Friday, January 27, 2012

Review: Dark Shadows #1

The creators of the new Dark Shadows comic book faced the kinds of obstacles I wouldn't wish on any creator.

When Hollywood translates comics for film, it usually means eviscerating decades worth of storylines to create a coherent, if not always compelling, narrative. It makes for a leaner product, for sure, but it also loses many of the character details that made the original story special in the first place. Exhibit A.

Ironically, the new Dark Shadows comic has the same problem. The original series tallied more than a thousand episodes and has been off the air for 40 years. It had a cast of characters almost as large as The Simpsons, not to mention divergent timelines and hundreds of years of backstory. Also, the show's primary characters were entirely absent from Dark Shadows' last story arc, leaving creators no momentum on which they could build. And it had the bizarre problem of have to translate a daily serial into a monthly serial, a process that promises to significantly slow the story's pace.

The obvious solution would be to toss out all that continuity and start fresh. I'm delighted to say the creators of the new comic, much like the creators of the original show, have taken the path of most resistance by extending the show's existing continuity. 

Spoilers follow.

The comic begins with a subtle nod to the show's opening. Narration from Dr. Julia Hoffman welcomes us to Collinwood and begins to slow process of both introducing the characters for new readers, informing longtime fans of what has happened since we last saw them. We quickly learn that Roger Collins is nursing a secret, Carolyn's rebellious streak is again emerging following the death of her husband, Jeb Hawkes, and that David has taken to playing with fire (and that last item should raise a red flag or two.)

Naturally, the story quickly moves to the show's most compelling character, Barnabas Collins, who is once again under the vampire's curse. Barnabas has been having nightmares about Angelique, wisely taking no comfort in her most recent "death." And his dreams aren't the only ill omens about Angelique's return. Hoffman falls under the thrall of a maybe-not-that-mysterious power after discovering a statue of Angelique on the grounds of Collinwood. And the words "SHE APPROACHES" are found scrawled on the walls of the manor.

Roger, as always, is quick to point out his deficiencies as a parent by blaming the bloody scrawl on David. And Carolyn gets some surprising (and welcome) character moments with the bartender at the Blue Whale. It appears that the series is going to take a few pointers from the late Dark Shadows writer Sam Hall, who created an outline for where the television series might have gone had it not been cancelled. Hall speculated that Carolyn would become a paranormal investigator and the new comic is taking every opportunity to highlight her newfound psychic abilities.

Either way, it's great that the comic can take a moment, however brief, to let the characters do something other than react to conflict (at least, react in a non-physical way.)

The issues ends on a curious note, as Hoffman finds Barnabas slouched over Carolyn, who appears to have been attached by a vampire.

Anyone who has ever read a comic based on a licensed property can attest that they usually suck (no pun intended.)  Marvel interpreted Indiana Jones as a wise-cracking, chatty adventurer who had more in common with Spider-Man than the quiet presence that he was in the movies. And the Dark Horse Star Wars comics have spent almost 20 years playing games of cosmic one-upsmanship, leading to books that feel little like the movies. Even the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic wandered so far afield that it alienated a lot of fans ... and it was written by the show's creators.

Writer Stuart Manning understands that it's important to let Dark Shadows be itself. The dialogue is amazingly idiosyncratic to the characters and makes the art almost redundant. There's no sign of the budget-busting set pieces that made the Buffy comic such a chore to read. Coupled with the art and coloring, the new Dark Shadows comic truly feels like Dark Shadows.

I hate to end this little critique with a grade-school summation, but the first episode issue of Dark Shadows was so much more than I could have hoped for. When mainstream comic companies routinely trash decades of continuity and good will, it's stunning to see a book that panders so earnestly to fans. I have no idea what people new to Dark Shadows will make of this series. It's not that I don't care (the comic needs all the readers it can get) but readership is not really my problem. The book delivered for me.

(Note: Dynamite Entertainment is one of the few comic companies that allows readers to order directly from them. You can catch up back issues of Dark Shadows by clicking here.)

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