Vampire fiction is a genre that has managed to stay popular for over a century and a half, but has just seemed to hit it’s zenith in the last few years. But, in a market oversaturated with the blood sucking fiends and anti-heroes, is there really any room for another vampire story. Well if you are a fan of Dark Shadows then you know the answer is “Yes.”
Since 1966 Dark Shadows, television’s first series to feature a vampire hero, has maintained a strong cult following with both the original fans who ran home from school each day to watch the creepy drama surrounding the residents of Collinwood Manor, as well as second and third generation fans who discovered it via reruns on the Sci-Fi network, DVDs and other various outlets. Yet, despite a solid fan base, due to modern franchises such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, of course, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, time has diminished Dark Shadows’ notoriety. But this same fact has helped it endear itself even more to the fans that know that all these later vampire franchises have owed everything to the unique vision of Dark Shadows’ creator Dan Curtis, and its original vampire anti-hero Barnabas Collins.
However, in recent months a brand new interest in Dark Shadows has grabbed hold of the vampire hungry public due to the brand new big budget screen version of the series being put together by one of the most famous Dark Shadows fans in the world, Hollywood superstar Johnny Depp. Purchasing the rights to the series from the Dan Curtis estate, Johnny Depp is teaming up with pal Tim Burton in assembling a stellar cast to attempt to breathe life into the ailing franchise that had a profound effect on their careers. Scheduled to appear in theaters in 2012, Depp’s Dark Shadows seems to be a loving tribute to one of the most groundbreaking franchises in gothic horror ever.
Thus, with new interest in Dark Shadows come new opportunities for Dark Shadows merchandise, giving fans a reason to rejoice. Enter London based writer and graphic designer Stuart Manning. Discovering Dark Shadows in the 1990’s, Stuart Manning has become one of the key figures in preserving and ensuring Dark Shadow’s legacy over the last decade. The mastermind behind the Dark Shadows Journal Online, the internet’s biggest and best Dark Shadows web-site, Manning has also written a number of audio dramas performed by members of the program’s original cast, including 2010’s The Night Whispers which saw actor Jonathan Frid’s return to the role of Barnabas Collins for the first time since Dark Shadows left the airwaves. With an encyclopedic mind for everything Dark Shadows, and an acute understanding for the making of the series, Stuart Manning was the natural choice to spearhead Dynamite Entertainment’s brand new Dark Shadows comic book. The fourth time that Dark Shadows has been brought to comics, including the long running Gold Key series currently being recollected by Hermes Press, Manning’s Dark Shadows comic is the first time ever that the story and characters will be featured in the same continuity of the series, picking up only weeks after the final episode left off. A true gift for longtime fans of the series, this is a long overdue chance to revisit the original series before the new version hits theaters.
One of my all time favorite pop culture franchises, it is always a rare treat for me to talk about Dark Shadows, and I was thrilled to talk to Stuart Manning, fan to fan and writer to writer, about his plans for the residents of Collinwood Manor.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
THE RETURN OF BARNABAS COLLINS:
A CONVERSATION WITH STUART MANNING
Sam Tweedle: Stuart, I am so excited about the brand new Dark Shadows comic book. Dark Shadows is one of my very favorite franchises. Now I know that you’ve had a very long personal history with Dark Shadows. How did you discover the program, and what is your personal involvement in Dark Shadows fandom?
Stuart Manning: I first discovered Dark Shadows in the 1990’s. It wasn’t shown in England, but the first time I saw it was in a magazine article. It had a few photos and told its history. I remember being quite fascinated by the premise. The idea of doing a soap opera using all these classic horror stories. In that format it seemed very wild and exciting. The other thing that made it compelling to me was this idea that it was being produced as a daily show live on tape. It seemed so foolhardy and ambitious. I just had to see it somehow. So for a few years it was something that was sort of in my peripheral vision. Once in a while I’d hear a snatch of something about Dark Shadows. I got some of the paperback books from the 60’s and I, of course, read them fascinated and took them as the gospel, but now I realize how hopelessly contradictory they were compared to how the show really was. But they sort of painted the characters in broad strokes and it gave me a sense of what the thing was about. So I almost felt like I became a fan before I actually had seen it. Eventually I saw House of Dark Shadows. Seeing all those characters as real was just fascinating. About a year later the SyFy Channel started showing Dark Shadows from the beginning and that’s when I started seeing it for real.
Sam: And did it live up to your expectations?
Stuart: Well yes and no. I think when you watch Dark Shadows for the first time, particularly the original episodes, there is a period of climatization. It is a type of television that, to all intents and purposes, [is now] obsolete. People don’t make television like that anymore and largely for good reason. It was sort of a substandard way to make television. Things went wrong and there were errors on tape. So that was a culture shock. But there is something about it. It has a particular energy. The actors have a particular style, and the premise and the music make it very persuasive. So when I watched the first week of shows I found myself a little disappointed. I thought it was going to be something else, and then suddenly it was like someone flicked on a switch. I know other people have said the same thing. Suddenly you’re kind of keyed into it and the pace and the way it’s told and then you’re hooked.
Sam: Now you are no stranger to writing about Dark Shadows. You run the Dark Shadows Journal Online web-site, and you’ve also the mastermind behind a number of audio dramas.
Stuart: Yes. One of the things I’ve been working on over the last five years is the series of licensed audio dramas staring a lot of the original cast. I’ve written several, and those are interesting. We’ve been very lucky. I had one that was performed by Jonathan Frid after thirty nine years [away from Barnabas Collins]. So those have been my introduction to writing Dark Shadows. Over the last five years I’ve had to study how [Dark Shadows] was put together and why certain things work story wise and how certain characters work. [Dark Shadows creator] Dan Curtis always used to say that he understood the show, but barely. It was something he put together and that he conceived, but it was quite intuitive. It wasn’t a heavily formatted thing. There wasn’t a story bible. But, at this point, I hope I’ve got a sense of what is distinctly Dark Shadows and what is not.
Sam: How did the new Dark Shadows comic come about? Did you pitch it to Dynamite Entertainment or did they come looking for you?
Stuart: Because of my involvement with all things Dark Shadows, I was aware that there was an interest in doing a comic. I felt that it was a real opportunity to do a legitimate, uncompromised sequel to the show in the sense that we are not constrained by mortality or actor availability or the passage of time. We could have those characters look exactly as they had looked in 1971 in a serialized format, telling a new story. I think in that respect it was a unique format to tell a new Dark Shadows story. So that just seemed like a once in a lifetime [opportunity]. A legitimate Dark Shadows comic has been a long time coming. There have been some very interesting comics, but they’ve tended to make their own continuity and played fast and loose with the established characters.
Sam: I have the collections of the Gold Key books, as well as the short lived newspaper strips, and I’m not sure if the writers had actually ever seen the show.
Stuart: I don’t think that they did. It was an all different approach [at Dark Shadows]. But knowing that Dynamite was interested, I made myself known to them and I submitted some ideas and they liked them. I had a track record of someone who knew the show and we really went from there.
Sam: So is the new comic book series taking place right where the original Dark Shadows television series left off?
Stuart: Yes. Pretty much. Initially I did have this idea that we could start it the very night that the series ended. Literally pick things up an hour later, which would have been very fascinating to do, and I had some very definite ideas of how to do it. [But as] something where we wanted it to be accessible, it added a layer of complication and we couldn’t do it that way. So instead we’re picking things up a couple of months down the line. The characters have moved on just that little bit from where we left them, so they’ve got some new mysteries of their own. I think that’s a good thing because it puts all the readers, both new and old, on a level playing field.
Sam: I have not made it to the end of the television series yet, but I know all the characters and the themes. Would I be okay going into this story, and would someone with just the barest knowledge of Dark Shadows be able to follow what’s going on?
Stuart: Yes. I think so. I think there is a tendency for fans to be scared of the notion of continuity. I think that its only bad continuity if it’s not pertinent information. You could tell stories about obscure storylines, but you’re probably not going to. I’m not really interested in what the characters did yesterday. I’m interested in what they are going to do tomorrow. The first issue is just that. It’s the first issue. If you’ve never encountered Dark Shadows, we introduce the characters and [new readers can] follow the threads of the show. If you’ve followed [Dark Shadows] to the end you become reacquainted with what the characters are doing right now and what they’re dealing with.
Sam: Who are your cast of characters in the first issue?
Stuart: We’re trying to concentrate on characters that you’re going to see in the [upcoming] Tim Burton movie. That makes good commercial sense. [We’ll be using] the Collins Family; Elizabeth, Roger, David and Carolyn. We’ll have Quentin. He’s kind of an interesting character. Then on the sidelines, in the “old house,” we have Barnabas and Julia, and then we’ll have Angelique lurking in the shadows, like she always does.
Sam: What about good ol’ Willie Loomis? Is he not included?
Stuart: Well he’s not in the opening story. He’ll be there in due course.
Sam: I hope so. He’s one of my favorite characters.
Stuart: Sometimes it’s a tough call about the characters. I love them all. I’d like to use Mrs. Johnson or Professor Stokes, but the reality is that you don’t want to overwhelm people with a lot of characters. We introduce nine or ten characters in the opening issue and that’s a lot for people to contend with. And I think that by holding some characters back, it will be an event when they do make an appearance.
Sam: As a fan, and a writer, would you much rather write a Victoria Winters story or a Maggie Evans story, and will we be seeing either of the show’s primary heroines in the series?
Stuart: Well, that’s a tricky one. Yes, we are not using either of them initially. Vicki, because if she is going to come back that should be [the focus of] the story. It would not be a peripheral appearance. I’m a little less inclined to use Maggie right now. Mainly because I’ve personally done a fair bit with her in the audios. Now, with that said, I may wake up tomorrow and find I have an absolute brilliant idea for Maggie and all that need not apply. But [as for] Vicki Winters, I think it’d be fascinating because that’s a blank page.
Sam: I’d love to see that because she’s a major part of Dark Shadows history that seemed to lack closure. That’s a story that I don’t think Dan Curtis fleshed out as fully as he could have.
Stuart: For various reasons I don’t think it was concluded to anyone’s satisfaction. There was an attempt in the beginning to just give Vicki a send off of sorts but it wasn’t quite satisfying. It’ll be interested what they’ll do with Vicki in the movie. There’s a great story to be told there and the great thing about it is that we could do it in a very authentic way. But the flip side of that thing is that Vicki has quite a back story, and when you think of that being inclusive, that’d be about finding a gimmick that would make that function s a story in its own right. So it’s a challenge.
Sam: Of all the Dark Shadows characters, which do you enjoy writing the most?
Stuart: I’ve got to say whoever I’m writing right now. I’m working with a pared down cast, and one of the nice things about that is you can concentrate on characters you’re passionate about. Of all the characters we’ve got, any of them could be the lead in any given chapter. That’s great because then they can do literally as much as you like. I know it’s a cliché, but they do sort of take a life of their own. When we started talking about doing this opening story in four twenty-two page issues, eighty-eight pages sounds like an incredible amount of pages to fill. But then you realize that the characters are all criss-crossing and doing their own thing and they all have their little secrets from one another and then suddenly, before you know it, you have more story then you can cope with. So on that level; they are all very stimulating characters. In terms of favorites, I’m enjoying writing Carolyn Stoddard a lot. She’s sort of an interesting character, because when we left her on the show she’s been through some really terrible experiences, but because of the way the show is structured, we never quite dwell on them. In a short space of time she had this mad few months where she is reunited with her father, sees him die, falls in love, gets married, gets widowed and seems to experience visions. She’s been on a real rollercoaster. The repercussions of that have never really been fully explored. I’m having some fun with that. So a little bit down the road she’s trying to get her life on track and back to normal, but not quite sure how to do it. It’s a nice human interest story. It’s not supernatural. It’s a little bit more grounded and identifiable.
Sam: What is it like to write Barnabas Collins?
Stuart: I love writing Barnabas. We’ve made him a vampire again. He’s got that to deal with, and his own neuroses. Every situation with him is so operatic and high stakes.
Sam: You are very invested in the world of Dark Shadows. What are your hopes for the upcoming Johnny Depp/Tim Burton Dark Shadows film, and what are your fears about it?
Stuart: I don’t have any fears about it whatsoever. I don’t think people should be anxious about what it’s going to do to the reputation of Dark Shadows. It’s a new production with a new cast. It’ll stand on its own two feet and should be judged on its own merit. In terms of how it relates to the original show, I think its absolutely magnificent that you have one of the most highest paid actors in the world who knows how to make things happen, [paired with] one of the most visionary directors and are doing this film because it is something they watched as children and it inspired them. Johnny Depp has said that how much Jonathan Frid’s performance of Barnabas influenced him. I think that’s an immense compliment.
Dark Shadows #1 hits comic shops on October 2nd. If you love the original series, this is a once in a lifetime chance to see a new story the way it should be presented. If you are just discovering Dark Shadows for the first time, pick up this book to get a jump on the film. This book will prove to be a perfect introduction to the world of Barnabas Collins and the rest of the Collins clan. Furthermore, if you are waiting for the movie, see just why Stuart, myself and so many other fans are so passionate about this incredible groundbreaking series. As Stuart states, Dark Shadows is very accessible. Find the original version of the series today. It will be the best vampire show you ever watch. Johnny Depp can revive Dark Shadows’ popularity and visibility, but he can never revive the original. That will be a job left to Stuart Manning and Dynamite Entertainment.
POP CULTURE ADDICT BONUS: Direct from Dynamite Entertainment, three previously unpublished pages from the upcoming Dark Shadows comic featuring artist Aaron Campbell’s depiction of Barnabas Collins and Angelique! Thanks to DE’s Nick Barrucci and Josh Johnson for this exclusive look!