By Todd Allen
A couple months back, Dynamite started publishing new adventures of two classic pulp magazine heroes: The Shadow and The Spider. Both characters have seen comic adaptions over the years, particularly The Shadow. With a couple months elapsed, it’s time to step back and see how these characters that predate comic book superheroes (and influenced the creation of Batman) are holding up.
The big launch was for The Shadow, with marquee writer Garth Ennis signing on as writer and Aaron Campbell on the art. This is an idiosyncratic incarnation of The Shadow. In the original pulp magazine, The Shadow would confront supernatural foes, but it was always a little ambiguous how supernatural he was, himself. Not here. Ennis has the Shadow communicating with the dead and seeing glimpses of the future. Just a touch of Hellblazer, a bit of Indiana Jones and two .45’s a blazing.
The plot line concerns the search for some object, possibly a mystical artifact, with Imperial Japan’s military intelligence being hot on its trail and The Shadow aiding U.S. military intelligence’s attempts to lay hands on it. Whatever the object is, it’s in China and the opposing forces are on a collision course.
Ennis treads a fine line between drama and camp. The Shadow can be an over-the-top character and the aloofness is in full form here. So far, it hasn’t quite gone over the edge into camp. The context holds it together. If you read the dialogue out loud, it would sound awfully purple… then again, that’s frequently part of the appeal and the character is one that traditionally likes to play the boogey man when stalking the bad guys.
There’s a comic relief character from military intelligence tagging after them and so far this has a vibe similar to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but with a bit more blood and more sinister lead.
I have a few issues with the art and the color. If ever there was a character that skulked in the shadows and and called out for noir storytelling, this is the one. The color palette of The Shadow is a bit muted. While you have some grays for scenes in the dark, the setting really doesn’t scream dark and menacing like it should. It comes off a bit bland.
The coloring also obscures the set-up sequence for some dark humor involving foreseeing a bratty boy’s eventual death six years later in WWII during the first issue. I’ve seen the script and the presentation botched the joke.
The book still works, but I’d overhaul the color and noir up the look of the series. It could be a bit better.
Of the pair, I find The Spider to be the better book. In the old pulps, The Spider was a rival publisher’s answer to the Shadow. Sort of The Shadow’s crazy/creepy little brother, The Spider was even more brutal, fought stranger foes and large chunks of the city were constantly getting blown up. It was a bloody, amped up world.
The Spider is written by David Liss and illustrated by Colton Worley. While The Shadow goes back to the original time period of the 1930s, The Spider is updated to take place in modern times, and it’s one of the best pulp updates I’ve read.
The titular hero, Richard Wentworth, is now a military veteran of some sort of deep cover operation — similar to his WWI veteran status in the first (although The Shadow was the WWI black ops guy). Instead of being a playboy, Wentworth is acting as an occasional consultant to the police on weird cases, as he had some experience with as-yet-unnamed messed up scenarios in the war. Playing up the war veteran angle works, and there’s a real “not adjusting to the civilian world/rules” that lends to the suspension of disbelief. You see, Wentworth’s a little crazy. He was definitely out there in the original and he might be a little more crazy in this version. Within the parameters of people who are misbehaving, he has low-to-no impulse control. He drinks heavily. He shoots people because, well… somebody needs to do something and police are stretched too thin. Not much emotion about it. In fact, his feelings for Nita Van Sloan are about the only thing keeping him out of getting diagnosed as a psychopath. Which is to say, the traditional character is pretty much intact, just dressed down a bit from the playboy to more of an everyman who happens to be some sort of special ops veteran.
Nita Van Sloan was the love interest in the original. A socialite who wasn’t above getting into a scrape, she’s transformed into a very hands-on newspaper editor who will go out in the field more than most editors I’ve met. She doesn’t (yet) seem as scrappy as the original… but in a twist, this version is married to the police commissioner, leaving the still love-struck Wentworth even more messed up. Plus, she’s keeping his identity as The Spider a secret from her husband.
Ram Singh was Wentworth’s knife expert Sikh valet in the original. He’s still a Sikh, but now he’s a lawyer and a master of Gatka.
And of course, you still have a commissioner who suspects Wentworth is The Spider, but can’t prove it and on a certain level doesn’t mind mass murderers getting shot before they can carry out their plans. We’ll see how this ends up getting tweaked with the love triangle.
And thrown into this mix is the emergence of a new class of really ambitious, mass-murdering criminal that has everyone on edge.
That’s your set-up. As I was saying, the original Spider series was really over-the top with its villains and with things blowing up. In issue #1 you get some zombies. In issue #2 you get a couple people dressed like Egyptian gods controlling the zombies. Oh, yes. We have over-the-top pulp menaces. One of the nice things about the pacing of this comic is how it draws you in and starts suspending your disbelief. Things start with The Spider’s violent excesses, then gets into Wentworth’s slightly warped perspective as you meet the cast. The zombies are encountered in a logical enough context and you’re starting to slide down the rabbit hole. By the time the Egyptian costumes hit, things are blowing up and you’re along for the ride.
Over on the artistic side, Colton Worley is a really good fit for this book. Very atmospheric work evoking a bleak world with a slick finish. More importantly, he can draw The Spider’s costume without it looking ridiculous. The costume, a variation on one used for the movie serials (yes, this was a fairly mainstream character~75 years ago), can look silly if you don’t do it right. Francesco Francavilla kills it on the covers by really working the cloak and keeping the red of the webbing pattern as an overall design element. Worley opts for more subtlety when depicting the webbing. There are times when the dialogue scenes look a bit posed, but the atmosphere keeps you from getting pulled out it and there’s a nice slick look to it.
This is a really good translation of a 1930s hero pulp to a modern comic. All of the excess. All of the suspension of disbelief. Perhaps a little more pathos to it. Ironically, this may seem like a violent spin on Batman or a costumed take on the Punisher, when both characters come from a tradition established by The Shadow and The Spider.
I can recommend both books. In their opening arcs, they have more distinct flavors than I might have guessed by the solicitations. The Shadow is good if you like Garth Ennis, The Shadow character, or adventure comics (the horror is really just around the edges, so far). The Spider is good for the old school pulp experience: lots of things blowing up with a dark brooding hero and bizarre villains. The Shadow is definitely going off in it’s own path, much like Howard Chaykin did in the ’80s with a more science fiction path, and then Andy Helfer and Bill Sienkiewicz/Kyle Baker took in an increasingly satirical (and wonderful) direction. The Spider is a surprisingly traditional update.
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.