THE SHADE gets his day in the sun! by Brad Barnes

STARMAN #81
Writer: James Robinson
Artists: Fernando Dagnino and Bill Sienkiewicz

THE SHADE #1-12
Writer: James Robinson
Artists: Cully Hamner, Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone
Javier Pulido, Jill Thompson, Frazier Irving and Gene Ha
Cover Artist: Tony Harris

 James Robinson appeared on Episode 103 “Thinking Outside The Boxes” of the current SyFy Original Series COLLECTION INTERVENTION with host Elayne Luray and presented the collector with the script to THE SHADE #12, which has the origin of The Shade.  An avid collector himself, this gesture recognizes Robinson’s unique achievement in contemporary comics: bringing neglected Golden Age characters into fascinating modern narratives!

For example, has the Sub-Mariner or the Human Torch ever “felt” modern?  I believe that most Golden Age characters work best as part of the larger superhero tapestry, but have trouble sustaining center stage themselves unless; like CAPTAIN AMERICA or SUPERMAN; they came out of the gate with iconic qualities that transcend the context in which they were created!

With all due respect to Gerry Conway and Paul Levitz, the Justice Society of America became a hot property again only when James Robinson collaborated with artist Paul Smith on 1993’s THE GOLDEN AGE because Robinson included body snatching, Communist sympathizing and mental illness into the mix!  Ted Knight having suffered a mental breakdown was a major element of THE GOLDEN AGE which Robinson maintained with his relaunch of the JSA as well as in the STARMAN title, and it became a hard truth which gave integrity to Jack Knight’s quest to becoming a hero.  Of the comics published in the wake of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s game-changing WATCHMEN (1986), THE GOLDEN AGE easily belongs in that rarefied category!

When Robinson created STARMAN in 1990, he included The Shade as a fellow protagonist.  The Shade was created back in 1942 as a villain for The Flash, but Robinson re-imagined him as an immortal resident of fictional Opal City, defending it against all threats and deeply admiring Ted Knight, who was the first Starman.   The STARMAN comic was a Cain and Abel, My Dad Is A Total Jerk epic, with Jack Knight reluctantly taking on the role of Starman under The Shade’s gentle prodding.  Robinson also included “The Shade’s Journal” as text pieces in the back of the book instead of the usual letter columns, making STARMAN among the most literate titles of the 1990s.

When Robinson retired the Jack Knight character in STARMAN #80 (2001), he also retired himself from comics, so Robinson’s return to comics in 2009 was a welcome surprise and I was relieved to see that he still had his chops!  Using the BLACKEST NIGHT storyline to bring Opal City back into DC continuity, Robinson maintained his retirement of the Jack Knight character and repositioned The Shade as emotionally invested in Opal’s future through his ongoing romance with Hope O’Dare (which was hinted-at during the STARMAN run but not confirmed until this BLACKEST NIGHT issue).  This development solved the too-cool-for-Old-School-veneer which had kept an emotional distance between The Shade and the audience, so that The Shade could now serve heroically in a larger narrative.

However, the concluding 12 part “Grand Guignol” storyline in STARMAN showed that The Shade was too powerful to ever serve as the new protector of Opal City, as The Shade was possessed by the evil dwarf Culp to isolate and to nearly eradicate Opal City from existence.  That level of raw power puts The Shade into Braniac territory as he effectively bottled-up Opal City away from the outside world!

Clearly, The Shade had powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, but, so what?  What narrative could effectively encompass such possibilities?

While Robinson had used The Shade to propel the STARMAN title beyond generational concerns into the ambitious space opera it ultimately became, the Shade himself remained anchored by Opal City, which allowed him to remain cryptic and unexplained.  Using an attempted assassination by Deathstroke as a catalyst, The Shade is stirred from ennui to anger and leaves Opal City to discover the cause!  Deliberately, Robinson uses the first 3 issues of THE SHADE with artist Cully Hammer to move the action from Opal City to private detective Will Von Hammer in Hamburg, Germany who then directs The Shade to Sydney, Australia.

Robinson uses the aboriginal belief in Dreamtime to expand The Shade’s center of gravity, along with assisting the Australian-based hero The Argonaut against The Idle Hands.  Robinson’s skillful use of international detail makes such globe-trotting easy to absorb!

For me, the first highlight of the series is the next Times Past issue drawn by Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone, because Robinson’s use of The Vigilante is so assured and Cooke is so completely in his Golden Age element!  We are back in Opal City circa 1944, and members of The Shaade’s family are up to no good!  Family can be such a pain!

The next 3 issue arc drawn by Javier Pulido is set in Barcelona, Spain.  This story introduces La Sangre, a virgin vampire who fights crime and insists on calling The Shade her father.  Finding out why this is so is part of the pleasure of this arc, along with the religiously-complex villainy of The Inquisitor and the charmingly-deductive heroics of Montpellier.

The next Times Past is illustrated in fine form by Jill Thompson and set in 1901 Paris.  The persistence of family and the undertow of regret informs this expert interlude!

The final 3 issue arc occurs in Egypt and is wickedly drawn by Frazier Irving.  Irving has a great command of the color palate, and his storytelling is gruesome without being gratuitous!  Having solved the mystery of who sent assassins after him in the first place allows Robinson to reveal the secret origin of The Shade in the final issue!

Now, Gene Ha illustrates this final Times Past story set in 1838, which reveals who The Shade was and how he came to be!  How in London, family man Richard Swift’s unfortunate transaction with Culp resulted in his ascension into darkness, and such matters are appropriately tragic.  If Jack Knight proved to be less than the sum of his parts after his cosmic escapades, then The Shade is now more than able to hold court in the DC Universe with impunity, which is no mean feat!

I’ve long considered Ha to be the definitive Shade artist, as his highly-detailed style suits this impeccable character like a glove, and Ha’s storytelling is at its’ best in this tale; implying as much as it is showing; perfectly complementing the culmination of an origin Robinson has spent over two decades teasing out to his audience!

For a villain who has committed great sins to become a hero requires a cleansing of some sort, as Lamont Cranston underwent before he became The Shadow, for instance.  Change is hard.  One could argue that Robinson never wrote The Shade strictly as a villain since 1990, but The Shade always was an ambiguous ally and proved almost fatal by the end of the STARMAN title.  For all of the grace notes that Robinson had given The Shade, one could never mistake The Shade for a hero.  Just as Jack Knight had to grieve for his brother and embrace his father’s achievements before he could become a hero to others, The Shade had to admit to his weaknesses, which is something that a proper gentleman never does!

That is why The Shade’s battle with Egyptian gods Nhut and Thon issues #9-#11 was essential in giving him “heroic credibility”, just as it was critical to bring Batman to his knees in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES movie: the valiant must first be severely tested before they can rise to the occasion!

James Robinson is an excellent writer, and having him deliver 12 issues on one of his signature characters is ample reason to celebrate!  Make no mistake: THE SHADE is a Master’s Class in how to turn a scurrilous villain into a dashing hero!  Bravo to all!

The End!

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1 Comment to “THE SHADE gets his day in the sun! by Brad Barnes”

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  1. JD (Host) says:

    well said, sir!
    I have to say, of what I’ve read so far, THE SHADE is a far more interesting and well-written book then Robinson’s other offering of late : EARTH 2. I was really excited about E2, but for some reason it just feels a little TOO Silver Age-y and melodramatic. I wish the writing was slightly more grounded on that book. But I’ve really been enjoying SHADE and hope to catch up with it soon

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