“And there it was… a MYSTERY BODY!”
The story so far: I began writing this blog two Labor Day weekends ago, starting with Barnabas emerging from the mystery box in episode 210. Now it’s Labor Day weekend again, and by some cruel trick of time, my journey into the past has reached the halfway mark.
This is the midpoint between episode 210 and the end of this uncertain and frightening television show, and to mark the occasion, I should probably say something profound and clever about this episode that sums up what these last two years have taught us about vampires and storytelling and character development and natural selection and chromakey and why you should never give a gun to an actor, even an unloaded prop gun, because honestly, they will find a way to hurt themselves.
Unfortunately, it turns out that I don’t have very much to say about today’s episode, except that this is the one where, for one tantalizing moment, it looks like Quentin and Barnabas are about to kiss.
And I don’t want to do some kind of self-indulgent retrospective piece where I sum up the last two years of the blog, which is to say that I tried writing that three different times, and all three of them were embarrassing and terrible.
So instead, I’m going to talk about “The Fires of Darkness,” from issue #2 of Gold Key’s amazing Dark Shadows comic book.
This issue came out in late summer 1969, which is a little later than where we are in the show, but today is basically my birthday, and this is how I want to spend it — watching comic book Angelique setting fire to comic book Collinwood.
We’ve looked at this comic before — see “Missing Adventures” for a discussion of issue #1. Surprisingly for a spin-off comic, it takes place in a universe that’s not too different from the one we know on the show.
The series of Paperback Library gothic romance novels have their own bonkers timeline, with most of the books set in a daydream past where Barnabas was never locked up in his coffin. But the Gold Key stories are set, more or less, in 1969 Dark Shadows, except they do things that even 1969 Dark Shadows isn’t crazy enough to do.
This time, the only TV show characters we see are Barnabas and the ghost of Angelique, who is extremely angry. Later on, they mention Vicki, Julia and Willie, although we don’t actually see them; they’re just hanging around off-panel somewhere.
So Barnabas is left on his own without a babysitter today, and we get to see what happens when you let him try to solve a problem on his own.
As the story begins, Angelique has set everything in the world on fire, for no particular reason except to spoil Barnabas’ evening.
She purports that as a vampire, Barnabas is naturally flame-retardant, which I guess could be true, but I wouldn’t want to be the guy that tries it.
Arriving at the scene, the firemen have a fascinating little conversation.
“Great heavens… the library!” one says. “It’s filled with FIRE!”
Another replies, “I’ve never seen fire like that! It’s like fire… from ANOTHER PLACE!”
“It’s all over EVERYTHING!” another cries.
So make sense of that sequence, if you can: professional grown-man fire fighters, utterly baffled by fire. The premise of this entire story is that fire is mysterious, and impossible to explain.
This is a long-standing problem in comic books, mostly thanks to the early 60s Marvel comics, where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were absolutely fascinated with four things that they knew nothing about: fire, magnetism, blindness and women.
Enter Marc Hull, the distinguished, Reed Richards-esque Collinsport fire inspector. He’s checking out the damage, accompanied by Mr. Hackley, a dithering fireman who serves as the obligatory Watson in this scene.
I hope that you’ve managed to grasp the fact that the man in the blue jacket is named Hackley. His name is incredibly important, apparently, because Marc says it five times over the course of the next two pages. People in this comic say each other’s names a lot, sometimes twice in consecutive sentences. I suppose you have to fill up the panels somehow.
Anyway, Hackley accompanies Marc to the house, whining, “It was the oddest fire I ever saw, Mister Hull! It was all over EVERYTHING!”
But Mister Hull keeps his cool, because he is the only living human being who has cracked the secret of how fire works. “My files contain other fires that were very similar! A candle or a bit of frayed wiring… almost anything could touch off something like this!”
Sure, anything. Sometimes a match or an avocado or sometimes the dog eats gasoline or every once in a while fires just happen for no reason, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. You shouldn’t even try to put it out; it just makes the fire mad, and things get even worse.
Hackley says, “It sure was different to me!” which is Marc’s cue to start speculating. They just walk into the house, by the way, with nobody answering the door or checking their ID badges or anything. As we’ll discover, Marc Hull has free rein to go anywhere and do anything he likes, because he is in charge of fire.
“Hackley… I’m afraid your suspicions were right!” Marc says, probably making Hackley’s day. “This was no ordinary fire!”
Hackley asks what he’s found, and Marc cries, “Murder, Hackley… a MURDER!”
So, let me see if I can explain the methodology. According to Marc, someone was murdered in this room, and then the murderer started a fire to cover it up. The reason why the carpet isn’t burned in this spot is that the body soaked up all the flames, or something.
“Whoever killed him came back as soon as the flames were out, and removed the body!” Marc says. “Did any of the men see anything suspicious?”
Um, yeah; we saw a crackpot fire inspector. What the hell are you talking about? I’m being Hackley now, this is what that theory has done to me, it’s turned me into Hackley. Why would somebody start a fire in order to cover up for a murder, and then take the body away afterwards? Isn’t the point of starting the fire that the body would — oh, forget it. Hackley out.
That night, Barnabas gets out of his coffin with an anguished soliloquy that he’s probably been practicing all day.
“Angelique… Angelique!” he moans. “Why… why torture me like this? Your curse is pain enough! Why do you continue to plague me?”
Then his thoughts turn to the investigator. “He is there now, poking, digging… looking for clues! He will learn about me and my fate will be sealed… You leave me no choice… no choice! He cannot be permitted to discover my secret!”
And then guess what the plan turns out to be.
Yup, it’s time for plan A. This is how comic book Barnabas works through a problem.
On the show, Barnabas has spent the last two years struggling to muster up some kind of basic respect for the value of human life, but comic book Barnabas is a non-stop four-alarm incessant murder machine. He actually gets interrupted in the middle of murdering people, because he has to go and murder someone else.
Flying downtown as a bat, Barnabas finds Marc in his office with Clarissa, his devoted female assistant. Clarissa is not-so-secretly in love with her boss, constantly hovering while he’s trying to get some work done, as seen in pretty much every Lee/Kirby comic.
Don Blake had one of these in Thor, and Hank Pym in Ant-Man had one too. Sue Storm did some occasional hovering, and now that I think about it, Aunt May had the same role in Spider-Man. This was apparently mandatory in 1960s comic books.
Anyway, Marc is kvetching that so far his investigation has been a complete bust. Clarissa tries to suggest that we didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning. But Marc never listens to anybody, especially girls.
Standing at the window, Barnabas hisses, “The girl too must go! She knows too much!” which she really doesn’t, actually. I don’t think “too much” is an amount of information that would even fit inside Clarissa’s head.
The only thing Marc has told her so far is that there was a mysterious fire at Collinwood. I have to imagine that was in the local paper today, so if Barnabas is going to kill every single person who’s heard about it, then he’s got a pretty long night ahead of him.
And he’s not the only one with a tight schedule — just as Barnabas is deciding they must perish together, an alarm goes off, and Marc hops on a fire truck as it speeds away.
I’m not sure why the fire marshal needs to go out on house calls like this, especially because he doesn’t seem to be helping. He says, “Lou… Harris… slow down!” because that’s the advice you give to somebody driving a fire truck. Maybe there’s a twist, where it turns out that Marc is actually rooting for the fire.
By the way, notice how every single person speaking in this panel refers to the person they’re talking to by name. We find out later that some of the other firemen are named Victor and George.
In fact, one of the great dramatic moments in the story is later on after the third fire, when George runs up to Marc, yelling, “Mister Hull, Mister Hull! LOU’S FOUND SOMETHING!”
Lou is actually essential to the story’s denouement, so keep your eye on him. No, not that guy, that’s Harris. Lou is the other one.
Anyway, Barnabas decides that these two might as well perish apart, so he busts into the office to grab Clarissa. She promptly faints with a cry of “OOOOOO”, which I guess is binary for “Oh, why do I want to marry a fire marshal?”
Barnabas carries her out of the office and down to the pier, because when you get right down to it, he’s actually not that good at killing people. He tries to murder three different people in this story, and spoiler alert, he doesn’t even manage to get one. Just a swing and a miss, every time.
But this is a fictional universe where murder is super inefficient. It’s no wonder Marc thinks that someone would set fire to the room and then move the body; Barnabas is trying to move the body and then murder the person, which is basically the same thing in reverse. Just kill people, and leave them where they are. They’ll be fine.
The barn fire doesn’t turn out to be that interesting, so Marc gets dropped off at the office by Lou and Harris and Victor and George. Discovering that Clarissa has wandered off by herself for five minutes, Marc instantly fears the worst and starts running around screaming her name, like he ever does anything else.
So Barnabas doesn’t get to kill her after all, quelle surprise, because it’s dawn and he’ll have to wait until tomorrow night. So he takes off, leaving Marc and Clarissa to say their names at each other for another day.
This bat transformation panel has the one thing that I actually like about the art in these comics — multiple shots of Barnabas superimposed on each other, with a corrugated texture. There’s something very 1960s pop art about it, and I think it’s great, even if this panel looks like there’s four completely different people standing in a row.
And so, the next morning — oh, for goodness’ sake. Marc Hull, what on earth do you think you’re doing? You come right down from there this minute!
I don’t care that this fire needs to be inspected, young man; you can’t just perch somewhere and watch everybody through binoculars. You are not the NSA, mister. Now, go inside and help your sister set the table.
But Marc is struck by a thought so alarming that it makes his glasses explode: “Barnabas Collins! I’ve accounted for everyone… EXCEPT HIM!”
Inspired by this nonsensical revelation, Marc rushes back to the office — literally sprinting to his car — so he can get back to Clarissa and talk things over.
Grasping a piece of paper, Marc says, “I’ve accounted for nearly everyone in town who ever has occasion to go to Collinwood!” which I guess means this wasn’t his first binocular census adventure.
He continues, “The only one that I haven’t seen is… Barnabas Collins!”
Trying to keep her cool, Clarissa asks, “Then you think he was the body?”
“Either that, Clarissa… or he knows where the body is!”
“You think that he… HE MAY BE THE MURDERER?”
“EXACTLY!” Marc hollers, because those are the only two options; Barnabas is either the victim or the murderer. Unless he’s the fire inspector, and Marc is the murderer.
By the way, I want to remind everyone that Marc and Clarissa are investigating a crime that did not actually happen. Marc just thinks that there was a murder, based on the carpet stains. Also, Marc and Clarissa are not employed by the police. They’re just two hysterical people, driving around Collinsport and jumping to conclusions.
And then, just when things couldn’t get any shoutier, along comes Titus Tomlinson, the old hermit who lives up on Union Ridge. He’s kind of a weird old prospector type, who happened to be passing by when Angelique started the fire. Titus is here to blackmail Barnabas, threatening to tell everybody what he saw. Barnabas takes this pretty hard.
So naturally he goes on the offensive, lunging at the old man as he commences his third murder attempt in the last twenty-four hours.
And hey, wouldn’t the show be exciting if it was actually like this? There wouldn’t be a single cast member left, of course, but oh, what a week that would be.
But then Marc comes along, because Marc ruins everything, so Barnabas has to pretend that he’s the one being attacked. He does this by jumping on Titus and yelling, “Help! Help! I’m being attacked!” This strategy is one hundred percent effective.
Barnabas bangs Titus’ head on the corner of a stone objet d’art, conveniently placed in the front yard for the purpose of knocking out troublesome hermits. You know, when you see the ads on TV for lawn-based hermit elimination devices, you always think, when am I ever going to use it? But, you see? They come in handy.
“He’ll rest more comfortably inside,” Barnabas says, so the boys pick up the injured man and wrestle him all the way up the front walk and into the drawing room.
Mustering his expertise as a first responder at accident scenes, Marc cautions, “We don’t want to make it worse!”
Barnabas says, “No, we wouldn’t want that, would we?” which is such a “never drink wine” moment that I can hardly stand it. Oh, look, we’re doing the retrospective after all.
Marc and Clarissa finally decide to get some responsible grown-ups involved in the situation, and then this.
This panel is the moment when the incompetence of the writer meets the incompetence of the artist at full strength. Barnabas tosses a lit candelabra, which lands on a passing armchair with a THUNK, and sets the house instantly ablaze. Seriously, I love this comic book.
Naturally, within moments, the fire is ALL OVER EVERYTHING, and the next part of Barnabas’ cunning plan kicks in. Unfortunately, this scenario involves Titus’ active participation, and the old man is still lollygagging on the couch, nursing his spinal injuries.
“Wake up, you fool!” Barnabas shouts. This is not going to look good on Titus’ performance evaluation.
So Barnabas actually grabs the injured old man, and throws him to the floor in order to wake him up.
This is a comic book, by the way. They sold this to children for money.
So they drag Titus out of the house and down the steps, and then they throw him down on his face a couple more times, and they finally leave him sitting up against a wall, because he’s a hermit, and nobody cares what happens to him.
Then Marc says, “The first fire was identical to this one!” to which the readers respond, IN WHAT WAY?
They said that the first fire looked like it came directly from Satan’s personal brick oven pizza restaurant, and this one was caused by knocking three candles over onto a chair. What are you talking about?
We’re still not done, by the way; there’s three more pages left, and we still have to deal with the imaginary dead body.
Marc finds another section on the carpet that didn’t get burned, so naturally he gets totally obsessed with it, making up a whole new theory about fire on the spot.
In this case, it’s the end table that left an unburned spot when the firehose knocked it over. Now, in my opinion, this is either something that commonly happens when there’s a fire, or it isn’t, and Marc Hull needs to make up his goddamn mind.
Anyway, I think this means that the end table is either the victim or the murderer, possibly both. I never trusted that table.
Then there’s a fantastic moment when Marc tells Barnabas his suspicions, and Barnabas looks directly into the reader’s eyes and says, “Murder! Here at Collinwood?”
So I think that’s a first for the medium: Jonathan Frid is so bad at learning his lines that he even looks at the teleprompter when he’s in a comic book.
Marc tries to explain the end table thing all over again from the other side of the room, and he finally acknowledges the true hero of this story, namely: Lou the fireman.
You see? I told you Lou was the key to cracking this case! This is why you have a Lou.
Finally, at long last, Lou steps in to wrap up the case. His explanation is even more blitheringly stupid than the original problem, but cut him some slack. It’s Lou; we like Lou.
And so, as the old man is folded up like an accordion and bundled into an ambulance, Barnabas bids his new friends adieu, assuring them that there are no hard feelings, and inviting them to come by and stare at his house with binoculars anytime they’ve got a spare afternoon. Case closed.
But wait, Barnabas! It isn’t quite a happy ending, dear Barnabas.
“Remember, Barnabas,” Angelique says, shimmering in the moonlight. “You and I… we’ve got ETERNITY!”
And you know what? We really do have eternity, or at least until March 1971, but that’s more than five hundred episodes away. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to spend the last two years of my life with Dark Shadows, and with you. Anybody feel like one more lap around the track?
Monday: Dead Again.
The Gold Key Dark Shadows comics are available digitally through the Comixology app — The Complete Series, in very affordable bundles. At current writing, Volume 1 is $11.99, for the first 7 issues in flawless color. I’m reading these and taking screenshots on the Comixology app for my iPad Mini, and I recommend it very highly.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the teaser, Dirk and Beth are standing in the drawing room when Jenny sneaks downstairs like she’s in a Warner Brothers cartoon, clearly in their peripheral vision. Then she opens the door with a noisy clatter, and they still don’t turn to look until she’s bolting out the door.
Beth tries to light a candle in the cottage, but it doesn’t light.
When Quentin finds Beth in the cottage, he strolls up to her and says, “How did you know to look for me here?” Beth says, “I didn’t.” He smiles and says, “I see… uhhh…” and then he directs a glance towards the teleprompter.
Dirk tells Barnabas, “Most of the family is out searching already.” Barnabas counters, “Who is everybody?”
Barnabas asks Dirk what’s wrong. Dirk mumbles, “Nothing.” Barnabas says, “Then you — not telling me everything.”
Dirk tells Barnabas, “If you’d like to join the search, come ahead, it’s fine.”
P.S. There are 1,245 steps to complete the ritual. One of the steps is missing. The ritual has only been completed once. What do you get when you cross the Atlantic with the Titanic?
Monday: Dead Again.
— Danny Horn