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GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


The Shadow reviews ~ page two

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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 mis-grasp 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. (Perhaps O'Neil, and his editors, didn't quite appreciate that Canada is a separate country with a separate foreign policy).

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



The Shadow: In the Coils of Leviathan1994 (SC TPB) 112 pages

coverWritten by Michael Wm. Kaluta, Joel Goss. Art by Gary Gianni.
Colours: James Sinclair. Letters: ? Editor: Robert Boyd.

Reprinting: the four issue mini-series (1993-1994)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Jan. 2015

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse's revival of the pulp-era crime fighter, The Shadow (coming just a year or so after DC's last revival) took the form of a series of mini-series and one-shots. A brief form, the whole run only going from 1993-1995 and was presumably intended to cash in on the big budget movie from that period. But the movie under-performed, so the anticipated crossover audience maybe never occurred, or maybe the comics simply didn't sell that well. But if the latter, was that because the property was too eclectic (The Shadow never really achieving big commercial success in the comics medium) -- or the comics themselves weren't very good?

Artist Michael Wm Kaluta first gained attention drawing DC's first, 1970s run of The Shadow comics (and had returned to the character for a 1989 Marvel graphic novel) and this time is on board as the driving creative force, co-writing the story -- though the actual art is given to Gary Gianni. There have been plenty of artists who go on to be successful comic book writers, but I do sometimes wonder if other artists have trouble making the transition because, ultimately, they are used to thinking in terms of imagery, and scenes, and less how everything ties together.

Because in the case of In the Coils of Leviathan...I'm just not really convinced it holds together. There are three ways in which the story seemed muddled. 1) Places where the story actually made no sense. 2) Places where it maybe made sense, but the conveying of information was muddled, either in writing or visuals. 3) Places where it made sense in terms of the story, but not in terms of actual plausibility. An example of the latter is that for some reason in this story, set in 1938 New York, we are told that Russian agents are leading an investigation into some crimes. Sorry? How or why would the U.S. hand over such authority to a foreign country? (Funnily, usually American writers make the opposite error -- writing stories where American agents operate with impunity in jurisdictions in which they have no authority).

Of course we barely see any such Russian investigators, so it's not that important. But that again relates to my point about the story not being overly concerned about how or why things connect.

On the surface this should be a great, twisty, bizarre puzzle box of a thriller. A series of grisly murders -- the people burned to death -- is plaguing the city even as it is hosting a global Navel conference (I guess a meeting of major sea powers -- though that too is not fully articulated); there's a popular lady evangelist and her daughter just arrived in town, a gang of crooks planning some major robbery, and a scientist working on a mysterious project. All while a portly cop is investigating. The plot mixes aspects of noir crime drama, horror, espionage, and steampunk science fiction.

And then there's The Shadow, lurking in the background, following his own investigation. In the various comic book versions (inspired by the old pulps, rather than the old radio version of the character) The Shadow is usually an enigma, as unknown to the reader as to the characters. And this takes that even further, with the character barely having any lines. He doesn't even have his usual array of agents -- Margo Lane, Harry Vincent, etc. -- so there isn't anyone for him to talk to or any characters to really act as our nominal "hero." But without a lead character the whole exercise becomes one of simply cutting between various cryptic scenes and various opaque personalities who may or may not know more than they let on.

Gary Gianni's art is both a big strength, and a weakness. I've liked Gianni's art before, and it's greatly evocative when it comes to an early-mid 20th Century milieu. It's dark and atmospheric. He's certainly playing in the same sand box as Kaluta but, arguably, with a firmer grasp of fundamentals (in terms of faces and figures). Yet at the same time, it can kind of hold you at arms length (admittedly, that's true of the script) where you observe the characters, but don't really empathize with them as people. And though some characters are sufficiently distinct, others are fairly anonymous -- a problem in a mystery where you kind of need to keep track of who's who. The art can be overly dark at times -- hard to always make out details. Likewise the storytelling can be a bit muddled and confusing. Though, again, that may be a fault of the writing, and Gianni is just doing his best to visualize the impossible -- or the implausible. There's a sequence in the first chapter of The Shadow trying to prevent a boating disaster that's sort of cool -- and sort of hard to figure out what's actually happening (and seems to involve the unlikely idea that he could start a ship sinking simply by shooting it with his pistols!)

Throughout I was just having trouble figuring out what was going on and what people knew. Whole city blocks seem to explode in conflagrations -- yet the authorities seem to take it all in stride. In one scene they seem to discover a cache of dead bodies -- but then don't seem to refer to it again. So I'm not sure if the storytelling was confused (maybe the reader was supposed to see the bodies, but not the characters) or what.

The problem is, after a while, I just found myself lacking the enthusiasm to even try to care. Without some sort of central characters to engage us -- whether it be The Shadow or some secondary character who can act as the focus for our sympathy -- we're just left with the events themselves to hold our attention. And when you aren't convinced the plotting always makes sense (or at least is only held together by implausible contrivances the writers need to stitch it together) that can be a problem. By that I mean there were spots where it wasn't so much that I didn't understand what was happening...as I just didn't believe in why it was happening.

This review is based on the original comics.


The Shadow: The Master Series, vol. 1 2014 (SC TPB) 144 pages

coverWritten by Andy Helfer. Illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz.
Colour:

Reprinting: The Shadow #1-6 (1987, DC Series)

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Jan. 2015

Recommended for mature readers.

Published by Dynamite Comics

The Shadow -- pulp fiction and radio hero -- has experienced periodic revivals as a comic book character from a number of different publishers. Usually with only limited success. Currently The Shadow's four colour adventures are chronicled by Dynamite with both comics set in his vintage, mid-20th Century milieu and modern-day exploits, and also reprinting comics first published by others.

Which brings us to the Masters Series a -- so far -- two volume collection reprinting stories from DC's late 1980s Shadow revival. A revival which, itself, was (allegedly) somewhat controversial at the time.

DC had decided with their second kick at the can to up-date the property to modern times -- and to hip-ify it (um, to make it seem hip, not to express hippy-like philosophies). They unleashed Howard Chaykin on a four-part mini-series (which Dynamite has also re-collected) and then came editor-turned-writer Andy Helfer, paired with the eclectic Bill Sienkiewicz, for the first story arc.

(Funnily, I would argue one of The Shadow's best comic book incarnations was DC's period-set The Shadow Strikes -- but it has yet to be reprinted or collected).

Called "Shadow and Light", at first I kind of enjoyed this. It follows the flavour of Chaykin's series -- which I pretty much loathed -- but seemed to do it better. It's a weird mix of acknowledgement of the character's essence -- a shadow-y figure with an army of everyman (and women) operatives who aid him in his war on crime -- even as you can easily see why purists might balk at what Helfer (and Chaykin) are doing with it.

Helfer basically approaches it as a kind of comedy. At heart it's a crime-thriller/pulp adventure, but told mainly with tongue-in-cheek, silly dialogue, and frequently wandering off on slapstick tangents. The Shadow's misfit agents are mainly played for comedy. And the plot itself meanders about. Partly that may be because Helfer is approaching it less as a six-chapter story, and more like a story arc (particularly since Sienkiewicz could only commit to the six issues). So the story begins tying up (sort of) loose ends from the Chaykin mini-series, then the main plots that emerge involve an Asian industrialist (who turns out to be the shadow's arch nemesis, Shiwan Khan) and a mysterious religious evangelist called The Light. The two threads eventually intersect, with a few other seeming random threads getting into the weave.

The series is very much a product of its time. Not only is Helfer channelling Chaykin's tongue-in-cheek, but this was also at the time when Grant Morrison was returning the Doom Patrol to its eccentric roots and DeMatteis and Giffen were upping the comedy for their Justice League run and Excalibur was, likewise, regarded as a "quirky" super hero series.

And at first, it sort of works.

It's quirky, it's eccentric, it may not be true to the spirit of the original pulps but Helfer actually does a better job of mixing the smarmy whimsy with the storytelling than Chaykin had. Things are aided a lot by Bill Sienkiewicz's art. Sienkiewicz who had begun with a fairly realist, somewhat Neal Adams'-inspired style, but by this point had veered into and even more stylish -- and weird -- direction (and perhaps inspired others, like Denys Cowan). His images are a weird mix of scratchy lines and stiff limbs and caricature with, at other times, an almost startling realism, particularly in faces. His art adds a lot of mood and atmosphere to a series which benefits from mood and atmosphere -- after all, the title character is called The Shadow! But that very quirkiness and eccentricity does mean some scenes are a bit confusingly depicted.

But as much as I was reasonably enjoying the series at first (surprising given how little I liked Chaykin's start) my enthusiasm started to erode.

The story keep seeming to get derailed as Helfer and Sienkiewicz wander off on some quirky-but-pointless conversation, or detail some slapstick sequence. Humour that serves and embellishes an otherwise dramatic story can be a welcome counterpoint -- humour that starts to hi-jack the story can be problematic, especially if you just aren't finding it, y'know, that funny. And the plot itself feels rather loose -- like Helfer is building a house of cards that isn't really expected to withstand even a breath of scrutiny. As though the telling (the quirky scenes, the stylish visuals) is more important than the story it serves. Heck, at one point a text caption explains a major plot point that I'm not sure was really presented in the story itself! It's confusing and convoluted -- but not necessarily in a good way.

And the further problem that stems both from the comedy but also, frankly, I think from the way the property is approached (and I've said this about other Shadow comics over the years) is that there's a lack of human connection in the stories. The emphasis is on the agents being quirky and eccentric and comical -- so that you can find them amusing, or colourful -- but they remain just pieces on the board rather than protagonists we are meant to connect with emotionally.

You can enjoy the novelty, the eccentricity of the series for an issue or two -- but then you can find yourself hungering for more substance.

There's also a curious problem to what Dynamite's chosen to reprint (assuming my info is correct -- this review is based on the comics, not the TPB itself). And that's that not only does the story make references to the Chaykin series, but the plot is supposed to tie into the Shadow Annual that was published concurrently. It was a retro tale set in the mid-20th Century, and was supposed to explain more about who the evangelist The Light was and his hatred for The Shadow. Since it wasn't drawn by Sienkiewicz (though it was written by Helfer, in a more straight-faced way) presumably Dynamite didn't feel it warranted inclusion. But it was actually intended as a chapter in the story (editorial blurbs in the comics at the time advise readers to pick it up to fill in the backstory). Sure, you still get the basics of the story, but it does mean it's confusing when suddenly The Light makes references to the fact that he has a history with The Shadow.

Funnily, I came upon a promotional blurb for this that specficially says it "stands alone." Cynically, I almost wonder if the very fact that a comic is promoted that way is a good indication that it isn't true -- or at least that it's a rebuttal to people who claimed (as I do) that it doesn't, entirely.

This Shadow series is one of those runs that enjoys a certain possibly apocryphal mystique. According to some reports it sufficiently alienated die hard fans with its flippancy that the owners of The Shadow property stepped in, leading to DC cancelling it and then launching the more traditional Shadow Strikes series. Whether that's true I don't know. Comicdom is full of stories of comics that were "killed" by politics or pressure groups -- but usually that's just wishful supposition, with poor sales as credible a culprit as anything else.

This review is based on the original comics.

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