Strange Creature in Black
The Comic Book Years
by Todd D. Severin
The Return of Mystery: the 1990's
The Shadow returned to the glorious days of the '30's in a new DC series, The Shadow Strikes, released in Sept. of 1989. From a quick glance at the text page at the end of the first issue, it was apparent that this series would be nothing like the revisionist series of the eighties. Gerard Jones, then a young and fledgling comic writer, having only completed work on a few professional projects such as El Diablo for DC Comics, was selected to pen the new series after editor Brian Augustyn found promise in a story Jones had submitted for a Shadow Annual.
When Jones and Augustyn sat down and deliberated the theme of the new series, they decided to make the original pulps their starting point. In his text page, Jones told the reader to forget everything that Chaykin and Helfer had done to the character, forget Shambala and the scummy bunch of misgrits that called themselves agents. He politely referred to Chaykin's origin as a "misdirection" for the Shadow. Instead, he promised that the series would return to the one essential element of The Shadow mythos. . .mystery.
Fortunately for the reader, Jones delivered. The very first tale, told
over a four-issue arc, delved into The Shadow's mysterious past when he
confronted the resurrected Rasputin and Anastasia, from the Russian Revolution.
Jones admirably wove historically accurate and compelling information into
a pot-boiling Shadow mystery surrounding the brutal beheadings of members
of the exclusive Cobalt Club.
Back were the agents, and The Shadow as Lamont Cranston, Shrevvy, the
autogyro and of course the blazing .45's. Back was the intensity of purpose
of the Shadow, and most importantly, the mystery. Complementing the text
nicely was the "1930's adventure strip inspired" art of Eduardo Barreto,
who penciled most of the series. While his art wasn't as evocative as Kaluta's,
Barreto proved to be a talented story-teller and mood-creator. Jones continued
in this vein, creating an admirable run of neatly crafted historical thrillers,
nicely fleshing out the personas of some of the Shadow's most trusted agents,
while continuing to expand on the mysterious legend of the Master himself.
Perhaps the most important issue of the run was #5 which began the first ever team-up of The Shadow with his Street & Smith brother, Doc Savage, as they brought down the curtain on a crime organization that had stolen a secret ray gun capable of causing gun powder to explode from a distance, effectively rendering all firearms useless. This collaboration of the two heroes, which ran for four issues, Shadow #5 and #6 and Doc Savage #17 and #18, masterfully portrayed the contradictory tactics and styles of the Strange Creature in Black and The Man of Bronze as Jones wrote a story that combined the worlds of both heroes, their agents and arsenals. In the end, justice ruled, while an uneasy alliance was founded between the two men.
The Shadow Strikes lasted 31 issues with one annual and was finally canceled in May of 1992. It was satisfying that this series and its "return to the pulps" feeling proved to be more successful than the deconstructionist Helfer series, running nearly twice as long. The Shadow laid dormant for nearly two years, when Dark Horse Comics, the home of other licensed products such as Aliens, Predator and the Terminator, became the next publisher to bring the hero to the comic pages. Publisher Mike Richardson, a long-time fan of Kaluta's, contracted the rights to The Shadow specifically to entice Kaluta to continue with his beautiful work on the character. The long-awaited Shadow feature film had finally been realized, and the pre-release publicity machine was up and cranking, causing Shadow fever to again reach a high point. Kaluta agreed to contribute some original artwork (covers and pin-ups) and to script the series with co-writer Joel Goss, a television and screen writer.
The first books realized by this collaboration was The Shadow: In the Coils of the Leviathan. This series introduced a new name to the legions of artists to render the series, the extremely talented Gary Gianni. Gianni, a relative newcomer to the comic business, at that time had only completed work on a Classics Illustrated (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and few short stories (Hard Looks and Indiana Jones serialized in Dark Horse Comics) when Richardson asked him to join the team. In Gianni, Kaluta found the perfect complement to his continued work with The Shadow. Gianni, who himself was a long-time admirer of Kaluta, produced work that was greatly reminiscent of Kaluta's earlier art, both evocative and fluid, while maintaining its own distinct flair with the aggressive use of hatched lines and perspective. His artwork beautiful captured the mysterious and moody feeling of The Shadow's 30's.
The team of Kaluta, Goss and Gianni produced two Shadow series, The Shadow: In the Coils of the Leviathan, a four-issue series that started in October of 1993 and The Shadow: Hell's Heat Wave, another four-issue series that debuted in April of 1995. This later series featured a set of fully painted Gianni covers that were the most striking images of the Shadow to be seen since Steranko's groundbreaking work on the Pyramid paperback series in the seventies. Gianni packaged a collection of copies of these covers together and sold them at conventions. Unfortunately, the supplies didn't last for long. Kaluta and Goss meanwhile, teamed-up to produce a comic-book adaptation of the feature film. This two-issue story, released June of 1994, contained all Kaluta artwork and in many ways was better than the film from which it was inspired.
The final Kaluta/Goss collaboration was on a collection of three short Shadow stories, illustrated by Stan Manoukian and Vince Roucher. These three tales, packaged into a comic titled The Shadow and the Mysterious 3, spanned the spectrum of Shadow plots from murder in the Hotel New Amsterdam, to death at a gangland mountain retreat to justice in the skies, 10,000 feet above the ground. Although these stories were just shorts, they featured Kaluta and Goss's best-realized writing together, capturing the crazed crime days of the thirties and the relentless pursuit of justice by the Shadow. Stan and Vince produced some nicely stylized art for the stories with the proper sense of mystery.
If the Dark Horse Shadow had stopped after the above comics it would've been a nicely produced run of comics from a small, but well-respected publisher. Unfortunately, the comics didn't stop there. Just as DC Comics used the Shadow as a guest star in a few issues of Batman, to bolster sales for both comics, Dark Horse tried a couple of crossovers as well with mixed results. Thus Dark Horse went on to release the unfortunate The Shadow and Doc Savage two issue series in July 1995, and the even more unfortunate Ghost and The Shadow in December 1995.
Neither of these stories succeeded in capturing the essence of The Shadow, the former choosing to portray him as a trigger happy, shoot-first-ask-questions-later maniac who, predictably, was responsible for the Hindenburg disaster. The later was a misguided attempt to team the Shadow with The Ghost, Dark Horse's own, .45 toting, vengeance seeking nebulous hero. Unfortunately, as Dark Horse's rights to the Shadow lapsed, these remained the last appearances of The Shadow on the comic book page and were therefore the last memories Shadow fans have of their hero.
Where and when The Shadow will re-appear in comic book form remains a
mystery. The rights to the character have not been distributed since Dark
Horse held them, and with the perceived failure of the big-budget Shadow
film, the desire to control those rights has cooled. While The Shadow has
had a remarkable comic book career, filled of success and failures, beautiful
depiction's and painful misdirections, no series was as successful as the
original Shadow Comic which capitalized on the mind-numbing success of
the Shadow in all entertainment mediums. Since then, each successive series
has found only a limited audience.
Yet, The Shadow remains a powerful marketable commodity, still instantly recognizable to this day, either by his wide brimmed hat or his famous haunting laugh. History tell us that The Shadow will rise again and hunt evil upon the comic book page, but when this will occur, perhaps only The Shadow knows.