Blade: The Evolution of Marvel’s Vampire Hunter
An obscure comic hero became a founding father to the age of good Marvel comics movies and will be making his cinematic return soon enough.
Blade finally coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (played by Mahershala Ali) is a little different from the other comic characters in rebooted movies. Unlike, say, Spider-Man or Joker, Blade comes with a certain set of expectations that have less to do with his comic book origins, and more to do with the Wesley Snipes movies. Sure, there’s going to be the novelty of being in a shared universe, but a lot of Blade’s popularity comes from the previous movies and it’s been long enough since Blade Trinity that they can reboot the series and still keep it feeling familiar.
Even though he debuted in the 1970s, Blade was never a major player in the comics. He more or less was transformed into Snipes’ depiction of the character after the initial movie’s success. That said, even though his initial appearance in Tomb of Dracula #10 was so different from what eventually arrived on screen, Blade gradually evolved across supporting roles, backup stories, guest appearances, and obscure starring roles.
We start with Tomb of Dracula, a comic series that went on for 70 issues. For a time, Marvel was at the mercy of the Comics Code Authority, whose self-censorship rules were often ridiculous. By 1971, they started to loosen the reins on some of their sillier edicts, such as, “No vampires ever!” Marvel took to this news by introducing two major characters to their universe: Morbius the Living Vampire (who is to regular vampires what 28 Days Later infected are to zombies) and Dracula.
Tomb of Dracula was like the antithesis of a superhero comic. It was more like the monthly version of a horror movie series. Think of it like the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Every installment was about the evil monster and although he’d be thwarted, he’d never be taken off the board for long. Freddy wasn’t the protagonist of any given story, but he was also way more interesting than anyone who was. In other words, it was the monthly adventures of Dracula, constantly getting opposed by a variety of vampire hunters, but they could never seem to finish him off for good.
Blade was introduced in Tomb of Dracula #10, created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan. The opening scene featured him rescuing a couple of would-be victims from a vampire attack. To point out how ice cold he was compared to other vampire hunters, elderly protagonist Quincy Harker (the Dr. Loomis to Dracula’s Michael Myers) showed up to point out that those vampires were mere teenagers while Blade shrugged it off. He then went on to fight Dracula on a cruise ship.
Most recall Blade’s original appearance, with his green jacket and yellow goggles. This initial take on the character was depicted as just a human being instead of the famed “Daywalker,” and specialized in wielding wooden knives. Sure, he could have just used silver knives for the same level of lethality, but wooden knives was a creative enough gimmick.
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He eventually got roped into joining Harker’s band of vampire killers. If Harker was the anti-Dracula version of Professor Xavier, then Blade was easily the Wolverine of the team. He was the gruff, outspoken, reckless badass. Granted, he didn’t have any superhuman abilities at the time, so Dracula tended to toss him around like a rag doll. Still, Blade did succeed in carving up Drac’s face one time and managed to (temporarily) kill him with a wooden knife to the chest.
Just prior to killing Dracula, Blade finally opened up to his compatriots about why he had such a hate-on for vampires. When Blade’s mother was in labor with him, the doctor arrived and told her friends to leave them be. Turned out he was Dracula (Dr. Acula?) and he started feasting on Blade’s mother. The other women ran in to ward him off and at least save the baby. Blade grew up wanting revenge on Dracula and vampires in general.
It didn’t take long for them to alter his origin. When Blade appeared in the more risqué black-and-white Marvel horror magazines from around that time, they were more forward about his mother being a prostitute and how Blade was raised in a brothel. They also changed it so that Blade’s mother was killed by the vampire Deacon Frost. Despite the retcon, writers and editors could never keep it straight and even into the ’90s, some stories had Blade credit Dracula to his mother’s death.
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As a way of giving Blade reason to personally hate both vampire villains, a story in Marvel Preview #3 had him reflect on a drug-addicted jazz trumpeter named Jamal Afari, who acted as a father figure to young Blade and taught him how to kill vampires. Afari was eventually turned by Dracula, meaning Blade had to take him out in a mercy killing. Ergo, Blade wanted Dracula AND Deacon Frost dead.
While Blade’s appearances were mostly relegated to the pages of Tomb of Dracula and whatever black-and-white monster comic Marvel had going on, he made his first crossover into the larger Marvel continuity in the pages of Fear #24. There, he fought against Morbius the Living Vampire. You would think that Blade vs. Morbius would be the easiest setup possible.
So of course, the story begins with Morbius in space, helping a one-eyed creature in a cape escape a bunch of space barbarians. By the time Morbius returned to Earth, Blade figured him to be an alien vampire and Morbius thought Blade to be a madman because – as far as Morbius was aware – vampires didn’t exist unless they were the science-built kind like himself. Blade realized Morbius wasn’t an alien because he could speak English, but that kind of ignores how all the aliens in the same issue were also speaking English.
Anyway, the comic was weird.
With Blade having temporarily killed Dracula, it was time for the turnabout. A rematch had Dracula not only overwhelm Blade, but he chomped down on his neck and left him for dead. Harker arrived later, horrified at the sight of Blade with fang marks in his neck and went to finish him off before it was too late. Blade instead stopped him, stood up, and dusted himself off. He was strangely fine.
The big reveal was that due to the very specific circumstances of his birth, Blade was immune to vampirism. He was still a human and didn’t have any cool special abilities, but he couldn’t be turned. It made him a half-baked version of the character we know and it only came up a few times anyway, usually allowing him to lose against vampires and then play possum as one of their own.
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If anyone was going to get the best of Dracula enough to end the series, it was going to be Harker. Blade still remained a regular part of Tomb of Dracula and ended up finding a couple of lasting allies. Frank Drake was the human descendant of Dracula who chose to combat his evil ancestor. Then there was Hannibal King, a reluctant vampire who acted as a detective. You might remember him from Blade Trinity, where Ryan Reynolds used him as an audition to play Deadpool. Or not, since he didn’t really have many similarities to the comic version of King outside of killing vampires alongside Blade.
Blade and King ended up taking on Deacon Frost together and joked after the fact about how they made for a good team despite their The Fox and the Hound dynamic.
Once Tomb of Dracula ended and all the black-and-white horror comics dried up, the ’80s kicked in and Blade did a whole lot of nothing. He, Drake, and King made a few appearances in Doctor Strange, as Strange was in the midst of taking on Dracula. Strange succeeded in pulling off a spell that caused a full-on vampire genocide, which not only annihilated Dracula, but also cured King of his affliction and turned him fully human again. Without vampires to go after, Blade and friends just became a detective agency and fell further into obscurity.
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Tomb of Dracula returned in the early ’90s as a miniseries, bringing vampires back into the Marvel fold. Blade still had his ’70s look going on here for one last hurrah. This time around, they made him seem a bit more unhinged and obsessed with killing Dracula. Really, it was no more obsessed than usual, but they did throw him into an asylum by the end of the series, so dick move to Drake and King.
Months later, we got our first look at the modernized take of Blade. Not in a storyline or anything like that, but a pinup in the back of Ghost Rider #25. This was part of the hype for a new series being born out of the pages of Ghost Rider called Nightstalkers. Blade, Drake, and King would finally be getting their own series, only it was overflowingly 90s. For one, Nightstalkers #1 was “Part 5 of 6” for the storyline “Rise of the Midnight Sons.”
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Hannibal King, a vampire again, had wild Saiyan hair, red eyes, and claws. Frank Drake looked like any given Liefeld X-Men character of the time, donning a ponytail, giant cyber rifle, and targeting headset. Blade himself had a leather jacket, flat top, and katanas. He’s the one who came out of this looking good.
Coincidentally, this is right around when Marvel started development of the movie.
Nightstalkers lasted eighteen issues and while that was going on, an anthology series called Midnight Sons Unlimited dedicated itself to the adventures of macabre-based heroes like Blade’s crew, Morbius, and Ghost Rider. Nightstalkers came to an end with a final issue that seemingly killed off both Drake and King. Granted, they’d each resurface one way or another over time, but this was a way to let Blade go solo.
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Blade: The Vampire-Hunter lasted ten issues. A couple of years later, they released a few one-shots and a miniseries to get a little hype in for the new movie. Blade hit theaters on August 21, 1998. A commercial success, it finally made him a part of Marvel worth remembering for those who weren’t the most hardcore of readers (keep that in mind when you find yourself wondering why Eternals is going to happen). Naturally, this meant that the comic version of the character needed to reflect his cinematic counterpart.
Now, interestingly enough, this meant nothing when it came to Abraham Whistler. Outside of adaptations of the films, Whistler has been missing from the comics. And sure, that’s not the biggest deal. It’s not like Bob the Goon started popping up in Detective Comics after Tim Burton’s Batman movie in 1989. What’s kind of crazy is that despite Blade being a 1998 release, Abraham Whistler’s very first screen appearance is in a 1995 episode of Spider-Man: The Animated Series!
Hey, Marvel’s crazy promotional foresight goes way back.
Animated Blade also first introduced the idea that he had vampire powers without the weaknesses. Since, “A vampire slaughtered my prostitute mother while I was born,” wouldn’t exactly fly on a cartoon where Spider-Man isn’t allowed to punch Dr. Octopus, they just went with the origin that Blade’s dad was a vampire and his mother was human. If it was that easy, you’d think there would be more like him.
Again, the comics version of Blade was just a very fit guy with an immunity. They obviously wanted to upgrade him a bit and so they did…but only a little. In the pages of Peter Parker: Spider-Man, during the chaotic Howard Mackie/John Romita Jr. run where a lot of stuff was happening but none of it mattered, Morbius was experimented on and set loose on the Kingpin. Blade and Spider-Man got involved and during the fracas, Morbius bit Blade in the arm.
It was treated as barely a thing in the comic and Blade just walked it off without making any reference to it, but they used that minor moment to later explain that Blade being bitten by THE LIVING VAMPIRE had a very different reaction to his biology and gave him vampire powers. So that’s how that happened.
In 2002, Blade got a MAX-rated series by Christopher Hinz and Steve Pugh that played up his cinematic depiction. Then in 2006, Marc Guggenheim got a 12-issue Blade ongoing that played up his connection to the greater Marvel Universe by having him cross paths with Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Dr. Doom. Since then, he’s shown up here and there, even becoming a surprise member of the Avengers at one point.
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But before I end this, I have to talk about the last comic before they decided to go all-in on the Snipes Blade design. Based on the movie’s success, there was a Blade run by Bart Sears that came out late-1999 into early-2000. Now, everyone talks shit about everything that comes with the 1970s look, but considering what Blade was wearing in 2000…?
We owe him an apology.
Gavin Jasper writes for Den of Geek and always liked that issue of Marvel Team-Up where Blade and Punisher hung out on a rooftop, watching a deal between mobsters and vampires go down in the alley below. Read more of Gavin’s articles here and follow him on Twitter @Gavin4L