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Thursday, June 21, 2012
TWO ISSUES, LAST CHANCE? THE SHADOW 1&2
I have been examining first and second issues of new series that have come out recently to see if they merit my buying a third issue or more. So far we have had one title that warrants my continued support and one that doesn’t. This week we’re taking a look at Dynamite Entertainments The Shadow by Garth Ennis and Aaron Campbell(the third issue came out this week). The Shadow, like The Spider, is a pulp magazine hero who has been revived in comics several times since his pulp and radio heyday of the 30s and 40s. All to varying degrees of success. First in the mid 70s at DC comics by writer Denny O’Neil and artist Michael Kaluta. Later he was revived again by Howard Chaykin in a mini series that spawned an ongoing series by Andy Helfer, Bill Sienkiewicz and Kyle Baker. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a longtime fan of the Shadow. I’ve read almost all the old pulp magazine stories and listened to all available radio show versions. So my standards for the character might be higher than most. That said, the thing with the Shadow is that he isn’t just another hero with a dual identity. But I’ll get back to that.
In issue one of Dynamite’s new Shadow series we see the Shadow telling us about the horrors of the “Nanking Massacres” and then see the Shadow taking bloody vengeance on those who participated. Okay. Slightly bad taste but very “pulpy”. We then see some convoluted nonsense about something in the hold of a ship that government types are looking for but has disappeared. Then we see the Shadow’s alter ego Lamont Cranston using Margo Lane for sex. In issue two, Cranston and Margo are on a deluxe passenger plane on it’s way to Hong Kong when the passengers turn out to be spies trying to kill Cranston for some inexplicable reason (apparently this version of the Shadow doesn’t “know” as much as he did in the pulp magazines of the 30s). And then there is some more muddled goings on with Asian spies and something about Pearl Harbor. Now I do enjoy a well written, complex story about spies and a violent and formidable vigilante. But the Shadow is more than that.
This leads me back to the main problem of The Shadow as Ennis interprets him and that is the lack of mystery surrounding the identity of the Shadow and exactly who and what he is. One of the cornerstones of the Shadow was that no one knew who he was. Whether they be civilians or the Shadows most trusted agents. He didn’t date the commissioners daughter. Even the readers didn’t know who the Shadow was. Was he Lamont Cranston? We never knew for sure. There was a Lamont Cranston, Millionaire playboy industrialist. In a story from the pulp magazine titled“The Shadow Laughs” Lamont Cranston returns from Europe to find that someone who looks exactly like him has assumed his identity. Cranston discovers that this doppelganger is none other than the Shadow. Or so we are lead to believe. It's possible he was an agent of the Shadow being used because of his physical similarity to Cranston. Either way, the real Cranston was blackmailed by the Shadow to play along and become one of his agents. The Shadow also went by the name Kent Allard, a WW1 pilot who was shot down over South America.
In the story “The Shadow’s Shadow” we learn that Kent Allard actually died in the crash and another man assumed Allard’s identity. This man might have been The Shadow. The point here is that we didn’t know who the Shadow was and we weren't supposed to know. We learned tiny bits about the Shadow through his agents and enemies but we never really learn who he really is. The Shadow was a force of nature. An unseen puppet master who pulled the strings of agents who, to the Shadow, were often little more than pawns to be sacrificed in a larger game of Machiavellian power plays with the representatives of evil. Valuable pawns perhaps, but still just pawns.
One never knew where the Shadow would turn up or what guise he would take when he did. The readers were never meant to identify with the Shadow. The readers were never meant to sympathize with the Shadow. They were meant to identify and sympathize with the Shadow’s agents and the victims of evil that the Shadow saved. Through the agents, we looked up in awe at the Shadow’s terrible vengeance as he would violently mete out bloody justice. The Shadow was a storm. A tsunami. A hurricane. One doesn’t look for the humanity in a hurricane. One just hides and waits for it to end. That was The Shadow. Denny O’Neil got it right but many who followed didn’t.
Writers felt the need to make the Shadow human. And worse, they felt the need to make him a once evil human. Because only someone who was evil could comprehend the “evil that lurks in the hearts of men”. You know, takes a thief to catch a thief? This lead to making Lamont Cranston the actual alter ego of the Shadow instead of a mysterious puppet master. Which brings us to Ennis’ Shadow/Cranston. Ennis’ Cranston is basically a smug jerk. But it was okay for him to be a jerk because once upon a time he used to be evil. This is the core of the problem with Ennis’ Shadow and Chaykin and Helfer’s before it. Making the Shadow a flawed human who is just like us only ends up making the Shadow like every other vigilante, and that he is not.
The Shadow of the pulps does not read like someone who was evil and turned to good. He reads more like a fanatic in the cause of good. A true believer, a religious zealot who despises evil rather than as someone coming to terms with the evil inside of them. He's downright pius. The Shadow is Cotton Mather hunting down the witches. The movie began this narrative of a man who was basically an addict, hooked on evil and trying to get clean. That's not the Shadow. The pulp Shadow is, based on his network of agents, his resources etc, someone who has formulated and dedicated himself to a meticulous plan to eradicate evil and possibly deluded enough to think it's an attainable goal in his lifetime. The Shadow is offended by evil. Evil is an infection and The Shadow is willing to cut off any limb he feels might be compromised by that evil. The Shadow kills those he thinks are evil not because that act comes naturally to a formerly evil man, but because he doesn't want to see that evil infect others.
The Shadow is not Batman even though he influenced the creation of Batman. The Shadow is not The Punisher or the Spider or any other comic book vigilante. The Shadow’s agents are like the disposable CTU agents in the TV show “24”. Any of them can die at any time. Some of them, like Jack Bauer, last a little longer than others. In 24, when Jack Bauer fails, the bad guys win. In the world of the Shadow, when an agent fails, or dies, that’s when things are just getting interesting because that’s the point when the Shadow intervenes and personally takes action. The death of an agent is to the Shadow like the vibration of the spider's web that has just caught a fly. It's a warning to the spider that his trap has been sprung. And God help the bad guys then! Ennis has some good moments in the Shadow. I don’t hate his interpretation. It’s just a flawed and predictable interpretation that borrows more from the film than from the source.
The old Shadow radio shows had to soften up and simplify the Shadow and make him a more accessible crime fighter with a dual identity, albeit a fairly scary one as portrayed by Orson Wells (pictured right). That was something that radio had to do because anything else would have been too complex for radio audiences and the confines of a 40 minute format. The Shadow was Lamont Cranston. The Shadow’s girlfriend was Margo Lane. Simple. But where a half hour radio show has to simplify a complex character for the sake of time restraints, a book or a comic book has no such restraints. The Shadow doesn’t have to be so simple. He can be complex. He can be a perpetual mystery. Ennis seems to have forgotten that. He’s taken the more simplistic Shadow and turned him into an amalgam of the persona in the radio show and the dreadful 90s movie version, making him simply a smug Bruce Wayne. Ennis' Margo Lane is basically the Shadow’s own personal prostitute, equally unlikable and not much more than that.
Not that I have anything against Margo Lane being a prostitute but if the only purpose she serves is to help Lamont take the edge off, then it’s really a waste of a character. As written by Ennis in issue 2, she can't even fight worth a damn. Ennis' Margo makes me long for the Margo of the radio show as played by Agnes Moorehead (pictured at left). Margo has been transformed from a wealthy socialite to a hooker. I didn't like when they did that to Catwoman and I don't like that they've done it to Margo. Ennis has shown us too much. He’s shown us all the cards in the Shadow’s hand before the first issue has ended. Ennis gives us a Shadow who is just a guy who kills bad guys. There is nothing new about Ennis' version of The Shadow. He has simply made the 90s movie Shadow a bit more gritty.
It’s kind of ironic because Ennis clearly wants to give us something that is evocative of the old pulp Shadow without actually giving us the Shadow of the pulps. That’s unfortunate because the pulp Shadow is a character that is right up Ennis’ alley. Tailor made for his particular style of writing. Instead we get a bland, predictable Shadow in a comic with underwhelming yet functional art that fails miserably to live up to the promise of the stunning Alex Ross covers. I’ve read issues one and two of The Shadow and they have left me cold and bored. I've seen this Shadow before and I'm not a fan. I don't want a simple human with human foibles. I want the Shadow who was so scary that he would send the Grim Reaper running. I don't want to look behind the curtain and just see a man. Ennis has had two chances to get me on board with his interpretation of the character and has failed to draw me in. I’m afraid I won’t be able to give him a third.