Saturday, April 7, 2012

Bitter Fruit#5: "Shiwan Khan's House of Horrors!"

The premise behind "Bitter Fruit" is to examine Archie's version of the Shadow, who was infamously dressed up as a super hero. Thus far, I've been quite surprised to see the Shadow#1-2 were not super hero comics, but rather super-spy books. Have we finally reached the super hero iteration? The cover is promising. My copy of the Shadow#3 is missing its cover, so I've brought this from the Grand Comics Database:

Once again we see the Shadow battling Shiwan Khan; perhaps he could use a second adversary, eh? Once more, he'd depicted in his super hero costume, although this time with black hair (he's been blond in the interiors of issues #1-2 and red-headed on the cover of #2). This is the best look we've had at the Shadow's super hero costume thus far, as it only appeared on the cover #2, not in the interiors. What we have here is a desperately average super hero suit. It has the spandex-trunks-cape-mask-gloves-boots found in so many outfits with nothing remarkable to set it apart. The Shadow doesn't belong in spandex to begin with, but they might as well have given him a chest insignia while they were about it. One blurb promises: "Special Bonus Book Length Novel... 'Shiwan Khan's House of Horrors!'" Where to begin? Last issue the cover promised a "book length" story but it was just a regular-sized main feature. Even if this does turn out to be a "book length" tale, how it that a "bonus?" It's not as though it's in addition to the regular content - it is the content!

Ah, well. Let's deal in with "Shiwan Khan's House of Horrors!" We open on a splash page depicting... well, you have to concentrate to make it out because shadows in the foreground and incompetent perspectives are conspiring to make this image illegible. The Shadow appears to be falling through a skylight surrounded by shattered glass. Below him is a water pit filled with sharks, while two tanks approach from north and south, a lion pit lies on the west, a tiger pit to the east and Shiwan Khan watches from above aboard a crane. I don't want to sound like I'm taking this rubbish seriously, but is it ever smart for friendly tanks to line up opposite each other? Wouldn't this trap work as well if it were a shark pit surrounded with barbed wire?

It's difficult to soldier on to page 2, I'm not going to lie. The Shadow is such an inept comic after just the cover and splash that I dread the story itself. Just knowing I'll be returning to the splash page image at some point is punishing.

We open the story at Lamont Cranston's town house. Lamont is still wearing glasses in his secret identity, but now his hair is black instead of blond. I suspect this is the first of many between-issue alterations. I wonder if he's still a secret agent? At least black hair is a better visual for a man called the Shadow. Lamont is getting ready for a date when his lady friend, Dina, appears at his door. She was afraid Lamont would brush her off, so he came to his home rather than wait to be picked up. Lamont phones downstairs to check in with his secretary Margo Lane before leaving for the day, when Margo suddenly screams. Margo, by the by, is now brunette. Perhaps she gave her old hair dye to Lamont?

Lamont tells Dina not to follow him downstairs "unless you want to die young!" Jogging to the office, he finds five men with guns are carrying Margo out the window. Lamont defeats most of them in a fist fight, but one gets away with Margo. Dina has phoned the police while Lamont takes stock of the situation; Margo Lane and his chauffeur Shrevy have both been kidnapped. How does he know Shrevy was kidnapped? "Shrevy would've come charging up from the garage when he heard the shots!" Oh, so it couldn't be that Shrevy was simply knocked unconscious? I don't know what became of Shrevy, but I suspect more off-panel excitement, the Shadow way!

On Margo's desk, Lamont sees an "X" crossed on a picture of Governor Moore, which he surmises is a message left by Margo, indicating the governor is in danger. Wait, so in the 60 seconds it took for Lamont to dash downstairs, the kidnappers told Margo who their eventual target would be? Thoughtful crooks! Lamont would be up a creek without them! Lamont tells Dina to file a report with the arriving police and he dashes to his "basement radio room," calling up Weston to let him know about the implied danger to Governor Moore. I assume Weston is still Lamont's CIA contact, but there's been no mention of Lamont's super-spy status thus far. Leaving the radio room, Lamont finds Shrevy in the garage. Lamont's surprised, but Shrevy explains he stepped out to buy a newspaper. Pan over Lamont's face, cue sad trombone.

Lamont ushers Shrevy into his Rolls Royce, telling him they're headed to Chinatown to rescue Margo Lane. Shrevy surmises Lamont thinks Shiwan Khan is the kidnapper and that Lamont hopes to obtain intelligence from his Chinatown sources (actually, Shrevy seems to claim they're his Chinatown sources). However, at another location, Shiwan Khan watches Lamont & Shrevy's Rolls Royce over a video screen. I suppose he has hidden cameras hidden throughout the city? Margo watches over Khan's shoulder, evidently unguarded and at liberty. Why doesn't she bash Khan over the head while his back is turned? Khan explains he caught Shrevy earlier and brainwashed him. Right on cue, Shrevy locks Lamont in the back seat of the Rolls Royce.

At this, Khan decides to switch off his magical camera, assured of Lamont's imminent death. He thinks with Lamont & Shrevy dead, the Shadow will come to Margo's rescue. So, we have just another Shiwan Khan story on our hands, but check out the above panel: it's easily the best image so far, granting Shiwan Khan a sense of shadowy menace he's lacked up to now.

Shrevy drives the Rolls Royce off an incomplete bridge, but en route Lamont switches into his Shadow costume... oh good, I'm sure different clothes will help. Because Shrevy is brainwashed, he won't retain knowledge of who the Shadow is, maintaining this series' inexplicable decision to have Lamont living a life of dangerous adventure and yet still pretend he has a secret identity. Lamont notes there's "a duplicate panel controlling the car's emergency escape mechanisms near the steering wheel." If you recall the first story of the Shadow#1, you'll recall how Lamont escaped from the Rolls Royce thanks to all his emergency gadgets. I credit the writer for being smart enough to explain the continuity, but doesn't this "duplicate panel" render Lamont's mechanisms pointless? Couldn't the hijacker in issue #1 have simply shut the mechanisms off?

Just as the Rolls Royce falls into the water, the Shadow hypnotizes Shrevy by glaring into the rear view mirror, catching Shrevy's eyes. The Shadow compels Shrevy to release control of the emergency mechanisms to him, enabling the Shadow to open the windows and swim to safety with Shrevy.

At Shiwan Khan's base, one of Khan's men turns the monitor back on and sees the Rolls Royce has fallen into the river. Now Khan is ready for the Shadow to come and rescue Margo, then he'll continue with his plan to kill Governor Moore before the governor can become his party's presidential candidate. Comparing himself to Genghis Khan, Shiwan declares, "Where Genghis failed to subdue the universe, Shiwan will succeed!" The universe? Uh, buddy, even Genghis didn't aim that high!

The Shadow brings Shrevy to a nearby wharf, which inexplicably isn't noticed by Khan, even though the camera is presumably still focused on the scenes of the crash. The Shadow decides he'll continue to fight Shiwan Khan in his costumed identity, taking advantage of Lamont Cranston's supposed death. At this point, it's clear we won't be receiving an explanation for why the Shadow is wearing a super hero costume all of a sudden. The Shadow hides Shrevy's body where no one will find him, evidently wanting Shrevy to remain unconscious until Khan is defeated. Seriously? Between being brainwashed by Khan and knocked out by the Shadow, I think Shrevy needs to exit this series - the author has it in for him!

Heading to Chinatown, the Shadow decides he needs a disguise, so he takes a mask from a Chinese souvenir shop. Seriously? The Shadow needs a disguise? What is the blinking point of his cape and mask if not to provide a disguise? Or how about his power to "be-cloud" men's minds so they cannot see him? The Shadow wanders through "carnival" and visits the home of Hi Sing Wan, who previously worked for Khan. Two men refuse to let the Shadow enter, so he attacks them using karate, losing his mask in the process.

The Shadow breaks into Hi Sing Wan's office and demands to know where Shiwan Khan is, menacing Wan with a gun. At first, Hi Sing Wan claims he's ready to die, but after the Shadow fires a shot near his head, he reconsiders. Say, doesn't our hero have the power to force information from men's minds? I mean, wouldn't he obtain more reliable data if he used his powers?

Hi Sing Wan tells the Shadow Shiwan Khan is at the World's Fair, building a pavilion on the site. Once the Shadow leaves, Hi Sing Wan phones Shiwan Khan to happily report the Shadow is headed into his trap. Too bad the Shadow didn't know it was a trap; it's not as though he reads minds, eh? Or he could've remained in the room, hidden from Hi Sing Wan's sight by "be-clouding" his mind so he could eavesdrop on him.

As the Shadow journeys through the World's Fair, he muses Hi Sing Wan is an untrustworthy source and might have been lying. Again, that's where your powers are supposed to help you! However, "strangely enough," Governor Moore will be dedicating a pavilion at the World's Fair and the Shadow is certain Weston will be guarding the location.

Entering a pavilion which is supposed to open the following week, the Shadow ventures into a room surrounded by statues with strange cracks on the floor. Suddenly, Shiwan Khan appears above, operating a strange egg-shaped crane. Margo Lane is being held by Khan's men nearby in a glass domed room. With the press of a button, the floor beneath the Shadow cracks open, exposing a shark tank! And two lions emerge from a nearby lion cage! And a tank with an armored car rolls into the room! Overkill, or just enough kill? Comparing this to the splash page, it's worth noting on the splash, the Shadow seemed to be falling through the air on pieces of glass. Now I see the Shadow was actually falling through the floor. The artist seriously failed to make this action clear on the splash, all because of how the pieces of the floor were floating in space, with no conception of how they related to the environment.

The Shadow pulls out his gun (don't ask me where he kept it all this time) and empties it into the sharks, killing four of the six sharks; he knows the remaining two will be overcome with frenzy and thus leave him alone. To stop the lions, the Shadow hypnotizes the men operating the guns on the tank and armored car so they turn their guns on the lions. Seriously? The Shadow could make eye-to-eye contact with someone inside a tank? Not bloody likely... not without being shot first.

Now the Shadow directs the tank gunner to aim at Shiwan Khan; the shell blasts Khan's egg-shaped thing, injuring him. Shiwan Khan flees as the room bursts into flames, endangering Margo's life. Good job, hero. Don't worry though, the Shadow knows what to do! He sends the armored car and tank to kill the men who were going to kill Governor Moore. We don't get a clear look at the assassins... they seem to be two men hulking in the shadows. Killed by a tank! The Shadow's certainly not taking prisoners. Weston sees this and wonders why they killed their own men and how they knew which of the people in the crowd were the assassins. Yes, good questions; only the former is explained by the story. We close on Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane meeting with Weston, with Lamont revealing he's still alive. And so it ends.

What became of poor Shrevy, unconscious on a wharf, suffering from Shiwan Khan's brainwashing? What became of Shiwan Khan, injured but seen running from the fire started in his pavilion? Was Hi Sing Wan ever rounded up for his crimes?

The Grand Comics Database attributes this issue's credits to the usual suspects - writer Robert Bernstein and artist Paul Reinman. Regarding his work at Archie's super hero line ("Mighty Comics"), blogger Steven Thompson recently called Reinman, "the Jack Kirby of the Mighty Comics Group." This is as much an indictment of Archie's super hero books as you'll find - Reinman was not up to being anyone's Jack Kirby. Kirby at his most frentic still gave the audience a clear understanding of what had happened from panel to panel.

So, we've finally reached the costumed adventures of the Shadow, the aspect about this series which has earned it much of its contempt from audiences. Certainly, making the Shadow over into a super hero is needless. As it is, the Shadow predates super heroes and yet inspired many of them with his multiple identities, sidekicks, special powers, recurring adversaries and mixture of horror-fantasy-science fiction-detective genre details. If there'd been no Shadow, there might not have been a Batman.

What we have here is simply a paycheck comic. It was turned out quickly and without presumption anyone would care to revisit it a year later, much less 48 years later. Then again, the Shadow's radio program from the 30s-50s was knocked out quickly and with no sense of future audiences, yet its stories had a much better sense of internal logic. Paul Reinman is a good artist, but I have to imagine he didn't have much to work with here - the story jerks about with no particular intelligence, just a mix of standard action genre tropes. If the Shadow actually used his powers cleverly, as I often observe, it would require a standard of creativity which - at the time - was found in DC & Marvel's super hero books, but not at Archie, where the staff were out of practice with the genre.

Once again, "book length" is a meaningless term. The Shadow#3 contained two stories, just like every issue thus far. We'll check out the second story in the next installment of Bitter Fruit.

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