by The Masked Bookwyrm

The Shadow reviews ~ page one

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"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow Knows...Hah hah hah..."

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Batman / The Shadow: The Murder Geniuses (2017) 162 pages

coverWritten by Steve Orlando (story by Scott Snyder & Steve Orlando). Illustrated by Riley Rosmo.
Colours: Ivan Plascenia. Letters: Clem Robins, Deron Bennett.

Reprinting: Batman/The Shadow #1-6 (2017) and a short prologue from Batman Annual (current series) #1 (2017)

Reviewed: Feb 2020.

Published by DC Comics/Dynamite Entertainment

Two great mystery men who taste great together -- the Batman and The Shadow! Or, at least, iterations of them. After all, DC has re-booted its line innumerable times over the years, and The Shadow has been published by multiple comic book publishers, each with its own interpretation (Dynamite's being a particularly cynical, ruthless, and supernatural take). And the thing about company crossovers like these is that there's an element of apocryphalness to the story, so you're not sure how much -- or if at all -- you're supposed to see this as in anyway relevant to on going stories.

As an example of what I mean is that here the story hinges on Batman learning about The Shadow -- having never heard of him previously. But the characters have met in other team up stories (at the very least back in the 1970s when DC held the rights to The Shadow-in-comics -- but as I say, that was a few re-boots/publishers ago).

Anyway, the story here is that Batman is drawn into a bizarre series of murders when he investigates the seeming random killing of a well-regarded nobody named Lamont Cranston. But he discovers Cranston may have been related to a previous Lamont Cranston who supposedly died years ago...and had connections to a mysterious crime fighter named The Shadow and his legion of agents. The Shadow quickly becomes Batman's primary suspect (after finding him at another crime scene, wielding the murder-weapon) leading Batman to delve into the bizarre and enigmatic history of the figure. But The Shadow insists the real killer is some ancient, immortal cultist trying to complete a ritual by committing a certain number of killings. Batman is also nonplussed to discover The Shadow (a master-of-disguise who has lived for decades) may have been key figures in his own personal history (part of what I meant earlier about "apocryphal" since I'm not sure we're really supposed to accept as canon to the Batman mythology that The Shadow helped shape and guide his evolution!)

Aside from the initial clash caused by Batman suspecting The Shadow of being the killer, the two also clash over other aspects: namely Batman is a secular skeptic and isn't sure what to make of The Shadow's more supernatural world. As well there's an ideological clash with Batman as the level-headed advocate of moderation and mercy butting heads with The Shadow as a proponent of justice-being-served-from-the-barrel-of-a-smoking-gun.

The art is effective enough (coloured in brown earth-tone hues as I've seen in one or two other recent Batman comics: creating a perpetual sense of smog shrouded twilight over Gotham that is both gloomy and melancholy but also attractive and atmospheric). Rosmo's drawing maybe leans a bit toward cartoony/caricatured in the faces, and can maybe feel a bit too stiff and superhero-esque for a story involving two protagonists who are cloak-wearing creatures-of- shadow, but equally it's fairly appealing and mostly tells the scenes with clarity.

The result is, to some extent, an enjoyable romp. The very apocryphal/Elseworlds aspect means that you can mostly take the story for itself and not overly nitpick the details of whether the characters are note perfect (I mean, would Batman really be that skeptical about magic after all he's seen/experienced in his adventures?; and I've given up kvetching about various comic book versions of The Shadow which over the years -- and through different publishers -- make him more and more ruthless and amoral with each iteration). You can kind of read and enjoy it for itself, picking up on the references and nods to continuity (as Batman uncovers the legend of The Shadow and meets aging agents Margot Lane and Harry Vincent) without taking it too much to heart. Although sometimes the clash of how much you're supposed to know or apply of continuity can create for odd scenes (at one point the killer targets Judith Thompson -- with no explanation for who she is or why Batman seems more emotionally invested in saving her than usual).

And since I can complain about the last few decades of portraying Batman as an increasingly hard-nosed, even fascist vigilante, it's kind of nice to see him re-cast as the more moderate, liberal crime fighter!

But the reason I say it is "to some extent" enjoyable comes down to that problem with a lot of modern comics -- length. The story does have some twists and turns, and the pace is fairly brisk. But six issues feels like it's stretching the material (four issues might've been better). The main plot is just a hunt for a serial killer. There are a few twists (including one that cleverly plays into the differences between Batman and The Shadow's methods, with The Shadow's very ruthless approach to crime fighting meaning he missed a crucial clue to the nature of his foe years before). But it's not like it's some complex mystery that has to be puzzled out over multiple issues, or with an array of supporting characters and suspects to be developed. As with a lot of comics: it's a limited cast basically playing out the same scenes and arguments for the length of the storyline.

Still, at a time when it can be hard to just pick up a random TPB and get a coherent story because you have to figure out how it ties into concurrent continuity (or is setting up threads for subsequent stories), this serves as a decent read-it-for-itself action/thriller, albeit probably one that reads best for someone already at least vaguely familiar with both title characters, although without having to be a hardcore fan or expert.

The Private Files of The Shadow1989 (HC TPB) 130 pages

coverWritten by Dennis O'Neil, with Mike Kaluta, Len Wein. Pencils by Mike W. Kaluta. Inks by Mike Kaluta, Berni Wrightson.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The Shadow (1st DC series) #1-4, 6, plus an all-new tale (1973-1974, 1989)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Nov. 2014

Published by DC Comics

In the mid-20th Century the crime-fighter, The Shadow, was a hugely successful character starring in a long running and popular radio series and a best selling pulp magazine (though the fact that there were some significant differences between the two incarnations has created some confusion over the years). But though his comic book forays have been many, they were of limited success, with everyone from Archie (in the 1960s) to Dynamite (recently) taking a crack at him. The first seminal comic book version, arguably, was DC's early 1970s run spear-headed by writer Denny O'Neil and which helped establish artist Mike Kaluta. And some years later DC collected all of the Kaluta drawn issues together (as well as a new story done by Kaluta for the collection).

The DC comic book version (as have most comic book versions) hews pretty close to the original pulps, as opposed to the radio version. In the stories The Shadow is an enigmatic figure so that neither the reader, nor his team of "agents" -- among them socialite Margo Lane, cab driver Shrevvy, and man-of-action Harry Vincent -- always know what he's up to. It's an interesting idea for a character but, I suspect, is also why the character has had trouble catching on. It's hard to become involved in a series when the characters are at arms length.

Each of the stories here are self-contained one-issue adventures and are fairly simple and crude by modern standards. But in a sense, that's kind of the point. This was Kaluta's first major work (and, indeed, remains his most identifiable property) and his art is definitely rough and crude. Yet it's Kaluta that is the point of this collection (rather than including issues by subsequent artists like Frank Robbins or E.R. Cruz) and his visuals seen as helping to define the flavour of the comic.

Yet it improves as it goes (aided by inker Berni Wrightson on one issue -- the two having similar styles). Kaluta's art is dark and gothic, full of heavy shadows and some times off-beat angles -- all suiting a comic that was clearly meant to be steeped in ambience. Yet his fundamentals are a bit rougher, his faces and figures sometimes crudely drawn or misproportioned. Put another way: he probably wouldn't be the first choice to assign to Spider-Man -- or even Batman.

But, in a sense, what Kaluta evokes is a kind of 1950s EC Comics vibe. What some of those horror artists may have lacked in polish or fundamentals they compensated for with an aggressive style and mood. And viewed in that way, the scripts themselves take on a slightly retro vibe.

Though the way the Shadow's "mysteriousness" is used as a plot crutch (not always explaining how he figures out clues, or how he escapes death traps) reminded me of The Spectre stories from around that time, in which story logic was secondary to mood.

When I was a kid I never used to understand why people would gush about Golden Age reprints -- because to me they were simplistically written and badly drawn. But as I got older I began to understand the appeal -- that a combination of nostalgic affection, and an appreciation of the historical (and creative) context, made the work more appealing. So likewise these 40 year old stories are sort of crude and lame. The plots unfold somewhat clumsily, and there isn't a great deal of deep characterization, either of the Shadow's agents, or the guest stars. But equally they are atmospheric and with entertainment value.

Particularly as they progress.

"Coils of the Cobra" (#3) is perhaps Kaluta really hitting his visual groove (aide a lot by Wrightson's finishes) and O'Neil's script feels a bit more substantial. While Kaluta's swan song (for that era), the stylish "Night of the Ninja" (#6) is generally regarded as his peak on the series. Indeed, I almost wonder if the makers of the 1994 Shadow motion picture leafed through that issue while preparing the movie because there are a couple of minor scenes that seem to anticipate the movie (one in which The Shadow changes, through a succession of panels, to alter ego Lamont Cranston in the back of a cab, and another scene where a person accidentally charges through a window).

The plots draw upon genre staples, like the aforementioned "Coils of the Cobra", which utilizes the old "prison serves as a front for crime," or spooky milieus, like a carnival (#2). While "Bliss of Death" (#4) involves a racket providing fake deaths for wanted mobsters and is actually evocative of one or two old Shadow radio episodes. The latter is co-written by Len Wein and with its sub-plot involving homeless people (depicted not altogether kindly) seems to me was a recurring topic in some of Wein's stories over the years. That issue seems to devote a bit more attention to the characters of Margo and Harry, so I wonder if that might have been Wein's influence.

Because I'm basing this review on the original comics -- the TPB itself hard to find -- I haven't read the Kaluta story done for this collection.

Ultimately, despite unevenness, and a certain juvenile simplicity, these stories do succeed as moody little efforts, evoking as much a Gothic horror comic vibe as a crime or super-hero adventure. Although Robbins and Cruz were stylistically quite different from Kaluta (and each other) and a collection featuring all three artists (and their different strengths) might have been interesting.

This review is based on the original comics.

Cover price: 

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 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: Fire of Creation 2012 (SC TPB) 200 pages

coverWritten by Garth Ennis. Illustrated by Aaron Campbell.
Colours: Carlos Lopez. Letters: Rob Steen.

Reprinting: The Shadow #1-6 (Dynamite series, 2012-)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Reviewed Jan. 2015

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for Mature Readers

Published by Dynamite Comics.

Part of the approach I take when doing these reviews is simply saying: you see this on the shelf and wonder -- is it worth reading? I mention that because I'm not sure what Dynamite's history with The Shadow is and, therefore, what the reader is supposed to know. This collects the first arc from the monthly comic -- but Dynamite has produced a number of Shadow projects and mini-series recently, so I'm not sure if this is the "first" (and so you aren't expected to know more than the bare basics) or whether it's, essentially, in the middle of the run. It's not that the plot follows from a previous story, but neither does it quite "introduce" the characters.

The Shadow, as I've mentioned in other reviews on this page, dates back to the 1930s as both a radio and pulp magazine hero -- with some notable discrepancies between the two versions (and having begun life as simply the host introducing stories, hence the origin of his tag line "The Shadow knows!") Past Shadow comics (from a variety of publishers) have drawn mainly upon the pulp magazine version, in which the Shadow is a gun totting enigma who dresses in black.

Yet this latest comic book revival may be drawing from more recent wells, having echoes of Howard Chaykin's (controversial) 1980s mini-series (Blood & Judgment, reviewed above) and the 1994 Hollywood motion picture. Not to necessarily good effect (and I say that as a guy who really liked the movie). Scripter Garth Ennis seems to borrow from the movie (and, by extension, the old radio show) by shifting the emphasis onto Lamont Cranston who, periodically, dons his Shadow guise. It also borrows the backstory that Cranston had been an evil man who underwent a mysterious conversion in the east that turned him into the crime-fighter he is. While Chaykin's influence is felt in that here Cranston is a cocky nihilist who even his aide (and bed mate!) Margo Lane describes as a "bastard."

This version also plays up the supernatural. In addition to established themes of The Shadow "clouding men's minds" and using hypnotism, here he can predict the future (the "Shadow knows") and even manipulate corpses!

The art by Aaron Campbell is of a realist style that suitably portrays the period. It's mostly effective and attractive, but sometimes faces are a bit unspecific, characters not always obvious from scene to scene. And though he's certainly effective at depicting the Shadow in all his cloaked, black-hatted glory, it''s not quite the mysterious -- well, shadow -- of some visualizations. Campbell also downplays the character's signature proboscis -- perhaps with more emphasis on him as Cranston, the editors wanted a more typical "leading man" visage.

Ennis was part of that wave of U.K. writers who invaded American comics in the 1980s/1990s and brought with them a darker, cynical, more nihilistic vibe (as befits guys who grew up reading Judge Dredd and the like), often churning out violent, profanity-laden mature readers comics. Ennis' other side is that he's into military fiction, writing a number of WW II-themed comics. I've liked some of Ennis' stuff -- whether when he's showing positive restraint (such as Dan Dare) or when he's full-on in a potty-mouthed bad boy mode (Seven Brothers).

I say that up-front because The Fires of Creation just didn't strike me as very good. Ennis only wrote this opening arc (the next arc was by a different writer).

Set just on the cusp of World War II, the story involves a race to see which government will claim a mysterious energy source/weapon hidden in the jungles of Japanese-conquered China. The U.S. government enlists Lamont Cranston (and Margo) while the Japanese send their own expedition. It's all deeply traditional and evocative stuff. With a race for a secret treasure through foreign cities and jungles and with the emphasis on Cranston as much as on The Shadow, you might even mistake it for an Indiana Jones story.

Which makes it all the more amazing it's as bland as it is.

But it unfolds in straightforward way (particularly stretched over six issues!), with little in the way of twists or turns, or the unexpected, building to a tepid climax. Even the "mysterious" energy source is astonishingly predictable. It turns out to be pretty much what you'd guess (assuming you guessed it was going to be obvious).

Which leaves the characters to hold our attention. But Ennis' approach to Cranston is to make him an insufferable jerk. And having Margo call him on his attitude doesn't automatically make her more likeable. It just means even the central relationship lacks warmth. While Ennis' portrayal of the villains is just as pure, irredeemable sleaze. Not honourable adversaries but amoral creeps. Maybe he wants to emphasize (and deglamourize) the Japanese -- depicting their occupation of China in all its cruelty. Perhaps a valid intent -- but then why spend so much time with them? (I've never understood stories where the villains get as much space as the heroes, when there's no effort made to humanize the villains). Ennis almost seems to see them as amusing, emphasizing the witty interplay, and the clashes within the group (the two Japanese commanders and the vulgar Chinese warlord they are partnered with).

The other aspect of this story is its desire to wallow in sleaze and grittiness (conjuring up Chaykin's series). It's full of graphic violence and disturbing references. Disturbing precisely because it's so casual. Like one of the Japanese being a paedophile -- even as he's the one who goes on about honour and duty (I can't decide if Ennis meant that to be ironic, or he was losing track of his characters). While Ennis' version of The Shadow doesn't just get into shoot-outs when necessary (as I believe the pulp version did) but his mission is to exterminate as many bad guys as he can. (I've sometimes wondered if comic writers confuse The Shadow with his more violent pulp-era rival, The Spider)

There's also a misogynist undercurrent. From the idea of Margo sleeping with Cranston even though she doesn't particularly like him, to characters -- good guys as well as bad -- frequently calling women "whores" and "sluts." (Male) comic book writers, when given free rein in a mature readers comic, often enjoy employing sexist epithets.

All this can create a kind of paradox in Ennis' style and intent.

As mentioned, Ennis seems to be one of these war-era aficionados (the sort of guy I'm guessing plans family vacations around visiting war memorials) and I assume is sincere in his empathy for the trials of the boys in uniform. But there's a blurry line between that -- and being a war fetishist. The comic can almost seem pedagogical in its descriptions of the Japanese occupation and its brutality even as Ennis revels in violence for its own sake. He wants us to be outraged by the villains' actions even as he demonstrates little interest in their victims. He seems horrified by fascism (at one point The Shadow warning a "great evil" is rising that must be "pulverized") yet he seems enamoured of the fascist ideal -- namely The Shadow.

After all, what is Cranston/The Shadow (as depicted by Ennis) except a fascist superman? He's always right (and more importantly, everyone else is always wrong), he is contemptuous of those lesser than him (read: everyone) and his ends justify any means (murder, torture). And we, the reader, are supposed to find him cool.

And ultimately that's the problem with The Fires of Creation. Despite an Old School premise of a race to a super weapon, the concept lacks originality, the execution lacks much in the way of twists or surprises, the characters lack dimension, and the "heroes" aren't anymore pleasant to hang out with than the villains.

Cover price: __USA

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