Yes, friends and family. It’s your old buddy, GhostAndy, back with another blog about my ill informed, over opinionated, snarky retrofest of a comic book read pile. And for this one despite the actual comic being fairly recent, the character covered in the comic is nearly 100 years old.
I first got interested in the Shadow as far back as the 6th grade. My Dad, was actually born in 1939, so he remembered listening to the original Shadow radio broadcasts when he was a kid. So much so that later when some of them were re released on either record or audio cassette, he picked them up, and we would listen to them together in the car. Orson Wells had an insanely great radio voice, so his interpretation of the hero that could cloud men’s minds was both creepy and yet commanding. Sure some purists of the character may say that the radio program unnecessarily complicated the character from the one that appeared in the original pulp stories, by introducing concepts like the mental powers and the Lamont Cranston alter ego, but they were so popular and well known that they became integral parts of the character.
Later on my love of the Shadow was strengthened even further a couple years later when they released the Shadow movie starring Alec Baldwin. I still love that film many many years after it’s release, and try to sing its praises to anyone that’s hungry for more decent superhero films in this modern landscape where they seem to be churning out more and more of them. The movie for me did an incredible job of marrying all the diverse aspects of the Shadow mythology into a digestible form for the masses. From the strange and incredible mental powers, to the army of agents, to his relationship with Margo Lane, to the two gun lead dealing justice, I can’t recommend this movie enough. In fact, maybe I’ll do a movie review of it at some point to hopefully gin up some interest among our Ghost fans in watching it at some point.
So with all that love of the character, you’d think I’d be chomping at the bit to write this week’s read pile? Right?
Nope. I feel like I’d rather get really painful dental work done. I’ve been putting this book off and off and off for weeks as a result. It’s one of the couple comics I read while I was at the beach nearly a month ago, and although I mentioned I was going to write it during one of our podcasts, I’ve been procrastinating ever since like it’s a college term paper.
My main reason: Fires of Creation is a dark, dreary slog of horrific human suffering. Oh, and it just happens to feature the Shadow.
Maybe it’s Garth Ennis’s writing style. I’ve never been a huge fan. I found the Preacher dreadful. The Boys, although an interesting idea on paper, disgusted me more often than not. In fact, the only series I really like of his was The Punisher, as I still go down swinging that his MAX run on that character is definite take on that superhero. Still even that run is ultra-violent and hard to take in large doses (I feel like I have to gargle with mouthwash every couple of issues just clean my palette). And although I don’t fault anyone for liking his stuff, it’s just not my bag. For me, it’s what is wrong with comics more often than not, in books like his are written for adults only, with violence and gore ratcheted up to 11. Some might say that he doesn’t pull punches or sugar coat what human beings are capable of. I say, comics are an escape for me. The last thing I want to be reminded of is the awful things.
And awful things is what this book has in spades. However, before I start down that road, I should at least give a brief synopsis of what this book is about, I guess.
At it’s core, this book is a pretty simple tale. Taking just prior to the second World War, The Shadow and his consort, Margo Lane, work as covert agents of the American government to secure shipment of Uranium 238 before Japanese agents can. For those that are not up on their historical chemistry, Uranium 238 is the base material which is then converted into things like Uranium 235 or Plutonium-239, the substances that gave the first atomic bombs their destructive kick. Hence the title of the book, Fires of Creation, i.e. the explosive power from splitting the fundamental building block of creation, atoms.
An avid enthusiastic scholar when it comes to WWII, Garth Ennis does go to pains to make the tale as historical accurate as possible, teasing the development of the Manhattan project and it’s ultimate end product: Fat Man & Little Boy. However, it’s this attention to historical detail which for me ends up sinking this book in a quagmire of nastiness.
About 40% of the run has actually nothing to do with the Shadow. It instead goes to great lengths to give back stories to the main antagonists, the Kondo brothers, and as a result spends a lot of time rehashing the war atrocities committed by the Japanese empire in their conquest of Asia prior to the start of WWII. The death of 15 million Chinese during the Japanese occupation, the unspeakable torture, the rape, oh god, all that rape.
Although he spares us all the some of the more gruesome visuals, Ennis spends far too much time talking about the Rape of Nanking that it’s enough to make you severely uncomfortable at the least, sick to your stomach at the most. And if that’s not enough, its not as if he lets you forget about it, as he’s apt to remind you that one Japanese generals working with the Kondo brother likes his sexual partners “young” like as in barely out of elementary school young, which if you again want to paint the picture of your bad guys as monsters definitely gets the job done, but at what cost? Yes, I get it, Mr. Ennis. You want to paint the Japanese empire in WWII as a foe just as bad if not worse than Nazi Germany, but talk about taking you around the barn and beating you to death with your point.
And then there’s a significant double cross later in the run between the remaining Kondo brother and aforementioned pedophile general, in which again, Mr. Ennis, doesn’t just explain off screen that faced with the shame of failing his mission with the Emperor, the general would commit the traditional Japanese suicide of “falling on the sword”. No, no, we have to get a graphic full page spread of a beheading. Sure, it’s a rightful end for such a disgusting evil doer, but c’mon the Shadow isn’t even involved. So the point was not to pump the tires of your hero as a justice dealing angel of death, but just to show some ultra-violence for the sake of ultra-violence. And I have to say it was at this point, I really stopped caring how the book ended.
And it’s not as if the Shadow is treated any better by the writer. Most of the time, he’s spent in his Lamont Cranston guise being a misogynistic douche bag to everyone, especially Margo Lane, who he treats with sheer contempt to the point that you wonder why the hell she’s even hanging around him. Sure, he gets some Punisher style moments which can get the blood pumping like jumping through a skylight with a Thompson sub machine gun or blowing up an entire regimen with a sea of landmines, but some of the greatest Shadow powers such as mind control/manipulation, go largely by the wayside, to the point, that this could be any generic gun toting vigilante.
Sure, Ennis tries to paint a picture of the Shadow as some master manipulator, playing the long games, and viewing people as chess pieces on some grand stage, but he most of the time he fails to show that in action, instead resorting to the Shadow just shooting the hell out of people. And that’s sad. It’s like he really didn’t know what kind of story he wanted to tell with the Shadow and instead just told a different story and shoehorned the Shadow in it.
So once again, we get a poor, heavy handed Shadow written by someone that didn’t seem to give a damn about the character and where they wanted to go with it. I give credit where credit is due in that Aaron Campbell’s art is pretty damn terrific, and those covers by Alex Ross are pretty to look at. Plus there are a couple decent set pieces, like the fight on board the plane with the Nazi agents, and some of the stuff with the smuggler Buffalo Wong and explaining the Shadow’s backstory. But for someone that likes the Shadow and the kind of stories that could be told with him if done right, this series just fills me with disdain. It’s like when I read the Dynamite Masks series, or Flash Gordon Zeitgeist. Great ideas for series, with a lot of hope and promise for long time fans of these Golden Age properties which ultimately seemed slapped together without any love or care for those characters.
But I guess that’s Dynamite for you. For every Jeff Parker Flash Gordon, we have the Zeitgeist. For every Matt Wagner’s Green Hornet: Year One, we get a Masks. So hopefully there’s a decent side of the coin out there to match up with this Shadow stink burger known as Fires of Creation. I’ll definitely continue to look for one as I don’t see myself not loving the character of the Shadow any time soon, despite what awful story lines might be written about him.