By Todd Allen
One of the questions you ask when you hear about a new Shadow comic is “what kind of take are they doing?” Another is “how serious will it be?” And then there’s “how faithful is it to the source material?” As it happens, I’ve had a chance to read the script for The Shadow #1. I can’t speak to Aaron Campbell’s art — I haven’t seen that yet. I can, however, tell you what the tone and the take are going to be.
Since The Shadow is a property that dates back to the early 1930s and has it’s share of die hard fans and purists, let me be upfront on my bonafides. I’m a casual Shadow reader. I’ve read somewhere between 10 and 20 of the original pulp novels. I’ve heard several of the radio shows. I’ve read… call it 70% of the comics since DC’s ’70s revival. I’m probably going to lose a trivia contest badly, but I’m familiar with the character in a few different flavors.
The flavor here is a _slight_ modification of the original pulp. The Shadow is one of those characters where the collective memory is a little different than the source material. In the original pulps, The Shadow would occasionally indulge in some hypnosis, but most of the supernatural elements were around his edges. He might have had paranormal abilities, he might not have. Some of the villains most definitely were supernatural in nature and those weirder capers seem to color the memory.
Ennis is bringing that mystic edge to the surface in a way I don’t recall from the pulps I’ve read. Without getting into spoilers, he knows a little bit more about the future and it doesn’t appear to be deductive or inductive reasoning. You also see… another use for that famous girasol ring.
The Ennis Shadow might be a little more aloof than the pulp version and certainly likes messing with people. Which is not to say the original didn’t, but there might be a hair more attitude here. Then again, Ennis always has had a good time with the Magnificent Bastard trope and it has it’s place with the character.
In terms of cast of characters, Shrevy and Margo Lane pop up in issue one. Harry Vincent is name-checked. So, the Shadow’s operatives appear to be live and well. Margo Lane, who was written into the pulps after being introduced as the girlfriend on the radio show seems to have a… complicated relationship with The Shadow in the version. The Shadow appears as Lamont Cranston… although the many identities of the Shadow may not be something you want to get anywhere near in a first issue. (For those not familiar with the character, the Shadow had more identities than Moon Knight and Lamont Cranston was a borrowed identity in the pulps, if not the radio show.)
As to the script, itself, The Shadow #1 is setting the table. We see the Shadow in action, we meet some of the main characters. We get ready to start a quest. Yellow peril was a staple of the Shadow pulp novels and the Japanese army, or at least part of their Intelligence division is being set up as the villains here… assuming all is as it seems, which may not be the case. The Japanese are looking for something that could shift the balance of power. In his guise as Lamont Cranston, he’s offering assistance in retrieving it. As to what the object is, that’s a mystery. As to where, most likely in the Far East.
Over the years, Ennis has done a number of military comics about the World War II period. Since this is a period piece, the comic opens with the Japanese invasion of Nanking, which has come to be known as “The Nanking Massacre” or “The Rape of Nanking.” As I said, I haven’t seen the art and I don’t know what approach Campbell will be taking, but the first 5 pages of the comic could well be R-rated and should be disturbing even if illustrated in a more PG-13 fashion. While the pulp novels were definitely a creature of their time period, adding a little historical context to the piece is a good framing technique. This likely won’t endear Ennis to Japanese nationalists, but it’s a way of establishing “it would be really bad if these guys got a <insert McGuffin here>” without dropping into full-on Fu Manchu Yellow Peril mode.
I liked it well enough as a more mystical take on the character. The meat of this issue is The Shadow’s transition between the roles he plays. The cloaked vigilante in the beginning. The millionaire playboy in the middle. The chessmen/taskmaster at the end. Other then the ’80s run of Moon Knight, I’m not sure there been a character with such distinct masks they take on and where you’re not entirely sure who the real person is. Ennis clearly gets the notion of The Shadow playing his roles.
This is roughly what I was expecting from Ennis. In a way, this is a good middle point for his writing catalog. Historical WWII-ish setting. Extremely proficient gun-toting vigilante. A little magic. A couple punchlines. If you’re a purist from the camp that likes the Shadow to be just a man and grounded in illusion and misdirection, you might have a quibble with the magic, but it worked for me. The biggest danger is with some of the tone transitions between scenes and some of the purple flavored dialogue that comes with the pulp tradition. Tonally, this goes from war atrocities to a superhero-ish shoot out to Hammett/Thin Man banter to a mean spirited hybrid of Batman and Doctor Strange. The tonal transitions, apart from the opening sequence, are functions of the Shadow’s various identities, but there’s a danger of camp when rushing headlong into it in a 22 page first chapter. We’ll see how many more of the identities come into play.
All and all, a promising start for something that’s putting a little bit of Ennis’s writer’s personality into a classic character. We’ll see how it looks when drawn up. The comment section seemed to like Aaron Campbell when the announcement was made.
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.