Comics: The Shadow – Blood & Judgment
written & drawn by Howard Chaykin
DC Comics, 2012
For the first time in over 20 years (despite repeated requests), Dynamite Comics has re-issued in a trade paperback the fan-favorite four-issue mini-series The Shadow: Blood & Judgment written and drawn by Howard Chaykin for DC Comics in the 1980s. This is fortunate timing: the previous trade, published by DC directly, was printed on better, thicker, but more acidic paper and is by now slightly brittle inside its collectors’ mylar bags. Those old trade paperbacks are good for appreciating in value, but they’re no good for being appreciated – and for all its flaws, this is a comics milestone that still begs to be appreciated.
For comic book insiders, the mention of Howard Chaykin’s name will immediately suggest the flaws. Not in the man’s artwork, which in terms of energy and composition has been brilliant for forty years. Rather, the flaws – and not all readers would so characterize them – come in the concepts and the writing: Chaykin’s work has often been more graphically violent and always been more graphically sexual than some genre fans wanted to stomach, and even though DC’s original idea of a revamped Shadow comic was entirely mainstream, those Chaykin tendencies are on full display in Blood & Judgment (as they were in his great series American Flagg! – as sharp a piece of sci-fi satire as the mid-20th Century produced, for all that).
The Shadow character is one of the grand-daddies of the entire superhero genre, developed by a hodge-podge of different hack creators in the 1930s as the archetypal badass good guy, the first pulp creation to tap into readers’ enjoyment at finding their heroes a bit frightening. The Shadow, cloaked in black, packing deadly pistols, and possessing the ability to ‘cloud minds’ and so seem as insubstantial as his namesake, was one of the world’s first dangerous superheroes (just as his 1930s coeval Doc Savage was one of the world’s first examples of a superman-whose-name-is-Clark). Because they had several creators in several media (he was a hit on the radio, in comics, in magazines, in books – you name it), the Shadow and his burgeoning supporting cast were plagued with inconsistencies from the beginning – right down to the character’s real name, which was given alternately as either Kent Allard or Lamont Cranston (in later novels, the two were made to be separate men, somewhat uneasily sharing the same name in the days before cell phone cameras). There were numerous sidekicks and a love interest named Margo Lane, and all served the Shadow as worshipful agents in an ongoing war against crime. Details beyond that were sketchy: the focus was on the war, not the warrior.
Given such a lurid foundation, is it any wonder comic books were drawn to the Shadow? The character had a short, great comics incarnation in the 1970s, written by Denny O’Neill and drawn by Mike Kaluta (the first issue of which sports a cover that’s sheer, simple genius despite the fact that it paradoxically features bright daylight), but all such comics runs stayed faithful to the original 1930s setting of the whole concept.
Chaykin took a different approach. In his telling, after his career fighting crime in the 1930s and ’40s, Kent Allard, the Shadow, retired to the semi-mythical, scientifically advanced mountaintop city of Shambala, where years before he and (a here thoroughly loathsome) Lamont Cranston had crash-landed their plane and been saved by the inhabitants, led by their greatest scientist, a woman named – somewhat puckishly on Chaykin’s part – Rudra Chakrin. Allard had been badly injured in that plane crash, and the bioengineers of Shambala had rebuilt him with the same significant physical enhancements they give to all their principal warriors, their ‘paladins.’ Cranston had survived the crash without a scratch, and when he tried to abduct Rudra Chakrin, Allard had used his newfound powers to knock him down the mountain, presumably to his death.
Allard uses those powers as the crime-busting Shadow, but when the time comes, he retires to the stubborn isolation of Shambala (“Our army – our weapons,” Rudra Chakrin tells him, “are our paladins – and as for world conquest, why? We have banished pain – illness – fear. We live a utopian life here – why covet an ugly, imperfect world?”) without even so much as a ‘good bye’ to his many followers, or to Miss Lane.
Flash forward to the 1980s, when somebody is methodically killing off those sidekicks in a deliberate attempt to draw the Shadow out of hiding – and it works: word reaches our hero even in Shambala, and he (and his two grown sons, here to provide some comic relief) journeys to New York to rejoin his surviving associates. Unlike himself, they’ve all aged – and they’re still angry at him for leaving them and letting the world go to hell. He makes the requisite dramatic entrance (Chaykin decks him out not in cloak and slouch hat but in a fashionable suit – but in the old Shadow colors of black and red, and with a pronounced shadow falling behind him) and straight away sets to bickering with Mavis, the strident feminist young daughter of one of his men.
Those aforementioned Chaykin ‘tendencies’ are thus quickly and neatly set in place. The villain of the piece – an old and even more repulsive Cranston – has a fiendish plan to both nuke New York City and claw his way to immortality, and the plan requires both the Shadow and the super-science of Shambala. In highlighting the depravity of Cranston’s world, Chaykin gets to give free rein to his penchant for raunchy depictions of kinky sex (the requisite devious sex-kitten is at one point shown strapped to the nuclear missile that’s pointed at New York – and enjoying every minute of it). And with Chaykin, where there’s sex there’s also sexism – even back in the Dark Ages of the 1980s, the moment when fiery Mavis, having now slept with the Shadow, first refers to him as “Master” brought howls of protest from plenty of male readers. Some of those readers also objected to the Shadow’s amped-up ruthlessness – he had uzis instead of handguns, and his attitude, though basically unchanged from his 1930s incarnation, could sound positively Rambo-esque: “Why waste all that valuable court time on homicidal psychopaths,” he asks a disgusted Mavis at one point, “when a bullet is so much more efficient, and permanent?”
Fortunately, there are counterbalances everywhere in Blood & Judgment, great moments of script and art that go a long way toward compensating for the infamous Chaykin tendencies. The dark wit, the incredibly memorable motion-lines and page-layouts, the masterful storytelling – these counterbalances are always present in Chaykin’s work, or else fans would long ago have driven him out of town with torches and pitchforks. Those counterbalances make this new Dynamite graphic novel a thing to own and read and re-read, even if you have to hold your nose at a couple of different points.
This interpretation of the character went on to spawn a regular monthly comic that was deviously written and wonderfully drawn. Unlike every crappy back issue of “Metal Men” or “Challengers of the Unknown” (and unlike Blood & Judgment, now brightl available once again), those sublime “Shadow” issues have never been collected and reprinted for later fans to enjoy. So even while readers are enjoying this spiky Chaykin masterpiece, the repeated requesting goes on.