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Corriere dei Piccoli / Corrierino 1993 #35
('Il Castello di Dracula')
by Alberto Savini

Featuring: James, IQ, Tracy, Gordo, Phoebe, Scumlord, Ms Fortune, Snuffer.

Synopsis: James and IQ are excited when their friend and co-student Roman Tepes invites them to his family castle in Transylvania, to view an exhibition of his father's world-renowned collection of paintings. IQ alludes to the 'castle of Count Dracula', but Roman explains the castle belonged to his ancestor Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad Dracula - who may not exactly have been a saint, he says, but was no vampire either. James teasingly says he hopes to run into some werewolves or zombies, though IQ is less enthusiastic! The invitation is extended to Tracy, Phoebe and Gordo, too; and we learn the reason for the exhibition is to pay for expensive castle restorations.

Unfortunately, they're not the only ones planning to pay the Tepes family castle a visit; Scumlord instructs Ms Fortune and Snuffer to use the exhibition as an opportunity to steal Mr Tepes' painting collection. Ms Fortune orders Snuffer to tell SCUM's Romanian branch to send four trusted men to meet them near the castle at dawn with a truck. Back at Warfield, meanwhile, it's the night before the trip and IQ is burning the midnight oil with the creation of his latest inventions, which he explains to James - as well as a pair of scary horror masks which IQ thought chimed with the theme of their trip. James seems a little rattled by the masks as they retire to bed.

In Transylvania at the Tepes castle, a few hours later, Ms Fortune and Snuffer have gained access and hold Mr Tepes, Roman's father, at gunpoint. Ms Fortune instructs Snuffer to lock Mr Tepes and his guards in the dungeon and drug them, while the SCUM agents change into the guards' uniforms, to help maintain a pretence that all at the castle is normal in case anyone comes poking about during the art theft. Later in the day, a taxi arrives at the castle containing Roman, James, Tracy, Phoebe, Gordo and IQ. Roman is puzzled as to why his dad didn't send anyone to meet them at the airport, but when they knock at the door, one of the SCUM agents disguised as a guard appears and rudely tells them to go away, as the exhibition isn't until tomorrow.

Roman cannot believe that his father has forgotten even to tell the guards they're coming, and decides something must be wrong. Meanwhile, in the courtyard, the SCUM agents are loading up a lorry with stolen artwork, though they're not even halfway finished yet. The agent from the front door comes to tell them that there were a group of kids at the door, who he chased away - but that they were probably just art students. However, Ms Fortune suspects trouble is afoot. Outside, Roman tells the gang of a secret passage he knows of that leads to the basement; and sure enough they find the hidden entrance behind some foliage. Indoors, Ms Fortune and Snuffer are monitoring the castle CCTV system, and are horrified to see James and his friends enter.

On the dungeon floor, James notices footprints in the dust, suggesting someone was here a short while ago. Since the corridor leads only to the cells, Roman and Tracy deduce that someone has imprisoned his father and the guards. Sure enough, they find Mr Tepes, but he's unconscious from the drug Snuffer has given him. IQ, Phoebe and Gordo find some wet rags on the floor and sniff them, then faint themselves; the others realise that this must have been what was used to drug Tepes and the guards. James remarks that IQ can sometimes be naive, despite being a genius. At which point Ms Fortune turns up with some SCUM agents, and tells James he's just as naive for walking into her trap.

Soon after, Roman, James and Tracy are locked in a cell with their drugged friends. Tracy asks if there are any other secret passages; Roman says there are two more, one from the basement to the battlements and another, used only by Vlad Tepes, that connects the battlements with the courtyard. James remembers one of IQ's gadgets, a laser can opener, which he finds in IQ's jacket pocket. He uses it to cut open the door of their cell, then explains the plan as they all take the second secret passage to the battlements - he and Roman will wear the masks IQ created to scare the SCUM agents, while Tracy should make her way to the courtyard via the third secret passage, down a steep staircase.

James puts on a Dracula mask, while Roman's looks like Frankenstein's monster. James also activates the smoke bomb in his shoe, then he and Roman begin to emulate 'screams beyond the grave' and 'hellish voices'. 'How dare you, wretched mortals?' one of them booms at the SCUM agents as they carry the paintings out of the castle. Meanwhile in the courtyard, Tracy is carrying out her part of the plan, by sabotaging the agents' truck. James and Roman have now appeared in full costume on the battlements, shouting that the crooks will pay very dearly for their crimes. Unable to start the truck to escape, the SCUM agents flee by foot. Ms Fortune calls for them to come back, saying it's just Bond's trick.

Snuffer tells Ms Fortune that, whether the monsters are real or not, their theft has now failed, so they may as well flee, too; and they escape via a helicopter. While Ms Fortune curses from the sky, James congratulates Roman and Tracy on their efforts. Tracy mentions that while she was going down the secret passage, she almost tripped over a bat-shaped handle. Roman appears to think this significant, saying he thought this was merely a legend. IQ, Gordo, Phoebe and Mr Tepes rejoin the group having regained consciousness, and everyone convenes in a treasure room that's been found by pulling the handle Tracy discovered, filled with gold coins and trinkets. This, we learn is the legendary treasure of Vlad Tepes. They agree to use it to restore the castle, and then turn it into an amusement park. Everyone cheers.

Review: On reflection, it's perhaps surprising that the TV episodes never paid a visit to Transylvania, its own forays into monster-inhabited castles taking place in Germany (The Inhuman Race) in an episode with strong Frankenstein influences, and Ireland (Goldie Finger at the End of the Rainbow) where a leprechaun runs amok. So this strip was a prime opportunity for Corriere dei Piccoli to make its own contribution to the franchise's occasional leanings towards the weird and wonderful. While this falls a little early in the run for Halloween, it's nonetheless an enjoyable novelty to have James in a Dracula costume; the last time we dealt with vampires as subject matter, in The Inhuman Race, it was the villains of the piece donning the outfits, Scooby Doo-style, so it's refreshing to turn the trope on its head. It's also pleasing how the historical Vlad Tepes is worked into proceedings to add a degree of authentic flavour; and Roman makes for a likeable and resourceful addition to the gang. The rendering of several characters unconscious including three of the core Warfield gang, due to some kind of soporific drug deployed by the crooks, adds a degree of menace into the mix as well. Ms Fortune and Snuffer are good value as ever - the former not even remotely falling for James's box of tricks, and the latter bringing his usual diplomatic pragmatism to the table when he knows the game is up.

Highs: Tracy gets far more to do here than in any average appearance, being not only responsible for sabotaging the SCUM truck, but also finding the entrance to the hidden treasure room. She also teases James when Phoebe manages to get a quip in before he does, leading James to whinge rather petulantly that Phoebe's joke was rubbish anyway. (Because all of his are such high quality.)

James's reaction to IQ's fainting - to stand around critiquing his naivety, rather than getting on the floor and making sure he's okay - comes across as a bit callous. As does Tracy and James then badmouthing IQ's 'absurd', 'nonsense' gadgets on the following page, now he can't hear them because he's out cold. How many times have those gadgets saved your life now, James?

Gadgets & Gizmos:
On IQ's menu today is a can opener that uses a laser beam to open lids rather than a blade, and a powerful smoke bomb that can be installed in one's shoe heels to help shake off pursuers. His pair of monster masks, while not exactly gizmos, also play a key contribution to the denouement.

SCUM on the Surface:
Yes; Scumlord personally oversees the operation, and the Tepes castle is teeming with uniformed SCUM agents, whom we're explicitly told are from the organisation's Romanian branch.

This is one of (by our reckoning) only two occasions when the guest character with an endangered father is a boy rather than a girl - the other being the TV episode Ship of Terror.

Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula, is a real historical figure and a former ruler of Wallachia, part of modern-day Romania. While Bram Stoker may have borrowed the name 'Dracula' from Vlad for his novel, there was no prior association between Tepes and vampirism; and Poenari Castle, the real-life stronghold of Vlad the Impaler, is now but a ruin, far removed from the fictional castle seen in this story.

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