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Andy’s Read Pile: Howard Chaykin’s The Shadow

IMG_4624What’s up, gang? It’s Andy Larson back for this week’s game of comic book tag, where I read some book, and then smack you over the head with it. Yup, I feel like that’s an appropriate description of our relationship, don’t you?

In any case, if there’s one thing most fans of the Ghosts of the Stratosphere know, its that I’m a fan of golden age superheroes. I grew up on them and I find the period that they exist in fascinating. Indeed, despite the world war, depression, diseases like polio and such, I feel like if there was any other era I would have liked to live in, it would have been that one.

As a result of this love of the Golden Age, I’m apt to do read piles on these heroes every couple of months, such as the Phantom or The Invaders. But the hero I’ve done the most read piles on it seems from this era has been the Shadow.

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Over the years, it seems there have been a decent amount of comics written about this pulpy precursor to more famous dark avengers of the night such as Batman. However, based on the forward from the most recent trade paperback collection I read on this character, I probably wasted my time with the rest. Because according to Marc Guggenheim, who wrote the introduction to today’s book, like Walt Simsonson and Thor, like Frank Miller and Daredevil, the Shadow was made for Howard Chaykin.

In fact, when this book was finally reprinted by Dynamite in 2012, a number of famous comic book authors came out of the woodwork with high praise for this mini series which has now been dubbed “Blood and Judgement”. For example, Jason Aaron, who has written some of my favorite recent issues of both Star Wars and the Avengers had this to say:

“Chaykin at his ballsiest and most dynamic. This is how the Shadow should be done.”

So, who am I to argue with such a glowing recommendation. No doubt Mr. Chaykin is a complete and utter legend, and I’ve enjoyed his stuff thoroughly over the years. So let’s see how he does with one of my favorite golden age characters, shall we?


Synopsis:

Decades after the Shadow had disappeared from seemingly the face of the Earth in the late ’40s, many of his former agents, now elderly, have started turning up dead. They are being killed by assassins sent by a mysterious power broker, which some have speculated is old time arch enemy, Bernard Stark aka the Prince of Evil.

Regardless, the killings are actually just a ploy to lure the Shadow aka Kent Allard out of hiding, which it does, with very bloody results.

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Yes, remarkably despite all his agents being old men and women now, Kent Allard hasn’t aged a day, thanks to the enhancements he received in the lost Himalayan city of Shambala. In flashback, Kent relates the story of how as a pilot for notorious smuggler and all around no goodnik Lamont Cranston, the two crash landed near Shambala and were rescued by it’s inhabitants way back in the 1920s. After thwarting an attempt by Cranston to take over the city by force, Kent was rewarded by receiving the advanced scientific body enhancements and training of the before being sent back out into the world as one of their “paladins” to help destroy evil. Thus began the Shadow’s campaign against crime, which continued until Shambala recalled him unexpectedly in 1949.

Of course, now that Kent is back as the Shadow, he hits back even harder on this unknown enemy’s associates than they had been hitting on his agents, mainly with sub-machine gun Uzis.

After massacring several, he discovers that in fact Cranston had survived and was the one that in fact ordered the executions of the Shadow’s agents, not Bernard Stark. Cranston then attempts to force the Shadow to take him back to Shambala so that he can get his brain transferred into a young body by threatening to detonate a nuclear missile.

But in the end, everyone comes to realize the simple fact: You don’t threaten the Shadow.

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…that is unless you want to end up as a smear on the pavement.


Things I Liked:

Howard Chaykin’s art.

It’s tremendous. From the layouts, to the expressiveness of his characters, use of panel grids, everything. It’s just some of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s a visual treat to see on par with some of the greatest comics ever made in my opinion such as the Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and the Killing Joke.

Just look at this breathtaking sequence leading up to Cranston’s original death, and tell me you don’t get chills.

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Everything oozes intensity and power, the most base of all raw emotions, sex and death.  Forget that it’s a story about the Shadow. It could be a story about anything and the visuals would still be incredible.

Let’s not belabor this point. Everyone should read this book just for the art work alone. Period. End of Sentence.


Things I Didn’t Like:

Okay, I have to get something off my chest.

I know that among those on the Ghosts of the Stratosphere podcast, I’ve been known to be the one that at times has been the most “sexist”. Like I often comment on how I love the female form, pointing out beauty in certain parts of a woman’s anatomy…to say it mildly. But I will say that I do not do this maliciously or to put women down or belittle them.

I do it because mainly, as my wife will attest, I’m a horny bastard and I just enjoy sex.

Now, I’m sure there are many that will point out that it’s still not an excuse and that I’m still objectifying women and thus being a chauvinist pig.  However, I don’t really consider myself really a chauvinist. I don’t believe women aren’t equal to men or they can’t achieve great things or other terrible things like that.

And if there are ever moments when I am assured that fact to be true, its when I’m really punched in the face by something really chauvinist. And whether Mr. Chaykin wrote the Shadow character of Kent Allard on purpose like this as a man from a different era or whatever, Wow! Is he ever just the worst in this regard! I mean, some of the things he says and the way he treats women is just terrible. It was sincerely cringe worthy at times, and although I did attest that overall the entire book was sexualized and I liked that, boy o boy, is it one sided.

I mean, there are even parts where the Shadow admits to his newest agent, Mavis, that he’s a complete a total pig, tells her to deal with it, before inviting her into a sexual relationship. To which instead telling him to go “screw himself”, she replies that he has the most sexy voice she has ever heard, and despite her reservations about other female agents of his calling him “master”, she would be overjoyed to do it as well.

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I mean, the whole exchange is so wrong, like some seedy male fantasy to dominate and control women into being no more than sex slaves, that it made me pretty damn uncomfortable.  I actually had to put the book down for a moment and say “Look, I really disagree with this”…”This is not right at all”, before picking it back up and skipping forward in the narrative.

Sure, I feel like Mr. Chaykin is a living legend, a master of the craft in terms of art and storytelling, but really…I was pretty offended by his handling of women in this book.

And for a guy who once called Dolly Parton’s breasts “tit”licious on a podcast…that’s saying a lot!

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Fun Facts:

One of the more interesting aspects of doing today’s read pile, was the fact that I was not only able to connect with this particular Shadow mini series, but that I also learned a good deal about the ongoing title that proceeded this series during the years of 1987-1988.

It was written by Andrew Helfer, who was Chaykin’s editor at the time, and although most of the issues were drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz, there was also issues drawn by both enduring talents as Kyle Baker and Marshall Rogers. Dynamite Comics has reprinted this series as well calling it “The Master Series”, which you can pick up at comic shops now.

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I personally don’t remember this title very much personally. Most of my experience with DC’s interpretation of the Shadow character comes from “The Shadow Strikes” comic that was released in the years following this series from 1989 to 1992.  In the mid 90s, I was able to get most of that series in buck bins from various comic shops, and to this day, it’s still the comic book I equate the most with this particular character.

However, back to the Helfer series, what I have been able to piece together from accounts is that this series, although well regarded in some circles for its high quality art and intriguing take on the character, it was decried by both the original owners of the Shadow character as well as many of the characters most hardcore fans. Most believed it was too cyberpunk and thus strayed too far away from the core intention of what the Shadow character was supposed to be.

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Personally, I think this way anytime any writer tries to bring the Shadow into the modern era, as I feel he’s best when presented in his appropriate time period. To bring him into the present day is like setting the Lone Ranger in modern day Texas instead of the Old West. Sure it might be interesting for an issue or two, but eventually the shock value dies off and you realize this character really isn’t suited for this time period.

As a result, many consider the Helfer series to be apocryphal, although let’s be honest, I’m not sure the Shadow really has a set canon, like Star Wars does. And even if he did, would anyone other than a few, really care. I mean I love the Shadow as a character, but even I understand that each interpretation of the character should be based on its own merits and its own continuity. To try to link all of it together is pretty ridiculous.


Final Thoughts:

I’ve been a huge fan of Howard Chaykin as an artist and a storyteller for some time. I’ve read a lot of really great stuff that he’s put out over the years including Hey Kids Comics!, Satellite Sam, American Flagg, and even his most controversial work with Black Kiss (although I shouldn’t really admit that on a blog my wife reads).

Hell, he was probably the first artist I really paid attention to from an art perspective as he drew the first 10 issues of the Marvel Star Wars comic in the 70s, which I must have read a thousand times as a kid. I mean, c’mon, the guy gave us the visual design of one of the most talked about Star Wars characters ever in Jaxxon, the Green Space Rabbit. (Still waiting for them to release an action figure of that guy…)

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So basically, to my point above, the guy could probably draw just about anything and on the art alone it would be an grade “A” book. It’s unfortunate then that he drew a book about a character like the Shadow, which I’m little more harsh on given I like the character so much.

I didn’t mind his take on his backstory so much what with the futuristic city of Shambala, the enhancements being the source of the Shadow’s powers, or even making Lamont Cranston the bad guy. I didn’t mind him telling his story in the “present” day 80s.

What I did mind was the overall tone of the book from the perspective of again it’s handling of women as characters. Maybe it just hasn’t aged well from that perspective over the years, and yes, there are other books from this era that just as sexist, but with this book it was particularly offensive and I’ll explain why.

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You see, when you see the art and what this book could have been just from that perspective, the constant chauvinistic undertones and dialogue really does get in the way to the point that it sort of makes you angry. It’s like someone one giving you delicious candy with one hand and punching you in the face with the other. It’s maddening to the point where you want to shout “QUIT IT!”.

And I’m not sure why it bothered me so much here as opposed to other Chaykin books I’ve read, as those have some of the same undertones. Perhaps it’s because with this Shadow character, I saw the same thing that others had seen: A chance to really elevate the Shadow as a character and make a story that would be remembered for all time. The type of story that they make movie adaptations about, and fans put on their top 100 lists.

Those other characters…I wasn’t really invested in seeing them be successful. But you can be damn sure I would like the Shadow to be mainstream successful.

Based on the art alone, I feel like this book could have been that. I could have gotten the definite Shadow book!

But no…that dialogue, those undertones, it’s hard for even me, the most red hot American male, to not sit up and say “Eh…did we really have to say that? Women are people too, y’know.”

And for that I definitely feel more than a little cheated.


Andy’s Read Pile Grade: B-


Bonus Read Pile Material!

Click here to read Andy’s review of The Shadow, Fires of Creation.

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