GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Media Tie-In Stories - Page 5


The Shadow: Blood & Judgment 1987 (SC TPB) 112 pages

cover by ChaykinWritten and illustrated by Howard Chaykin.
Colour: Alex Wald. Letters: Ken Bruzenak. Editor: Andrew Helfer.

Reprinting: the four issue 1986 Shadow mini-series

Additional notes: contains an interview with Chaykin.

Rating: * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for mature readers.

Published by DC Comics

Howard Chaykin's version of the Shadow was hyped heavily for its violence and luridness. When the mini-series was first published, writer and critic Harlan Ellison, a bit of a literary bad boy (not unlike Chaykin), and Shadow fan, had denounced it. Other reviews, though, praised the series. Some commentaries suggested Chaykin couldn't care less about the character...others that this was kind of a pet project for him. Personally I knew Chaykin could run hot, cold, and inbetween.

So I was prepared for having any reaction...except the one I did: boredom.

The Shadow had been a hugely popular character in the middle of the 20th Century, though suffered from a split personality. The radio Shadow could turn invisible and his main companion was Margo Lane, while the pulp magazine Shadow dressed in a black cloak and did not necessarily have supernatural powers; he was more enigmatic than the radio one, operating a team of agents while lurking in the background. Under pressure, the pulp magazine became a little more like the radio -- Margo became the Shadow's chief sidekick, and the Shadow was more front and centre in his alter ego of Lamont Cranston (though Craston was but one of many aliases). The entertaining 1994 movie tried striking a balance, mixing the two mythos into one.

Another version was a short lived DC Comics series in the 1970s. Modelled after the early pulp version, with the Shadow an enigma, it provided its own twist on previous versions by giving a more hard-boiled spin to some of the characters.

Chaykin's mini-series is set in then-modern times. The Shadow has long since disappeared and the Shadow's former agents are being murdered in various novel, and grisly, ways. This brings the Shadow back -- miraculously not having aged in 35 yearss -- to hunt the culprit, picking up a few new agents, and reuniting with the few surviving older ones, namely Harry Vincent and Margo.

There are two aspects to Chaykin's story; the shock aspect of brutal violence and lurid sex (or, at least, innuendo) applied to this old time hero (not that the Shadow, particularly in radio, didn't have its share of violence, though no sex) and the story itself. Let's start with the story.

The first chapter begins with the Shadow's retired agents being murdered, and he's got a lot of 'em, so Chaykin treats us to sequence after sequence of characters being killed in brutal -- and frequently implausibly silly -- ways (skewered to a ceiling, stuffed in a water cooler!). We're also introduced to the villain, and the Shadow returns, but it's an awfully repetitious, thinly-plotted 28 pages. Things don't improve much latter. The second chapter presents Chaykin's take on the Shadow's origin -- involving the stock cliche of a hidden Himalayan city (though hi-tech rather than mystical). It's a generic idea handled, well, generically. In the remaining two chapters, as the Shadow tracks down his foe, the plotting is, at best, simplistic, at worse, silly.

The thing about Blood and Judgment is not so much that it's stupid, as much as that it wears its stupidness proudly, like a crown. Chaykin often tackles his material with tongue-in-cheek, which can serve as a counterpoint to his more serious political themes. But this is flippant, but rarely funny. Chaykin sacrifices plausibility, or dramatic emotion, without substituting anything like wit or comedy. And without any overt political undercurrent -- TPB cover illustration notwithstanding, there are no Klansman in the story -- the series emerges as hollow and soulless. It's empty eye-candy...without any sugar.

Chaykin's art seems surprisingly ill-suited to the character. Though he did nice with the period milieau of Batman: Dark Allegiances, here, by transposing a 1930s hero to the 1980s, he seems at a loss to find a suitable visual look. Put another way, wouldn't you think that in a series about The Shadow there should be a few, I dunno, shadows? Instead of dark and mysterious, the book is cheerily coloured. As well, Chaykin's panel arrangements are confusing at times, as is his whole approach to dialogue. The opening scene is cleverly done, as you read the first page not really sure why people are saying what they're saying, but it all becomes clear by the end of the scene. It's Chaykin at his cheeky best. But other scenes are just needlessly oblique, comprised of unfinished sentences and interrupted conversations.

And letterer Ken Bruzenak's depiction of the Shadow's trademark laugh looks more like a design pattern than words.

Which brings us to the "controversial" aspect of the story (not a by-product of the series, but clearly what DC was marketing) which is married to Chaykin's tongue-in-cheek. The violence and kinkiness (though no nudity) is so over-the-top, so unrelenting at times, it's hard to be offended by it because you can't take it seriously. Chaykin is like a little kid trying to get a reaction by swearing -- the very obviousness of his intent is what nullifies it. Chaykin's lean, restrained art means that the violence is less gory in execution than in concept, and the sex is alluded to rather than portrayed. But, nonetheless, the series is full of both, with the villains -- an aging megalomaniac, his nubile sex kitten wife, and his genetically bred son -- such demented perverts that the series seems like a precurssor to the Austin Powers movies' parody of super-villains.

The problem with Chaykin is that, for such a talented guy, he can also be a one trick pony. This isn't Chaykin doing the Shadow...this is the Shadow reinvented as a Howard Chaykin property. This Shadow bears very little resemblance to either the enigmatic man of mystery of the pulps, or the stand up hero of radio. He's more of a cynical libertine -- who, in his origins, starts out as a freelance pilot in politically suspect climes (rather like Chaykin's later series, American Century) and gone is the Shadow's distinctive proboscis, to be replaced by a guy who looks like Chaykin's usual heroic archetype (ala Reuben Flagg of American Flagg) only with a slight hook to his nose. Chaykin's Shadow owes his origin to Shambala, a mysterious hidden kingdom that can be likened to Shangri-La out of the classic novel (and movie) Lost Horizon, except given Chaykin's cynical, hard-boiled spin, where the Shadow characterizes Shambala's lady leader as a "hard, insensitive witch."

There is a coldness to the story, where no one, not even the Shadow and his agents, emerges as particularly likeable or, worse, even interesting. Despite the Shadow having returned because of the murder of his old agents, he never seems to regard their deaths as anything more emotionally charged than as pieces of an abstract puzzle. Like some other writers, Chaykin also imagines the Shadow as a death-dealing vigilante -- but I'm not sure that was the original ccharacter. Certainly in radio he never even carried a gun, while in the pulps the Shadow was armed and wasn't adverse to getting into a shoot out, but there wasn't much sense (in the half dozen book I've read) that he was a kill-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-'em-out type. Maybe Chaykin confused him with another pulp hero, The Spider.

The series was labelled as being for "mature readers" which is, often, a bit of a misnomer. Yes, it ain't for kids in its sex and violence...but it's hardly sophisticated and complex enough to be labelled as mature. In one scene a woman is raped (so we infer) and in the next scene is trading flippant retorts with the Shadow. It's a light-weight cartoon for the post-pubescent crowd.

Clearly Blood and Judgement was designed to win new fans by shocking old ones -- in fact, the follow up series DC produced (written by Chaykin's editor, Andy Helfer) was eventually cancelled after the owners of the Shadow property objected (DC, then, followed it up with The Shadow Strikes series, which was more respectful of the original). But beyond the "shock" value, there's little here. The plot is extremely thin, the ideas stale, the characters barely defined. There's no underlining heart or emotion -- or logic -- while it isn't funny enough to succeed as just an outrageous exercise in excess.

If there's anything worse than a talent like Chaykin off his game, it's when you suspect he's not even trying. Still, this isn't the only Shadow graphic novel and TPB...so maybe there are better ones out there.

The most interesting thing in the original mini-series were essays by DC staffer (and Shadow fan) Anthony Tollin examining the history of the Shadow in print and radio -- though I don't know whether they have been included in the TPB (which has an interview with Chaykin).

This is a review based on the story as it originally appeared in the mini-series.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$10.35 (?) USA


The Shadow: Hitler's Astrologer 1988 (HC & SC GN) 64 pages
sometimes erroneously identified as "The Shadow: 1941", because that looks to be the title on the cover

cover by KalutaWritten by Denny O'Neil and Michael Kaluta. Pencils by Michael Kaluta. Inks by Russ Heath.
Colours: various. Letters: Phil Felix. Editor: Larry Hama.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Re-reviewed Sept. 7, 2009

Number of readings: 2

Mildy suggested for Mature Readers

Published by Marvel Comics.

Decades ago, The Shadow was one of the most popular characters in fiction. But he's long since slipped into semi-obscurity (people probably still recognize the catch phrase "the Shadow knows"...but might not be able to tell you from where it came). Even the nature of the character is elusive, as he owes his fame to both a hit radio series and a best selling pulp magazine...which were two different takes on the character. The third medium he entered was comics, where a succession of companies have published various short-lived runs over the last 50 or 60 years.

Marvel's one and -- I believe -- only stab at the character was this graphic novel, done at a time when Marvel was playing with the graphic novel format. And though this is a Marvel publication, it reunites Denny O'Neil and Mike Kaluta -- who were responsible for some well regarded Shadow comics published in the 1970s by DC Comics!

It's set in 1941 and has the enigmatic, dark cloaked crime fighter, The Shadow, along with his team of operatives, becoming involved in a Nazi plan too -- well, that's the weird thing. The story is mainly about Nazis double crossing other Nazis, while the Shadow hopes to manipulate things to his (and, of course, the Allies) advantage.

And the result is unsatisfying and maybe a tad ill-conceived.

Like with many-a-pop character, a lot of later contributors to the canon have claimed their version is the most faithful to the original concept -- but, as I mentioned, it's hard to even decide what the original concept was, since both the radio and print versions of the character can boast equal claims to "creating" the character. Indeed, the radio version (in which the Shadow could turn invisible) is probably the one most responsible for the character's mainstream fame, yet that version is the one usually ignored in the comics (the 1994 motion picture tried admirably to merge the two interpretations into one). But the point is, it may be that the very concept that O'Neil (and others) have settled on for the Shadow has, itself, resulted in his comic books being commercially uneven.

Portrayed as a mysterious, enigmatic figure who often seems to be privy to information the reader isn't, he's kind of problematic as your lead protagonist. Yet often his operatives, like Margo Lane and Harry Vincent, still come across as sidekicks, rather than being well enough portrayed to act as the true heroes. The result can be stories -- in the comics -- lacking that crucial emotional/human factor of heroes we care about. Even here, where Harry has a romantic liason, the relationship fails to really gel into something emotionally involving. Which means it's more the plot that is expected to carry us along.

And the plot here seems just kind of awkwardly developed.

Often when new adventures are written using old time characters, the temptation on the part of the modern writers is to draw upon historical realities in a way the original stories never did. How many Sherlock Holmes pastiches, for instance, involve Holmes meeting up with real life Victorian personalities in a way that the original Holmes stories didn't? So "Hitler's Astrologer" is rooted in its 1941 World War II era and involves some real life Nazi Party figures in a way that the Shadow stories published in the 1940s probably never did. But the problem can be when the cart starts diving the horse, and there's a feeling the desire to work in historical figures, or historical events, is dictating the plot, rather than vice versa.

Here, the story hinges on the Nazis' ill-fated decision to go to war with Russia, a decision that will rest on the advice Hitler receives from his astrologer; advice that various figures want to manipulate. But too much of the rest of the story feels as though it's just padding around that basic conceit, so that we get a story where characters' actions don't really seem to make a lot of sense, or seem entirely justified -- the Shadow rescuing a woman from the Nazis...only to ask her to allow herself to be captured by those same Nazis; a German who wants to intimidate the astrologer into rendering a particular horoscope...when the astrologer claims that that was the horoscope he was going to do anyway! In fact the story seems to fall back on the old crutch that the (chief) villain is just nuts as a way of excusing such curious plotting. Sure, it's not like these plot points are completely nonsensical in the context...but it does make a lot of the story just seem pointless. And, honestly...I think some of it is nonsensical. Okay, in a story with a lot of double crosses and misrepresentations, maybe it just left me too befuddled...but there are a few spots where, even reading it a couple of times, I'm not really sure how what the characters are saying or doing makes sense!

And O'Neil and Kaluta seem to run into problems one would expect from far less experienced practitioners of the comics art, as we get chunks of exposition, trying to cram in explanations that really needed to be worked more delicately into the narrative. The result can be scenes that seem almost like parodies of pulp thrillers, as we are treated to "surprise" revelations when we barely knew there was a question -- particularly toward the end, and a revelation that the Shadow's interest in the case is personal. Perhaps they came up with a story that was intended for a larger page count, and they were forced to edit it. There are even scenes like one where the Shadow arranges a meeting between two characters and Margo says she "hates" him for doing it -- and I assumed it would be because one of the people was not who she pretended and was an agent of the Shadow. But there isn't any indication of that. Even the final panel had me half wondering if I was missing a last page epilogue!

On the plus side is the art. Kaluta is a well regarded artist, with only a limited amount of comics work over the years (which has no doubt added to a cult mystique). And his return to the series that essentially launched his career -- what many view as his signature character -- but now on over-sized, heavy paper with rich, multi-tone colouring, was no doubt intended as a fan dream come true. In fact, some years before this was published, there were ads for a different Shadow graphic novel Kaluta was supposed to draw...that never happened (scripter Harlan Ellison, apparently, never turned in a script). Making this even more of a fan dream. And there's a nice period feel and detail to the art. And, I'd argue, Kaluta's usually sketchy pencils benefit from being given a more polished finish by the inks of old pro Russ Heath (himself no stranger to war era comics). With that being said, Kaluta's storytelling/composition isn't always the best, with some sequences confusingly depicted, or lacking dramatic flare.

In its favour, the story is briskly paced, definitely intended to evoke the old flavour of a pulp magazine (or a movie serial), with plenty of running about and shooting.

But the overall plot actually seems kind of thin, the development of the personalities uninvolving (we almost seem to spend more time with the Nazis than the heroes) and the very historical minutia -- as basically the writers try to explain real life historical events by suggesting the Shadow was secretly manipulating things -- more a hinderance than a help to the story (particularly if you're not a history buff, so the revelations will have little resonance).

And, ironically, I think O'Neil shows his own misgrasp of history when he refers to a Nazi Party member giving seminars in "the United States and Canada". Although the U.S. was neutral, Canada was at war with Germany, so it seems unlikely she'd be allowed to tour Canada.

Original soft cover price: $13.25 CDN./ $10.95 USA


Sherlock Holmes
see Scarlet in Gaslight


The Spider: Scavengers of the Slaughtered Sacrifices2002 (HC & SC GN) 96 pages

cover by Gene ColanWritten by Don McGregor. Illustrated by Gene Colan.
Black & White. Letters/editor: Rich Harvey.

Additional notes: intro by editor Rich Harvey; afterward about the Spider by pulp historian Will Murray.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for Mature Readers

Published by Vanguard Productions

In the pulp magazine era (the 1930s and 1940s), The Spider probably trailed behind only the Shadow and Doc Savage in popularity. Though he made it to the movie house (two serials) and his stories have been re-issued in paperbacks over the years, he's probably fallen into greater obscurity than have either of those other characters (not that their fame hasn't waned over the years). The Spider was clearly modelled after the Shadow -- wearing a flobby hat and cloak and carrying guns -- but the Spider was a nastier, more violent version of the Shadow. He wasn't just prepared to kill...his purpose was to execute criminals, and his foes were a particularly vile and sadistic breed, often killing hundreds per story, or with such appropriate names as Judge Torture. Though perhaps what made the Spider also noteworthy was the added emotional level. While Doc Savage stories were often tongue-in-cheek, and the Shadow cool and clinical, Spider stories had the hero, Richard Wentworth, full of teeth gnashing angst. There was also a big emphasis on his relationship with girlfriend (and fellow crimefighter) Nita.

The Spider has had brief forays into comics (Eclipse published a couple of mini-series in the early 1990s) and here he gets another shot at sequential art stardom.

This time the character gets updated -- apparently not something writer Don McGregor had intended, but at the behest of the owner of the Spider property, Argosy Communications. Given that editorial dictate, McGregor runs with it. Someone is going around murdering people in ways that mimick current hit TV shows (obvious homages to "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "The X-Files") leading a reactionary senator to campaign in favour of censorship, his primary target: "Tiffany the Werewolf Whacker" (a.k.a. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). The story hits the ground running with the Spider sneaking onto grounds where a party in the senator's honour is being held, the Spider fearing the senator has been targetted by the killer. The Spider who, as Wentworth, is a magazine publisher and despises the senator's censorship views, still doesn't want to see him killed. Before long he's tussling with a bizarre killer, a genetically created monstrosity.

McGregor, a writer frequently given to purple prose and indulging in brooding characters and using his stories as springboards to ruminate on life, has a field day with this. The pulp Spider was full of brooding angst, and McGregor plays that up (while adding his own touch of wit and humour here and there), but this time directing it at genuine social issues (censorship, free speech, drugs, incest, corruption) rather than just pulp villains. Although he intends to give his story greater emotional and intellectual weight, it can also get in the way of the story. The mad killer blows up a building, killing many...but instead of raging against the loss of life, the next day Wentworth is more brooding over the senator's pro-censorship stance (in a rather long sequence for something that's meant to be an action-adventure story).

The story seems a bit thin for 80 some pages. As mentioned, the opening page has the Spider invading the lawn outside a society soiree -- starting things fast and furious, with pplenty of action ensuing. But it's some forty pages later before he even makes it inside the house! Don't misunderstand: there's plenty of action, and the Spider picks up some crucial information. But structurally, the sequence at the soiree seems like it should be the opening salvo...and, instead, it occupies half the book!

It's not hard to guess who's behind the villainy, because McGregor doesn't really provide many suspects. And the story throws in ideas that, as near as I can recall, have no explantion. Like the villain knowing the Spider's secret identity, but it's not explained how (nor is it relevant to the plot).

The story is a mixed bag, but the art compensates for a lot. Gene Colan is a true veteran of the biz, and his individualistic style is something to see. He draws in a weird way that is both stylized, but also strangely photo-realistic. He draws bow legged figures, where sometimes limbs bend funny or are mismatched, but all in the service of evoking a believability. In a way, what the Impressionists tried to do in painting. Someone suggested to me that Colan's art seems almost like someone who's drawing from life, but can't quite make out all the details himself, so he fudges some of the particulars even as the overall impression is vibrant, explosive, and real. There aren't too many like Colan in the business. I liked his art as a kid, but I've grown to love it as an adult.

Colan' also an artist who's long decried the use of inkers, feeling they muted his original pencil work. Thanks to modern printing processes, Colan's original pencils are reproduced here in their entirety, and it's something to see. As well, he makes use of shading and greys that means the art genuinely thrives in black and white. There are lapses, though. Sometimes Colan's pencils look a little too sketchy, like some preliminary sketches somehow got mixed up with the finished art, and a few scenes are confusing (particularly a climax on the Statue of Liberty). And Colan's panel arrangements, reflecting a man trying to break from convention, are sometimes just confusing. When married with McGregor's verbosity, you can find yourself unsure in what order you're supposed to be reading. But overall, the art is dynamic and striking.

Although based on the pulp hero, McGregor makes some changes, not just in the time period. Although Nita is very much front and center, other supporting characters are shoved to the sidelines, or eliminated. And the Spider often seemed more about Wentworth, who would, occasionally, don his Spider get-up -- but here, it's very much a super hero story, with Wentworth garbbed as the Spider most of the time. As well, in the pulps, the description of the Spider was vague, but often he would don vampire teeth and adopt a hunch, in order to make the Spider a creepy figure. This Spider just wears a mask, looking more like Zorro (a character McGregor's written for) than anything so macabre. McGregor's also softened the Spider, making him less ruthless. At one point remarking "He doesn't shoot men in the back" -- when I think the pulp hero had no such compunction.

Ultimately, Scavengers of the Slaughtered Sacrifices is a mixed bag. The art by Colan is moody and electric, and McGregor's passionate writing style can be quite effective, but overlong, and his criticisms of censorship are pretty standard. As a story, the book is reasonably fast-paced, but kind of simple and a little confusing at times.

Supposedly the duo had planned another Spider GN -- but it never seems to have been published. In fact, I think I read that McGregor and Colan had a bit of a falling out over this graphic novel (though how serious or for how long, I don't know). Apparently McGregor had intended to have the Statue of Liberty blown up but Colan, in the aftermath of 9/11, refused to draw that, feeling it was in poor taste (which might explain why in my review I say that scene is a bit confusing).

Soft cover price: $19.95 CDN./ $14.95 USA.

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