It’s that time again. Grab your dapper hats, blue coal, and other such prewar paraphernalia. Gather ’round the standing radio and pretend you’re listening while you read a comic book because damnit it’s 2013 and stop living in the past…
Not really. Do what you want. God knows I will. It really is that occasion again though. This is the first issue of the Shadow ongoing not to feature Garth Ennis and Aaron Campbell, having been replaced with a new pairing of Victor Gischler and Jack Herbert. They’ve got a big pair (quartet?) of shoes to fill, but if their freshman effort is any indication I don’t think we have anything to worry about.
It’s a self-contained yarn, but one which contains the thread of an arc to come. The basic hook is an interesting one: What if the Shadow’s powers began to fail him mysteriously? It gives us the opportunity to explore the Shadow’s mythology and to see him forced to rely on his own mortal faculties. Essentially the question is what defines the Shadow’s identity. In order to find out Lamont Cranston teams up with Miles Crofton, cantankerous one-eyed Great War pilot and occasional sidekick from the pulps. Together they head to Nepal to consult with the Shadow’s mystic teachers. Once there however he finds that they have been slain by the Red Raja, a crime lord with abilities like Cranston’s own. It falls to the Shadow to end the Raja’s reign of terror and avenge his former masters while contending with his crippled powers. The Red Raja feels like an updated (and moderately less offensive) version of classic Shadow villain Shiwan Khan, and for the brevity of the issue he provides a fascinating foil for Cranston. The climax between two evenly classed adversaries, resolved through cunning, almost feels more satisfying than the resolution of the Ennis arc. Gischler and Herbert do a lot of leg work in little space, and the noir impression of the storytelling is a perfect fit. If I must have criticism I’d say Cranston’s voice was a little inconsistent and that i wish there were more opportunity for Red Raja appearing in the future. That’s… pretty much it though.
The teaser for the next installment suggests the action will be moving to war-torn Spain, which is a period of history not often explored but kind of a favorite of mine. Honestly between this and the Warlord Period setting of the previous story it’s like this series is being written specifically for me. Dropping the Shadow into the middle of those events will I’m certain be a particular treat. I will endeavor to make sure my enthusiasm is adequately conveyed.
This episode promises the beginning of a new four part serial set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Like the Sino-Japanese War featured in the last serial, the Spanish Civil War is considered by many to have been a prologue to World War Two. Rebel fascists backed by Italy and Nazi Germany attempted to overthrow the republican-socialist government backed by the Soviet Union. Volunteers from around the world flocked to the fighting, and the ultimately doomed cause of the loyalists would become the mythology of a lost generation. Despite this, the war is often a footnote in history, eclipsed by the much larger conflict it presaged. Today it is best remembered mainly through the writings of Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell (whom we’ll come back to shortly).
Before we get there though we catch up with the Shadow in France. He and Miles Crofton are slowly making their way homeward from Nepal, following his increasingly fickle psychic instincts. The murder of an innocent couple sets the Shadow down a treacherous road into Spain’s divided politics, ultimately crossing paths with Esmeralda Aguilar; a femme fatale of the oldest and best stripe. They spar with great verbal flare, and a sordid tryst is all but inevitable. Nary a thought is given to Margo Lane in this whole situation, but we’ve established before that Lamont Cranston isn’t on anyone’s list for man of the year. The mysteries only deepen as Aguilar’s trail leads into the chaos of war and into the orbit of a young George Orwell.
Needless to say I like where this is going. Gischler definitely has a handle on the period and the personalities at least as good as Garth Ennis, and Aaron Campbell returns to lend the artwork some quality grit. Every now and then Cranston will drop some bit of modern phrasing or slang that feels a little off (a holdover of my lone criticism from the previous issue), but otherwise his verbosity and mordancy are big draws to the dialog. The Shadow has a certain theatrical venom that makes other heroic voices seem oddly lifeless. Cranston by the same token feels like an old school film star in the vein of Clark Gable; an irredeemable jerk that you just can’t help but want a strong drink with. If I wasn’t already sold on this story, the next installment has biplanes…
Admit it, that cover is awesome. We pick up where we left off with Lamont Cranston and George Orwell giving the audience much of the background for this arc; useful for readers who aren’t familiar with this part of history. Cranston is certain that Orwell plays a part in whatever forces brought him to Spain, but with his mystical insight failing him he cannot be certain of his destiny. More sanguine is Crofton, who feels like he’s starting to enter his own as a character. Back on the trail of the murderers and smugglers that brought him here, the Shadow makes an unusual acquaintance in the Black Sparrow. Whether she is an ally or an adversary is appropriately ambiguous, though what is clear is that she is Esmeralda Aguilar in disguise. Thankfully this fact is equally obvious to the Shadow and they don’t waste any time with the pretense. The biplane chase and dogfight that follows is a little anachronistic , but not unexplainable, and if we’re being honest that’s precisely the way we like it. The Shadow and Black Sparrow spar as adeptly as Cranston and Aguilar (in this case literally). She’s overall an interesting and welcome addition to the story, even if she is a little on-the-nose as a Catwoman to his Batman. Also introduced in the closing panels is a properly operatic masked antagonist in the imperious El Rey, glimpsing what appears to be an exciting clash in the next two issues.
I can’t really say that this series has had any low points for me. It was pretty stellar to start with and has really only gotten better. This book is right now probably my favorite ongoing from any publisher. If I was forced to give up all but a single series (first world problems) I’d very likely cleave to this one. It’s certainly probably that I’m a little biased. Given my well established predisposition towards the property there’s little question that I am this book’s target audience. That said, I feel like the story is set up in such a way that you don’t need a primer to really get involved. If you’re giving some thought to diversifying your comics portfolio you can do a heck of a lot worse than adding this to your pull.