Sunday, August 21, 2016

Who Knew? Two Shadow comic book reviews (900th post)

I kinda like the Shadow. I came to the character through the old radio show; it could be campy and juvenile at times, but had a number of very good episodes. Further, I really liked the 1994 motion picture - and not only because I was compared to Alec Baldwin in that film (I wish!). I've read the first Shadow novel the Living Shadow and many of the comic book interpretations of him; the 1970s DC comic was pretty good; the Archie comic was a travesty, but I found it morbidly fascinating enough to explore in-depth in my series of "Bitter Fruit" posts; and of late he's been published by Dynamite Entertainment.

Dynamite Entertainment is one of those publisher names chosen by publishers who don't really want to be known for making comics (see: Boom! Studios, DC Entertainment). Many of the titles in their output are licensed from various sources. To me, it seems as though Dynamite is always trying to get in on some of the sweet Hollywood-friendly projects in comics; I have to imagine part of the reason they're making comics about Doc Savage, the Phantom and Miss Fury is they know someone in Hollywood is shopping scripts around. And yet, if they are seeking some Hollywood synergy, it has not happened: the Green Hornet; the Lone Ranger; John Carter. All had Dynamite titles, all had disappointing films. Who would watch the farcical film version of the Lone Ranger and decide they'd like to read Dynamite's comic version - which is played straight?

Earlier I posted a negative review of Dynamite's Shadow #1 and have read a few of their Shadow books since. With a recent sale going on at Comixology, I elected to try the first issues of two recent Shadow comics: Justice, Inc. #1 and Twilight Zone: The Shadow #1.

Justice, Inc. teams up the Shadow with Doc Savage and the Avenger, two other pulp heroes published by Street & Smith (I've blogged before about the Avenger's comic by Jack Kirby). Team-ups are another thing Dynamite rather likes - they keep trying high-concepts like "Gold Key shared universe," "Jack Kirby shared universe," "King Features shared universe," "public domain shared universe," and so forth. This season: "Street & Smith shared universe."

The cover of Justice, Inc. #1 by Alex Ross prompts another digression (I promise, we'll get to the comic eventually): Dynamite made their name through the use of variant covers. You could say they're the company Alex Ross built, given the ubiquity of his covers. But then, Ross seldom does interior work art for them. Indeed, while they often snap up great cover artists (John Cassaday, Darwyn Cooke, Francesco Francavilla) and have hired a pretty good crop of big name writers (Garth Ennis, Matt Wagner, Roger Langridge) the interior art is usually made by someone you've never heard of before; pointing again to my review of the Shadow #1, that's a problem when the storytelling goes wrong. Dynamite seldom seems to hire proven talent, talent who many previous successes. Indeed, few even seem to go on to wider acclaim. There's always a chance that Dynamite may discover a major new talent, but they tend to lack the combination of established names and up-and-coming names found at the likes of Boom!, Valiant or IDW.

Justice, Inc. #1 is written by Michael Uslan and drawn by Giovanni Timpano (many Dynamite artists seem to be from Italy). Michael Uslan is famous for being the man who snapped up the film rights to Batman and Swamp Thing back when they were going for a song and has been linked the Batman films ever since. He's also written the Shadow before and seems to have a lot of affection for heroes of the 30s & 40s. He was also, unfortunately, responsible for the 1990s revival of Terry and the Pirates which transformed Terry Lee into a totally radical 90s teen. It was drawn by the Brothers Hildebrandt which absolutely guaranteed beautitful art, but - seriously - don't look it up. You will cringe.

Although the series is titled after the Avenger's organization, he's not quite in the comic - in fact, the story, set primarily iin 1939, is before he's become the Avenger and it appears his origin is being set up through this series. Thus, there are none of his operatives appearing. For that matter, Doc Savage's operatives (the Fabulous Five) are absent, with him instead dallying with H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein & Howard Hughes (the League of Fair Use Gentlemen?). Also strange is that although all three men operated in the same time frame in the pulps, the story concerns the Doc Savage of contemporary times time-travelling to 1939. Perhaps the plan is for there to be two Doc Savages in this story? In fact, '39 Savage doesn't even have the Man of Bronze's distinctive appearance; of them all, only the Shadow is fully developed in 1939 and his pulp foe the Voodoo Master is the antagonist.

Like so many comic books of the 21st century, the cover(s) promises something which does not happen (the Avenger, Shadow & Doc Savage do not meet. It seems frequently that what you see on the cover of #1 won't appear in the interiors 'til #6. In fact, the story seems instead to be getting the drop on Twilight Zone: The Shadow with what have to be intentional references to Twilight Zone episodes "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (something on the wing of an airplane) and "The Odyssey of Flight 33" (time-travelling airplane passengers see dinosaurs).

Even if you've never read the Avenger, you'd never guess his wife and daughter were about to die, would you?

I understood the events of Justice, Inc. #1, but there simply isn't much of a plot; it's primarily set up, teasing the Avenger's origin, establishing the Shadow, establishing the Shadow's "other self" Lamont Cranston; establishing the Voodoo Master, introducing two Doc Savages, sending one Doc Savage back in time... it simply runs out of pages. People who love these characters and have faith in Uslan will not doubt follow it to the end. As a casual Shadow fan and a non-fan of the Avenger and Doc Savage, I won't finish this series.

Twilight Zone: The Shadow #1 comes with a beautiful cover by Francesco Francavilla, one of my favourite artists. How can you possibly tell a Twilight Zone crossover with the Shadow when said program was an anthology series with no recurring elements? The cover begins to hint this can be done as Francavilla has essentially dropped the Shadow into the TV show's opening credits. The story itself is by David Avallone (writer) and Dave Acosta (artist). I am not familiar with either man, but Avallone's IMDB page credits him with all kinds of film & television work from VR Troopers to what appears to be a series of softcore porn video work. And nothing say "good writing" like porn! Dynamite brought him into comics which seems like validation to my Dynamite-wants-to-be-in-pictures theory. Dave Acosta seems to have made his entire professional career drawing for Dynamite. Can anything good come from this concept by these creators? Let us see!

Even people who may not have ever seen the Twilight Zone may use it in conversation, say when a strange coincidence occurs ("you've just entered the Twilight Zone!"). The Twilight Zone's stories are best-recalled as nightmarish scenes of people having inexplicable encounters with the paranormal, losing their identity and their very control over reality. This is much of what occurs in Twilight Zone: the Shadow. The story opens with the Shadow attacking a Nazi rally in the US, then having a car accident. When he wakes up, he's Lamont Cranston, the man who the Shadow often poses as (on the radio Lamont & the Shadow were the same person, but in the pulps they were separate). A fight with a very pulpy-looking Shiwan Khan occurs, Lamont seems to die - then finds himself transformed into Orson Welles, about to perform the radio episode "The Temple Bells of Neban"! What a great cliffhanger!

Amazingly, this odd concept delivers where the seemingly-straightforward concept of Justice, Inc. faltered. By the end of the issue, the reader has seen the Shadow's reality collapse around him and seen the character confronted with his own fictional nature. It works! We have a weird mystery with the hero's sanity on the line and we have the Shadow leaping into action and fighting familiar foes. It is a legitimate Twlight Zone comic and a legitimate Shadow comic. Author Avallone's past history didn't give me confidence, but this was ultimately a fun read and one I intend to follow up and complete.

Winners: David Avallone; the Twilight Zone; the Shadow
Losers: Alex Ross; the Avenger; the Fabulous Five

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