Friday in the Crypt
There are lots of trends in pop culture that make me feel like I missed a memo somewhere. Comes with getting older, I suppose. But the one that has consistently baffled me more than any other is the vampire thing.
Specifically, the vampire-as-teen-heartthrob thing.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I totally get the “vampire-as-sexual-metaphor” idea. Hell, Bram Stoker put it front and center in the original Dracula, it’s the engine that drives the book. And it’s been front and center in vampire fiction ever since, from Stoker’s novel and its various adaptations and sequels and so forth on up through Anne Rice, Kim Newman, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But in all those other vampire stories, the vampire was a dangerous predator. He’s not the ideal boyfriend– he’s the bad boy, the guy the heroine should not be with. Even the tormented love of Buffy and Angel, the teen vampire romance that launched a thousand slashfics, was clearly a forbidden love. The supernatural bloodlust of the vampire has always been something to be feared, even in classic good-guy vampire figures like Angel or Barnabas Collins or comics’ own Hannibal King. Whether it’s Bram Stoker fanning the flames of paranoia about nasty foreigners making off with good British girls or Joss Whedon using supernatural horror as a metaphor for all the things teenagers lie about to their parents, the common through-line is always that vampire lovers are inherently dangerous. That’s kind of the point of the whole metaphor in the first place.
But in these new, Twilight-era vampire romances, the vampire’s the noble good guy. The vampire thing is just… well, as nearly as I can figure it out, it’s just a handicap, like dating a guy who’s diabetic or something. You know, he has some odd dietary needs. That’s it. The danger and drama is derived from the idea that other people don’t understand this beautiful love…. if everybody just got out of Edward and Bella’s way they’d make beautiful music together!
And… I dunno, it just seems weird to me. But I am clearly in the minority on this.
I don’t blame DC Comics at all for trying to get in on some of that teen heartthrob vampire action. Comic books have always been there to cash in on stuff like this.
And I have to be fair. DC’s smart enough to make the covers look romantic and sexy but on the inside, the new I, Vampire at least holds on to the basic idea that vampires are supposed to be scary. I confess I checked out the first couple of issues mostly because people I respect mentioned liking it, and because I think Joshua Fialkov is generally a pretty good writer.
But even though this particular story definitely restores the Danger! Danger! part of the vampire romance metaphor (and props to Mr. Fialkov for that!) it’s got too many of the other problems I associate with modern comics for me to have put it on my pull list. In particular, the pace feels way slow to me, and the oblique narrative style was hard to get into– especially the dueling-dialogue, color-coded-caption thing that has really gotten to be a pet peeve of mine. Moreover, the mosaic style of switching back and forth between different scenes and different times and so on until that eventually adds up to a story… well, you have to have be a really, really talented writer to pull that off, and even that writer better have a gifted storyteller for an artist. Fialkov gets about a B-plus from me on the writing side of it, but the art’s just not getting it done. Andrea Sorrentino does wonderfully moody work, it’s very dark and atmospheric… but this is comics. Dark and scary is good, for sure, but it’s often very unclear what the hell’s going on, and in comics, that’s bad.
Even if the art had been up to the job, for me the first issue failed in its primary mission: introducing the characters and the conflict fast enough to catch my interest and then keep it. If you aren’t prepared to do decent character introductions in your first issue… well, maybe I’m too old-school, but that seems to me like you’re doing it wrong. Finding the actual story in the middle of all the atmosphere was tough sledding in places for me and I already kind of knew who Andrew Bennett and Mary were supposed to be. I gave it one more issue because both Greg Burgas and Jonah said nice things about it, but… meh. Not my thing.
So, yes, I know lots of people like it and it seems like the sort of thing I would like but, well, it’s not for me. Much like the aforementioned teen vampire heartthrob fiction. I’m okay with that. Enjoy. You kids run along, Grandpa’ll be fine.
Because– honestly? This is a great time in comics for Grandpa’s style of vampire, too. The scary kind. Or, as my wife says, “The kind that dress well and use Brylcreem. The ones that don’t sparkle.”
See, here is the great thing about re-imaginings and revivals. Every time one comes along, someone gets the idea to reprint all the cool old stuff, too. Five years ago, I’d have probably bet you ten bucks DC wasn’t ever going to reprint the entirety of the original “I…. Vampire” strip in a nice color trade edition, but now that there’s a new ongoing book for it to tie into, why, here that trade edition came, just a few days ago.
I had largely dismissed these stories their first time around, and though they’re certainly not going to make anyone’s “Best Of DC” list, they are quite a bit better than I remembered and I’m glad to have them collected in this nice new edition. Because of the space limitations in the original House of Mystery, they’re tightly-crafted little pieces, each one with the requisite recap and intro, and yet it doesn’t feel forced; this is early work from J.M. DeMatteis, and later Bruce Jones, and their youthful enthusiasm is catching. The art from Tom Sutton has a wonderfully loose feel to it and yet everything you need to see is there. You honestly couldn’t get a better example of old-school comics than these to contrast with the modern sensibilities I was talking about up above– doubtless devotees of DC’s current meandering version of I, Vampire will find these little eleven-pagers way too condensed for their tastes. But I am really digging them and I appreciate DC throwing a bone to geezers like me by reprinting them here. $29.99 for a trade paperback might seem a little steep but a few minutes with Google will bowl out a discounted edition for you priced at around $20.
Another vampire revival that’s spurred renewed interest in the original is Dark Shadows.
I know that the new Dark Shadows movie will probably offend purists, especially since it’s apparently taking a mocking comedic tone judging from the trailers. But here is the terrible secret about the original television version of Dark Shadows…. it really wasn’t very good.
Seriously. It was a daytime soap opera. The first one to do weird, yeah (breaking the ground that later Passions and even the venerable General Hospital would visit) but it was still a soap, and subject to all those genre and format limitations.
No, for those of us that were kids when Barnabas Collins hit it big– and speaking of vampire teen heartthrobs, I don’t think there’s ever been one as unlikely as the venerable Jonathan Frid– the joy of Dark Shadows wasn’t the show, but the spin-off stuff. Toys and books and comics.
In particular, the two original Dark Shadows theatrical movies are great nasty Gothic fun, and really quite bloody compared to the show.
And I’ve always had a soft spot for the Gold Key Dark Shadows comics. They weren’t really very scary, but thanks to writers like John Warner and especially the demented Arnold Drake, they were always wonderfully strange.
There was a kind of glorious abandon that came with knowing the comic book artists didn’t have to worry about trying to depict things on a television budget and the Gold Key Dark Shadows milked that advantage for all it was worth. There was wizardry and otherdimensional travel and monsters and giant man-eating plants and all kind of craziness.
So I was very pleased to learn of the Dark Shadows reprints Hermes Press has been doing, and when they offered me PDF review samples of some of their latest, I lunged at them.
You may know that Hermes has already reprinted the entire run of the Gold Key comic series in five handsome hardcover Masterworks-style volumes. But even I don’t feel that strongly about it… I don’t need them ALL. So this new Best of the Original Series collection is much more my speed.
It reprints twelve of the best stories from the comics, and comes with a nice introduction from Dark Shadows scholar Dr. Jeff Thompson. My only caveat is that the $49.99 price tag might put some people off; I’d shop around and see if you can’t find it discounted. But it looks like a good book and I can’t really fault the picks.
The other book Hermes sent me for review falls more into the ‘interesting oddity’ department. Gold Key occasionally did one-off books they called “Story Digests,” which were about what you’d think; a digest-sized volume containing profusely-illustrated prose stories. They did several, one each for Tarzan, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery, and…. Dark Shadows. The Dark Shadows one was an actual novelette, Interrupted Voyage. Hermes is reprinting this with a new introduction (Jeff Thompson, again) and some new art as well.
It’s an entertaining enough yarn, but it doesn’t have the inspired freakiness that the Gold Key comics stories so often had; this story isn’t from Drake or Warner, but the series’ other regular writer, Donald Arneson. It’s clearly written for a juvenile audience, and the illustrations from Joe Certa aren’t really anything to write home about, either. (Certa’s art was definitely the weak link in Gold Key’s Dark Shadows, but in the comics the story generally carries you over it.) This is strictly for the Dark Shadows completists among you.
There’s also the new Dark Shadows comics from Dynamite, the first arc of which was recently collected in a nice little trade paperback. This is far and away my favorite Dark Shadows tie-in product I’ve seen anywhere from anybody.
The art from Aaron Campbell is wonderful; at long last we have a Dark Shadows comics artist that’s up to the level of the story… and the story from Stuart Manning is pretty damn good and hits all the right notes.
This is the Dark Shadows that, when we were kids, my generation always thought was happening on the television. And the covers by Francisco Francavilla are simply a delight. It’s good stuff even if you weren’t a fan of the original.
And finally, this week brought me volume three of the collected Vampire Tales from Marvel. With this book, we now have the entire eleven-issue run of the original series out in paperback.
With those books now available, along with the Blade black and white collection and the Essential Tomb of Dracula books that reprint not just Tomb of Dracula but also Dracula Lives! …well, it’s looking pretty good for old Grandpa.
So, you know, the kids can have their teeny-bopper wimp vampires and that’s fine with me. The old man’s covered.
Author’s Note: I was doing the final rewrite on this when I learned of the passing of Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas Collins, a few days ago.
Mr. Frid was much more than Barnabas. He went on to have a remarkable stage career after his television days, appearing all over the United States and Canada doing one-man shows as well as things like Arsenic and Old Lace. I gather he’d been having fun doing the convention circuit and connecting with his fans through his web page, and he had returned after forty years to voice Barnabas Collins in a Dark Shadows radio play a couple of years ago. He also, along with other original Dark Shadows cast members Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker, managed a cameo in the new Dark Shadows movie.
As far as I know, no one had a bad thing to say about him, and the words that keep coming up in my reading are “gentle” and “gracious.” I’d read a few of his essays on his web site, reminiscing about Barnabas and a life in the theater, and found them warm and witty reading. I’m sorry now that I didn’t take a minute to drop him an email telling him so.
I should add that Alissa at Hermes Press sent me this announcement this morning:
Hermes Press, publisher of the classic Dark Shadows comic books, starring Jonathan Frid, who unexpectedly passed away on April 13, has announced a special Memorial Panel at the Pittsburgh Comicon on Saturday from 2-3PM. Frid, who helped frighten an entire generation of teenagers during the late 1960s, created the role of the iconic vampire Barnabas Collins.
Originally the presentation had been scheduled to highlight the new Tim Burton big screen version of Dark Shadows starring Johnny Depp. “When I was told on Wednesday that Jonathan had passed away we decided to present a special panel focusing on him instead. Jonathan, who was a true gentleman in the classic sense, created a truly iconic character,” commented Hermes Press Publisher Daniel Herman.
The special tribute will feature remembrances by co-star Karthryn Leigh Scott and the first time-ever airing of a recent interview with Frid.
That’s a classy thing to do and I am glad they’re doing it. Hoping this goes up soon enough to get the word out a little.
Our condolences to Mr. Frid’s friends and loved ones.