Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #196: Shade, the Changing Man, Vol. 1: The American Scream by Milligan, Bachalo & Pennington

I'm here because I'm looking backwards. Why else would any of us be reading the first collection of a nearly thirty-year-old comics series? [1]

I recently read the first collection of the current Shade the Changing Girl series, which reminded me of this Peter Milligan/Chris Bachalo/Mark Pennington version, which began in 1990 and ran through 1996, ending after 70 issues. (As usual for corporate comics of that era, Milligan wrote the whole run, but the art team changed more often -- Bachalo ended up drawing more than half of the series, through.)

It was a fairly typical Vertigo series of the day, one of the many that followed Alan Moore's template from Swamp Thing: start with a minor DC character, one as close to a joke as possible. Take him seriously, but not in comic-book terms -- take him seriously in world-historical terms, bring in whatever other pop-culture or serious-culture material that energizes you and you can bolt onto it somehow. Run that character through horror plots, generally one or two issues long, each one encapsulating something frightening or appalling or norm-breaking. Do it all seriously, at a high pitch of writing, narrated strongly. Set it officially in the DC Universe, but don't focus on the usual four-color stuff -- maybe show it on the TV, maybe let it wander through the edges of your story.

That produced Animal Man, and Sandman, and of course Shade. It was a great model as long as Karen Berger could find new brilliant British writers to relaunch obscure DC characters, but inevitably that well ran dry [2], and Vertigo shifted to other models. Shade was probably the last big success of that initial model -- depending on if you count Sandman Mystery Theatre as this model or a Sandman brand extension -- and also brought in the perennial popular "British person ponders America" genre.

The British person in this case was Peter Milligan, who'd come to attention mostly from his work with artist Brendan McCarthy, later collected as The Best of Milligan & McCarthy. And he made the obsession of Shade America's vision of itself -- every one of those early Vertigo books had an obsession, from Sandman's storytelling to Animal Man's animal liberation to Doom Patrol's dada. As usual, a British person both sees things Americans usually miss and fundamentally misunderstands some things Americans know so deeply they don't bother to explain.

The first six issues of that 1990 series were collected at various times over the three decades since -- what I have here is the first of a series of trade paperbacks from 2009, which seems to have petered out after three volumes, with most of the series left uncollected. But that's the way of the world, isn't it? In any case, I did find and read this book: Shade the Changing Man, Vol. 1: The American Scream.

As usual for Vertigo of the time, the Milligan Shade reconfigured the premise: instead of the original Steve Ditko crew-cut superhero punching villains with the power of his shiny sunburst vest, this Rac Shade is on an epic, ill-informed quest to save his world and our own from "madness." His powers are larger, less well-defined, and largely out of his control. And he's no longer bodily on Earth: the M-Vest propels him into the body of someone on Earth. In this case, convicted serial killer Troy Grenzer, on the night he's about to be executed.

Shade/Grenzer escapes, psychedelically, from the electric chair -- this is the Deep South, for maximum American death penalty frisson -- and lands with Kathy George, a young woman whose parents and boyfriend were Grenzer's last victims. He of course is able to convince her he isn't really Grenzer, partially because of the continuing eruptions of unreality he triggers and partially because Kathy is only moderately sane to begin with.

And they set off on the road, to find the American Scream in all of its manifestations, to confront it and stop it and foil it, any way they possibly can. To save the world: this is a comic book.

Shade is episodic from that point, like the horror version of the old Incredible Hulk TV show. (Actually, there was a comic version of the Hulk that was basically a horror version of the TV show around the same time: American comics liked episodic stories then, and we were besotted with horror.) In this volume, Shade and Kathy go to Dallas to reenact JFK's assassination, and then on to Hollywood for some silver-screen madness.

As I recall, it goes on like that: hitting the places in America that foreigners know about and relate to. Shade eventually changed bodies, gathered more of a supporting cast -- did all of the things that help keep an episodic story going. But this set the tone: Shade was about Why the Hell is America So Crazy.

In this first volume, the various partial answers include racism, gun violence, and obsession with image -- not a bad start. I wouldn't cite it in a doctoral thesis, but it's sturdy enough as an argument. And, sadly, maybe even more true almost thirty years later.

These are early Vertigo comics, meaning they're strongly narrated, heavily written. This was an era of comic writer as the strong voice, pouring out his (and it was his, in that era) obsessions and thoughts and ideas, filtering them through fantasy and fight-scenes. Milligan was a strong writer with things to say, so he does that well.

He's well-supported on art, though I think the technology for either the coloring or reproduction or both weren't always up to the ambitions of the team. (Colorist Daniel Vozzo, as well as penciller Bachalo and inker Pennington.) Sometimes there are muddy moments, or too-obvious white highlights, or other artifacts of circa-1990 comics printing. I'd love to see this recolored, preferably by Vozzo, with the full panoply of modern technology -- but that will never happen, since we couldn't even manage to get this version entirely republished.

The American Scream is still relevant: it's still recognizably about the same America we live in today. Some of the details have changed, and we have fancier gadgets now. But the madness is much like Milligan described it.

[1] I can't think of any other possible reason someone might want to read a story about an epic journey across the USA to find out why it's gone so crazy.

[2] The well of "new brilliant British writers," that is. The well of obscure DC characters is endless, and refilled annually.

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