In reviewing the 1997 Fest, I somehow neglected to mention the most surprising guests. Namely, comic strip artist Kenneth Bruce Bald--who drew the top-notch DS strip in 1971-72--and his wife Kaye.

What was surprising about them? Not their being at the convention--that had been announced. Or at least, the artist had been announced. But when this couple came onstage, we all perceived them as being in their fifties. Well-preserved fifties. And then Bald told us they had recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary!

Could it be magic...?

The Balds were there to promote the book of collected strips published by Pomegranate Press, Dark Shadows: The Comic Strip Book. In my opinion, this book is right up there with Shadows on the Wall--the two best professional DS publications in my memory.

For those unfamiliar with the strip, it ran from March 1971 through March 1972. There were six story arcs, each running for two months. Bald drew the strip, but was forced to use a pen name (K. Bruce) because of a contract situation--he was also drawing Dr. Kildare. No one remembers who conceived and wrote the stories. Scripting was supervised by prolific comic scripter Elliot Caplin (the brother of Al Capp), but Bald is sure Caplin's role was that of an overseer.

At the time, there was some resistance to the strip because it portrayed a DS universe very different from the one seen on TV. But fans today are used to encountering divergent universes in fan fiction, not to mention the films and the "Marilyn Ross" novels (personal opinion--ugh).

The universe of the comic strip is interesting because fairly little is established. The only permanent residents of Collinwood are Elizabeth Collins Stoddard--widow of Michael Stoddard, to whom she was happily married--and her daughter Carolyn. Roger and David definitely do not exist. Barnabas Collins, a vampire, arrives and presents himself as a cousin from England, working on a family history; Elizabeth lets him live in an old stone cottage on the estate. We learn Barnabas was made a vampire in the 18th century, by the beautiful witch Angelique, after he told her they could never be married. But that's all we learn. Was he ever trapped in a chained coffin? Was he really in England all those years? Do Willie Loomis and Julia Hoffman exist? Those questions still cry out to be answered.

The actual stories are all at least fairly good. My favorite introduces a beautiful woman who turns out to be the Egyptian goddess Isis--searching for her beloved Osiris, whom an enemy has trapped in a succession of human incarnations. Does she find him? Suffice it to say Osiris has suffered a particularly ironic fate, for a sun god!

The book gives us the entire strip, plus fascinating articles on its promotion and on Bald's method of working. A superb artist, he used his wife, his father-in-law, and himself as models, photographed in poses planned for characters in the strip. The photos served as a guide in deciding how to use light and shadow, how garments should be draped, etc. Bald also worked from photos of Jonathan Frid. He had been told not to try to make any character but Barnabas resemble the TV performer. But his Barnabas is an amazingly accurate likeness of Frid, and Angelique, apparently by chance, does look like Lara Parker. In one strip, among the family portraits on the wall, Bald quietly slips in a perfect likeness of David Selby as Quentin.

Amusingly, it seems not even comic strips can avoid bloopers. In the comic's werewolf story, a character was given the unusual name Azrael. But then the letterer could never remember from one strip to the next whether it was supposed to be "Azrael" or "Azreal."

If I have one small criticism of the book, it is that the Sunday strips are not reproduced in the original color. But the decision to stick with black and white is defensible. We're told Bald painstakingly colored the first two Sunday strips himself, then stopped doing it because after all that work, the printed version in newspapers wasn't turning out the way he wanted.

As a fan who was able to read only one arc (the werewolf story) when it first appeared, I was thrilled to rediscover the world of the DS comic strip between the covers of this book. And then to see Ken Bald and his wife--the model for that glorious Isis--alive, well, and looking terrific...

Yes, magic is the only word.