Strange Creature in Black
The Comic Book Years
by Todd D. Severin
The Revisionist Era: The 1980's (cont'd)
Despite the controversy, or because of it, The Shadow mini-series sold well, so well that it was collected into a trade paperback. Chaykin stepped away from the character, later to add his revisionist touches to another figure from the early days, Blackhawk, and the editors were left to find a new creative team to handle the proposed ongoing series.
The editorial board decided to continue with the Chaykin version of The Shadow, since they had the momentum of the mini-series to build on. Len Wein, who had originally been picked to script the 1970's DC Shadow, was the first writer to express an interest in scripting the new series, but he withdrew when he found that he had to proceed with the current direction. The job finally fell to Andrew Helfer, the original editor of Chaykin's Shadow and perhaps the only writer who could keep the story moving along in its current direction.
The art chores fell to the very talented Bill Sienkiewicz, whose earlier work on Moon Knight had already established him as an expert at capturing the essence of dark and mysterious characters. Sienkiewicz came through with some truly beautiful painted covers for the series, a number of which were collected into a Shadow Portfolio. The interior art, however, was a different story. Caught in the middle of the experimental phase in his art, The Shadow series was drawn in a stylized, overly caricaturized style that was both cartoony, unflattering and, at times, extremely confusing. None of the characters looked good, interesting or even recognizable. The writing suffered from similar flaws. At its best it was uninteresting, at its worst it was nearly illegible. The storylines were combinations of disjointed samples that were violent and weird for no apparent reason other than to be violent and weird.
For example, the first issue introduced the reader to Twitch, The Shadow's
new, drug-addicted psychotic agent, who injected a psychotropic medicine
into an innocent man's arm in the hospital waiting room so that he could
steal addictive drugs from the cabinet while the orderlies tried to sedate
the now freaking man. This issue also gave the reader a former professional
wrestling head-nurse, a murderous hit on two unsuspecting people perpetrated
by The Shadow and his agents and the re-appearance of Cranston's cloned
son. The weirdness escalated to the point that at the series finale, The
Shadow's head was now attached to a robot body.
Many long time readers were incensed. Not only would The Shadow not act
the way he was portrayed, but he wouldn't even associate with this new
motley crew of agents. The letter columns of the comic lamented over the
long lost days of the real Shadow. Rumors flew that Conde Nast finally
pulled the plug on this unfortunate Shadow series as they grew impatient
and disgusted with the deconstructive handling of their property. After
all, Helfer's Shadow, bared no resemblance what-so-ever to Gibson's Shadow,
save the name, yet his writing had a direct impact on the future marketability
of the character. Whether or not this rumor is true, remains a mystery.
The folks at DC deny it. Regardless, the "obscure for the sake of obscurity"
approach to the writing and artwork of this Shadow series made for an extremely
difficult comic book to read, and the series was canceled in 1989 after
only 19 issues.
In many ways, this Shadow series may go down in history with an even
less flattering memory than the Archie Series. While no one will suggest
that the Archie series was good, it was clear that the writers and editors
merely tried to create a superhero comic using familiar names that they
hoped would aid in selling their comics. The Helfer series, in contrast,
was intentionally destructive; in many ways destroying the very nature
and character of The Shadow and his world, leaving behind a product that
was less appealing in the public eye.
Fortunately, this was not the only appearance of The Shadow during the 1980's. While DC had the rights to the comic book version of The Shadow, Marvel Comics at that time had the rights to produce graphic novels. This unusual division of a license is hard to describe, but Marvel apparently acquired the rights to The Shadow after the cancellation of the 1970's O'Neil/Kaluta series. They, however, did nothing with those rights, so DC proceeded with their plans for the Chaykin series.
At that time, however, Marvel had been working on a Shadow graphic novel that had yet to be released. The issue of rights went to the courts and the settlement was in Marvel's favor, allowing them to produce one, and only one, Shadow graphic novel, while DC retained the rights to the comic series.
Marvel's version was actually the second attempt at a Shadow graphic novel. In 1979, Fantagraphics announced the forthcoming Dragonshadows, with art by Kaluta and a script by the legendary sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison. This project never was completed and eventually the option on the rights lapsed until Marvel picked them up. The genesis of the Marvel Graphic novel actually began two-and-a-half years prior to the book's release. Marvel editor Larry Hama was the brains behind the project and he managed to convince the folks at Marvel to reunite O'Neil, Kaluta and Bernie Wrightson to create a new story in the classic mode of their successful collaboration at DC. Wrightson however, had to drop out due to illness, then his replacement Terry Austin dropped out and finally the inking chores were turned over to Russ Heath.
Heath was an extremely interesting choice of inker for this project. A veteran of the Golden Age of comics, having started drawing professionally at the tender age of sixteen on Hammerhed Hawley for Holyhoke Comics in 1942, Heath was best known for his beautifully rendered art on countless western titles during the 1940's and 50's, DC's war comics including Sgt. Rock, and the underwater commando series Sea Devils. Health's style, ultra-realistic, linear and hard-edged, was in sharp juxtaposition to Kaluta's more emotive, flowing work. This opposition of styles created an unusually beautiful book, where Health's lines created a more fleshed out, realistic rendering over Kaluta's pencils. Unfortunately, what was lost was the nebulous, fluidity-in-motion sense of Kaluta's work which was buried under Health's lines.
As it turned out, this more realistic rendering was perfectly suited for the story, as O'Neil wrote a tale about Hitler's astronomer during W.W.II. This tale demanded that Kaluta draw historically accurate depiction's of some of Hitler's key personnel, such as Himmler, Hess and Goebbels, and Health's realistic rendering gave a certain verisimilitude to Kaluta's pencils
The Shadow: Hitler's Astrologer was released in 1988. It was an inspired
return of the O'Neil/Kaluta team and a fitting swan song for these masters
of The Shadow's work