Dark Shadows Comic Strip, part 1: The Tortured Undead

“I thought there were only two Collinses left. That means there are three who must be destroyed!”

Now, I know that Quentin Collins is at a particularly thrilling crisis point right now — forced to wear jewelry that he doesn’t particularly care for — but I’m afraid we’re going to have to put his problems on hold for a minute, because I’ve got problems of my own. I’m leaving the country for a conference, and I won’t have time to write regular episode posts for the next two weeks. But I can’t just jump forward into the future and leave the rest of you behind, at the mercy of gypsies.

So I’ve come up with another crackpot idea for what to do over these two weeks, namely: write about the Dark Shadows comic strip, which ran for one year, starting in March 1971. These will probably take me longer to write than the regular posts would have, but I wanted a chance to cover the comic strip anyway, and you only live once, probably.

dark shadows comic strip 1 liz terrified

The Dark Shadows comic strip — like the Gold Key comics, the Paperback Library gothic romances and the trading cards — takes place in its own little narrative world that’s a lot like Dark Shadows, but without all the people and events and relationships and humor and common sense. The strip has Barnabas, of course, and Collinwood, and a couple of women named Elizabeth and Carolyn, and that ought to be enough to get along with.

The strip was drawn by Ken Bald, who started out in the 1940s drawing Captain America, Sub-Mariner and Millie the Model for Timely Comics. A couple decades later, Timely changed its name to Marvel Comics, but by that time, Bald had moved on to daily comic strips.

In 1957, Bald created a strip called Judd Saxon — The Dramatic Story of a Young Man’s Rise from Obscurity to Prominence and Power — which lasted for six years, at which point I guess Judd was prominent enough, and there wasn’t anywhere else for him to go. Then Bald took up Dr. Kildare, a comic strip based on the popular TV medical drama. The show was cancelled in 1966, but the strip kept on running, all the way till 1984.

And along the way, Bald spent a year moonlighting on Dark Shadows, which also rose from obscurity to prominence and power. Within three weeks of the strip’s debut, the TV show was cancelled, heading back to obscurity again, and the comic strip was left to carry on the Dark Shadows legacy.

Bald’s name is the only one on the strip, although he signed it “K. Bruce” to avoid conflicts with Dr. Kildare. But the writer of the Dark Shadows comic strip wasn’t credited at the time, and strangely, nobody seems to know who it was. By 1996, when Pomegranate Press reprinted the series in Dark Shadows: The Comic Strip Book, Bald had forgotten the scripter’s name, and as far as I know, nobody’s figured it out since then.

dark shadows comic strip 1 liz barnabas

The strip looks fantastic — gloomy and intense, filled with archways and staircases. The really striking thing is the likeness of Jonathan Frid, which is instantly recognizable and very effective.

Bald worked from photo references a lot — all of the big close-ups are based on publicity stills, and if you flip through the reprint book, you’ll notice the same pose popping up on different pages. But in the actual daily newspaper reading experience, you’d never notice that. All you’d see is Jonathan Frid, frowning at you from the funny pages.

720 dark shadows barnabas must die

Just to level set, this is what Barnabas looked like in the Gold Key comics, so you can see how the comic strip Barnabas is an enormous step up in quality. Elizabeth and Carolyn don’t look like anybody in particular.

dark shadows comic strip 1 shoulder

The strip begins with Barnabas introducing himself as a cousin from England, visiting Collinwood to write a history of the family. He’s always got some cockamamie excuse in these spin-offs for not showing up during the day, and it’s usually writing a book, because people who write things are very important, and must not be disturbed or criticized.

We never see Barnabas coming out of the coffin in the spin-off media; there’s no curious Willie Loomis hunting for pirate gold. Barnabas just shows up on the doorstep, with a cape, a cane and a handful of flimsy alibis. He’s the undisputed hero and main character, and the story starts when he arrives. Barnabas is a fact.

dark shadows comic strip 1 barnabas tortured

But on Dark Shadows, the past isn’t something that you can forget, or escape — it’s a living mass of ancient, unresolved conflicts, eternally on the verge of spilling over into the present. And Barnabas — a walking, talking dreadful secret from the past — is naturally attuned to their wavelength.

In the comic strip, he’s explicitly depicted as a line of defense for Elizabeth and Carolyn, standing between the present-day family and the squirming crowd of spooks, who are lining up for their chance to hassle the living.

“I dare not say more!” Barnabas says, in thinks. “They must never know that sometimes I do see them… just as all the tortured undead can see spirits of the haunted past!”

It’s not clear whether Barnabas is guarding that secret for Elizabeth and Carolyn’s safety, or for their peace of mind, or if he just doesn’t want to be revealed as a vampire. But there isn’t much space in these little boxes — just three a day, and seven on Sunday — so the comic strip Barnabas exists in an ambiguous twilight, unable to fully express all of those complicated emotions etched into his two-color countenance.

By the way, that’s Quentin peeking over Barnabas’ shoulder in the above panel, which is very cute. We’ll actually see Angelique pop up as a character later on, but that’s it for TV references; as far as I know, this Quentin portrait is the beginning and the end of the Easter eggs. This is a comic strip concerned almost exclusively with what happened in the past, but it’s an all-new past, conjured up fresh every day.

dark shadows comic strip 1 meeting

The narrative structure of a daily continuity strip is very different from a soap opera, and that’s going to determine the kind of story we’re going to see. On a soap opera, there are multiple overlapping storylines, each one rolling out at its own pace. Typically, as one story thread ends, another is already beginning, with a third currently in progress, so that the viewer doesn’t get the chance to find an off-ramp and stop watching. The format is explicitly designed for audience onboarding and retention, every day, for as many years as they can keep you hooked.

But a newspaper comic strip can’t be that complex. It’s such a limited space, and the readers aren’t necessarily paying that much attention, so it’s a struggle just to make sure that people are following the plot from one week to the next. Even the “soap opera” continuity strips like Mary Worth, Apartment 3-G and Brenda Starr generally focus on one story thread at a time, with a clear beginning and end, like a collection of short stories.

Mary Worth is probably the best example of that style, because most of the time Mary isn’t directly involved in the story. Each chapter is about a new set of characters facing a new problem, with the title character popping up occasionally to offer reassurance, motherly advice and an inspiring lecture to wrap things up.

That’s what we’ve got with Dark Shadows, as well — six separate stories told over the course of a year, with a bloodthirsty vampire as our own demented Mary Worth.

dark shadows comic strip 1 our planet

Anyway, on with the show! We’ve got the tortured undead established on the property; now all we need are some spirits of the haunted past.

This first story begins with a staff meeting at Our Planet, a big-city magazine presided over by grouchy publisher Lucas Penrose Bell. He’s got a room full of employees sitting around a table, watching as their boss clutches his wolf’s-head cane and browbeats them.

“I’m still waiting for one you highly paid editors to present a usable idea for the “Americana” section of our next issue!” Bell cries. As all comic strip writers know, a cranky newspaper publisher is the most terrifying thing in the world, so obviously this is the villain you lead off with.

The highly paid Alice Rigby gets up on her hind legs, and pitches Bell on a story. “Well, there’s this big old house on a hill,” she says, “back in my home town of Collinsport, Maine, and some folks insist it’s haunted…”

So Our Planet must be a real page-turner, if they’re doing a feature story on a spooky old house. I guess life was pretty easy for magazines back then, before the internet. These days, if you want to read a home town haunted house story, you just go to Facebook, which is pretty much non-stop houses on hills.

dark shadows comic strip 1 bell

Anyway, Bell — who’s an evil warlock, by the way — is amazed to hear that the Collins family is still a going concern. In a passionate series of thinks, he reveals that he’s been feuding with the family for centuries, and he can’t rest until they’re all dead. Turns out he’s three hundred years old, which I guess explains why his magazine is so desperately square.

So when Miss Rigby suggests a story about Collinwood, Bell gets all excited, and says that he’ll come with her on the trip. Apparently Our Planet can manage itself for a while, so he can go and exterminate the last couple Collinses. You see what I mean about publishers? Christ.

dark shadows comic strip 1 soon mother

Back at home, Barnabas is filled with a strange foreboding, which happens a lot in this strip. There’s only three panels a day, so you can cut some corners on the information management by giving people unprovoked premonitions.

Meanwhile, Bell goes out on his balcony to announce to his dead mother that he’ll be joining her soon, once he takes care of his unfinished business. I’m not sure why he’s so surprised by the fact that there are Collinses at Collinwood, where they’ve been this whole time. I guess that’s why it’s taken him three centuries; he’s been waiting for it to come up in conversation.

dark shadows comic strip 1 ancestor

Mr. Bell and Miss Rigby visit Collinwood, where Liz is unthrilled to see them. She doesn’t like the idea of reporters crawling around her house taking pictures of specters, but this is America, and we believe in freedom of the press.

Refusing to play along, Liz tells Miss Rigby, “I’ve heard those stories too. But neither my daughter nor I have ever seen a ghost here.” Considering that Collinwood is the most haunted house of all time, this is fairly remarkable; the closets are nothing but skeletons in this joint. If she and Carolyn haven’t come across any, then they’re just not paying attention. It’s laziness, that’s all it is, pure laziness.

Bell takes a look around the mansion, and gets all excited when he finds a gallery filled with the portraits of Collins ancestors.

“Do you remember me, Alden?” he challenges one of the oil paintings. “You should! It was I who decreed that you die of the plague!” I’m not sure how you decree something like that, but he moves on to the next contestant.

“And you, Nathaniel Collins — drowned in a sudden storm at sea, 200 years ago! That hand clutching you beneath the waves as you struggled — was mine!”

So that’s what Bell’s been doing all this time, swimming around underneath people. I suppose if you’re in charge of a long-term extermination project, you might as well be creative about it.

dark shadows comic strip 1 last

So here’s Lucas Penrose Bell, standing around in the hall, screaming at the top of his lungs that he’s going to murder his hosts. He hasn’t revealed yet how he plans to do away with Liz and Carolyn; it might be the plague or the clutching hand, unless he’s come up with something new in the last couple centuries.

But there’s an important threat here. The phrase “the last descendants of the Collins family of New England” has a real sting, because this is the last week of the show.

Bell’s rant is being delivered on April 1st, 1971, the day before episode 1245 puts a stop to the show’s run on ABC. Bell is presiding over the funeral of Dark Shadows.

dark shadows comic strip 1 april third

So here’s what happened in Collinwood on April 3rd, 1971, just in case you were wondering how it all turned out. Bramwell and Catherine are planning their wedding in 1841 Parallel Time — and meanwhile, in the present-day, Miss Rigby is roaming the halls of Collinwood, taking pictures of random ghosts.

There are several alternative versions of April Third offered to us in the Dark Shadows spin-off media — Gold Key, and Dynamite, and Big Finish — but the comic strip was actually there, live on the scene.

It wasn’t about the Dark Lord, or the Children, or the Kingdom of the Dead after all. It was Miss Rigby. Final answer.

dark shadows comic strip 1 witch eban

On Sunday, we get a nice full-color flashback, where Bell recalls the terrible day, three weary centuries ago, when his mother Mathilda was accused of witchcraft. It’s 1671, and Eban Collins is the lead witness at the witch trial. “I have heard her evil incantations!” he says, and that’s all the evidence you need in this town.

Although now that I think about it, Collinsport is probably the one place in America where a witch could actually be tried by a jury of her peers. Mathilda must not have had a very good lawyer.

She’s found guilty, of course, and condemned to burn at the stake, and young Lucas Penrose Bell watches as his mother puts a curse on the Collins family, which pretty much proves their point.

“You will walk the earth forever,” she tells Eban, “neither dead nor undead! Only I can remove the curse — and that I shall never do!” She’s currently on fire.

dark shadows comic strip 1 doom

Still smoldering, she tells Lucas that they’ll be together again when the last member of the Collins family is dead, and for once, a kid actually does what his mom tells him to do.

“And so began a reign of terror,” we’re informed, “as the warlock, Lucas Bell, brought death and destruction to the Collins  family!” So that would be the plague and the hand clutching and so on.

But now it’s three hundred years later, and there are still some Collinses left. The “death and destruction” panel shows a house burning down, and you’d assume that was supposed to be Collinwood — but here we are, all these years later, and the house is still standing. I guess Lucas went to college to get a journalism degree, and then he had to pay off his loans, and between one thing and another, the curse kind of got away from him.

dark shadows comic strip 1 no rest

So it’s a slow-motion curse, and I can’t blame the Collins family for forgetting all about it. If somebody screams at you, “In three hundred years, your family will all be DEAD!” then it’s hard to get that excited about it.

But that’s how things go in this leisurely newsprint world, where life goes by in three-panel increments. It takes eight days just to have a staff meeting, and even then, you hardly get anything done. Meanwhile, Barnabas has just been Mary Worthing in the background, making gloomy faces. We’ll come back tomorrow, and see if we can get a little action going.

Tomorrow: A Forever Death.

dark shadows comic strip 1 smouldering

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

8 thoughts on “Dark Shadows Comic Strip, part 1: The Tortured Undead

  1. This strip started around the time that the show went off the air, and for about a year, was a much more satisfying reminder of our favorite program than those wretched Gold Key comics were.

  2. I’m a big fan of comic strips/comic books and have met Ken Bald several times at conventions. He is very proud of his work on Dark Shadows and he should be. He made great effort to ensure accuracy while making it artistically attractive.

    Writing adventure strips are tricky – you have to make the story entertaining to keep readers interested but you also have to make it easy for them to keep up in case they miss a few days. It also has to be easy for new readers to jump on board. And, you have to do all of this within 3-4 panels per day. It gets even more complicated if the same story continues into the Sunday strip – you have to make sure the readers who only get the Sunday strip can still follow the story. That’s why many adventure strips have two different stories – one got the dallies and one for the Sunday strip.

    Unfortunately, comic adventure strips were in decline when the strip was published. The amount of space available for comics had been shrinking for decades, resulting in smaller strip sizes. This impacted adventure strips far more than it did the gag strip or strips like Peanuts. Off the the top of my head, I can’t think of any adventure strip created after 1970 that lasted more than a few years. Even the Star Wars strip, with comic book legends Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson at the helm, only lasted 5 years.

    Hermes Press is supposed to be publishing a nice hardbound collection of the Dark Shadows strips with the Sunday sections in color. The current publication date is January 2018 but the date keeps slipping – this collection was originally announced several years ago.

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