“Are you trying to make us doubt our senses? We saw you fling a man over the sea cliffs!”
So that’s where we find ourselves, halfway through this special feature on the 1971 Dark Shadows comic strip — on the knife edge of a story untelling itself. Starting just a few weeks before the television show jumped into a gypsy caravan and drove off into the night, the daily comic strip stayed behind, performing a dark ritual of — well, what’s the opposite of summoning? Cause that’s what the comic strip is doing.
Distilled down to three characters and a house, the Dark Shadows comic strip was the remains of a party, after most of the guests have gone home. Gee, look at the time, they all said, glancing at the calendar. See you all next week, on Ryan’s Hope. Then they were gone, chased off by the dreadful chimes of the church bell tolling April Third, April Third.
Now, only Barnabas is left, accompanied by the pale shadows of Elizabeth and Carolyn, performing his dark ritual of dispersing.
Meanwhile, in a vast, secret subterranean cavern, the Monarch of Darkness — the being who calls himself Mr. Sinestra — presides over a macabre group of unholy creatures gathered together for their evil witches’ convocation.
Or, at least, that’s what the caption says. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never had a subterranean convocation where this many people showed up. I don’t know how he does it, frankly. You have to hand it to the guy. I’ve put on the robes, and invited everybody downstairs to light the torches and raise up the horned god, and to be honest with you, I’ve had some sparse-ass convocations. I guess some people know how to convocate and some don’t, and that’s all there is to it.
Mr. Sinestra is one of those malevolent Charles Laughton-eats-Angela Lansbury type gay dudes who have fallen out of fashion, somehow. You don’t really see guys like this anymore — or, if you do, then they’ve quit smoking and bought some extra-large Hawaiian shirts, and they’ve stopped trying to make everyone else miserable.
Like many Satan-themed adventure-story supervillains, it’s not clear what Mr. Sinestra actually wants, in a practical sense. He’s into Evil with a capital E, a nebulous concept that doesn’t appear to favor wealth, power or comfort. Real-life evil people talk about carpet-bombing Muslim countries until we find out if sand can glow in the dark, while storybook Evil people spend all their time talking about who they can get to turn storybook Evil. They’re a recursive bunch, the Evil.
Mr. Sinestra, for his part, is entirely focused on cruising for dudes, especially that most elusive prize, Barnabas Collins. “For a millennium, I have tried to capture the soul of one man!” he says, rising unsteadily to his feet. “I must have him!” He bellows to the assembled, “Let the winds carry his name… BARNABAS COLLINS! BARNABAS COLLINS!”
So either somebody doesn’t understand what the word “millennium” means, or Barnabas has a richer backstory than we’ve been led to believe. I wonder what the Barnabas of 971 AD was like?
Timing aside, it makes sense that Sinestra wants the guy, because everybody in this strip is pants-wettingly obsessed with Barnabas. He’s the only real character left behind after the mass exodus of April Third, so if you want to get any traction at all in comic strip Collinsport, you have to focus your attention on him. This story is about the last survivors on the SS Dark Shadows, desperately trying to hang on as the audience disbands, hoping to earn a place in the inevitable reboot. And, as usual, it comes down to a final round of Stand Next to Barnabas.
In a last-ditch effort to snag a seat on the lifeboat, Mr. Sinestra grabs onto the coattails of Angelique, the only core character to actually earn a role in every future Dark Shadows story. There are several gold-medalists in the Stand Next to Barnabas competitions, but Angelique was standing next to him at the moment that he became a vampire, so she survives, even in the environments where Josette doesn’t.
The comic strip is one of those places where they cut the love triangle down from three to two, explaining that a spurned Angelique turned Barnabas into a vampire, but omitting the name of the girl she was spurned for. Whether it’s comic strips, comic books, audios or View-Master reels, there will always be a place for Angelique, as long as Barnabas Collins still walks the Earth.
And holy crap, is that a great picture of Angelique. It’s practically hypnotic, I can’t take my eyes off it. Not only does it nail the Lara Parker likeness, but it perfectly captures her puzzled frustration at not being able to re-seduce the lover who left her. She’s a major player in this chapter, but she looks completely different in almost every panel; I guess Ken Bald only had one Parker picture for photo reference, and this was it. Still, it’s nice to see another Dark Shadows character actually show up for work, even if it’s only one panel.
Mr. Sinestra is playing a well-known trick, for Dark Shadows — establishing a Big Bad by claiming that he’s been Angelique’s boss this whole time. Nicholas Blair was the first to try this gambit, just a few months after Angelique was created, and he was followed by a motley rogues’ gallery including Diabolos, Judah Zachary, the Leviathans (sort of), and the Dark Lord from the Big Finish audios.
Any aspiring Dark Shadows supervillain establishes his bona fides by claiming to be Angelique’s boss, and she doesn’t seem to mind; I guess she knows that these would-be employers always end up in flames, while she lives to fight another day.
So now it’s Mr. Sinestra’s turn, and he’s decided that this game is actually about ensnarling the soul of Barnabas Collins, whatever that’s supposed to mean. And I have to say, Sinestra has something that none of the others have — a coherent, effective plan. I’ll run through the steps here, so you can see how it works.
Step 1: Mr. Sinestra transforms himself to look like Barnabas.
Step 2: Sinestra’s “Barnabas” shows up at Collinwood in the afternoon, to help Elizabeth make a decision about whether to sell a piece of Collins property.
Elizabeth actually gets a little Lois Lane thinks about it — “How odd! This is the first time I’ve ever seen Cousin Barnabas during the daytime!” — but obviously, she doesn’t go any further with this line of thought. Still, it’s nice to know that she’s paying attention.
Step 3: Keech, one of the warlocks in Sinestra’s cult, pretends to be a random handyman who shows up at Collinwood. Keech snatches a silver letter opener, and hightails it out the door. Fake Barnabas screams, “STOP, THIEF!” and gives chase.
Step 4: With Elizabeth, Carolyn and the banker trailing behind, “Barnabas” catches up with Keech at the cliffs of Widow’s Hill. Reclaiming the letter opener, he makes sure that the assembled crowd is watching him.
Step 5: Barnabas throws Keech off the cliff, to a grisly death on the rocks below.
Step 6: Barnabas smiles, and tells everybody that this is no big deal. “All I did was teach a thief a lesson!” he smirks. “Besides, who’s to know what happened? The body has been washed out to sea!”
Step 7: When Elizabeth and Carolyn protest his cold disregard for the value of human life, Barnabas doubles down.
“And why not? He was obviously a homeless vagabond… no family or friends to mourn him! His presence on Earth will never be missed! However, if you insist on making fools of yourselves… go ahead, call the police! You’ll all become the laughingstock of Collinsport!”
Step 8: In the evening, when the real Barnabas shows up at Collinwood, he’s horrified to learn that everybody thinks he threw a guy off a cliff. He claims that he’s innocent, but he can’t prove that he wasn’t there, without revealing that he was actually asleep in his casket all afternoon.
And it’s brilliant. This is a simple and effective deconstruction of the idea that Barnabas is a “good guy,” which he isn’t and has never been. The cold ruthlessness of “Who’s to know what happened?” is exactly the way that Barnabas thinks and behaves; the only difference is that he actually says it out loud, in front of civilians.
I have to say, this may be the greatest Dark Shadows plot point of all time, in any medium. Practically every Dark Shadows storyline from January 1968 onwards has been a complex plan by someone or other to destroy or control Barnabas Collins, and I can’t think of a single example that is utterly devastating on this level.
Mr. Sinestra has found Barnabas’ most vulnerable spot — the fact that he’s never told the present-day family that he’s a merciless serial killer — and he’s gone straight for it, delivering a single killing blow. Barnabas has no way around this one. Dark Shadows is a nonstop surprise factory, and today’s surprise is that a character that nobody’s ever heard of is actually Barnabas Collins’ greatest foe.
Naturally, Barnabas knows exactly who set him up — “who else could it be, but Mr. Sinestra!” — because comic strip Barnabas is equipped with magical spidey-sense that gives him a super-fast shortcut through any twist in the tale. Apparently, Barnabas drank the Kool-Aid, and he believes in Sinestra’s postulated insta-history.
And then Sinestra appears, so chalk up another win for Barnabas’ instincts. The cult leader admits that he’s the hand behind the plot, and it’s all about turning Barnabas to the side of Evil with a capital E.
“Have you thought of joining forces with me, my friend?” he coos, longingly. “Surely you know I’ve admired you for a long time!”
He hasn’t, of course; he was just invented three weeks ago. But the comic strip is all about unwriting Dark Shadows, erasing everything that makes the story memorable and worthwhile. Claiming that the tragic love epic of Barnabas, Angelique and Josette is actually just a minor incident in another Maltese Falcon crime boss drama is just another way of making people forget Dark Shadows, unpicking the tangled mess of a narrative and turning it back into a pile of yarn, which is no good to anyone.
And the whole thing is about Mr. Sinestra inviting Barnabas out for brunch. Well, I suppose people had to do something, while they were waiting for Grindr to be invented.
Tomorrow: Swipe Left.
— Danny Horn