I started this blog primarily to sound off about some of my favorite comics and buy/sell/trade some of the items in my collection. That didn’t last long. Pretty soon I was writing about any old thing. Comics are still at the core, but an awful lot of music, movies, politics, sarcasm, sex, and the random observation of something scientific or religious has crept in. It strikes me that I’m wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Eh. So what. It’s warm and the sites are pleasing to the eye. I’ll keep meandering.
But for the moment, let’s revisit one of my favorite eras in comic book history. I’ve written about independent comics from the 1980s many times before. I also noted that the indies put pressure on the two big publishers (Marvel and DC) to shake things up and give creators more reign over their personal properties and the stable of characters already in play. One of the most iconic examples of blowing up a character and rebuilding a completely new hero was The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. It was a smashing, awe-inspiring success. Soon, DC was leading the pack, scrambling to take its stale universes and turn them on their heads. Obscure characters or those that had fallen out of favor were some of the favorite targets.
Enter Howard Chaykin. Howard had been a veteran of the comics industry for over a decade, making his mark with both writing and drawing credits. His most famous early work was as an artist on the Marvel Star Wars series. By the time he decided to take on The Shadow, he was pretty much writing his own meal ticket since he’d proven his well-rounded story-telling capabilities.
The Shadow is a product of the cynical, noir period during the 1930s and 1940s when the world was in the uncertain grip of organized crime and war. Someone needed to stand against crime; someone who understand how to get to them by being just as ruthless and dark as his adversaries. Whereas Superman’s idealism and thinly written stories made his criminal adversaries mostly buffoonish oafs, anti-heroes like Batman and particularly the Shadow attracted an audience of those that saw the world as a bleak place where fighting crime meant getting inside the minds and lairs of sophisticated and more evenly matched villains.
After World War II, things began to change. A great social movement emerged moving much of the population away from exposure to the seedy side of life. People moved to the suburbs, built sheltered, comfortable lifestyles, and turned their entertainment interests to syrupy things like watered down Comics Code Authority trash, and prim housewives with sexless husbands. The thing that they now feared the most, nuclear war through huge political and military machinations, was so overwhelmingly awful and so technologically advanced that no crime fighter like the Shadow could oppose it.
Mercy Mayrock, the crazy villainess
But, by the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps because of a numbness towards the madness of the Cold War and the renewed emphasis on organized crime in fiction, people were looking for gritty heroes again. And, entertainment venues such as comics had turned to more sophisticated, adult-oriented stories. It seemed to make sense that creators could reuse the iconic characters and structures of the past, and resurrect them in a modern format. What had worked before should work again, after all, so long as it connected with the current audience.
So, Howard Chaykin’s spin on The Shadow was fresh but familiar. The stylish suits, the vampy (but now overtly sexual) femme fatales, and the sinister criminals were back. In Blood and Judgment, The Shadow has effectively retired from his crime-fighting days and settled into a life of leisure as Lamar Cranston (AKA Kent Allard). Suddenly, he hears that someone has begun killing his former agents. The Shadow recruits new acolytes and begins to unravel the identity and purpose of the sadistic foes.
God help the guilty.
Covers to the 1985 The Shadow miniseries by Howard Chaykin.