REVIEW – Dynamite Entertainment’s Dark Shadows

I mentioned recently that I’ve been reading comic books since 1974.  I mostly preferred super-hero comics, and I’m not entirely sure why, although it’s clear that most readers do.  I think, for me it’s because they allow an escape from reality, they generally allow for exciting, colorful imagery, and they have that sense of romantic heroism that is lacking in, say, sword and sorcery stories.  I’ll probably explore what I mean by “romantic heroism” in a totally separate article.  Suffice to say here that I use it to mean that the characters in the story have a sense of right and wrong, are working toward a just goal, and portray an ideal of people as they should be, not merely as they are.  Superman is a person as we’d like to believe people could be.  Conan the Barbarian, on the other hand, has little to advertise him as a hero.  He can get away with running around in a loin cloth and he wields a mean sword.  That’s true of lots of real people, so Conan did nothing for me.  (Red Sonja, on the other hand…  Pretty girls need no excuse.  I’m sexist that way.  Sue me.)

Despite my love of super-hero comics, however, the first comic book I ever purchased was an issue of Ghosts, an anthology series from DC Comics.  It ran for 112 issues, sometimes relating “true” stories, at least stories that had an original source outside comics, and sometimes telling tales out of the authors’ heads.  It was probably the last of the successful horror comics to come out of a major publisher during the days when comic books were sold on newsstands, and not only in specialty shops.  I didn’t read it regularly, but I picked up issues often, and it was fun.  I love ghost stories, because, again, they go beyond the real world by transcending death.  They also often involve some sort of moral quest.Supernatural stories were different in popular entertainment of the 1960s and 70s than they are today.  Now it seems neither New York’s publishers nor Hollywood can tell a ghost story without quickly introducing an impending apocalypse, blowing up a major city or at least leaving a football-stadium worth of dead bodies strewn across the landscape.  When I was growing up, though, we took our ghost stories with a lesser dose of shock and awe.  It was cool enough that supernatural beings existed in the context of our entertainment.

Dark Shadows was a product of this time.  Originally a soap opera whose only unique selling point was that it was Gothic, (meaning it took place in an old dark house where things went bump in the night, and it had a pretty young heroine who wasn’t inconveniently bright enough to take care of herself) the show saved itself from cancellation by adding first a ghost, then a vampire to the cast.  These quickly attracted a mad scientist or two, a couple of werewolves, some reanimated monsters built in labs, and even a tribe of elder gods.  Dark Shadows revived all the staples of horror from an earlier generation of films for a daytime audience.  Of course, given the subject matter, that daytime audience shifted away from being housewives and toward middle and high school students.  This was my introduction to it, since my brother and sister were middle and high-school aged when it was on.  It was the cool show the big kids watched.

Despite its cancellation in 1971, the show, like its vampire star, Barnabas Collins, has never stayed in its grave.  It continued briefly in paperback books, it was revived for television in 1991 (with an attempted revival again in 2004), it will be a major motion picture release from Tim Burton and Johnny Depp in 2012, while the original cast has kept it alive via audio drama from Big Finish Audio in the U.K., with about two dozen titles available.  Perhaps the most durable of its 1960s incarnations, though, was the original Dark Shadows comic book.  Though its fictional history diverged somewhat from its TV roots, Gold Key’s monthly comic outlived its television counterpart by five years.  Comic readers, it seemed, were more willing to stick with the residents of the fictional town of Collinsport, ME than were fickle television viewers.

Although the 1991 TV series spawned comic adaptations, Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins has not been seen in sequential art form since 1976.  A little over a month ago, Dynamite Entertainment, a company which largely specializes in TV and movie comic adaptations and publishes extremely high quality books from top talents, ended that dry spell.  Dark Shadows #1 was released to coincide with Hallowe’en 2011.

Stuart Manning, writer for the audio dramas from Big Finish, is scripting the series.  Whereas for audio he has largely picked up the story of the Collins family years after the series ended (due to the deaths or unavailability of many of the original cast), his first issue of the comic jumps right in pretty much where the show left off in April, 1971.

Well… kinda.  Here’s the thing: for the last thirteen months Dark Shadows was on the air, the storyline didn’t really involve its principal characters.  Viewers were shown a parallel universe for many months, followed by a trip to the future, and then a cataclysmic few months during which major characters departed or died.  Indeed, Collinwood, the old dark house itself, was destroyed during that time.  As a result, Barnabas Collins, reluctant vampire turned hero and protector of his family, traveled to the past to change history and prevent the destruction of his loved ones.  He succeeded, so we were told, but we never saw the results.  Heartbroken by the death of his lover and sometimes tormentor Angelique, the witch who made him a vampire out of jealousy, but eventually won his heart, he spent the last months of the show gazing again into a parallel universe. It was that story (a lackluster takeoff on Wuthering Heights) which capped the series.  Or popped a cap into it, if I’m honest.

Manning and artist Aaron Campbell return readers to the Collins family mansion and the core characters fans remember, placing the focus back on the series stars.  Barnabas is once again a vampire.  He was cured several times during the series, most recently by Angelique herself, who cast a spell to nullify her curse.  Apparently, the spell required her constant attention to keep working.  Now that she’s dead, Barnabas must again sleep by day and drink the blood of the living by night.

Dr. Julia Hoffman, whose unrequited love for her patient was one of the most poignant aspects of the series, continues to care for Barnabas, but quickly falls under the control of a supernatural influence.  Barnabas’s young cousins, Carolyn and David, carry their own scars, presumably the fallout of the family’s curse.  Carolyn is a young widow, turning to alcohol to forget her husband, and David is becoming an arsonist, acting out the anxiety brought on by the number of times he’s been controlled / possessed / screwed with by some damn evil spirit or another.  (The arson angle will also remind fans that David’s late mother was a supernatural creature of fire, a phoenix.)

Quentin Collins, the Dorian Gray of the family, is touched on only briefly, but is there to remind us his story continues.  And Angelique returns in a dream to torment Barnabas, with the suggestion that she’s not quite gone, and that their recent moments of happiness haven’t settled the animosity between them.  The issue ends with a bloody attack on a family member, and the cryptic warning “She approaches” written in blood on the wall of Collinwood.  “She” may be Angelique herself, returning as what we now call “the big bad” of the first story arc.  Manning is a clever plotter, though, and all is most likely not what it seems.

The characterization is well handled in this first issue.  Manning and Campbell use broad strokes to draw familiar portraits in words and pictures.  The suspense builds nicely, and there is a good bit of plot packed into this first issue, though pages had to be allowed to re-introduce characters.  That’s good, because one of the most frustrating things about comic books in 2011 is that I’m paying for one comic twenty times what I paid for that first issue of Ghosts in 1974, but I’m getting less than twenty per cent of the story that came in those newsprint pages.  The pictures are sometimes prettier, but I still feel ripped off by most 21st Century comics.  Dark Shadows was an exception.  We can only hope it survives to tell many new stories of the Collins family.  If Dynamite’s track record is any indicator, it will.  They seem to give their series a chance to find an audience, and they seem to allow their creators to do their jobs.  Perhaps that’s why so many of my monthly purchases these days carry the Dynamite label, and so few say “Marvel” or “DC.”

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