I’m not a comic reviewer. I never have been, mainly because I don’t have an incredibly interesting pull list. It currently consists of three titles: Saga, Injection, and The Shadow.
The Shadow is one of those characters where I absolutely adore the concept, the pulp precursor to Batman, the two guns packing vigilante who murders his way through the mob. The laugh, the outfit, the absolute ‘justice’ of judge, jury, executioner. I love him the same way I love Dirty Harry and the Punisher and appreciate other vigilante fiction like the first Death Wish (the first one. I still have standards): we are a society of law and order in which justice prevails over punishment. Vigilantism is never acceptable. As much as you may feel like it you do not get to take the law into your own hands, because once you do you are no longer just but only perpetuate the circle of violence. Doesn’t mean it can’t be compelling as all hell in fiction.
The Shadow always had an allure above all of the other vigilante characters, the proto superheroes, because he was very much at home in his time period. A 1930s character in attitude, setting, morality, very much not a main character one should look up to. Over the years, his never-changing nature has made him stay compelling in the sense that the writers very much understood that he belonged in a very specific moment in history and should never be taken into the present. With falling crime rates, the lowest numbers of murders on record, the idea of vigilantes taking the law into their own hand and murdering their way through entire gangs is not something we associate with heroes anymore. Maybe we never should have.
I spent a considerable amount of the money I spent on comics over the past few years hunting down all of the Shadow comics I could get my hands on. They range from the excellent (Shadow Year One, the Green Hornet crossover) to the utter trash (the 80s revival…) to the banal (mostly anything else). The irony about the Shadow, it occurred to me, is that, just like most superheroes that he predates and now shares the stage with, Kent Allard / Lamont Cranston is just as much stuck in a perpetual second act. Once excellent stories have been told with his origin and the stage is set for more, we inevitably end up with the same story: Shadow fights and punishes Nazis and mobsters. Rinse and repeat. And while his stories over the past decade or so since Dynamite got heir hands on it have remained solid, they have also been on the whole quite samey. In essence: safe. Though this is not something to put on Dynamite. There is only so much you can do with a joyless misanthrope like the Shadow. It seemed to me that I had seen all that there was to see. Plus it didn’t help that the character, much like other vigilante types like the Punisher, Dirty Harry, and Paul Kersey, have been taken as inspiration for reckless idiots in real life who believe fictional crime stories should make the basis for law enforcement policy. And while it is not the fault of fiction per se when idiots take it at face value, the impact of art upon life cannot be denied.
So it was with great surprise and joy that I picked up The Shadow Vol. 3 on sale two weeks ago and instantly fell in love. Outside of Year One and the Green Hornet crossover this is arguably the best Shadow story I have read so far. How much so? It pretty much solved most of my problems with the character that made him such a guilty pleasure over the years. He appealed to that little part of my brain that I knew was wrong, a part that should only ever remain within the world of fiction for purposes of (tasteless) entertainment.
The story arc by Si Spurrier and Daniel HDR confronts the Shadow and the world he inhabits with the consequences of his action. As much as the Shadow belongs on the streets of 1930s/40s New York, having him confront a century formed in his image, politics, ideas, mistakes, gives the character the most characterization he arguably ever had. We see here a character who, underneath the facade, meant to do good in his twisted, harsh way. It seems fitting that the Punisher received a similar infusion of ambiguity and moral relativism in 2017 as well, shadowing (hahaha) our modern political landscape and how certain elements of the political spectrum (about yay-high and close to the guy with the pencil-stache) have taken pulp fiction not as entertainment but as a road map for hatred.
The story itself focuses not on the Shadow himself but on the impact he had on the world and one one character specifically: med student Mary Jerez. Saved by the Shadow in her youth, she was able to do good, help people, be there for her family. And yet she is drawn into a confrontation between the Shadow and his greatest failure, a man known as Worthy. I don’t want to go too deep into it because I would like you to go out and experience the story for yourself but the juxtaposition of Mary and Worthy is simple yet masterful in the way Spurrier and HDR interrogate the value of the Shadow.
Like I mentioned before, in this day and age you really have to ask the question what the point of these types of characters is, whether they do more harm than good. The Shadow answers the question in a profound yet simple way: my worth is measured in the people I save and the choices they make. Considering that nearly all Shadow stories feature him as a supporting protagonist to Harry Vincent, Margot Lane, or other agents, it is a fitting way that we focus instead on Mary Jerez and her choices.
Aside from that, the story can be quite blunt in the way it handles the commentary on the appropriation of characters like the Shadow by the alt-right and ‘law-and-order’ types both in real life and online. Much like how superheroes can be incredibly fascistic, so can the Shadow. That doesn’t mean we should stop reading superheroes, just that we need to accept the problematic elements of them. So too with the Shadow. In this story, the characters themselves acknowledge the harm he’s done, as well as the good. Vigilantism is by its nature an inherently problematic unlawful, arguably immoral, proposition. Nothing you can really do about it so you have two choices: don’t use it and put the characters down or use it and have those issues impact the story. The Shadow Vol. 3 does exactly that and for that I am glad.