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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 another FAST AND FURIOUS film, but inspired storytelling almost always captures our imaginations — familiarity be damned.
For fans of the original television series, DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE is going to be very familiar ground. A retelling of the 1796 storyline, which introduced the witch Angelique to the series and explained how Barnabas Collins became a vampire, is one of the show's most popular tales. Part of this is its role as narrative touchstone. Whenever anyone tries to revive DARK SHADOWS, its almost impossible for them to resist the urge to return to the 1796 storyline. Dan Curtis did it for the 1991 "revival" series. Tim Burton did it for misguided 2012 film. And, last year, Dynamite Entertainment did it with YEAR ONE.
Of those efforts, Dynamite's is easily the best of the bunch. DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE is arguably the finest comicbook ever published about Barnabas Collins, retelling the fall of Barnabas Collins at maximum volume. That's faint praise when compared to its competition, which has been grotesquely uneven since the first issue of the Gold Key series was published back in 1969. DARK SHADOWS was a big, lumbering beast that needed five days of weekly storytelling to fully express itself. When whittled down to 20-odd pages of illustrated storytelling each month, much of the show's personality was lost in translation. Even though daytime dramas and comicbooks have a lot in common, the four-color format has traditionally been too small to contain DARK SHADOWS.
That's not to suggest DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE is essential reading. If you've seen the television show, you pretty much know how this story unfolds. But, here's the thing: writer Marc Andreyko isn't interested in fixing what he sees are problems with DARK SHADOWS; he's interested in discussing what he loves about the show. Thanks to the book's monthly publication cycle (and, perhaps, my own distaste for some of Dynamite's other DARK SHADOWS comics) it took me a while to recognize that.
Many of the story's changes exist to streamline the narrative, for better and for worse. There are some actual improvements made to the story, though many are superficial. The "bat on a string" that cursed Barnabas on television has been replaced by a swarm of bats that descend from the night skies as he tries to outrun them on horseback, making the moment more urgent, dangerous and primal. Because comicbooks aren't hampered by the stagebound nature of television series, DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE lets us see more of Collinsport than ever before. And, thanks to artist Guiu Vilanova, the book never fails to look like DARK SHADOWS. 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, and squeeze 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 to depict the original cast members.)
One of my favorite narrative changes is how it shifts the perspective away from Victoria Winters to Barnabas Collins, making the time-traveling governess a more interesting (if cryptic) player in the story. Presented from the Collins family's point of view, Victoria is a minor character with some David Lynch-ian personality quirks. Her actual history is hardly even hinted at in the story, which is a fascinating decision. She's an otherworldly agent provocateur.
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 are 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.
The non-linear nature of DARK SHADOWS 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 mostly because we're supposed to. Her 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 coloring make it appear Barnabas watches it happen in broad daylight, which is a little confusing.)
Pacing is a bit of a problem in YEAR ONE, which is both ironic and apt considering the pacing issues of the original television series. The comic 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 from the very start. 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.
The biggest departure from the original story is the presentation of Joshua Collins. I imagine Andreyko worried the cast of characters was already overrunning with assholes, so Joshua's character arc was considerably softened. He says and does things in this book he never would have done in the original series, but he's a welcome voice of compassion during the story's final act. This character reversal also makes him a more proactive character. Obsessed with ridding his son of the vampire curse, Joshua seeks out another witch to undo the spell, which feels strangely reasonable given all the weirdness taking place at Collinwood.
The depiction of Angelique, though, is problematic. Vilanova's art elaborates on the character's elemental nature, but YEAR ONE continues the mistake of presenting the witch as being little more than vindictive and disturbed. There is more to Angelique than a FATAL ATTRACTION riff, which was the approach used by both the 1991 revival series and the Burton film. There's an assortment of gender politics and class issues that can be explored with the character (as was done on the original television series), but those concepts get sidelined for yet another "Don't stick your dick in crazy" morality play. This decision is even more baffling in DARK SHADOWS, where dicks tended to carry lethal doses of crazy, themselves.
Overall, though, I'm pretty fond of DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE. The world doesn't need a beat-for-beat retelling of the original TV series. These kinds of projects become fun and interesting when you look at them as a products of their creators, and 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. It's perfectly OK if you arrive at a different conclusion than Andreyko and Vilanova because there's room in the world for different points of view. While I didn't like every change made to the original 1796 story, the book has an astonishingly strong ending that brings together it's varied influences. It's equal parts DRACULA, WHAT'S OPERA DOC?, DON GIOVANNI and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Had Jonathan Frid been given a chance to play this version of Barnabas Collins in a feature film, he might have taken the job with a great deal of enthusiasm.
(Note: This review is a revision of two separate pieces published during the original run of DARK SHADOWS YEAR ONE. As I mentioned above, it took me a while to get a grasp on what the book was trying to accomplish, forcing me to revise some of my earlier sentiments.)