Cover Versions: THE SHADOW

March 11th, 2013

Being an irregular series wherein I spotlight some particularly beautiful cover runs, from some comics you might have forgotten about, or never seen before. This time it’s Andy Helfer and Bill Sienkiewicz / Kyle Baker’s wonderfully gonzo and short lived 80′s version of The Shadow.

Of all the radical character reinventions of the mid-80′s ‘mature’ boom, the Andy Helfer helmed Shadow series was one of the most brazenly strange; quirky, black-hearted and surreal, with gorgeous art from Bill Sienkiewicz and a young Kyle Baker. Following Howard Chaykin’s controversial mini-series Blood & Judgement, that reimagined the steely eyed pulp vigilante for the smart and cynical 1980′s, Helfer took the set up and ran with it.  He also stripped out some of the weird misogyny and nihilism from the title, bringing in a healthy sense of surrealism to the revisionism. This was a black hearted, New York art school comic, masquerading as a superhero comic, and it was thrillingly unusual as a monthly read. It lasted 24 issues, before DC pulled the plug on it, after facing severe backlash from ardent fans, and pressure from the owners of the trademark. It’s possibly my favourite of the slew of character reinventions from the late 1980s; it’s wild, creepily unsettling and beautifully drawn throughout.

Bill Sienkiewicz was on a white hot streak when he took on the first 6 issues of The Shadow. Following an amazing artistic learning curve from his design heavy, angular work on New Mutants through to his career best work on the stunning Elektra Assassin, Sienkiewicz was the artist of the moment. His jagged, Steadmanesque inking and restless experimentation epitomised the bold ways that mainstream comics were pushing against tradition and attempting to wrestle a place alongside bands, films and theatre as art-forms to respect and be excited by.

On The Shadow, he worked in jagged slashes of ink – scratchy, impressionistic sometimes almost crazily abstract, but always with an assured sense of design and storytelling that often eluded his imitators.

The covers for the first six issues are great – vibrant and disorientating, yet perfectly composed. He captures the iconography of the Shadow himself (he’s often the centre point of a miasma of swirling distorted imagery) whilst reminding the audience that this is a very contemporary and irreverent take on the character. This is pulp imagery shorn of any nostalgic fuzz, and given a gleaming contemporary edge.

His work drips with 80′s sleaze and coked-up glitz. With his exaggerated cartoon worldview of sex and violence it’s no wonder he ended up doing covers for the RZA and EPMD. For a while it seemed that every Sienkiewicz cover had a prostitute and an Uzi on it…

After the initial ‘Shadow & Light’ story line  Sienkiewicz lleft for the wild pastures of Stray Toasters, album covers and Jimi Hendrix biographies. Replacing him was a hungry young artist with a hard act to follow and a lot to prove. Over the past 25 years Kyle Baker has become one of the most celebrated and assured artists working in the comic book medium. His bold, expressive cartooning and stunning colour work are pure comics adrenaline. He’s also a restless innovator, constantly changing his style and challenging himself as an artist. he’s carved a reputation based on diverse work like Why I Hate Saturn, Nat Turner, Plastic Man, Special Forces and the controversial Captain America: Truth mini series.

I’ve got a real soft spot for his Shadow work though – watching him grow in confidence as he makes the eccentric cast of the book his own is a real joy, and while he takes a few early cues from Sienkiewicz, his softer, more fluid cartooning actually works better with Helfer’s oddball scripts. Whilst the comic lost a bit of the edge that Sienkiewicz’s art brought to it, Baker’s easy style and warmer line gave it a heart that was missing in the early issues (an indeed the Chaykin mini – a skillful but icy cold reading laced with misanthropy).

As we can see here Baker is still somewhat aping Sienkiewicz, especially in the airbrushing of the colour work. But the playful, almost comedic exaggeration and light touch that would come to dominate his work is still firmly in place. I love the size of that cannon and the happy looks on the faces of the Shadow’s sons.

Getting bolder here, with a fantastic use of chalks to give us a classic image of the grinning Shadow, with guns smoking. Has any character been as genuinely happy about shooting people as the Shadow…?  Such a bastard.

Things get more interesting still, with a great move towards simplicity and breaking the image down to it’s core elements. Bold blocks of colour, and an image of our black-hearted protagonist looking almost serene…and very dead! This was the beginning of the final Shadow storyline ‘Body & Soul’ in which the series reached it’s bizarre high-point  The Shadow is dead and the story deals with the fallout of this in a fascinating way, focusing on the various agents’ reactions to the death of their master. As the team gamely tries to carry on the work of the Shadow in his absence, his boys try to take their father’s body back to Shamballa to try and make use of the miraculous life-enhancing technology of the mythical city…

And here things take a turn towards the radical, pushing the very idea of what a cover can or should depict. The stark  image of two figures tumbling down a snowy mountainside is abstract in its simplicity. Five years before Sin City, Baker was experimenting with the visceral power of chiaroscuro imagery, and the results are bold and spectacular. The Shadow is nowhere to be seen on this cover, and given that by this point his corpse has been reduced to a head being pulled on a sledge (after a series of slapstick misadventures that would have made Tex Avery proud) that’s pretty appropriate. Helfer and Baker were taking real chances by now, risking alienating a fan base that had come expecting criminal skull-duggery and blazing 45′s.

I wanted to include these two images together, as I really dig the juxtaposition between the standard image of The Shadow from the annual, and that of Twitch, as he assumes the responsibilities of his master, taking on the unsavoury persona of ‘The Innoculator’. They’re both clear, strong images unto themselves, but taken together they demonstrate the increasing willingness of the creative team to play with expectations. Baker’s faithfulness to his own first image is pretty masterful as well.

(Neat switch from the booming  ’Ha Ha’s’ of The Shadow to the more craven ‘Heh Heh’s’ of Twitch, and a nice nod to the bold incorporation of text to image from Chaykin and letterer Ken Bruzenak in the original mini series).

Finally, point zenith of the series’ increasing lunacy. As the final trumpet sounded for this incarnation of The Shadow, Helfer & Baker went out with a bang. With his disembodied head now placed on a ludicrous robot body, the Shadow made a triumphant return to the series just in time to see it go down the toilet. The next promised story arc was titled ‘Nuts & Bolts’, but never manifested as this was, sadly,  the final issue of the series.  I never worked out whether this was a joke or not – given the way the comic was heading it’s entirely feasible that there was a whole story plotted out, but it could just as likely have been one last joke…giving the readers a preposterous slam bang action Shadow for the fast-approaching 90′s. Given the imminent arrival of Lee, McFarlane and Liefield onto the scene, this cover seems particularly prescient. The syndicate that owned the Shadow were already purportedly unhappy with the direction of the series, and the liberties being taken with the license, and this was a final two-fingered riposte to their grumbling.

Baker handles this image in just the right straight-faced manner. Again it’s a striking, bold image, whilst also being utterly ridiculous. I love the way all the sleek design work and artistry of the previous covers goes out the window to be replaced by chunky comics fonts and a metal studded logo.

And so two years after it started it was over – a weird ride for sure, but also utterly unique and rewarding for the faithful few that held on for the duration. The title soon reappeared as The Shadow Strikes , with Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barreto (both fine, fine creators themselves) delivering far more straight forward retro pulp fare. This series has it’s fans too, but the surreal spark and irreverent revisionism of Helfer & Co’s version was no longer there, and I for one missed it.

I picked these up after the fact in bargain bins across the country, and have read and re-read them over the years. No matter how many comics I cull from my collection there will always be a space for these gloriously strange comics. They make me yearn for a time when a corporate entity like DC was willing to take chances on properties and court a smarter, savvier kind of comics fan. Those days are gone it would seem, but who knows they might return one day.

Who knows….?

Well I know one person who probably knows.

13 Responses to “Cover Versions: THE SHADOW”

  1. tam Says:

    Some of my all time faves too. I assume you’ve also seen the Helfer / Baker Justice Inc? Very different style in both tone and art (lots of pastels) but just as good…

  2. The Beast Must Die Says:

    Yeah, Justice Inc is good – very dense as I recall. Ahhh the halcyon days of the ‘Prestige Format…’

  3. tam Says:

    Aye, it’s been I while since I read it but I ought to dig it out for a reread because I just finished the first collection of ‘Fury : My Days Gone By’ which I really enjoyed and I vaguely remember Justice Inc covering very similar territory…

  4. tam Says:

    also here’s one of my favorite Kyle Baker cartoons
    http://kbcartoonweek.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/rejected-rorschach-blots.html

  5. Richard Says:

    Oh yes, love, love, love that Helfer run, particularly the Helfer & Baker issues. I’d pay serious money for a collection.

    But even with all that gorgeous cover work all I could think is … “bloody hell, those fucking horrible red price stickers, the bastards just would not come off”. Nostalgia & Comics’ worst ever price stickers. We had ‘em at the Birmingham store for so long, destroyed so many comics.

  6. Kit Says:

    “I never worked out whether this was a joke or not – given the way the comic was heading it’s entirely feasible that there was a whole story plotted out”

    Not a joke – Conde Nast finally noticed what was going on inside the book (perhaps that last cover tipped them off?) and informed DC that the Shadow would NOT be running around as a disembodied head on a giant robot body. A suitably dull ’30s throwback Captain Yesterday-mode series was duly rushed out to replace it.

  7. Johnny Bacardi Says:

    I’m pretty sure the robot body was only temporary, as they had the tech to clone a new one for him. I was left with the impression that they were leading up to a robotic clash between the Shadow and old archfoe Shiwan Khan, since the latter was shown preparing to get his own robot body in one of the issues in that storyline. Sad thing is, we’ll never know…for my money, this was one of the best things DC has ever put out, and the “Seven Deadly Finns” arc, which you failed to mention, was the high point of the series, with black comedy and adventure throughout.

    I would have paid good money for a Percy (“De Mon in Block!”) Jenifah (this series’ version of Shrevvy) spinoff series.

  8. Eyemelt Says:

    I knew you’d be in the thick of it Tam! I had a few of those Shadow issues, I really wish they had carried on the robot body thing it sounded fucking brilliant! Also, Tam- surprised we haven’t spoken about Justice Inc. I re-read it a couple of years ago (first adult reading) and it was pretty ace, but as BMD mentioned, very dense.

    The cover to that Shadow annual is beautiful.

  9. geoff Says:

    Again, this was a favourite of mine – even as they were coming out there was always the feeling it wasn’t going to last.
    The Helfer and Baker run was sublime – even the lettering was good. I re-read them recently and they are still a joy. Glad to find I’m not alone.
    The Eno references were fun, too.

  10. EMErdelac Says:

    I just came across this having just finished another re-read of this, one of my all-time favorite comics. This was my introduction to the character of The Shadow, and it induced me to seek out Walter Gibson’s original pulps. I thought it was a brilliant update that got increasingly irreverent as it went, but was never, ever pedestrian. The characters were always strong, the writing crisp, and yeah, the art fantastic from beginning to end. Don’t forget the chilling one off issue Harold Goes To Washington, about the kid who decides to shoot Reagan on a class field trip with the Shadow’s agents acting as chaperones. What an acidic, brilliant and harrowingly foreshadowing story that was! A great, great series. I wish somebody would ask Helfer somewhere about where Nuts And Bolts was going because in my opinion it’s the great unfinished storyline of comics.

  11. voss Says:

    Dynamite is reprinting the Chaykin miniseries AND publishing a new Chaykin Shadow miniseries apparently in the same continuity. This seems to be a rare moment in which they could conceivably A) republish the Helfer run in three graphic novels and B) entice Helfer and Baker to return and complete the storyline in a nice, big fourth volume.

  12. voss Says:

    Re: Conde Nast pulling the plug, I’ve read interviews in which Baker said he and Helfer quit because they weren’t making enough in royalties. The Conde Nast story might be similar to the enduring rumor that Ditko quit Spider-Man over the identity of the Green Goblin, an assumption invited by the events in the comic at the time of the departure.

  13. (Reddux: The Shadow vol.2 # 3 de Howard Chaykin) | ...¡(+.+)!... Says:

    [...] pesar de ser un éxito de ventas, Chaykin no regresó para la serie mensual, posta que continuaron Andy Helfer en el guión y Bill Sienkiewicz en los dibujos, después reemplazado por Kyle [...]

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