I’m back! And God help those with a low tolerance for self-indulgence! Or is it the guilty? It's the guilty isn't it. Wait, I'll try that again, don't go anywhere...I need a hat, a big hat...where's my hat... In 2011 DC didn’t give him a book but in 1986 they did. Let’s see how that turned out using the captivating medium of too many words…
THE SHADOW: BLOOD AND JUDGEMENT By Howard Chaykin (a), Ken Bruzenak (l) and Alex Wald (c) (1987,Titan Books, £8.95)
(Collects the 4 issue 1986 DC Comics series with an interview with Mr. Howard Victor Chaykin together with The Shades of The Shadow by Anthony Tollin)
“In a NEW VARIATION on an OLD IDENTITY…”
In 1986 there was no Internet as we know it. You may breathe into a brown paper bag until your face becomes less florid at this point. No, in 1986 people had to rely on memories. My memory didn’t include The Shadow at this point so the learned article in the back of #1, by Ambush Bug’s nemesis and ace colourist Anthony Tollin, was pretty essential. Of course being young I thought this was some post modern joke. Not, so! Mr. Tollin’s concise and edifying words were proof that a lot of other people’s memories included The Shadow. But not this Shadow. This was a different beast. One re-tooled and refueled for the crass and nasty Me Decade. A dark vengeful force unswerving in its moral certainty and simmering with violence and sexuality. He had a big hat too. It was a Shadow only Howard Victor Chaykin was fit to cast.
Having acquired the licence to The Shadow from Conde Nast DC Comics lured HVC in because he was Mr. Big Pants following AMERICAN FLAGG! - a series so decorated with critical acclaim it provoked HVC to refer to it, in his customary apocalyptically self-deprecating manner, as a “piece of shit”. Luckily everyone knows he’s just a big old kidder so this didn’t put them off. HVC had also produced comics featuring Dominic Fortune (Marvel) and The Scorpion (Atlas) set in a similar milieu to that of The Shadow so, y’know, no brainer there. A nice little ‘30s set reverential potboiler to appease the fans coming right up. Except they’d hired HVC and HVC wasn’t interested in going over old ground but rather intended to update the concept to the then-modern times so hard its eyes would water. So he did and it looked just dandy, my virtual chums.
“…You’re even more GORGEOUS than I could have possibly IMAGINED.” HVC has always been adamant that it isn’t the content of genre comics, which he seems to regard as juvenile (but…why!?!?), that interests him but rather the form, forever downplaying his draughtmanship as average but resolute in his belief that design is his forte. Having emulated his one-time employer Wallace Wood in setting up a studio of talented individuals around him HVC was now, in 1986, free to focus on his strengths, secure in the knowledge that others would fortify his perceived areas of weakness.
So in TS:B&J he’s laying the whole thing out, leaving the backgrounds to assistants and concentrating on the main figures. While in awe of Gil Kane, as any mortal should be, he was perceptive enough to identify Kane’s flaw in falling back on generic environmental elements. To avoid this he uses photo references for all the parts that aren’t fleshy. In latter years computers would ease this job but make the successful integration of elements a conundrum he still appears to be struggling with.
Which is a quite painfully tedious way of saying that art on these pages is primo-HVC. It’s the rockin’ good stuff all right. Oh, he’s in such control of the camera of your eye it might as well be on a stick his sure and steady hand is guiding so effortlessly. Of course it is anything but effortless but it seems it. Which is the trick is it not. Every page here is just a work of optical genius filled with pertinent information, consummate storytelling, great staging and a rhythm that ebbs and flows with the flow outweighing the ebb until it reaches an irresistible momentum that carries you to the end of the book. Which is a good thing as by then the plot has pretty much evaporated. “The Master seeks ANSWERS..”
Which actually is okay since plot for HVC is just a hook he uses on which to hang all the things he’s really interested in (ladies, snappy patter, women, moral lepers, dames, raised eyebrows, chicks, intercourse, violence, frails, art deco furnishings, etc.). It’s pretty simple plot wise really; someone from The Shadow’s past is trying to lure him out of his Shamballan seclusion by offing his aged minions in a variety of inventively sadistic ways. (No, I’m still not entirely sure how you get a human body into a water cooler; looks sweet though!) Unfortunately for the perpetrator the plan is entirely successful, unfortunately for The Shadow that was just foreplay.
The series opens with a lovely bit of misdirection via a faux ‘30s intro scene , which neatly the counterpoints the sleazy evocation of The Hateties, and then it’s a string of blackly comic murders, where the vicious brutality is offset by the blaise manner of the killers, intercut with the progress of a shadowy figure, the introduction of a host of characters, some of which will manahe to live longer than a page and some horny old people. (That’s right, peach cheeks; we do the musky mambo too. Reckon on that awhile!) Following a remarkable splash page of our hero looking like distilled sex in the world’s luckiest suit (and...that page is pretty much how I look in my head) the second chapter flashbacks into a prolonged mash note to Alex Toth.
In what is clearly the finest of the chapters HVC goes all out on the graphical delights in order to do his hero proud. With all the predictability of a rom-com Toth was singularly unmoved. But he was one tough cookie that Toth, so if you only read one chapter read this. But no one just reads one chapter so read ‘em all! Somewhere in there HVC even gives The Shadow a motivation for his single minded party pooping in a pivotal panel where Kent Allard is filled with the necessary self loathing to change; a life of moral passivity has led to him scooping bags of opiates out of corpses on a strange mountain while a colossal shitheel holds a gun on him. As moments of clarity go it’s pretty effective. In that one panel Kent Allard dies and The Shadow is born. It’s a great moment in a great book; one of many.
The third and fourth chapters are less successful as HVC shows the Master’s operatives at work (note: the use of file cards as an example of how to work exposition into a narrative), it’s all a little offhandedly frantic to be terribly convincing but it is still very, very entertaining and possesses that essential momentum I mentioned earlier before you fell asleep. “LOUDER…”
Time now to consider the work of the genius of the silent cinema of the mind; Mr. Ken Bruzenak. The big thing about The Shadow is his laugh. That raucous ricochet of rapture at having just psychotically slaughtered some moral cripple or other. The laugh that strikes fear into the heart of evil doers and also suggests that at right that moment you could hang a so’wester off The Shadow’s nethers. So the man enjoys his job, whatchagonnado? It’s important to get the laugh down on the page where no sound exists and Ken Bruzenak does it superbly with the insertion of one font line within a larger one, a stroke of genius which successfully visually represents the aural phenomenon of a booming laugh complete with echo effect. The machine like precision of the text evokes the inhuman quality of the dreadful racket and in addition it can be used to fill up entire backgrounds due to its hugely attractive visual nature. Ken Bruzenak gets the laugh down pat.
That’s Ken Bruzenak’s big miracle but TS:B&J is littered with all kinds of little miracles in the form of sound effects that act both as elements of the page design and as vital storytelling devices. They need to be seen to be believed, like all miracles. Let’s not forget that this was 1986 and Ken Bruzenak did all this by hand mind you. Designing, drawing, cutting, pasting and overlaying - all achieved without computers. The human being as creative machine; art with real heart. It’s amazing. Ken Bruzenak is amazing. With all the new tech available this incredible stuff should have been assimilated and become the norm by now. That it hasn’t is a pretty poor reflection on the perceived worth of lettering in comics but doesn’t alter the fact that Ken Bruzenak is awesome.
THE SHADOW: BLOOD AND JUDGEMENT isn’t a perfect book by any stretch but it's ridiculously strong on the craft front and pretty formidable entertainment to boot. Considering this was just a work-for-hire gig for all involved it's EXCELLENT!
(THE SHADOW: BLOOD AND JUDGEMENT is predictably OOP, as they say, but you can source the singles easily enough or there’s also the TPB. For the true Chaykin maniac in your life: the tale was also printed in the UK magazine ZONES which lasted four issues. This reproduced the splendid art at magazine size which offsets the ever present dismay of glossy paper. Also, the backup is Wein/Wrightson’s SWAMP THING which is always a pleasure and never a chore.)
Have a nice weekend all and remember: the weed of crime bears bitter fruit!