Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #182: The Shadow: Blood & Judgment by Howard Chaykin

You know you're getting old when the books you read uncritically in your youth are reprinted as timeless classics. (It's even worse when those books are comics.)

I read Howard Chaykin's The Shadow: Blood & Judgment originally in single-issue form, as it came out from DC back in 1986. It was collected a few times afterward -- I believe DC had a trade paperback that was available for a decade or so -- but it had slipped out of print by 2012, when a newer, scrappier comics company called Dynamite brought it back as part of their project to revitalize The Shadow yet again and introduce him to yet another new generation.

(This happens with pulp characters: they keep falling out of fashion and having to be brought back. It happened to The Shadow a few times, and to Doc Savage at least as often. Most of the others were lucky to get even one revival -- The Avenger, anyone? But the pulp heroes are the closest relatives to the costumed and powered crime-fighters that infest American comics, so that family feeling keeps bringing them back.)

Blood & Judgment is explicitly a foundation for future stories; Chaykin retells the Shadow's origin and re-contextualizes him for the then-contemporary mid-80s. It's very similar to what was going on in the DC Universe, over on the next set of racks, at the same time -- most obviously in John Byrne's Man of Steel and the relaunched Superman. The history is acknowledged and honored, but the details are spiffed up and shifted a bit into an arrangement more pleasing to the taste of that day, and the character is launched into what's hoped would be a new long series of adventures. (That didn't turn out to be the case for the Shadow, but his comics series never lasted more than twenty issues anyway. And this particular incarnation of the Shadow was particularly inspired and bizarre before it ended -- I hope Dynamite manages to reprint all of that, too.)

But Blood & Judgment is also a '80s Chaykin series, so it has to open with random violence -- lots of it, disjointedly, for most of the first issue before things start coming together. Chaykin was always stylish, and this is when his style was still new and exciting, before we all got used it to and cared less. Someone is killing old people in bloody, nasty ways -- and, again, since this is Chaykin and it was the '80s, those killers are flamboyantly young and punkishly au courant.

All this leads up to the return of the Shadow -- Kent Allard, since this is one of the stories in which "Lamont Cranston" is the alias and Allard is the real name -- who is as young and virile and psychopathically single-minded in 1986 as he was in 1933. (There's an in-story reason for this, which works quite well: the Shadow was explicitly better and stronger and more able than ordinary men, so why shouldn't the cloak of time hang loosely on him as well?) And, since this is a modern reimagining of an origin, there must be a threat from the past to be eliminated before the Shadow can get back to everyday crime-gardening.

It's all presented here as it was back then -- even Alex Wald's original garish, utterly appropriate colors are maintained, to make Blood & Judgment even more solidly an artifact of 1986. Chaykin's art here is muscular and energetic, full of background sound effects-as-designs and overlapping small panels of facial close-ups and pretty young women in anachronistic lingerie -- this is one of the great iconic works of Chaykin's career, short enough not to have soured before the end.

This isn't the pure '30s pulp Shadow, and some people may dislike it for that reason. But it's a full-bodied take on the character, filtered through the sensibility of a great creator at the height of his powers and utterly in tune with his time. And it's a reasonably straight take on the legend, as well -- particularly compared to what Andrew Helfer and his artist collaborators did to the Shadow in the subsequent series.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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