Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Barnabas Collins makes his four-color debut

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of Barnabas Collins on DARK SHADOWS. To celebrate the occasion, The Collinsport Historical Society is spending the week looking back at the "introductions" of the character in various media.


By 1969, everybody wanted a piece of DARK SHADOWS. The television show was a pop culture phenomenon, with Jonathan Frid's likeness appearing on everything from Halloween costumes to the sleeves of Top 40 albums. With children of all ages going nuts for Barnabas Collins it seemed like a natural to translate DARK SHADOWS into a four-color comicbook. There was only one problem:

Formed in 1954, the Comics Code Authority was a blight on the comics industry and set the medium back decades. It was the end result of a congressional witch hunt, which alleged that comics were turning America's youth into a bunch of drug-crazed, homosexual criminals. In order to appease congress, the industry agreed to create the Comics Code Authority, a self-governing body that would make sure icky material no longer found its way into American comic books.

It was a pretty shitty deal.

The larger publishers began to abuse their power almost immediately, creating "rules" designed to muscle some publishers out of the industry. EC Comics is the most famous victim of the code, which brought an end to its lines of horror and crime comics. Among the subjects declared off limits by the CCA were zombies, werewolves and vampires.

So when DARK SHADOWS became a thing, Marvel and DC were unable to pick up the license for the series. Third-tier publisher Gold Key had no such problems because they were not members of the CCA. They were among the few publishers to opt out of the deal and continued publishing whatever the hell they wanted.

At the start of 1969, Gold Key added DARK SHADOWS to a roster that already included STAR TREK, TARZAN and BORIS KARLOFF: TALES OF MYSTERY. While I admire Gold Key's magnificent pair of brass balls, I wish I could say their bravado was worthwhile. Their comics kinda suck.

The first issue of DARK SHADOWS hits the ground running, summarizing Barnabas Collin' background in a single page. From there, the comic begins to introduce a cast that includes a red-headed Angelique, Willie Loomis and Dr. Julia Hoffman. The tale is a lot more elaborate than it needs to be and told with the manic aggression of a pathological liar: It feels as though the story is being made-up as it goes along, ending as soon as the creators hit their required page count.
Here's a thumbnail synopsis of the story, titled "The Vampire's Prey": Two college kids visit Collinsport to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of their ancestors, one Reverend Trask. Barnabas is naturally concerned because he bricked up Trask in the walls of his home many years earlier and is concerned the kids might find him out. Angelique intervenes to make his life miserable and bad things happen. And these "bad things" are surprisingly boring.

The biggest problem with Gold Key's DARK SHADOWS comic is an utter absence of character. If you were to read the comic's dialogue out of context you'd have a difficult time trying to figure out who was supposed to be saying it. It's not only faceless, it's propped up by artificial drama: The characters spend the duration of the issue shouting at each other, no matter how relaxed the situation. Literally every line of dialogue in this issue ends with either an exclamation point or a question mark. Adding to the story's false sense of urgency is Barnabas' insistence on running everywhere he goes.

Still, the book sold well enough, even outlasting the original television series by several years. But you won't find a lot of "art" in the series, despite its healthy run. While other publishers hired writers and artists with a desire to lift the medium from its illegitimate status, Gold Key had other ideas. Their books were just "stuff" produced to satisfy market demand and are only interesting today as relics. I wish things were otherwise. Perhaps in a parallel time fans got to read a DARK SHADOWS book created by folks like Steve Ditko, Michael Fleisher, Gene Colan and Roy Thomas ... in their primes, no less.

Here's a photo of an adorable kitten to help offset whatever depression might result from that previous paragraph.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The way you wrote this literally had me laughing out loud!

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