If there's anything to be learned from WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, it's that nothing is more important to a story than its telling. The idea of yet another take on HAMLET, MACBETH or ROMEO AND JULIET should be about as intriguing as a another FAST AND FURIOUS movie, but inspired storytelling almost always captures our imaginations -- familiarity be damned.
This is why I've steered clear of DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE since the comic series was first announced. Yes, familiarity was an issue; I'd grown tired of seeing the "origin" of Barnabas Collins told back in May, 2012. Did I need to see it again, possibly told by some work-for-hire comicbook hacks? Not especially. I'd already seen what Dynamite Comics has been doing with the DARK SHADOWS brand and hadn't been impressed.
Then the artwork from YEAR ONE began to surface online as issue solicitations were published. And it was ... good. In fact, the B&W line-work by artist GUIU VILANOVA was so crisp and well defined that colors were almost beside the point. I'm still nursing scars from the '90s collector boom, though, an era in comics that promoted style over substance to a point that it almost destroyed the industry ... so it takes more than pretty pictures to draw me in (pun intended.)
A few weeks back, MARC ANDREYKO, the writer of DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE, offered me review copies of the first four issues. He's proud of the book and wanted me to reconsider my (increasingly apathetic) opinion on Dynamite's work with the license. If you're joining us late, this was a ballsy move on Andreyko's part. The last DARK SHADOWS comic I'd read from Dynamite had seriously pissed me off, and I was still sulking. Andreyko had no reason to expect me to act like anything less than an asshole.
But he asked for my opinion, so he's gonna get it.
DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE is a mixed bag. That sounds like faint praise, but only because our species tends to prize negative criticism over all else. In more primitive times, it was important to know if the water smelled a little funny because it might make you die. This mentality has carried over to art criticism for reasons I can't really explain. But the fact is that more people are currently chatting online about THE PHANTOM MENACE than CITIZEN KANE.
DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE is a mixed bag, but some of the story's problems come from my own preconceived notions about the original 1795 arc. I've got expectations for specific characters and situations that weren't met, many of which (Joshua Collins, I'm looking at you) behave in radically different ways from their previous interpretations. Events are shuffled, relationships are altered in various degrees and the entire story has been moved to less-stagebound locations. Some fans are going to take issue with these changes (some of them are people who take issue with any change) but change is good when its in service to the story. Make Barnabas Collins a martian for all I care, as long as it's in service of a worthy tale.
The presence of Lt. Nathan Forbes was my first clue that Andreyko had a better understanding of this story than many of the other writers who've tried their hands at it. Forbes was absent from the 1991 "revival" series and the 2012 TIM BURTON movie because, on the surface, he seems to be a superfluous character. But Forbes' own spiral into corruption not only mirrors that of Barnabas Collins, it facilitates it. Both men a delusional about their own failing ethics, have prior romantic attachments that come back to haunt them, and eventually surrender to their own baser natures to become monsters in the story's climax.
This review only covers the first four issues of DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE, so I haven't seen how Forbes plays into this story's ending. It's possible Andreyko has something else in mind, but Forbes' presence is still a welcome one.
Many of the story's changes exist to streamline the narrative. The original television story had roughly 100 episodes to tell its sprawling (sometimes meandering) tale, so any translation is going to suffer edits. And there are a handful of actual improvements here. The "bat on a string" that cursed Barnabas on television has been replaced by a swarm of bats that descend from the night skies as he flees on horseback, making the moment more urgent, dangerous and primal. It's easily my favorite interpretation of the scene.
Also, shifting the perspective from Victoria Winters to Barnabas Collins makes the time-traveling governess a more interesting player in the story. Seen from the family's point of view, Victoria is presented as a minor character with some David Lynch-ian personality quirks. Her actual history is hardly even hinted at in the early part of the narrative, which is a fascinating decision. She's an otherworldly agent provocateur.
The non-linear nature of YEAR ONE also keeps things moving at a brisk pace, allowing characters to be introduced in terms of relevance. Many of the story's dramatic confrontations have a sense of danger that was sometimes missing from the original show, at least in regards to the Barnabas/Josette story. As a character, Josette du Pres was always a little underwritten, presented to the audience as someone to care about only because we're supposed to. Her limited interactions with Barnabas in YEAR ONE feel more organic and genuine than in the original TV series, and the book pulls no punches in her death scene (though the colors make it appear Barnabas watches it happen in broad daylight, which is a little confusing.)
And, as I mentioned before, Guiu Vilanova's art is terrific. Finding an artist with a flair for atmosphere and actor likenesses is rare, and any book would be lucky to have him. The page layouts are dynamic and easy to follow, squeezing as much story as possible into the book. It's also worth mentioning that Vilanova manages to make the characters recognizable without relying on the same six promotional photos for every page.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK
In one word: Pacing. Andreyko, possibly due to a mandate from Dynamite or the property holders, rushes Barnabas' transformation into a vampire as if there were concerns that readers would lose interest in the story if we didn't get to see the fangs post haste. Barnabas appears for the first time as a vampire in the early pages of the book's second issue, robbing us of time to get to know the various players. Even Angelique is revealed as being nuts in her very first scene. I kept wanting to shout at the book to slow down.
The depiction of Angelique is especially problematic. Vilanova's art elaborates on the character's elemental nature, but YEAR ONE continues the mistake of presenting the witch as merely crazy. This has been the easy path to the character that's been followed since DAN CURTIS paved the way in NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS. But, in the original series, there was much more to Angelique than a FATAL ATTRACTION riff, which was the approach used by both the 1991 revival series and the 2012 TIM BURTON film. There's an assortment of gender politics and class issues that can be explored with Angelique, but those concepts get sidelined for yet another "Don't stick your dick in crazy!" story. This decision is even more baffling in DARK SHADOWS, where said "dick" tended to carry a lethal dose of crazy, itself. Presenting Angelique as a crazy, unreasonable ex-girlfriend is disappointing.
At least, that's my perspective on YEAR ONE. But here's the thing: The world doesn't need a beat-for-beat retelling of the original TV series. There are DVDs available if you want to revisit that exact story. These kinds of projects become fun and interesting when you look at them as a products of their creators. With YEAR ONE, you get an idea of what Andreyko and Vilanova love about DARK SHADOWS. The tension you feel while reading this kind of interpretation is actually a good thing. You should be thinking about these changes. Not as an exercise in resentment, but in terms of what these changes mean. While I wasn't thoroughly satisfied with YEAR ONE, it certainly isn't the work of hacks.
I hope the creators get a chance to tell their own stories in Collinsport after YEAR ONE, because they have a pretty good grasp of the material.
(If you can't find a comic store, individual issues of DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE are available as a digital downloads on AMAZON. I say give it a chance.)