Friday, 10 May 2013

Books: The Shadow


The Shadow
Vol 1: The Fires Of Creation
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Aaron Campbell

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

All I know about the Shadow is the 1994 film starring Jack Donaghy Alec Baldwin - which I'm guessing I must have seen on it's TV Premier on ITV or BBC1 or whatever (back when it took untold millennia for films to make the journey from the big screen to the small one). Of course - as we all know - nowadays superhero films are basically American's number one export: but all the way back then they were viewed with the same sort of wary eye as films based on computer games [1]: mainly I guess because - one: special effects hadn't really got to the place where you could realistic depict the larger-than-life action scenes that are the lifeblood of the genre and two: well - because they were total rubbish.

And so yeah: if you asked for the sum total of my knowledge about The Shadow I guess I would have mumbled something the evil that lurks in the heart of men (?) said something about the rubbish Jack Donaghy Alec Baldwin film (which in my mind is kinda intermingled with The Rocketeer and the Dick Tracy film: so much so that when I try to picture them I can see Jack Donaghy Alec Baldwin playing all three roles: but what the hey) and then made a "what more do you want from me" kinda shurg and then beckoned you to leave me alone.

So why I am even bothering to write up about this comic? I mean - this is a character who first appeared in 1930 on the radio which - in my mind - means that he's about as ancient as the Greeks, Egyptians and dinosaurs. I mean - at the end of each episode (of the radio thingie) there would be a bit where the Shadow would remind his listeners that "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay... The Shadow knows!" which - for this 21st Century kid is about as lame as "Remember kids - winner's don't do drugs!" or whatever it is Captain Planet that used to say [2].

Well - this shouldn't be much of a surprise to anyone paying attention: but obviously the thing that makes things worth reading or not (nine times out of ten) is the writing - and in the case of this book: it's one of my first comic book crushes [3]: Mr "Sweary war-obessed Irishman" aka Garth Ennis.

If you've read any of Garth Ennis' recent work (he started off kinda like a lighted-hearted, young, care-free frat boy with a scatological sense of humour but then slowly grew into a much more bleak, bitter and serious ballader of war stories: namely the first and second world wars - scraping off the bright and shiny paint of the legends and fairytales to expose the hard leaden realities underneath) then you will not be at all surprised to find that the very first line of this supposedly fun, light hearted pulp adventure is: "Between Nineteen thirty-one and nineteen forty-five, Japanese occupation forces killed fifteen million Chinese people."

Wow. Major bummer dude. That's kind of like turning on to watch an episode of Colombo or something - only to see someone being stabbed in horrific close-up and then to see the traumatising effect it has on the victim's friends and family: it's like - yeah: sure - that's the kinda basis of all the genre-fun that we want - but we don't (normally) want to have to confront the actual reality of the situation: we just want the mystery without so much of the murder - you know? The escapist excitement without the awful grisly details. But - of course: what makes Ennis such a gripping read is the way that he likes to mix up his thrills and spills with grit and grime - a gourmet sandwhich with all the trimmings embedded with dirt and bugs  

The strange thing is that - from that stark and brutal opening - the book that switches into a much recognisable pattern of early 20th Century adventure - like an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles [4] almost: blah blah exposition and same-old same-old and a bunch of situations you've seen a million times before. It's at this point that I started to get concerned: was Garth Ennis phoning it in? Was this just going to be as crappy as what you would normally expect a Shadow comic to be? (Like I think I said: if it wasn't for Ennis' name on the cover - I really don't think I would have bothered to even pick this book up....).

But there wasn't any real need to worry: the first third of the book is just about setting the scene and getting things into place for the mayhem and awfulness that happens later: where one cliché after another is over-turned (or set on fire) and what you thought was merely going to be rip-roaring mutates into something else entirely: and - dotted around here and there - a few typical Ennis touches (one character in particular plays like an ancestor of Cal “a cop on the edge” Hicks from the Jody and T.C one off special The Good Old Boys (as collected in Preacher: Ancient History): which is all to the good).

So yeah - for a superhero whose powers are way way less than super [5]: this is actual a pretty solid reading experience. All of which goes to show - that even the lamest worn-out character can - in the right hands - be grafted on to a story that's well worth your time.

[1] And for more on that subject I would recommend this fantastic Grantland article: Hollywood Archaeology: The Super Mario Bros. Movie Unearthing a major disaster to learn the lessons held within

[2] Oh my god: having a quick look at the Captain Planet and the Planeteers wikipedia page and it sounds amazing (plus: it gets bonus points for the non-ironic use of the word: "edutainment") and I now kinda want to re-watch the special episodes: "The episode titled "Mind Pollution" (1991) was notable in that it did not deal with the environment, but rather with the issue of drug abuse. This was explained by the fact that the characters thought of drug addiction as "pollution of the mind." The episode revolved around an epidemic of a designer drug known as "Bliss" created by Verminous Skumm (which is such a brillant name for a villain: it's like Dickens on an off day going - "yeah fine whatever: we'll just call him Verminous Skumm."). It was also known for being quite a dark episode in the Captain Planet series, as it allowed a scene of Linka's cousin Boris bleeding from his arms (!?!) after jumping through a window and dying from an overdose of the drug." (Note: and on the subject of Captain Planet - for anyone who hasn't seen it already - check out Don Cheadle's take).  

[3] Like I think I may have already said: I first read Preacher at exactly the right age.

[4] Yeah - in the early 1990s they made a TV show of Indiana Jones and - yes - it is almost exactly as awful and boring and bland as can probably imagine.

[5] According to his wikipedia page: "Skilled marksman and martial artist" "Master of disguise" "Master of stealth" "Able to make himself nearly invisible to the naked eye" "Can alter and control a person's thoughts and perceptions" = YAWN.

Links: Comic Book Resources Review of The Shadow #1Geeks of Doom Review of The Shadow #3The Shadow #4, Comics Beat Article: The Shadow and Garth Ennis – A Review of the First Script.

Further reading: Battlefields, War Stories, The Marvels ProjectThe TwelveAlan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope, Preacher, Turf, Tom StrongMinistry of Space.

Profiles: Garth Ennis.

All comments welcome.

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