Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #260: The Shadow Master Series, Vol. 1 by Helfer & Sienkiewicz

It's art that dates mainstream comics, most of the time -- those blocky, bland Silver Age Supermen, the gritty guys with too many pouches and straps in the '90s. Some artists, though, are so much themselves that they stand outside their time -- too specific to be leaders of a style, too particular to be anything but themselves.

Bill Sienkiewicz was the unique artist of the late '80s, his style slowly mutating from a typical Neal Adams-esque superhero look of the day on Moon Knight through his eye-catching run on New Mutants. His scratchy, expressionistic drawings -- shifting effortlessly from realistic faces to spiky things, embedded primitivist sound effects, and raw explosions of image -- were like no one else, not just at the time but in comics at all. And right after possibly his most high-profile book, the sublime and demented Elektra: Assassin (scripted by Frank Miller), Bill Sienkiewicz drew the first six issues of the relaunched Shadow comic for DC -- yes, the pulp hero with the big hat and the power to cloud men's minds.

It was possibly an odd choice, but Sienkiewicz thrived on odd choices -- though his oddest work, Stray Toasters, was still ahead of him at that point. The Shadow had never been particularly popular in comics, though companies and creators kept trying to make him big -- and, in the late '80s of the Punisher, Watchmen, and Dark Knight, maybe he was the grim, gritty hero whose time in comics had finally come.

That first six-issue story arc -- scripted by the hugely underrated Andrew Helfer, who did that whole run of Shadow comics, sparking ever greater demented heights from Sienkiewicz and then Kyle Baker -- has been collected, for what I think is the first time, as Shadow Master Series, Vol. 1. Helfer and Sienkiewicz's work is perfectly matched by Richmond Lewis, who laid down great slabs of color, making the most of the limited '80s palette and adding even more energy to Sienkiewicz's vibrant pages.

The story followed out of Howard Chaykin's just-prior miniseries (Blood & Judgment; also recently reprinted), which brought the Shadow into the late '80s as a still young and vital man and surrounded him with a new gang of assistants and operatives, including his two twentysomething sons. Helfer brewed up a complicated stew of story for this first arc, weaving plotlines of three villains together in a Claremontian way but also definitively ending the story in these six issues. It wasn't yet "writing for the trade," but Helfer was telling a multi-issue story, with definite beginnings and ends, and doing it with great style and wit.

So this volume sees the return of one of the Shadow's deadliest foes, Shiwan Khan, in a surprising new role. And a mysterious television evangelist known only as The Light. And plenty of action and blazing guns and that menacing, creepy laugh. If you're going to read any Shadow story in comics at all, you'd better check out this one.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index 

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