Wednesday, September 8, 2010

the Shadow returns

In 1986, mainstream superhero comics were forced to reevaluate their criteria, based on the debuts of the new critical darlings, "Watchmen" and "the Dark knight returns". And while both of these prestige format DC comics limited series were commercial hits as well, it's notable that the latter, Frank Miller's bold reimagining of the Batman mythos for the 21st century, got published almost side by side with his former studio mate's new project, coming from a very similar creative stand point.

At the time, Howard Chaykin was already lauded as the writer/artist of "American Flagg!", the cyberpunk satire that paved the way for a new type of genre comics in America, it's type being felt both in superhero and the alternative parts of the industry. In retrospect, the creator's work on the Shadow proved a temporary diversion in one of his attempts at trying his hand on work for hire concepts, that coupled with his subsequent revitalization of "Blackhawk", wound up being continued upon by the company's other talents. And while DC quickly gave up on following Chaykin's vision, trying their best with the more traditional approach on the Golden age concept, the 1986 mini-series stands up as a work that delivers all that it promised to.

Howard Chaykin's reconfiguration of the Shadow for the 1980s was just that, which goes to explain a lot about the controversy that it caused, during it's initial publication. As an other media character licensed to DC comics, any adaptation of the Shadow was always going to catch the purists as a surprise. This is ironic in a lot of ways, considering Batman reportedly being heavily inspired by the radio drama/pulp novel anti-hero, particularly taking into account the popularity Frank Miller's radical take on the Dark knight enjoyed at the time. Chaykin was purposely trying to attract a broader audience with his approach on the Street & Smith licence, but the conservative and ostensibly compartmentalized comics market proved uncompromising. Thus, "Blood and judgment" ended up being lauded presumably only by the Chaykin devoted, which wasn't that small a number considering the popularity the creator enjoyed at the time.

In a way, much like DC's other flagship, Superman, the Shadow was come to be identified by a myriad of details, all stemming from the different incarnations of the company owned property. Thus, each and every new iteration of the concept consists of the new creative team getting to pick and choose the elements, as it suits the editorial approved new direction. Chaykin, of course, did all this, but with a freedom reserved for the select few of the most sought after comics professionals - the ability to add a lot more of his personal touch to a new spin on the decades old icon.

When it comes to Chaykin, a large part of the appeal of his work lies in his layered, powerful art, perfectly suited for pulp-era adventure comics. Yet, Howard is also an ambitious storyteller, who doesn't let the escapist trappings of his chosen field of entertainment completely rob him from indulging in personal excesses. These have everything to do with the politics of the day, and thus, his Shadow is by it's very nature, a contradiction. In the writer/artist's fiercely independent hands, the very character design appears the same, but irrevocably changed, from the familiar icon, which has nothing to do with the fact that Shadow carries uzis, and not his signature 45s (in fact, the action scenes never slow down for the reader to notice the distinction). Just looking at Chaykin's drawing of the silhouetted figure, dressed in a black coat furnished with a scarf, with a wide-brimmed hat on top, betrays everything the project's about. Simply put, Chaykin's vision completely overpowers the Shadow'' original look, and is a far cry from the signature hook nosed, gaunt avenger - and the creator knows it.

The title characters' costume design was something was probably inarguable, and Chaykin did his best at making it his own. Thus Lamont Cranston sports the same stocky, muscular, glass-jawed look of all of his protagonists, and that's for the best. Because, everything else besides the costume is pure Chaykin.

The creator's uncompromising work stars from the very first page, as he opens with a scene of a crime, that gives way to an assortment of murders, graphically depicted on the page. All of these rapid cuts are devoid of any sort of context, introducing a whole slew of character names, and basically acting to alienate all but the most stubborn of readers. Gradually, a plot starts to emerge that is legible even to those not familiar with the Shadow's extended cast of characters, but just as soon as Chaykin reveals the direction he's taking the title in, the first issue is over.
Yet, the cliffhanger ending goes a long way into enticing the audience to continue with the series.

By utilizing a rare splash page, the effect is even more direct, serving a simple purpose of promising more Shadow by Chaykin. Once again, Lamont Cranston, though dressed in a fitting suit, looks nothing like his usual depiction, but that doesn't stop him from proudly revealing himself as the original Chaykin protagonist. The creator was wholly aware of the work for hire nature of the assignment, but that didn't stop him from producing a very experimental first issue, capped by the introduction of his signature male model on the last page, as if he was directing a movie adaptation of the Shadow, with a very sly opening shot of himself in the title role.

Having introduced the plot and the characters (in his own way), Chaykin proceeds to spend all of the second issue on developing the motivation behind the story arc. Considering the largely flashback nature of the segment, it also doubles as providing the clearest indication of the writer/artist's take on the protagonist. As expected, Howard draws from several different interpretations of the character, and by presenting his origin, gets to explaining the continuity reasons for the Shadow's retirement following 1949 (the year of the cancellation of "the Shadow magazine"), all of which tie neatly with the threat that draws him from his Oriental seclusion.

For a writer so concerned with the radical reinvention of the property, Chaykin leaves his Golden age adventures as more or less the same as presented before, with one major distinction. The main sources of the Shadow's 1930s adventures diverged slightly in the matter of the avenger's secret identity, with novels explaining that Lamont Cranston was the assumed identity of WW1 pilot Kent Allard. Howard decides not only to continue the idea novel writer Walter B. Gibson had, of Allard knowingly impersonating Cranston in his quest as the Shadow, but goes even further in the four part mini-series, by making the distinction between the two men the focal point of the plot, centered around the Shadow's formative Oriental years.

Thus, concentrating on the identity crisis, the writer/artist solves the matter of finding a suitable villain, and both makes "Blood and judgment" a story that could only be told using the Shadow as the protagonist. As for the Asian backdrop, it's characteristically over the top, with the creator placing mythic Shamballa at the heart of the main character's motivation, while revealing enough about the ancient civilization to irk all but the most devoted of readers. Namely, in dealing with the hints of the Shadow's supernatural nature, Chaykin falls to his characteristic least subtle, presenting the oriental mystics as basically a race of supermen, equipped with flying cars, and miraculous healing technology. Hence, the training they imparted on the Shadow is nothing less than making the strange creature in black nothing less than metahuman, paralleling the origins of his new publisher's Superman.

Yet, by dispersing with the admittedly unconvincing martial arts explanation for his agility, Chaykin also firmly crosses the line straining the suspense of belief, and actually undermines some of the intrigue of his lead. This stylistic choice is perpetuated by the continuing appearance of Cranston's two sons, who contribute little to the story, except for calling to attention the extent of revision at play. Fortunately, the rest of the supporting cast provides some interesting color, most notably Harry Vincent and Margo Lane, Cranston's closest former aides, who, when faced with their elderly lives being turned upside down all of a sudden, find solace in one another.

Yet, most of the space in the penultimate issue is reserved for Harry's daughter Mavis, another Chaykin addition, and the supposed reader identification character. Still, despite being introduced as the spunky police profiler, playing the routine role of the journalist-like "love interest", once the Shadow shows her the make up of his new operation, she submits to the will of her "Master". The character subsequently fades into the background, and the writer/artist seemingly loses all interest in her, while setting up the climatic confrontation with Mavis as just one of the Shadows' many agents.

Along the way, the reader is treated to a brief look at another of the anti-hero's female agents, one with whom he maintains a much more professional relationship. This is no surprise, considering that Lorelei's brief on panel appearance consists of some of the most bizarre scenes in the whole series. Eventually, as a truly memorable female presence, the reader finds himself warming up to Mercy Preston, the presence behind so much of the carnage in "Blood and judgment".

Sadistic, obsessed with sex and death, she is in many ways a perfect fir for the Chaykin's version of the Shadow, yet Mercy forms only one part of the plot against the vigilante. The beautiful psychopath is married to the elderly, wheelchair bound Mayrock Preston (the original Lamont Cranston), forming a weird sexual triangle with his genetically engineered heir. In fact, this energetic combo gives the series most of it's energy, and connects it perfectly with it's creator's satire of the 1980s. That the heads of the Mayrock corporation employ sadistic new romantic club goers as their assassins, gives the work it's most apparent topicality, with the impact culminating in an off handed mention by the elderly Mayrock.

Admitting that he has AIDS to his young wife, now an HIV victim herself, draws a wedge between them needed for Shadow to step in. This is a much more potent symbol than the family's plan to activate the nuclear projectile aimed at New York, seeing as to how it relates to the thematic core of the project. In a very clear way, the original Lamont Cranston becomes not just a random gangster linked to the Shadow mythos by a clever application of trivia, but almost turns into Chaykin's own approximation of the ability of these pulpy concepts to survive in the cynical everyday of the new times. Preston's desire to extend his youth by taking over as his own son, an satirized version of the 1980s health and fitness devoted, feels much more sympathetic than the eternally young Shadow's motives for opposing him.

The knot of secret identities is for once very purposeful, and directly feeds into the story's themes. The Shadow is certainly charming, but he takes Shamballa for granted, having used it's science to continually prolong his youth. Lamont Cranston, the man whose identity he has usurped has lived to the old age in the world he's left behind and now wants nothing more than to change places once more, having been fatally ill with the latest disease. The metaphor is much more potent when taken into consideration that Chaykin connects the Shadow with Orient chiefly to serve as a perfunctory explanation for his continued vigor, considering that it has already long served the same purpose regarding his vigilante training.

Beyond this, the anti-hero has no motivation, and in choosing not to connect with Harry's daughter on any kind of deeper level, it's hard to see his mission continuing past the defeat of his "original" rival. The letterer, Ken Bruzenak employs a subtle effect indicating the Cranston's voice changing as he goes in character, which is perhaps the most notable addition in the depiction of the Shadow's attack on the "Mayrock casino hotel". Seeing the Master operate is almost like looking at him going through the motion, with even his signature laugh blending with the panel borders under Alex Wald's palette limited by then current coloring standards.

Because, no amount of action poses and ingenuity in the dynamic drawings can bring the Shadow, as written, to 1980s. And while it certainly makes sense that he would triumph in his memorable fight against the Preston family, there is no reason for him to stay away from Shamballa. In fact, Cranston leaving the mantle to his two sons would make much more sense story-wise. Still, leaving DC comics to continue publishing the Shadow with two half-Asian characters in the guise of their father would certainly have caused problems with both the audience and licencors.

Thus, no matter the Shadow's children already showing their preference for America, and the much reported crowds of Shadow fans dressing as their idol all over the country, the writer/artist ends his run on the expected point. With his leaving to continue work on other projects, it's clear that Chaykin understands that he's left behind a complete story without real need of a follow-up, but even then, "Blood and judgment" would have certainly benefited from an expended page count. Especially the concluding issue feels slight, when taken into account the numerous subplots that go unresolved considering the Shadow and his agents. Particularly Harry and Margo, whose resentment at being abandoned by Cranston seemingly plays no role in their getting to aid him with the attack on the Prestons.

Still, taking into account all that, with "the Shadow" Howard Chaykin has produced a very professional work that lives up to the complicated set of goals set for it and succeeds at every turn, while never forgetting to maintain a sense of fun with every step of the way. And while "Blood and judgment" never tries to equal "the Dark knight returns" in it's scope and ambitious, one must take note that Frank Miller's career path differed greatly from his former studio mate's. Namely, Howard was already an independent comics legend when he got to working for DC and Marvel, while the Batman scribe turned to creator owned comics only after he'd achieved mainstream success working in the superhero industry. Thus, it was only fitting that Chaykin approached his next assignment, revamping Blackhawk in the fittingly titled "Blood and iron" in much the same way he did with the Shadow, proceeding in the style that comes most naturally to him - his own.

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