Monday, July 30, 2012

Howard Chaykin and Shadowmania

1986 was a heady year for comics. Two stories that have since come to be regarded as modern classics were released by DC Comics: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Both of these books have left their marks on comic books. Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen has become for many the highwater mark for comic book storytelling, while Miller's Dark Knight single-handedly altered the course of The Batman forever. Somewhere in the middle of all of this was released a four-issue miniseries that has every bit of the same right to be considered a masterpiece of comics as those other two series: Howard Chaykin's The Shadow.

Since Dynamite Comics is publishing a new trade edition of this mini-series, I will try to avoid spoilers in the story itself for those who have not yet experienced this masterful comic.

Howard Chaykin is a comic artist and writer, sometimes doing on or the other on a book and sometimes doing both. With The Shadow Chaykin wrote and drew the book, infusing it with his characteristic fusion of 1940s period dress with a modern sensibility. Previous to doing The Shadow, Chaykin was known most for having done some well-regarded fantasy series for DC Comics and the early run of the blockbuster Star Wars comic from Marvel Comics. Chaykin has the rare distinction of being one of the first people outside of Lucas' production company to create original material for the Star Wars Universe, helping to usher in what we now know as the Expanded Universe. Chaykin also adapted Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination and worked with British fantasist Michael Moorcock for Heavy Metal magazine. He also found the time to create one of the earliest independent comics in 1976 with Star Reach, and his seminal character Cody Starbuck.

Each of Chaykin's works informs the next, and it was with characters like Cody Starbuck, Dominic Fortune, and of course Han Solo that he became known for his roguish male lead characters. In The Shadow, this disposition towards the roguish lead was married to an old school social conservative to make his interpretation of Kent Allard/Lamont Cranston/The Shadow. Chaykin's Shadow is probably one of the more fleshed out interpretations of the character too, leagues away from the cipher of a character that plagued the radio shows and some of the more poorly-written instances of the pulp magazines.

In this mini-series Chaykin made a ballsy move that upset a lot of pulp purists...he moved The Shadow into the modern day of 1986. Before this pulp characters adapted to comics either existed still in their original eras or were "updated" to a hazy setting that could be the contemporary world, or it could still be the past. A lot of people did not like that Chaykin moved the story to a contemporary setting. However, the strength of this idea is that it pitted the character of The Shadow, who was still very much rooted in a pre-World War II social and psychological mindset, against the contemporary world of 1986. As with any Chaykin work, this play of the vintage against the contemporary is a method of showing that change is both good and bad, and the past should not always be viewed through rose-colored glasses. The Shadow's attitude towards women is compared to that of his contemporaries, like Harry Vincent (an important supporting character from the original pulp stories), who have been exposed to the changes for forty years and have been able to adapt to those changes. The Shadow is still very much the force of nature that he was in the pre-War days, and still he has to come to grips with the societal changes around him as well as the physical changes to New York City.

The plot of this mini-series is launched by having a number of The Shadow's operatives from his early exploits, now old, being targeted and killed by an unknown villain. This serves to bring The Shadow out of his lengthy retirement in the Himalayas. The Shadow himself is unchanged and unaged in the near forty years since he was last in New York City, and now establishes himself as the son of his original cover identity of Lamont Cranston. Assembling a team of his remaining operatives from the 1940s and new contemporary operatives (including two sons that he had while retired), The Shadow moves against this new villain. The balance of these issues deals with The Shadow and his operatives uncovering the villains of the piece and finally moving against him.

Despite the opinions of those who felt (and those who probably still feel this way) that the adventures of The Shadow should have remained in their original historical period, I think that a great deal of the success of this story came because Chaykin decided to update the time period to the contemporary. Much of the tension of the story comes from the interplay between The Shadow and his "unenlightened" (according to other characters in the story) attitudes. The Shadow as a man out of time is as much of a driving factor to the story as the actions of the villain of the piece. The story is an engaging one, although ironic because now the setting of 1986 is a historical one as well. For some current readers, the 1980s can be just as foreign as the 1930s of the original pulp stories.

I do think that the story holds up well, regardless. The characters (new and old) hold up well and Chaykin demonstrates that he can write a Shadow story in the vein of the original pulps and update it at the same time. This mini-series was the launching point for a long-running on-going series featuring the characters which would lead to some of The Shadow's strangest adventures. Fans of the pulps should enjoy this story because of the loyalty to the characters and concepts of the original pulp stories (despite the time period updating). Fans of Chaykin's current work should enjoy this story because of how it shows the development of some of his now standard storytelling tropes. If you would be bothered by a lot of people in 1930s-era clothing in the 1980s, this might not be the comic for you.

I am glad to see that this story is getting a new lease on life, and a printing up to modern standards. I never picked up the first trade collection of these comics and have had to rely on my original comics over the years. At least now I can get a good trade collection and I can put away the comics.