Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: Shadow: Year One#1

So far I've examined the Shadow's career in comic books through the legendarily bad Archie Comics, a surprisingly decent team-up with the Ghost and the recent Dynamite relaunch. Although the rewards have been minimal, here I find myself plunging again into the world of Lamont Cranston via Dynamite's the Shadow: Year One by writer Matt Wagner and artist Wilfredo Torres.

Although the term "Year One" carries a faint reminder of Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One, it's only by accident; "Year One" has been cashed in often enough by comic book culture to the point where such stories as "Black Lightning: Year One" and "Metamorpho: Year One" actually exist. "Year One" has become a different way of saying "origin story," rather than necessarily indicating an effort to emulate the Miller/Mazzucchelli opus.

While the true-blue Shadow aficionados insist the pulp novels are the truest version of the character, his radio, film and comic book adventures are almost definitely better-known (speaking as one who has never read a Shadow pulp novel). I believe the Shadow's origin story was told in the pulps and would therefore have inspired the comic book at hand.

However, the Shadow: Year One#1 doesn't begin with the Shadow's origin. Instead, we open in 1929 on a figure called "the Shadow of Judgment" who burns down a village in Cambodia while searching for a white man called "the White Tiger." The rampaging figure is probably intended as the Shadow, given his black garb, red scarf, handgun and ring along with various quotes from the Shadow's radio dialogue, but the issue never makes this clear who he or "the White Tiger" is. Since the next scene features Lamont Cranston arriving in New York City, one might wonder if Lamont is the White Tiger and is fleeing from "the Shadow of Judgment." Regardless, we soon realize Lamont is returning from his time in the east and thus has already experienced his origin. Assuming he is "the Shadow of Judgment," this then would be the "prototype costume" which turns up in many reimagined versions of super hero origins, as in the movie Batman Begins. However, with Lamont's origin out of the way, what sets this Shadow comic book apart from the other series, aside from the creative team? This Lamont Cranston has yet to don a black coat & hat and develop a network of operatives, but I'm not clear why it would be interesting to see the storytelling engine tuned-up when I might simply pick up Dynamite's other Shadow comic book and read a tale where the storytelling engine is already running? The only possible reason would be to sample the particular style of this comic.

Lamont returns to New York City just as the Great Depression has begun and Prohibition is still a concern. In short order, we meet the series' version of Margo Lane, who is, we're told "A real class number, dat one!" In this version, Margo is sleeping with mobster Giuseppe Massaretti, who slaps her in the face for making a disparaging reference to the size of his "gun." Seeing Margo in this role is akin to hearing a sweet 90-year old lady curse like a sailor.

Later, at an unidentified locale (helpfully identified as long-time Shadow setting the Cobalt Club in the next issue blurb, but nowhere else in these pages) where Commissioner Ralph Weston and Lamont Cranston hobknob, Margo arrives and briefly interacts with Lamont, then confronts Massaretti, claiming to be pregnant with his child. It's possible she's lying in an attempt to regain his good graces.

Massaretti reacts badly to the news and decides he'd rather throw Margo from the roof of the building than make nice with her. This leads to Margo receiving another slap in the face and some cruel profanity (translated into Italian for our delicate sensibilities). However, Lamont has tied a red tablecloth around his face (a second prototype costume?) and comes to Margo's rescue as the issue closes.

After the failure to properly identify the Cobalt Club setting, this comic's greatest failing has to be the transition from the opening sequence to Lamont's arrival in New York City. I feel certain the character in the former scene is supposed to be Lamont and I have to assume the creators didn't intend it to be a mystery. The creators have not given enough thought to translating their clever plot to us, the audience.

No one would mistake this story for one of the Shadow's 1930s adventures; then again, when it comes to gender roles it's not exactly welcome in the 21st century either. In the radio program, Margo Lane was often little more than a "damsel in distress;" here, she's a "damsel in distress" plus a "whore with a heart of gold?" Margo as an unlikeable tramp who gets beaten twice per issue? Who thought this was a good idea in 2013?

I just finished reading Message in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. Krigstein, a collection of Bernie Krigstein's work from the 1940s to 50s. In one instance, Krigstein drew a story with 75 panels in just four pages! By way of comparison, Shadow: Year One#1 runs 91 panels across 22 pages. It's unfair to compare the two, but it's like going from a steak dinner to a bologna sandwich.

The Shadow: Year One#1 came with 14 variant covers. Welcome to 21st century economics.

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