing over [him]” as he makes his way through the deserted village on his way to the castle. He is not, of course, wrong. On entering the castle (a sequence that is suspenseful in a wonderfully economical way), Raizo is attacked by Jakkaru’s erstwhile servants, a pathetic bunch whose unwillingness to act on their suspicions about their master is presented as being as immoral as their lord’s depraved violence. We get an intriguing reference to a Dutch trader which suggests that the curse of vampirism is imported to Japan rather than flowering there independently, but Jakkaru’s origin story is not really the main focus of this section. Instead, it is Raizo’s understanding of what must be done that is important in carrying the story forward. Jakkaru’s servants act as a stark warning to him of the perils of inactivity, of the failure to grasp the nettle of duty no matter how painful it may be.
And so we move on to the comic’s final act. Raizo, still wrestling with the obligation that has been made clear to him in the last few pages, prepares for his final visit to his ancestral home, determining to start his assault in daylight.
What follows is some wonderfully atmospheric art. The panel featuring Raizo’s mother and father waiting for him in the blue-grey light of the house’s dim interior is genuinely chilling; the moment in which Raizo kills both his undead parents is shockingly kinetic by contrast, all parallel lines of speed and force, punctuated by simple almost abstract splashes of red. Raizo’s decision to set fire to the house means that the yellow returns with a vengeance, this time angrier and somewhat darker. Its ambiguity remains, though, and, although Raizo is surprised by Suzume’s sudden appearance and biting of her lover, the reader most assuredly is not. Raizo dispatches Suzume quickly enough, the beheading rendered in silhouette and thus giving it a distinctly surreal air. The following confrontation between Raizo and Ryuhei, though, is considerably more brutal and grounded.
I’m not sure how I feel about the Raizo/Ryuhei fight resolution. To be fair to Gischler, having established vampires as a more physically powerful foe, it makes sense to have Ryuhei stopped from killing Raizo by a falling beam of burning wood. The subsequent decapitation is satisfying enough, but, by this point, almost a formality. Now that Raizo himself has been bitten, what happens to him is actually more important.
And Gischler portrays that very well. Raizo sits under a tree, about to kill himself with a stake through his own heart and finds he simply cannot do it. The opportunity for ending the curse passes as the vampirism takes hold of Raizo’s body and mind and the legend of one of the more important members of the Marvel vampiverse is born.
There’s a nice coda to finish off the framing sequence with Dracula himself authorising Raizo’s death, while a few panels later opining that it will be very difficult to enact. It is to the credit of Gischler, Parlov and Loughridge that surely very few readers will disagree with his assessment. The comic does an excellent job of introducing Raizo Kodo and presenting his tortured background in both an exciting and sympathetic way. Topped off by a simply magnificent, brutally visceral cover from Bryan Hitch, the comic is highly enjoyable in its own right. Vampires may be a relatively obscure corner of the Marvel Universe, but they are more than capable of producing compelling, dramatic and thoroughly involving stories. This is most certainly one of them.