Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: The Shade

It's hard to think of a single comic that was worse served by DC's "New 52" initiative than writer James Robinson's The Shade, a 12-issue series starring one of best and most colorful supporting characters from his critically-acclaimed and rather well-liked Starman, perhaps the single series in DC Comics history that made the most and best use of the publisher's long, sometimes tangled fictional history and the concept of legacy heroes (In Starman, being the superhero Starman was more-or-less the family business, and Robinson's story and huge cast of characters continually called back to that history).

Robinson kinda sorta returning to Starman was, of course, a good thing, and a rather big deal—trade collections of his run remain strong-ish, particularly for a character who isn't Batman or the Justice League—but it was completely knee-capped by the New 52 relaunch, which did away with the rich history that Starman was built of and most of the characters (or at least the stars) of the series. Timing, of course, didn't help; it was released in the fall of 2011, right at the height of DC's unprecedented PR blitzkreig proclaiming The New 52, with the implicit and explicit messaging that all of the comics DC published were no good and no one really wanted to read them (Starman and Robinson's Justice League of America run included), but these new comics by the same people as the old people (plus Greg Capullo, Rob Liefeld and Scott Lobdell!) were going to be awesome!

It's sales started off sluggish and, if I'm remembering correctly, took quite a tumble throughout the year, whether it was that fact that the book was jettisoned from the DCU and sold accordingly (note sales on DC's non-DCU Vertigo and kids comics), or Robinson's reputation suffering so horribly over the course of his last high-profile DC maxi-series, or simply DC's and DC's readers' attention being elsewhere at the time. (Todd Allen tried to puzzle out the exact reasons in this November 2011 post at The Beat, following warnings from Robinson that sales looked so poor he was no longer sure DC would allow the 12-issue series to last 12 issues).

I personally had, at that point, pretty much given up on James Robinson. Clearly DC editorial had a very heavy hand in his writing on almost every project since his 2006 return to regular writing for the company, with the "One Year Later" Batman story "Face The Face," as could be clearly demonstrated by how much his ongoing Justice League comic, originally meant to run alongside Justice League of America changed between the time it was announced and the time it became the miniseries Cry For Justice, or, how radically and jarringly his JLoA series could change from issue to issue, once he inherited the main title from the departing Dwayne McDuffie (Perhaps the best example of Robinson being jerked-around on that title was the fact that he introduced a big, new line-up in issue #41, only to have at least half of those characters taken out of the book with little to no in-story explanation within two issues, of which was a crossover with other goofy titles like the much-mocked Rise of Arsenal).

(Above: The Justice League that existed for about three issues, and then the League after it was almost immediately halved and, over the course of a story arc, picked up a few new members)

So while I enjoyed certain aspects of his JLoA, more of which I read in trade paperbacks borrowed from libraries than in monthly installments I bought the week of release, I know I wouldn't have been the least bit enthusiastic about his Shade series, were it not for the artists he would be working with: Cully Hamner, Javier Pulido, Jill Thompson (!!!), Darwyn Cooke (Back before Before Watchmen, when his byline didn't make me as queasy as it does now), Frazer Irving and Gene Ha.

I waited for the trade on it, and, just last Wednesday, the trade came out.

Whether because Robinson was back on very sure footing, or because DC editorial gave him a wide berth (nothing in this series "mattered," any longer, as it was already rebooted away) or some other reason, the Robinson who showed up to script this one seemed more like the Robinson of Starman and JSA then the one of Action Comics, Cry and JLoA (two of the three of which also featured Shade).

After having read it, I wonder if the serial structure might have further hurt sales. In the first issue, drawn by Hamner, we see Shade talking with the newest Starman, the blue alien one from Robinson's JLoA in Opal City, and talking with his lover Hope, name-checking many of the characters from Starman.
The end is of the shocking, gratuitous, gory kind—Deathstroke the Terminator, whose design looks like Cully Hamner's attempts to cover Simon Bisley's version of the New 52 'Stroke, first chops off The Shade's hands, and then beheads him. And that's the end of the first issue.

The Cry and Arsenal example of shock-seeking violence, the uncomfortable co-existence of The New 52 and the old DC continuity—I'm not sure how this book would have looked in October of 2011, but I'm pretty sure "promising" wasn't it.

As it turns out, the particular design of Deathstroke was the only aspect of The New 52 to intrude on the series. Otherwise, it is quite clearly a continuation or spin-off of Starman, featuring the exact same version of The Shade. This was simply an old-DCU comic that DC published right after they made a big deal about the old DCU being rearranged into The New 52U.

Deathstroke is, obviously, unsuccessful in his attempts to kill The Shade, but his attempt to do so sets the plot of the next ten issues in motion, after a first issue reintroducing us to The Shade and his particular tone of voice and his own supporting cast and home base of Opal.

Naturally, The Shade wants to know why someone hired one of the world's greatest assassins to kill him, and he begins a globe-trotting trip to find out just that, along the way flashing back to previous adventures involving his descendants, two of whom figure rather prominently in the attempt on his life. In a sense, this is a story about The Shade's dealings with his family over the decades, and learning that maybe it's better to keep in touch, if the results of not keeping touch involve any of them attempting the sort of evil that even he during his Golden Age worst would have never attempted.

He travels from Opal to Paris to Australia to Barcelona to London, and on several occasions the story travels back in time to the 19th century and, on one occasion, to the 1940s. The multiple artists are employed quite smartly, so that a change in artist coincides either with a change in place or a change in time (or both). There are obviously wide (troublingly so) gulfs between the styles of Hamner and Cooke and Ha, but the shifts smooth it over (Cooke, Pulido and Thompson all draw in a similar enough style that their art seems to belong grouped together, while Irving and Ha's realistic art similarly works in complimentary fashion; the editors group it smartl, so we move from Hamner to Pulido Cooke and Thompson and then, finally, to first Irving than Ha).

Robinson involves a fairly incredible amount of guest-stars, more of whom seem to be created by he and his artistic collaborators than pulled from the DC character stable something that, given the damage Robinson inflicted on that stable during Cry, is nice to see. There are actually quite a few of these, many of them international heroes, and I suppose I should do a more thorough Googling before declaring them all Robinson creations, as its possible they are simply extremely obscure DC characters (Robinson is the man who resurrected Jay Garrick's Golden Age sidekicks simply to ice them in Cry, for example, and used characters from DC's 1970s 1st Issue Specials prominently in his Action Comics run).

Barcelona's champions were probably my favorite, both springing from the Pulido-drawn sections of the book. These are La Sangre, a teenage (looking) vampire who is the city's beloved champion (and kinda sorta The Shade's adoptive daughter) and Montepellier, a snake-themed detective hero of the Batman mold, whose costume looks a little like a Frank Miller design from Dark Knight Strikes Again, a design just goofy enough to still be sort of cool.

(Above: Montepellier, by Pulido)

A handful of pre-existing characters do appear, of course, aside from the aforementioned Starman characters and Deathstroke.
During the Cooke-drawn adventure in the 1940s, there is a nice, dynamic scene involving the original Vigilante (I love that guy, by the way, and Cooke makes him look ten times more awesome than usual) and, surprisingly enough, Golden Age cross-dressing crimefighter Madame Fatal, whom I didn't realize DC actually had the rights to use (I last saw her appear in The Quality Comics companion, which I guess would make her a DC character now). Interestingly, rather than a little old lady, this Fatal is drawn as a busy amazon, albeit one with white hair.

The book is pretty great, featuring a very distinct lead with a very singular voice, and, as mentioned a series of great artists. It's not perfect, of course, and I'll always find something to complain about. Robinson's dialogue can occasionally be too precious, too obvious in its construction.

Format-wise, this is an eleven-issue story arc, with a tacked-on 12th issue, purporting to be the never-before-told origin of The Shade. The story is perfectly wrapped-up by the last page of the eleventh issue, and the twelfth begins with still perfectly human Richard Swift in the late 1830s, hanging out with his pal Charles Dickens, his own lovely family and a mysterious dwarf named Simon Culp. There's a ritual to invoke a goddess, at which Swift was to be a sacrifice, but instead he gained his Shade powers and his immortality. Exactly what went on to give him those powers isn't really discussed here, allusions are made to explanations existing elsewhere (likely in Starman or perhaps the four-issue, 1997 Shade miniseries; it's been a while since I've read either).

The only disappointing bit on the art side of the equation, which is mostly superlative, came during a section Pulido drew in which The Shade visits his elderly, dying great-grandson in Australia, and a conversation between the pair is illustrated in a two-page spread, assembled from a single drawing repeated over and over and over, slightly edited each time to try (and fail) to invoke a sense of differing panels; it's a clumsy, lazy trick I've seen in Brian Michael Bendis-written comics a lot, and generally employed because there's some time crunch with the books.

That is, thankfully, the only negative aspect of any of the art in this 12-issue storyline though (Well, I might have colored Shade's blood black rather than red in the first issue, when Deathstroke is chopping him into pieces, since the fact that The Shade doesn't possess blood any more is something of a plot point later in the series).

When finishing a shared-setting super-book like this, one of the most exciting aspects is imagining what will come next. I, for example, would really like to read more about some of these newer characters (and/or older characters, recreated or refurbished), and The Shade, like the Starman legacy, is exactly the sort of character-vehicle that would allow a writer like Robinson plenty of space to fill-in dozens and dozens of story (there's room for a lot of adventures between the years 1837 and 2013, after all).

Sadly though, the current state of the DC line would seemingly make something like, say, a sequel or a Shade ongoing by Robinson and Pulido unlikely, if not impossible. The publisher could continue to publish comics outside of their New 52 status quo, of course, but, thus far, they haven't been all that eager to do so, and, in the year and a half or so since the change, this remains one of—or only?—old-DCU comics stories they've published.

On it's own though, this was a really rather great little comic series, filled with great art from great artists who simply do not produce enough superhero genre stuff (It was such a treat, for example, to see Thompson working in the "straight" style of her old Sandman contributions, for example, or Cooke doing another DCU period piece).

It's also, by the way, a pretty compelling argument against a one-generation only DCU—there's just so much raw material to mine when you've almost the entire 20th century full of super-people, rather than restricting yourself to a superhero history that exists only from 2008-2013, you know?)


I thought it worth noting that James Robinson did not create The Shade, even if he quite thoroughly and completely recreated him over his years and years of writing him. According to Wikipedia, The Shade first appeared in a 1942 issue of DC-to-be National's Flash Comics, and his creation is credited to an E.E. Hibbard.

I'm having trouble thinking of another character who was adopted in the manner that Robinson adopted The Shade, essentially transforming the character so much that the later creator's creative stamp seems to have all but obliterated the original conception of the character.

I'm sure one could think of many if one spent a while doing so, though. Off the top of my head, Alan Moore and company's work on Swamp Thing and Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano and company's Animal Man spring to mind most immediately.


Hey, speaking of the New 52U's compressed superhero timeline, in which there weren't any superheroes until Superman started running around Metropolis in 2008, maybe late 2007. That's really, really weird when one considers the fact that All-Star Western features super-powered masked men like El Diablo and colorful, masked crimefighters with codenames like Nighthawk, Cinnamon and The Barbary Ghost, isn't it?

Basically, there were superheroes in the late 19th Century (and the Dark Ages, as per Demon Knights, but I'm not sure if they would count as superheroes, given the fact that they are all magical in nature), but not a single individual decided to wear a mask and fight crime between, say, 1900 and 2006...?

That has nothing to do with The Shade, of course. Only that this series' inclusion of The Vigilante, Madam Fatal, and the title character's 100+ year career as a super-human had me thinking about a fictional history of superheroes, and read while writing about a New 52 cowboy series sort of drove home the fact that there seems to be a very big and hard to account for gap in New 52U continuity.


SallyP said...

The Shade mini-series was a rather bittersweet moment for me. Sweet of course, because it was Robinson, and he was writing the Shade, whom I adore, and because we got to revisit Opal, and all those fabulous characters.

Bitter, because it all happened within the confines of the new 52, and therefore none of it really mattered anymore.

But still...definitely worth picking up.

Ray "!!" Tomczak said...

An example of "..another character who was adopted in the manner that Robinson adopted The Shade, essentially transforming the character so much that the later creator's creative stamp seems to have all but obliterated the original conception of the character." that springs to mind right away, because I've been re-reading Sandman, is Destiny. I believe he started as the host of one of DC's "mystery" (a.k.a. watered down horror for the Comics Code era) books. Gaiman reimagined him as the oldest member of Morpheus' family, The Endless.

Anonymous said...

It felt to me like Gaiman kind of started the trend of recycling old DC characters, mostly from the 1970s horror titles. The 3 witches from The Witching Hour. As Ray said above, Destiny from Weird Mystery Tales. Cain and Abel from House of Mystery and House of Secrets. Heck, even the house itself. Lucien I think was from Ghosts or Ghost Castle. I remember it delighting me when Gaiman did it, and then being utterly blown away when Robinson followed suit!