Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Shadow: Midnight in Moscow by Howard Chaykin

The Shadow is a character that often feels like he should be more popular than he is -- sure, he was massively popular in the '30s and '40s, and even got a movie within the past twenty years (and that movie is actually pretty decent, and fairly faithful to the character), but he hasn't been Batman-level since, well, basically since there's been a Batman. And for the people who think the Shadow is better than Batman -- or just that he was first, or that he's purer, or whatever reason -- that is annoying.

I don't know if Howard Chaykin is one of those people; Chaykin strikes me as a creator who has a lot of ideas and a lot of willingness to do the jobs that come along, but not a lot of angst or burning desires to do specific characters owned by other people. (I could be wrong.) Chaykin relaunched the Shadow once, for DC in the mid-80s, during a general housecleaning and relaunching period for DC, and his story was not just a good Shadow story, but it also set up the Shadow for a new era, with a slightly modified origin and an updated crew of assistants. Sure, regular series writer Andrew Helfer and his crew of sympatico artists then dragged the Shadow off in a direction that scuttlebutt has it was deeply unpopular with the licensor, but none of that was Chaykin's fault: he built a solid, useful foundation, and then went off to build other things while Helfer and crew constructed their rococo Shadow house.

Thirty years later, Chaykin came back to the Shadow -- I don't think he did any Shadow stories in between, but the character has been relaunched so may times that I could easily have missed something -- with The Shadow: Midnight in Moscow, which has none of the foundation-building expectations of his earlier Blood and Thunder. No, this time Chaykin is closing things down -- this is the story of the Shadow's last case, in 1949, as he decides to give up on the harvesting-bitter-fruit business entirely and disappear. (It is not quite the same Shadow as Blood and Thunder, but an inventive fan could definitely work up a theory to make them consistent. I'm not energetic enough to do so here, though.)

But there is that one last case to handle before, of course -- and it's a continent-spanning thing, with Soviet spies and secret agents and femmes fatale and the threat of nuclear megadeath. The fact that it takes place in a half-dozen cities doesn't really matter -- they're all dark collections of tall buildings, the way Chaykin draws them -- and there's not as much narrative tension as there could be; the reader is always sure the Shadow didn't let the world end in nuclear fire sixty years ago. In the end, this is a solid Shadow story, somewhat valedictory, with gorgeous Chaykin art and crackling Chaykin dialogue.  If it doesn't come from anywhere or lead to anywhere, well, that's the shape of a Shadow story in 2015 -- this exists because The Shadow is a valuable piece of intellectual property, and the owners of that property want to see some income from it. They could have done much worse.

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