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The Shadow
Strange Creature in Black
The Comic Book Years

by Todd D. Severin

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Return to the Pulps: The 1970's (cont'd)

In one of those rare moments of fortuitous timing, Michael Kaluta, then a virtual unknown having just completed work on his first major comic project, "The Carson of Venus" series in Weird Worlds, overheard O'Neil in the coffee room at the DC building complaining to Steve Skates about the problems they were having with The Shadow comic. Kaluta, who had virtually no interest in the character (he had read only one Shadow paperback and, by his own admission, didn't even like it), gathered up his courage, approached O'Neil and asked if he could do the project. Pressed for time, and with his back against the wall, O'Neil reluctantly agreed and the rest, as they say, is history.

The critical success of The Shadow series, and the esteem with which it is held by collectors today is a testament to the artistic vision of both men, each of whom were irreplaceable elements in a moment of magic. Credit for the theme and tone of the comic should go to Denny O'Neil who stood his ground in the editorial meetings and refused to modernize The Shadow for the seventies nor change his characterization, thereby remaining true to the vision created by Walter Gibson. According to O'Neil, he tried to, "stay very faithful in spirit to the original." He played The Shadow as an impersonal force, distant, almost a force of nature, blowing through the crime-ridden streets of the thirties, seeking out evil and destroying it.

It was actually this grimness of character that made O'Neil feel uncomfortable, as he had difficulty writing about a character that completely ignored due process of the law. In order to make the character work, O'Neil believed that the readers had to accept as a given that The Shadow was always right. As O'Neil stated, "He killed because he knew to an absolute certainty that his enemies deserved death."

O'Neil accomplished this by never letting the reader be privy to the Shadow's thoughts. Never once was The Shadow given a thought balloon explaining his motivations nor his background. He was bestowed with the almost demigod-like power of detecting evil and then dealing out punishment. The human elements of the stories came from the point of view of the agents, Margo, Harry and the rest of the crew, all of whom were resurrected for the comic. The Shadow himself remained an enigma. The judge and the jury. He did not sentence a villain to the death penalty, he was the death penalty.

Perfectly complementing O'Neil's vision of The Shadow was the artwork carefully rendered by Kaluta. Still a neophyte in the industry having only recently completed his art training at the Richmond Professional Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University, Kaluta had only the Carson of Venus series and a few fill-in issues under his belt, as well as some work that appeared in various fanzines. He settled into a studio with Bernie Wrightson, Jeff Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith and soon began producing some of the most evocative comic art of the Seventies

Kaluta's Shadow world was drawn with tremendous attention to detail for period costuming and architecture which perfectly captured the mood and decay of depression era New York City. Kaluta, however, had little idea of how to visually conceptualize The Shadow, and ran to Steve Hickman for information. He then patterned his Shadow after the evocative pulp artwork of Ed Cartier, who, according to Kaluta, could capture the essence of The Shadow with a simple gesture of his cape or tip of his hat. Cartier's Shadow was fluidity in movement. Kaluta's Shadow evolved from this as a nebulous force with a hawk nose, fire opal ring and cloak of black, highlighted by a red scarf, who melted away into the shadows. Kaluta invested a tremendous amount of time and emotion into each perfectly composed panel and immediately he won the approval of critics and fans alike

The very first issue of DC's Shadow series, which appeared in November 1973, launched the reader back into the realm of mystery and suspense as The Shadow used all of his cunning and physical prowess to foil the attempted robbery of a convoy of used currency being delivered to Washington D.C. for recycling. Immediately, O'Neil re-created the mood and atmosphere of the original pulps, re-introducing Shrevvy, Margo, Harry Vincent and Burbank as agents in The Shadow's war on crime. Back were the blazing .45's, "roaring vengeance in either hand." Back was the girasol ring, The Shadow's hypnotic powers, coded messages, the Sanctum, the autogyro and that infamous icy laugh, driving fear into the hearts of the guilty.

O'Neil's intentions for the series were most clearly exemplified by the subscription ad found on page 12 of that very first issue. New subscribers to The Shadow didn't find the comic listed in the superhero category with Batman and Superman, but rather it appeared under the mystery section along such titles as Ghosts, The Unexpected and Weird Mystery Tales. Walter Gibson would've been proud.

Kaluta perfectly realized the mood of O'Neil's vision, from his gorgeous painted covers in the old pulp tradition, to the dynamically designed panels, decaying waterfront warehouses and the fluid movements of The Shadow in action. The Shadow had never been darker nor more menacing.

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