1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium. Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80′s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.
But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.
I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like THE LAST AMERICAN, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.
This week I’m taking a look at one of my all time favorite comic runs, the 80’s DC revamp of THE SHADOW that began with Howard Chaykin’s four-issue BLOOD & JUDGEMENT miniseries and was picked up in a glorious but achingly short lived monthly run by writer Andy Helfer that saw art by Bill Sienkiewicz, Marshall Rogers, and the auspicious debut of Kyle Baker.
The Shadow had a long history as first the disembodied, sinister voice (Frank Readick Jr.’s) of a radio announcer for Street and Smith’s Detective Story Hour, a popular pulp fiction crimefighter penned by the insanely productive Walter B. Gibson, and then back to the radio as a crime/adventure series with The Shadow voiced by Orson Welles, Bill Johnstone, Brett Morrison (where I first encountered the character on an Old Time Radio tape my dad played in his Bronco), John Archer, and Steve Cortleigh, in succession.
The premise of The Shadow is of a master manipulator, a dark and faceless avenger who plots against criminals in (you guessed it) the shadows, commanding a network of agents with various talents and connections both political and criminal. The Shadow directs his agents via codes or a central dispatcher (usually the equally mysterious “Burbank”), and influences his quarry into intricate set ups, finally dispatching them personally with a pair of matched .45’s, all the while laughing ominously. The Shadow had no real superpower other than being an expert at obfuscation, disguise, hypnosis, misdirection and stealth (understandable considering Walter Gibson was an accomplished stage magician), but the radio drama added to his arsenal, for the sake of brevity of explanation, the mystic power (learned in Tibet) to cloud men’s minds and disappear from sight.
The Shadow’s alter ego is Kent Allard, a former World War I ace and spy who faked his death and took on the persona of both The Shadow and Lamont Cranston, a wealthy playboy whom he apparently resembled.
There were a few prior comic book iterations of the character, the most successful being the Michael Kaluta illustrated series at DC, but as I said, outside of The Shadow’s Revenge, a radio episode my Dad picked up on tape at a rest stop one family vacation, my introduction to the character came with the eye grabbing cover to The Shadow #8, featuring the debut of artist Kyle Baker.
I was thirteen and browsing Friendly Frank’s Comics in Lansing, Illinois (yep, the very same Friendly Frank’s that brought about the formation of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) with my buddy Dave when the cover to #8 snatched my attention. Take a look at it and you can see why. This was one evocative piece of work, the kind that, as the best covers do, formulated a multitude of possible stories in my mind at a glance, the kind that just made me wanna pick this up and see what it was about. The muted blue Michael Mann-ish , coloring, instantly evoking a dark and urban feel, the mad look on the character’s face, leering back at you like a bloody-mawed lion surprised in the midst of killing a zebra (his choice of weapon, a barbeque fork, compounding the maneater impression), that gout of blood spraying out of the gasping victim’s throat, the odd, bulky proportions of the figure, and of course the looming, iconic shadow falling across it all.
This was the first For Mature Readers comic I ever picked up. I was expecting full on porn and eviscerations in my heady rush back home, blood pounding in my ears, the comic sandwiched surreptitiously between my Groos and Wolverines. What I got was the first part of THE SEVEN DEADLY FINNS storyline, an alternately kick ass and at time hilarious story about the Shadow and his agents going up against the criminal enterprises of a family of brothers, the Finns, who dabble in arms dealing (via a Home Shopping Network style cable access show), drugs (smuggling narcotics in astronomically expensive and hideous children’s toys sold brazenly off the shelf to buyers in the know), prostitution, terrorism, and outright murder (one Finn brother owned a hot dog plant which he allowed his brothers to dump bodies in….memorably, a diamond stud earring in one victim makes its way into a customer’s wiener, and to salvage the situation the brother comes up with the smokescreen that the entire happening was part of a new promotional sweepstakes, in which a diamond is hid in random hot dogs. The slogan: “Every Frank A Wiener.”)
The Shadow swiftly became my favorite comic, and remains one of my favorites of all time. What attracted me about it was its focus on the well defined, brilliantly characterized agents and their perception of ‘The Master.’ There was Twitchkowitz the narcotics expert, once a pro wrestling cornerman who slipped his charges timely adrenaline injections to swing matches in their favor, DeWitt, the lowlife con man and son of a criminal informant (And I’d swear the pair of DeWitt and Twitch was copied directly by Todd McFarlane for his two cops Sam and Twitch in Spawn – right down to the character designs), Mavis, the daughter of original agent Harry Vincent, and a former federal agent, and The Shadow’s two sons, Hsu Tei and Chang, who piloted his sleek flying car (a souvenir from Shamballha, the technologically advanced Tibetan utopia where the Shadow got his training). Several of The Shadow’s old time agents had parts in the comic as well –the aforementioned Harry pursued a relationship with the Shadow’s old squeeze Margo Lane, and Burbank returned, catering to Lorelei, a paralyzed woman bound to an iron lung who was The Shadow’s new dispatcher, doubling as a phone sex operator.
My enjoyment of THE SEVEN DEADLY FINNS led me to pick up the comic miniseries that had brought The Shadow into the modern era, and reinvigorated his character and origin, Howard Chaykin’s BLOOD AND JUDGEMENT. The Shadow had not learned his skills in Tibet, according to Chaykin, but in the technologically superadvanced city of Shamballha, where he had battled the real Lamont Cranston, a criminal bon vivant trying to smuggle opium out of central China in the bodies of dead missionaries. Crashlanding in Shamballha, Allard was reconstructed and trained as a paladin, a shadow warrior who could fight blind and manipulate minds. Allard took his newfound abilities, assumed the Cranston identity, and battled the underworld until the mid forties as The Shadow, when he returned to Shamballha and fathered two sons.
Meanwhile, the real Lamont Cranston had survived their previous encounter, and regained his fortune under the name Preston Mayrock. Eager to lure the Shadow out of hiding, Mayrock ordered the assassination of all of the Shadow’s former agents, and succeeded in horrifically murdering Clive Burke, Shrevvy, and a few others, before The Shadow returned to face him (not aged, but young as ever thanks to the advanced medicine of Shamballha).
Chaykin’s re-imagination of the character was daring considering nobody had ever taken The Shadow out of the 30’s before. Introducing him not as an outdated fuddy duddy lost in the modern world, but a smirking, unapologetic force equal to and most often greater than any savagery the hyperkinetic punks of the 80’s could dish out, was inspired. I’m reminded of the movie Time After Time in which HG Wells pursues Jack The Ripper back to 1980’s San Francisco, and The Ripper, after sitting up all night and watching violent American culture on a television set remarks “I’m home.” The reason for The Shadow’s retirement is never given, but maybe he just got bored. Allard was an adventurer and thrillseeker who took up crimefighting not out of some moral imperative or familial tragedy, but because he just wanted to. Maybe the forties grew too tame for the master.
It was the success of BLOOD AND JUDGEMENT which led to the commissioning of an ongoing monthly series at DC, and the first artist to join Helfer was Bill Sienkiewicz . Now when I was a kid, jumping back from Kyle Baker’s cartoonish style to Chaykin’s realistic pulpy four color guys and dames-style figures and then Sienkiewicz, I admit I wasn’t impressed by his (what I then termed) scribbly art style. There were times I couldn’t even tell if the characters he was depicting were supposed to be human. But in revisiting Sienkiewicz’s run, I fully appreciate the artistry of what he was doing in these early issues. The human figures are often grotesque and bizarre looking, but always interesting. There’s a pimply computer hacker named Alfred, and Sienkiewicz depicts him in one panel pointing and wolfing down a cheeseburger as he stands ankle deep in a pile of McDonald’s cartons that turned me off of McDonald’s for a few months. I love the kinetic lines of action and reaction he inserts into their eye lines and auras, like the cartoony twitching of Popeye’s elbows. Sienkiewicz is the only guy I know that can draw a blink. He maximizes reactions. The violence in The Shadow is shocking under his hand, with a mind controlled cyclist driving his bike head on into a Mack truck in one panel seeming to explode across the grill, and characters falling from great heights to smack the pavement drawn so you can almost feel the impact yourself. And the way he draws the Shadow himself is unparalleled. When the Shadow appears to criminals with a pair of twin mini-UZI’s (or MAC-10’s, I think Sienkiewicz drew him with), he’s a terror; a nightmare figure of inky darkness and impossible angles, illuminated by rapid muzzle flashes and ensconced by swirling, mad laughter and that crazily whipping Tom Baker-length crimson scarf.
The Helfer/Sienkiewicz run gave us the return of The Golden Master, Shiwan Khan, a yellow peril villain who appeared in two of the pulp novels. Here, Khan was an aged cross between Ming The Merciless and David Lo Pan, brilliant high tech industrialist beloved by consumers for his philanthropy and good humor. But of course, Khan had ulterior motives, and had developed a method for mass mind control stolen midway through the storyline by The Light, a fanatical televangelist with mind powers rivaling the Shadow’s own. The Light’s backstory was depicted concurrently in the first Shadow annual, a lurid 40’s tale of atomic bomb worship and the failed return of the Third Reich.
Following the Shadows & Light storyline, in issue #7 Helfer took his first stab at the black humor that would characterize the title’s final issues with the chilling and portentious one-off story HAROLD GOES TO WASHINGTON, with guest artist Marshall Rogers. In this issue, a couple of the Shadow’s agents decide to help out fellow agent Elton Butterfield, a substitute elementary school teacher, whose class has been chosen to visit Washington DC and sit in on a taping of President Reagan’s speech. As the agents go about their shenanigans of dealing with a bunch of shrill carsick youths, all the while praying the master doesn’t find out about their misuse of his manpower (inevitably he does), unbeknownst to everyone, misanthropic young Harold, whose father died in the war, has decided, in a bout of neglected and misunderstood child sociopathy, that he must be a war hero like his father. Since he has been told the President keeps the world at peace, there can never be a war. Thus, to be a war hero, he must kill the President with the German luger he steals from the trunk full of Nazi paraphernalia in the attic.
Much of the story is told from Harold’s fractured point of view, and we are privy to his everyday madness. He burns a roach motel full of trapped insects on the kitchen stove (in a scene that reminds me of the opening of THE WILD BUNCH), tests the Luger on the family cat, and, when threatened with exposure by a schoolmate, memorably traps the boy’s jacket in the window of a departing bus, killing him. I can’t stress enough the prescience of this single story, or its relevance to our modern society of school shootings and youth violence. Harold is a boy left to his own devices to figure out the world, and mainly ignored by his mother and teachers or dismissed as creepy by his peers, of course he gets it horribly wrong. Helfer penned a terrifying masterpiece in this transitional tale.
Harold goes on the field trip dressed as a cowboy (brilliantly wearing the Luger in full view of his oblivious teachers and the secret service), but misses his shot at the President, and institutes a running gun battle through some kind of huge diorama of Washington DC. I can’t begin to analyze what’s going on here, with a giant child in a cowboy outfit shooting his way through a miniature DC like some kind of crazed redneck Godzilla. Maybe Harold is an analogy for Reagan America itself. But when he’s surprised by a G-man and blows the guy’s brains point blank all over the place, he is confronted at last with the harsh reality of his fantasy, and dies not by The Shadow’s hand, but by fate’s. The Shadow shows up in time to give the deonouement, as the boy literally hangs from the obelisk of the Washington monument by his cowboy hat string, a victim of his own deluded sense of masculinity perhaps. Again, this is a comic book masterpiece. One of the most chilling and memorable issues of my youth.
At any rate, back to THE SEVEN DEADLY FINNS, which, after a positively riveting multi-part storyline, incredibly, ends with the Shadow’s apparent death by poison gas. Yep, the very next issue, kicking off the BODY AND SOUL storyline, depicted the Shadow lying in his coffin on the cover. And he was really dead. But it’s a testament to Helfer’s writing that even with the titular character out of the picture, the supporting cast, none of them superpowered or costumed (well at first), still managed to hold my attention at age thirteen.
In the wake of the Shadow’s death, crime rises to an unprecedented height, culminating in the audacious high rise killings, in which a pair of chummy burglars break into well to do apartments and toss the occupant over the balcony, betting the entire haul of loot on wether or not the hapless victim lands on his head or his tails. The Shadow’s agents, depressed at the loss of their master and feeling purposeless, decide to carry out his work themselves and more, to seek out a replacement to guide their actions. At first, they try to convince another pulp hero, master of disguise Richard Benson AKA The Avenger to be their new master, but when he refuses, they decide to try and track down a new hero making a name for himself, the green skinned, green clad Inoculator, who injects his victims (child pornographers and crooked cops) with lethal doses of prescription drugs, delivered from a rifle like injector mechanism.
The only problem with this plan is the Inoculator is actually Twitchkowitz.
The second Shadow Annual appeared as a sideline to the ongoing series, taking time out to celebrate the character’s history with a well executed homage to the original voice of the master, Orson Welles. In this issue, Rupert, a nominal associate of the Shadow’s agents who has been trying to break into broadcast news reporting, interrupts a screening of a television retrospective documentary of the Shadow’s career. Having been present at the Shadow’s death, and having heard him mutter the word ‘Lenore,’ Rupert sets out at the behest of the ambivalent producers to learn the meaning of the Shadow’s last spoken word. He interviews Margo Lane, Harry Vincent, and Dr. Roy Tam in succession, learning how each of them came into the Shadow’s service. Harry’s story is a faithful variation of his introduction in the pulps (Harry was saved from suicide by the Shadow as depicted in Gibson’s first novel, THE LIVING SHADOW), but Roy Tam and Margo are each given cool little introductory stories of their first meetings with the Shadow – Tam, patching him up after he caught a bullet during a Chinatown shootout, and Margo, after helping to foil a plot by a Nazi agent to deliver coded messages over the airwaves during a radio drama broadcast (with Orson Welles in the sound booth). The new agents Elton, DeWitt, and Twitch, are given a humorous backstory (The Shadow, upon deciding to make Twitch his agent, delivers an impressive about how he doesn’t take just anyone into his service, and DeWitt bursts in with Elton in tow, yelling HEY MASTER I GOTTA ANUDDER ONE FOR YA!) . Each offer their own impressions of Kent Allard/The Shadow unique to their particular relationships, with Burbank’s dogged tale of loyalty over the years a particular standout. As a ham radio enthusiast, following The Shadow’s disappearance in 1940, Burbank is the only one to keep in contact with him, reading his master newspapers and keeping him up to date on the developments of the western world over the decades. The whole thing wraps up with a nice denouement worthy of its inspiration, CITIZEN KANE, as ‘Lenore’ is revealed to be something indicative of Kent Allard’s youth, which he held in very high esteem.
Meanwhile back in the regular series, the bid to return the Shadow to life (this is comics, after all) has already been set in motion by the Shadow’s two bumbling sons, Hsu Tei and Chang, who, having lost their father’s funerary instructions, decide to take his body back to Shamballha. This plot line swiftly spirals into a chaotic comedy of errors as the Chinese military shoots down their flying car, leaving Hsu Tei and Chang to drag their father’s corpse to a barbaric town of criminal anarchists and paramilitary survivalists known as Malice, where they befriend a gang of juvenile delinquents (the children of Malice) and are chased out of town for various infractions of the bizarre Malice penal code by both the townspeople and the murderous Arbitrator, a magnum toting judge in black robes and a powdered Parliamentary wig whose final ruling is always execution. The Shadow’s fire opal ring (and finger) are stolen by the followers of a female rockstar who apparently collects dead celebrities, the Shadow is decapitated by the blades of a plummeting helicopter, and Hsu Tei and Chang finally arrive in Shamballha with the children of Malice only to find they have led the crazed citizenry to the hidden utopia.
The Shadow’s head is revived and he berates his fool sons as the scientists of Shamballha grow a new body for him. The children of Malice are doled out to wanting families by the elders of Shamballha, and all seems right with the world until the tanks of Malice roll into town and begin laying waste to the pacifist populace. The Shadow opts to have his head placed on a prototype metallic body with armaments that put Robocop to shame, and he singlehandedly defends Shamballha, resolving to give the robot body a couple test drives in New York City before returning for his proper fleshy form.
On the last page of the last issue, we learn that Shiwan Khan, crippled way back in issue #6, has had his own head put on a similar robot body by renegade Shamballhan doctors, and the splash page card promises the next issue will kick off the NUTS AND BOLTS storyline.
But it never happened.
There are various stories as to why The Shadow was cancelled. Likely it was a lack of sales, but it may be due to the intervention of Conde Nast, the rights holders of The Shadow property, who apparently realized too late the quirky turn the comic had taken and took exception. Whatever happened, The Shadow ceased to be, making it the second great unfinished comic tale of my youth (the first was LONE WOLF AND CUB, which I had the original American First Comics printings of, but ten years after that company went under, Dark Horse thankfully reprinted the whole thing from beginning to end).
Scrambling to hold onto the rights, DC replaced the modern day Shadow with a series set in the classic 1930’s era, called THE SHADOW STRIKES. I picked up the first issue, but it was pretty standard derring do fare, nothing more than an illustrated pulp, really, and anyway, it couldn’t alleviate my disappointment in the series I loved being cancelled mid-story. I think this was the first such disappointment in my life. I remembered thinking how fantastic the plot was and being thunderstruck that something so good could just get the rug pulled out from under it. The character felt very real to me, and it seemed impossible that I would never learn what happened to Twitch, Mavis, DeWitt, or any of them.
But I never would.
What the heck was Helfer doing in these last few issues? He displayed such a brilliant knack for characterization that I can’t imagine this robotization of the Shadow was just a stunt to bring in more readers. Was he undertaking some crazy absurdist experiment under the noses of his editors? Is that even possible? Had he learned Conde Nast was cracking down on him for his darkly humorous portrayal and decided to give them a big middle finger as he went out?
Look at the cover for the final, silly and brutish issue of the Shadow, #19. It’s typical comic book fare. The Shadow, still wearing his slouch hat, has this clobberin’ time look on his face as he smashes through a wall. The titles, in Indiana Jones style , as with rivets reads THE SENSES SHATTERING SHADOW! and the print on the cover is haphazard and funnybook-y, as it hadn’t been through the entire run ever. It looks ridiculous in context, but put the Hulk in that picture or the Thing or any other four color juvenile hero and you’ll realize it’s pretty standard issue. Were Baker and Helfer saying, OK here you go – here’s what you wanted? The Shadow for kids?
Look at the abstract artistry Baker did for the cover of #15 only four issues prior, depicting the corpse of the Shadow falling down a snowy mountainside with his two idiot sons.
Look at the reverence with which he recreated the cover of the original pulp novel THE LONE TIGER featuring The Shadow’s agents for #11, putting in the aged Burbank and Harry and substituting the new agents for those that had been lost. These guys were taking their job seriously, and displayed (to say nothing of the brilliant multi-layered references of the Shadow Annual #2), I think, a respect for the character and his origins as well as a commitment to taking him interesting places he’d never been before.
The robo-Shadow thing….yeah, it reads silly. But you know what? In the heat of the story, I was along for the ride. I would’ve gone almost anywhere Helfer and Baker took me. That’s good comics. Good writing, no matter the medium.
With the advent of the internet I read into the fate of Helfer’s Shadow, and came to be baffled by the slew of negative feelings from professed Shadow fans for this incarnation. Apparently the series is practically anathema to the majority of hardcore Shadow aficionados, who seem to prefer the character remain strictly in the original pulp era, and yet bemoan the lack of exposure for their favorite character in TV and movies.
But how can a hero character capture the public imagination if he’s not allowed to evolve with the times? The gun toting, Catwoman spanking Batman of the 1940’s bears little resemblance to the Batman of today, just as the absurdist Batman movie of the 1960’s is not the Dark Knight that broke box office records (or even the surreal circus-like Batman of the 80’s which did the same).
And the Shadow is the inspiration for Batman.
Recently, Chaykin’s BLOOD AND JUDGEMENT was re-released by Dynamite, and he was interviewed about the project by Comic Book Resources. Of choosing to bring the character into modern day, he said;
“[I felt] that the reason the character had been identified with that period through that point was because it had been cancelled in 1949. To support that idea based on its failure seemed kind of counter intuitive. My feeling is that if Batman had been cancelled in 1945, he too would be perceived as a period character. So I thought it was important to figure out a way to do the character in a contemporary setting and a contemporary format.”
Further, he addressed the backlash of the character’s fan base;
“Comic book fandom is evenly divided between people who like comics in a general way and are fans of comics in general, and then there’s an entire spade of juvenilists who attach themselves to the old joke about the Golden Age of comics. ‘What’s the Golden Age of comics? 12!’ There’s this tremendous idea that their tastes were formed and refined at 12, and frankly, I’m not interested in supporting that sensibility. By the same token, if I’m going to be doing a mature readers product, I don’t feel the need to stand by the standards of a 12-year-old sensibility.”
I’m inclined to agree. I liken the phenomenon of the Shadow and his more rigid fans to an indie band and its devoted followers who have been there with them since they cut their first album. Struggling for years in relative obscurity, the band finally hits it big. Suddenly, everybody’s humming their tunes, and they’re playing Lollapalooza or whatever. And to the old school fans, all of a sudden they suck, and everything they do sounds like crap. They’re not being true to their roots and playing the same old comfortable tune.
But playing it safe and repeating their tunes isn’t what made them hit it big.
I just don’t get that mentality.
The Shadow is a great, iconic character, yes, and these comics were the gateway to the original pulps for me, and the radio shows. I now appreciate the character in all three incarnations. But I really don’t believe he needs to be bound to the pulp era. The Lone Ranger is one of the few characters I can call to mind that can’t exist outside of his original time period, and that’s because he’s a Texas Ranger on a white horse with Colt revolvers and an Indian companion.
There’s no reason for the Shadow to remain in the past.
Chaykin and Helfer did an amazing job of bringing the Shadow character into the present, and it’s the kind of injustice worthy of the barking of the master’s forty fives that this title’s gotten such flack.
Why this book continues to remain in obscurity, why it was never allowed to run its course….
Only the Shadow knows.