Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Shade #4

The Shade #4, July 1997, DC Comics
writer: James Robinson
artist: Michael Zulli
colorist: Pat Garrahy
letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
editor: Chuck Kim

The winter solstice is upon us. Tomorrow is the last day of autumn, and as such, I thought that this issue of The Shade, boasting the cover blurb “Harvest’s End,” would be appropriate. As a spin-off of James Robinson’s critically acclaimed Starman series, The Shade features Robinson’s usual dose of literary sophistication, however, I didn’t except this story to pack an emotional punch – which is an ironic phrase for it, as no blows are actually exchanged on-panel during the breadth of this issue. Some comics, like yesterday’s Star Slammers #1, are excellent reads that warrant a kind review, but rarely ripple into their genre like this issue. I need to spend some time picking it apart, if only to commemorate the changing of the seasons.

In fact, if The Shade #4 was less of a miniseries finale and more of a stand-alone story, perhaps in an annual or one-shot form, it may have had a more prominent effect on the superhero genre in its time. I don’t know if The Shade miniseries was a four-part epic or an issue-by-issue experience, but either way, this installment’s story isn’t difficult to understand with the other issues’ context: When Craig Ludlow’s presumed dead brother Gary returns with his generations-deep hatred for the villainous Shade intact, Craig’s wife writes the Shade and begs that he befriend the brothers before their plots for vengeance consume them. Her peaceful intentions result in Gary’s death – in the Shade’s defense, Gary was the first to lunge – and a hasty confrontation with Craig. Does the otherwise peaceful farmer avenge his brother’s death and fulfill a legacy of hatred toward the dark and listless fiend?

No. Instead the Shade and Craig discuss literature and part ways friends.


In a twist that only Robinson can pull off, the climax of this story is Ludlow’s decision to law down his arms, unlike the many men in his family before him, all of whom fell to the Shade’s power. Indeed, had Craig risen his scythe against the Shade, he would have been defeated, but this inevitability isn’t what propels the man toward peace. The Shade’s long life of murder enabled a moment of vulnerability here, in which Craig seemingly recognized the villain as a man, and from there, they communicated as such, the baggage of their generations’ worth of antagonism as changed as the autumn leaves. Of course, if the men’s conversation wasn’t genuinely compelling, the climax would have been plain boring. Again, Robinson’s sophistication is as evident as his ability to pen colloquial vernacular. Just as a simple farmer and a villain worthy of the Justice Society can share a stoop, Robinson blends their speech patterns into a memorable dialogue that stands as a confrontation of sorts in itself.

Now, why did I go on about this issue’s potential impact on its genre? I’ve made it clear through this forum that I am a superhero fan, and examining the genre, the primary motivation behind many of the iconic heroes’ vigilant efforts can be summarized by one word: revenge. Batman, the Punisher, Spawn, and dozens of classic and contemporary characters are driven to heroism by a tragedy that they subconsciously seek to undo, and in that cause’s futility, instead perpetually punish the criminal element that inspired said tragedy to come to pass. If issues like The Shade #4 were not the exception but the rule, with conversation as a cause for resolution to a family’s need for vengeance, would the superhero genre as we know it continue to exist, or at least remain as vital? John Kerry recently reclaimed his position that diplomacy is the most effective way to resolve our nation’s tumultuous position in Iraq – Has he read The Shade #4? This issue is a veritable peace pamphlet, and although the “War on Terror” situation is too complicated for any single comic to solve, a potential model resides here. Who knows how many heroes could benefit from this story?

In the meantime, the wind blows a bit more bitterly. In some parts of our country, snow has already begun to fall. The leaves we raked into playful piles have disintegrated or disappeared . . . but come spring, they will appear again. Orange and brown gives way to white which gives way to green – this is the circle of life, at least on a seasonal level. The Shade may have once stood for peace, but come Christmastime, I’ll be scouring the pegs at Target, looking for his action figure incarnation, a tangible depiction of his villainous role in the Justice League Unlimited animated series. Conversation is all well and good as a climatic solution to conflict, but as the Shade himself muses at the end of this issue, how long can such a resolution last? Can such a harvest truly bear everlasting fruit?

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