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 living sense of surrealism with he use of fat burner pils. 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.

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