I should preface my remarks on Howard Chaykin’s four-issue SHADOW series by stating that I was never (unlike the celebrated Harlan Ellison) a strong fan of the character prior to Chaykin’s take on him. Growing up in the sixties, I heard fragmentary references to the hero and his mythology, most of which probably stemmed from the popular radio show rather than from the pulp magazine series wherein the crusader originated. There were no paperback reprints of The Shadow until 1975, and the only comic book that took a shot at reviving the Master of Darkness was an insipid superhero title from Mighty (Archie) Comics in the mid-sixties. The short-lived DC Comics adaptation in the early seventies was my first real exposure to any accurate version of the character, and though I found the series enjoyable, it was not one of the high points of the period. Sadly, most revivals of the Shadow in comics since then have failed to last into the high numbers of the pulp magazine’s decades-long run, and the hero was scarcely served any better in the media of TV and movies. These days, I’m reasonably well acquainted with the mythology of the character, especially through copious reprints of the original pulp tales. But even now, I’m not a big Shadow fan.
I didn’t like the four-issue BLOOD AND JUDGMENT any better in 1986 than I do now, but I must admit, it stands as one of the few times a comic-book adaptation of the Shadow made good money for its publishers. To be sure, a lot of extrinsic factors played a part. In comic books the relative freedom of titles aimed at the “mature readers” in comic-book specialty stores made it possible to stretch the boundaries of what one could do in “masked avenger” narratives, resulting in what I’ve chosen to call “adult pulp” in contrast to the juvenile variety seen in most though not all actual pulp magazines. A lot of eighties comics were just the same puerile stories with greater sex and ultraviolence—THE OMEGA MEN comes to mind—but there were valid makers of adult pulp as well, talents who shone in the eighties as they never could have in the seventies. Miller and Moore were the top of the heap, but Chaykin, something less than a “fan-favorite” in the seventies, became a Big Name Creator with First Comics’s 1983 publication of AMERICAN FLAGG. Whatever FLAGG was, it wasn’t just warmed-over clichés with more violence ladled on top, and at least three (if not more) critics for the hero-hating COMICS JOURNAL reviewed the title in its heyday. (I was not one of them; despite initially liking the series, I just didn’t have much to say about the feature back then.)
By the middle eighties DC had fully embraced the aesthetic of adult pulp, with the four-issue SHADOW series appearing in May 1986, roughly three months after the debut of Frank Miller’s wildly successful THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Miller explicitly stated that at the time he thought of RETURNS as a “brass band funeral” for the superhero genre, even if Miller’s reborn bat ended up becoming more of a meal ticket in the long run. But what did The Shadow mean to Howard Chaykin?
As seen in the first link above, Harlan Ellison manifestly despised Chaykin’s take on the character. I expressed some doubts as to how “mythic” the original pulp character was, but on the whole, if a creator wanted to reduce a famous hero to a travesty of his (or her) original self, I thought said creator ought to have a really good reason, beyond putting money in his bank account.
Having reread BLOOD AND JUDGMENT, I don’t think Howard Chaykin gave a ripe fart about the Shadow or his mythology. He does take various elements of the pulp stories—principally, the ideas that the Shadow acquired his mental skills in some far-Eastern domain, and that Lamont Cranston, the hero’s supposed alter ego, was merely one of his many disguises. Since BLOOD AND JUDGMENT takes place contemporaneously, Chaykin gives the Shadow a straightforward hero-origin. After crash-landing in a Tibetan super-science enclave named “Shambala,” pilot Kent Allard is enlisted to become a “paladin” for the Shambalans, who for vague reasons want to have their own urban avenger fighting crime in big cities. Chaykin puts no more into this origin than he must to make the story work; he’s manifestly uninterested in the Shadow’s career and barely gives a reason for his retirement to Shambala for some 35 years. Super-science does allow this version of the Master of Darkness to remain young while all of his former aides have become doddering old men and women. Apparently Shambala gave Allard a nose-job as well, since by 1986 he’s become the spitting image of Reuben Flagg.
What interests Chaykin is presenting a raucous, ribald vision of the modern world. It’s never a vision of great depth, but it certainly has a personal vibe to it. There’s copious violence—a mystery villain, Preston Mayrock, starts killing the Shadow’s former aides in order to lure the hero out of hiding—but the real emphasis is kinky sexuality. This makes an odd fit with The Shadow, who was one of the least sexual of the pulp-magazine heroes. Chaykin’s ageless Shadow has already fathered two offspring—both fully-grown Asian men. In addition, he is served by an agent named Lorelei with a super-sexy voice (her word balloons are all hearts) and after he seduces a woman who hates him, she ends up calling him “master.” Preston Mayrock is even more of a fount of perversion, being a wheelchair-bound old man who’s married a ripe twenty-something chippie. He allows his wife to screw his clone-replica “son” because Preston plans to have his brain transplanted into Preston Junior’s body.
It’s all very racy, but not much better developed than one of the “saucy stories” from the pulp-magazine era. The prose stories of the original Shadow were naïve and juvenile, but they weren’t incapable of depicting shades of feeling and characterization. The only time Chaykin’s era doesn’t seem like a self-satisfied parody of a hero is a single scene in which the villain sics guard-dogs on the Shadow, and the hero spares the “innocent ones” by mastering them with mesmerism. Without characters to engage the reader, most of Chaykin’s visuals prove busy and ultimately off-putting.
For me the only positive aspect of this mini-series is that because it sold well, DC kept this SHADOW series going for nineteen more issues, usually scripted by Andy Helfer and penciled by such luminaries as Bill Sienkiecwicz and Kyle Baker. Most of these stories are not much deeper than Chaykin’s, but Helfer embraced a more genial, Miller-like comedic approach in adapting the adventures of this classic crimefighter, so they’re more fun to re-read than Chaykin’s smarmy sensationalism. His outlook worked better with a series of his own creation, though, on a side-note, I reread a handful of the AMERICAN FLAGG installments and found them also lacking in mythicity.