2016 has been a strange, vibrant year for DC Comics. When last year’s DC You initiative, which brought unique and offbeat titles such as Prez, Omega Men, and Bat-Mite to the forefront of the line failed to translate into financial success, the company responded with DC Rebirth. This latter movement has largely proven to be a return to DC’s core characters and values, aiming to appeal to their enfranchised core audience rather than the world at large. The work has been good, but it’s also been safe.
Luckily, for readers who look down from the open doors of a plane at 30,000 feet and spit at the notion of a parachute, Umbrella Academy writer and former My Chemical Romance lead singer Gerard Way has created the Young Animal imprint at DC Comics. While all the series launched as part of the imprint are in continuity and are largely inspired by previously existing DC properties, the goal behind these projects is to experiment and reinvent the wheel. Do they succeed? That’s what the Comics Beat managing editor Alex Lu and entertainment editor Kyle Pinion are here to discuss. Book by book. Panel by panel.
Note: the review below contains **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Writer: Cecil Castellucci
Artist: Marley Zarcone
Colorist: Kelly Fitzpatrick
Alex Lu: Last month, DC Comics’ Young Animal imprint kicked off with the release of the stellar Doom Patrol #1. A strange fever dream of a book, Doom Patrol set the stage for future entries in the Young Animal lineup such as this week’s Shade, the Changing Girl #1, written by Cecil Castellucci and drawn by Marley Zarcone. Conceived as a re-envisioning of the Steve Ditko character Rac Shade, aka Shade the Changing Man, Shade, the Changing Girl focuses on Loma Shade, an alien from the planet Meta who idolizes Rac and Earth. In an effort to escape malevolent forces on Meta, she decides to steal Rac’s Madness Coat and use it to travel to Earth, where she possesses the body of a comatose girl named Megan Boyer. If this all sounds messy, that’s because it is. For better or worse, if you thought Doom Patrol #1 was weird, Shade, the Changing Girl #1 will redefine the definition of the word for you.
What immediately grabs me about Shade is how unabashedly evocative Marley Zarcone’s art is. Very few artists in comics take full advantage of comics’ ability to externalize the internal, but Zarcone takes full advantage of the story’s utilization of “madness,” a powerful force that appears to bring Loma’s “fears and desires” to life throughout the story. At times, these externalizations seem very literal– as Loma wakes up in Megan’s body for the first time in an Earth hospital, a menagerie of animals surrounds her and proceeds to terrorize the medical staff. At other times though, the projections are simply present in the background– a tree with dozens of eyes or a mouth gaping behind Shade as she plays with one of the ubiquitous emotional motes that follow her around throughout the story. All this, combined with the distinctive background art that consistently evokes the psychadelic art of the 1960s (colors courtesy of Kelly Fitzpatrick), form a visual outing that aims to inspire emotion rather than simply convey the story.
While the artwork in Shade is undeniably strong and distinctive, I find myself a little more divided on the success of Cecil Castellucci’s script. In part, my scrutiny on the words in this story come from the fact that there is so little physical grounding in the artwork, so it falls to Cecil Castellucci’s script to provide the reader with a sense of balance and to help the reader empathize with what’s happening in the story. I felt surprisingly captivated when the story flashed back to show us Loma’s forlorn romance with the museum security guard Lepuck on Meta. The dialogue in this scene gives us a strong sense of why Loma is so intrigued by Rac Shade and Earth while the bevy of captions provide us with expressions of guilt and inspiration that both undercut and reinforce the passionate front she presents to Lepuck. Equally strong are the flashbacks to Megan’s life prior to her comatose as we discover how cruel she was to her swim teammates and how that same viciousness ultimately leads to her undoing.
On the other hand, I left this first issue confounded by what the nature of “madness” is. The issue establishes that it is some sort of power or side effect that has a pull on the wearer of the Madness Cloak Loma steals, but we learn very little about what that means for Loma or the people around her. Are any of the externalizations of her emotions actually real? It’s hard to say. What little description we do get is obscured by the poetic prose of Castellucci’s captions, which make sense for the character and the tone of the story being told but also fail to fully convey the nature of some of the series’ most central conceits.
Despite this, I think that Shade, the Changing Girl #1 is ultimately a strong debut for the second Young Animal series. Castellucci and Zarcone are totally in sync throughout this issue, weaving an ethereal narrative that feels as fresh and vibrant as Doom Patrol #1 before it. I think it’s worth noting that I think this book will be divisive. I wasn’t very high on it after my first read, but the more I think about it, the more I love it. Doom Patrol #1 gave us a taste of Young Animal wackiness, but Shade #1 has given us a full blast of psychedelics to tell a story we really have never seen in recent comics. Kyle, what’d you think of all this? How about Natalia Hernandez’s debut back up story, “Cryll’s Big Surprise?!”
Kyle Pinion: As you’re aware, but I’m not sure anyone else is, I purchased the entirety of Peter Milligan’s run on Shade, the Changing Man during one of the multitude of very good Vertigo-based sales that have occurred on Comixology in the past month. Per most of my friends on this here interwebz, Milligan’s team-up with Chris Bachalo and a few other notable artists (like Richard Case and Sean Phillips) was one of the bigger highlights of that early Vertigo era. Digging into the first ten or so issues already, with their electric kool-aid tinged Brendan McCarthy covers and “anything goes and anything is possible” attitude to narrative, I can see why it draws so much adoration. And apparently that’s not even the *great* stuff!
All that to say, I wanted to familiarize myself with Rac Shade before I got to see what Loma Shade was up to, and I can see a good deal of parallels with what Castellucci is aiming for with this relaunch. That pre-reading also probably put me at a bit of advantage when it came to understanding what The Madness stream is, or at least the sort of ever-present role it plays in the series, acting both as a mode of transport and developer of conflict. In the Milligan comic, Shade monitored the spread of Madness (literally) on Earth and used the M-Vest to drive it away. I could understand the complaint that this new series doesn’t give you a lot to understand just what that concept is. But like the new Doom Patrol before it, I think this is going to be a book you’ll need to meet half-way a bit, and allow the trappings of the plot to sort of explain themselves through context and action rather than exposition. We didn’t quite get there here, but it’s just the first issue. And a first issue that I had a really great time with.
To make the really lazy musician comparison, if Doom Patrol is one of those really smart art punk bands from the 70’s and early 80’s (let’s say Wire – though I’m also open to calling it stoner metal as well), then Shade, the Changing Girl is like the dream pop/shoegaze act that follows it on the bill (think My Bloody Valentine or Blonde Redhead), which focuses as much on atmospherics as it does on songwriting craft. I think the sheer wave of aesthetic pleasures that we see from Zarcone’s pencils, combined with Castellucci’s aim for something that might be just a touch tougher to penetrate than your bog-standard superhero comic, but feels all the more rewarding once you do, speaks to how apt I find that metaphor of my own devise. Stiff learning curve, but this is the kind of thing I could worship in my four-color adventures.
To speak to the actual plot, I think, much like the initial hook of Milligan and Bachalo’s first issue (with Shade taking over the body of a serial killer), Castellucci and Zarcone placing Loma Shade in the body of a high school bully and having to react in a world she doesn’t have a great understanding of, while also being an object of fear and scorn for nothing she herself has done is a great jumping on point. It’s as if the creative team took the initial base of the Vertigo mythos of the character, and imbued it with the darker side of being a teenager seen in works like the recent Sacred Heart. That is to say, it’s true to form for the character, but it’s all the more modern and playing within the zeitgeist thanks to this new coat of paint. And gosh, what paint! I really enjoyed everything about this issue, from the peek-ins with the alien landscape of Meta and its inhabitants, to the more grounded and by the end, tragic story that sets up the opening of the comic when the tale comes full-circle. I’m looking forward to what looks to be an ongoing push and pull between the new life that Loma is establishing within the body of Megan and the fellow she left behind in Lepuck. I can’t wait to see more, especially as the conflict sets in further, and found this to be a fitting follow-up in the Young Animal line-up after the already exceptional Doom Patrol. I sit in anticipation to find out what Cave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye may bring us.
As for Natalia Hernandez’s backup, I thought it was fun little charmer that reminded me a bit of some of the Measles stories that her father was behind oh so many years ago (more than I’d like to admit), with some of the cutest aliens to appear in a DC comics in a quite a while. I haven’t bothered to check this, but I hope it’s an ongoing feature, much like the upcoming Tom Scioli’s “Super-Powers” stories will be for Cave Carson.
Excuse me, I’m going to go listen to some Deerhunter now.
Final Verdict: Buy