Robot 6

Collect This Now! The Shadow

Shadow #9

In my debut CTN column, I raved about Justice Inc., a two-part prestige format series DC put out in the late 1980s, written by Andrew Helfer and drawn by Kyle Baker. The book starred a long-forgotten pulp hero known as the Avenger. That comic was actually a spin-off of another comic Helfer and Baker were doing at the time, which was also based off of a pulp hero, although in his case he was far from forgotten. I’m talking, of course, about The Shadow.

On the off chance you may not be familiar with the Shadow I’ll provide a quick synopsis. His origin varies (and has been altered numerous times over the years) but basically he’s a rich socialite who garnered the ability in some far-off, mystical Eastern land to “cloud men’s minds” and turn invisible. He doffs a black trench coat and hat (along with natty red scarf) to fight crime, which he mainly does by repeatedly shooting at them until they’re dead. He’s mainly known for saying stuff like “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit” and cackling maniacally. Oh, and he often employs a vast array of agents to help him in his efforts to slaughter criminals. (And if you really want to know more I recommend turning to Wikipedia at this point.)

Anyway, there’s been a number of attempts to get revive the character, especially in comics. The specific Shadow series that I’m talking about today though was actually a spin-off of a four-part mini-series by Howard Chaykin. Rather than attempt to tell tales set in the classic pulp era of the 1930s, Chaykin tried to bring the character into modern times in his own indomitable fashion. Namely, he handed him an uzi, added plentiful dollops of sex, kink and blood, threw in some sharp social commentary and was off to the races.

Blood & Judgement (as the collected version was called) was popular enough to warrant a monthly title, but Chaykin apparently wasn’t interested in being tied down, there were other DC characters that needed revamping. Enter writer/editor Helfer, who would eventually helm DC’s Paradox Press line, as well as edit the “bwah hah hah” era of the Justice League. Helfer was initially joined by then-hotsy-totsy-artist-of-the-day Bill Sienkiewicz, who, like Chaykin, found a way to offer his own unique interpretation of the character without going too far beyond the boundaries of “Shadowness.”

Already things were a bit off-kilter though. Not content with the new cast of characters Chaykin had whipped up, Helfter added a few of his own, many of whom, like Twitchkowitz, a nervous, nerdish fellow with a passion for pharmaceuticals, seemed bizarre even by Blood & Judgement’s standards. Helfer didn’t seem to have much interest exploring the Shadow’s character or ethos the  way Chaykin did either. All of the sex stuff got dumped immediately. And while no one would ever accuse Chaykin of lacking a sense of humor, Helfer seemed at times seemed more interested in delivering a good joke than in delivering classic pulp thrills.

Those aspects would become much more pronounced once Kyle Baker took over the art chores in issue number eight:

Baker was pretty new to the comics scene when he started on the Shadow. Seminal works like Why I Hate Saturn were still down the pike. He had completed The Cowboy Wally Show, but Doubleday wouldn’t release that for several months yet. So for many comics readers Shadow was their first introduction to Baker’s work, and it would give them the opportunity to see him grow as an artist as well.

It became clear pretty quickly that neither Helfer nor Baker felt any reverence for the Shadow or his milieu. Indeed, he quickly became portrayed as something of a psychopath, little different from many of the villains he fought, and often treating his minions like trash. And while bullets were still fired in abundance and blood flowed freely, the series itself turned from high, action packed (while slightly campy) melodrama into something of a black comedy, a dark, slapstick farce that not only mocked its protagonist, but just about everyone else in the cast — and the whole romantic notion of the anti-hero to boot. There’s very few identifiable or likable characters here, which perhaps, makes their interactions all the more amusing.

Baker stuck to a eight panel grid throughout his entire run on the series, cramming each panel with loads of detail and Mad magazine-like asides. He frequently alternated between drawing his characters in a realistic style and then reverting to cartoonish exaggeration, depending upon their emotional state. Baker was clearly going for the funny bone as much as he was the jugular. The cast often moved at 45 degree angles, their backs bent into a question-mark shape. Their tosos frequently seemed too large and square for their spindly legs and arms. They also all seemed to be wearing shoulder pads for some reason, but then again, it was 1988.

A master of facial expressions, Baker frequently offered tight close-ups that highlighted his gift for depicting enraged characters with their mouths open ten times their normal width and their clenched fists raised to the sky.

For his part, Helfer juggled increasingly loopy, labyrinthine plots that frequently seemed to take on (and subsequently murder) characters every issue. Despite it’s density, however, the stories never once seemed capable of tipping over into incomprehensibility or insufferability, even as they started including elements like an impossibly obese Irish women, a dangerous group of teenage video arcade junkies and a murderous gorilla.

The whole thing reached a fever pitch in issue number 19, in which the recently deceased Shadow was resurrected by having his head (which had been severed from its body by a helicopter blade of all things) mounted onto that of a cyborg body.

And that was the end. The series was canceled after that and DC tried again with The Shadow Strikes, a more tried and true title set during the Depression. The rumor mill continues to speculate that Shadow copyright owners Conde Nast didn’t like what Helfer and Baker were doing with their potential cash cow one bit and pulled the plug on the series as soon as possible. For his part, Baker has always maintained that the series was canceled due to poor sales and nothing more.

Whether it was poor sales or a unhappy copyright owner, the fact remains neither DC nor Conde Nast seem to be in that much of a hurry to get this material back out to the public. And that’s a real shame because even though back issues are cheap and not too hard to find, a trade collecting this work (and ideally, including Sinkiewicz’s run as well as the one issue drawn by Marshall Rogers) would, I think, bring about a new appreciation for what Helfer and Baker did. By refusing to be beholden to nostalgia or the then popular “grim and gritty” ethos, the two were able to create a manic, inspired and downright hilarious comic that is quite unlike anything that was being published at the time or has come down the pike since.

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Comments

45 Comments

I wish it would happen. But I’m pretty sure that it won’t. As I understood it, Conde Nast was pretty unhappy with the direction of the later issues of THE SHADOW, which is why it ended when it did. It’s also every bit as good as you say, if not better.

And if you’re curious, Andy Helfer took a lot of what was going to the the end of that plot in THE SHADOW and turned it into a JUDGE DREDD story, back when DC had a DREDD monthly in the late 80s/early 90s.

Like Matt, I’d heard back when the book was first cancelled (or at the time, on “hiatus” even though it was solicited up through #23) that Conde Naste was not a fan of the Helfer/Baker issues of THE SHADOW and we’ll almost certainly never see a collection, which is a real shame.

I’d like a new collection of the Chaykin mini, but based on this article, I don’t really have much interest in the subsequent ongoing. Seems to me if the creators didn’t like The Shadow, they should have been working on another character or, better yet, created one of their own.

“The Shadow Strikes”, however, was a fantastic series. I still have nearly all of the individual issues of that one. It was a perfect comics representation of The Shadow and it was properly set in the thirties, to boot. Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barreto really knocked that one out of the park.

YES!
Thank you for writing this.
I was a huge fan of this series, and use every excuse I can to turn friends onto it, and am constantly posting about it on the DC forums.
It’s possibly the only series that gets to my nostalgia/ocdcbg* bone.

I often tell people, that if they like the Millar/Kickass overthetopness or Brubaker type cynicism comics of today, they should give this a shot, it was really a forerunner of that style.

I do really understand why traditional Shadow fans hated it, but looked at in the right light, it is a more realistic “natural” extension of the old radio show and pulp character; nilistic and grim. Luckily I must have been at some youthful “sweet spot” where I could love both the traditional version, and this badass nutcase of a comic. Ther JUSTICE mini was also great, and had a nice . . . explorative tone, covering so much US social history.

1 thing, I do remember DC saying they planned to tie up the storyline in an annual at some point (maybe in Shadow Strikes), and I’d love love love to know how they were going to resolve the whole Shadow’s head on a robot body story?

I have all the issues, and they always turn up in bins really cheap, so there’s no excuse to not buy ‘em up.

Thank again for writing this!
JRC

*Obsessive Compulsive Dissorder Comic Book Guy

Seconded, Thirded, Fourthed, Fifthed and Infinitied on this one. What a killer, crazy inventive book.

You should also check out Helfer and Chris Sprouse’s Batman Annual from around the same time. Not nearly as out there, but really good pulpy storytelling on a Two-Face origin redux.

The most underrated series of the 80s. Period.

It was my favourite book at the time (not “one of”, it was “the” book). It was fresh and funny and i never understood why they cancelled it.
I still have the full run, so i don’t really care if it’s collected or not. And i’m not sure how gracefully it has aged, but i’d still recommend reading it, if you don’t know it.

I’m pretty sure Kyle Baker didn’t think much of his work on the book. It was just work for hire. But his drawings matched the over the top story line by Andrew Helfer perfectly.

I hate fishing in long boxes so I wish this was collected as well. It was in my top three when it was going. Don’t care what Baker thinks, he was on fire with that comic and I don’t think Helfer ever did better.

I think The Shadow has nearly always been lucky with the creatives but never with sales. I actually really like The Shadow Strikes by Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barreto and also Gary Gianni’s Shadow.

I read the Chaykin/Helfer/Sienkiewicz/Baker Shadow stories for the first time just a couple years ago and they were a glorious round of insanely good art and offbeat storytelling. I liked them and will give them credit for doing something very, very different.

That said, I’m going to have to go with Matt and JG and say that I still like the more traditional Shadow Strikes! more. Gerard Jones, Eduardo Barretto, and Rod Whigham did some of the best work of their careers on that series. It had a great pulp adventure feel to it, but Jones worked in all sorts of characterization and depth usually lacking in pulp fiction. Sadly, Shadow Strikes! was also cut short in its run. I remember Steven Grant writing a few years ago about how he had written several stories that were supposed to be the first part of a new direction to the book, but DC and/or Conde Nast decided to scrap the series with issue #31 instead…

And to JRC,
Yes, DC announced in one of those old Johnny DC front pieces they used to run in their comics that Helfer and Baker would get to tie up their Shadow series in a special that was due out the summer of 1989. Apparently, Conde Nast didn’t like that idea either and so it was scrapped and they did the Justice Inc. series instead…

In addition to both these amazing works, Helfer is responsible for the greatest Two-Face story of all time: “Eye of the Beholder,” from Batman Annual #14. Not only is it a great story, but it was one of the main sources Jeph Loeb drew from for The Long Halloween (and therefore directly influenced The Dark Knight). Why it’s not in print (not even in a recent collection of Two-Face comics!) is beyond me.

Between all these great stories going moldering in dollar-bins of comic shops, it makes me wonder if DC has some kind of problem with Helfer. They probably don’t, but damn it, I want these comics available so I can get others to buy them!

DC didn’t lose the license after the Helfter/Baker run. The series was just cancelled due to poor sales. There was excellent (’30s set) follow-up series called “The Shadow Strikes”, which should also be collected.

Scienkivicz leaving is what killed the book. Who wants to read a book by someone whos just a shittier version of Sienkivicz when the original was already doing it??

I didnt even know the series continued after he left, I thought it was just cancelled.

Chris,

The Helfer/Baker Shadow was just one of the 52 series that was covered in the Revolution SF feature Uncanny Un-Collectables: Missing Comic Book Trades.

http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=5020

(And I agree, it should be collected, though it never will. DC lost the rights to the Shadow.)

Wow! Baker was able to do good work without tracing/frankenshopping Google images and poorly executed Poser models? What a shock! Without a tecnological crutch, a artist can still create art! WHAT A CONCEPT! Who’s next a Greg Land or Mike Mayhew page that doesn’t have lightbox burns on it????

Been saying this for years, wrote about it once and people all seemed to be in agreement. Not sure why it’s never been collected. Thank you for writing this, maybe one day someone WILL collect it.

If I recall correctly…
In an interview with Dan Didio, talking about the First Wave project, he mentioned that DC was trying to get the rights back from Conde Nast to use The Shadow in the series. For whatever reason, the talks fell through and they had to continue with the project using Doc Savage as the main star (besides DC’s own Batman). There was a glimmer of hope, however, when Mr. Didio said that they hadn’t given up trying.
So…there still may be hope that The Shadow will appear in a DC book again.

Glauber Lopes da Nóbrega

October 16, 2010 at 12:21 pm

This Shadow version has always been one of my favorites, together with O’Neil and Cowan’s Question. Both series were published in Batman’s comic here in Brazil. Shadow ceased publication in here with issue 13 (Shadow’s death) and I could only get the whole story when I bought the whole series (2 annuals included) through e-bay 3 years ago.
It is a great series and it has really aged well. It is hysterically funny and ahead of its time.

HEAR! HEAR! I also add my voice to those that wish this story line was collected and FINISHED. I always use these issues to show people the very marked difference between camp and black humor!

What a great run this was!

yes, a thousand times yes! I will always have a soft spot for this series. I was just getting back into comics at that time after a couple years away, and this was always the one that I couldn’t wait for—-goofy, crazy, eerie, violent, bizarre and hilarious, there really was nothing like it at the time, and really not much like it now either. It was a case of the creative team (the letters and colors were also really integral to the design/storytelling) functioning as a well oiled machine. Maybe they themselves weren’t real fans of the character, but man, I was a fan of their version of the character, and they produced a damn lost classic.

I would rather see the 70s run by DC of The Shadow collected.

As much as I tried, I just never cared for this later version of the character. It’s cancellation was actually a mercy killing.

The Helfer issues of the Shadow are some of my favourite stories of all time, they rate so highly and it’s criminal that so few people even know about them. They are so unlikely to be collected but they should be read by anyone who considers themselves even half-way literate in the ways of comics.

I remember Kyle Baker’s work on Dick Tracy True Hearts and Tommy Guns. I had the collection at my father’s and it was the only comic I had to read while I was there on the weekends. I remember reading that thing five or six times in a row then doing it again two weekends later. The art was awesome except for the Warren Beatty face.

Point being I loved that book mainly because of the atmosphere provided by the art. Baker’s style seems very similar on this so I’ll definitely be checking this out.

An excellent example of the kind of wonderful crazyness you can get away with under the radar. High time this was given the respect it deserves, exposure to a new audience (if you can’t wait for legal wrangles to resolve themselves, the back issues are usually pretty cheap if you can find em)

This art rocks!!! Thanks for doing an article on a series I had heard of but had never check out.

I collected the entire series. This was at a time in my life when i was speculating and not really reading and enjoying them. But……..for some reason i remember really enjoying issue #7.

As a true-blue Shadow fan, I absolutely despised what Helfer and Baker did with the character and considered the series’ cancellation good riddance to bad rubbish. I’m willing to entertain updated/re-imagined versions of classic pulp characters so long as they’re basically true to the spirit of the original (Chaykin’s Shadow and Tim Truman’s Spider strike me as good examples). And Helfer’s first six issues with Bill Sienkiewicz weren’t bad. But after that…well…just a tragic misuse of the character. If Conde Nast didn’t pull the plug as was rumored, they should have. I can’t recall a comics series I’ve ever disliked as much as the Helfer/Baker Shadow.

Thank you so much for writing this! This is by far the most underrated series I can think of. I wasn’t a Shadow fan when I picked up (almost) all the back issues (just a Baker fan), but I can’t think of a series that really blew me away like this one. Very funny, well drawn, well plotted AND scripted and possibly the best paced series I know of, every arc had lots going on and it was all perfectly set. I really thought, based all the bad stuff I heard about this series from Shadow fans, that I was the only one who truly loved this!

Doff means to take off or in case of a hat tip. Don means to put on or wear.

Tom Fitzpatrick

October 16, 2010 at 9:20 pm

I enjoyed both version of The Shadow by Chaykin, and then the Helfer/Baker series.

I had hoped that DC comics would do another mini-series to tie-up the series after it was ended.

I will only pick up The Shadow if it were done by either/both Chaykin and the Helfer/Baker, if DC Comics were to bring this series back.

Didn’t Didio or Azzarello or someone say they tried to get the Shadow for the Firstwave line? Obviously they failed, and that doesn’t bode well for any reprint of these books. On the flip side, I doubt Conde Nast thinks of the Shadow as their “potential cash cow” any longer. It’s just a small revenue stream, and that kind of thinking might allow this stuff to be reprinted….

For my part, I loved the Chaykin mini, bought the new series for Sienkiewicz, and didn’t much like the Helfer/Baker issues, but for some reason (OCDCBG, I suppose) I continued to buy them. I rediscovered the whole lot a few years ago, was surprised to find that The Kyle Baker had done them (even though I read Cowboy Wally and Why I Hate Saturn back in the day), and had an enjoyable afternoon re-reading them (or maybe reading some of them for the first time). I even looked into finding the ending, or lack thereof. The stories are slight, if a bit confusing, but the art was pretty good, and it was fun. It is a surprise that such a “serious” character was allowed to become, well, silly, and maybe it was best that the series ended on such an absurd note!

This run of The Shadow was pretty genius. It was one of the favorite series for me and a buddy of mine that worked in a comic store at the time. I think the Helfer/Sienkiewicz/Baker run is even beter than the Chaykin mini-series, which seemed to tie up way too quick, although it wasn’t bad.

DC was doing some good stuff during this time and actually trying some different things. Wasteland by Ostrander and Del Close was another unique series along with some of the odd kinda 2000AD stuff they tried like Electric Warrior by Doug Moench and Jim Baikie, Slash Marud with Moench & Paul Gulacy, the totally bonkers and unfinished miniseries Sonic Disruptors Mike Baron.

DC was making some great super hero comics at the time too and not all of these titles worked, but they are better than you might expect and I give them some credit for trying to break out and do some different things.

Ben Cartwright's horse

October 16, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Why hasn’t DC (or any other major publisher) done a hardcover collection of the original Shadow comics from the 1940’s?

INHO, the Shadow only works in the 1930’s, just as Jonah Hex only works in the old west — why do we have to keep learning these lessons over and over again?

Yes, bring back the “ORIGINAL” Shadow with quality writing & art and I’ll be there.

The Helfer/Baker Shadow issues are among my most treasured comics ever. Baker was on fire in the late 80’s between this, Cowboy Wally, and Why I Hate Saturn.

I’m intrigued that, for something that was selling so poorly by the end of its run, that so many seem to have read it. Even more interesting is the it is truly a love it or hate it thing. I worked in a comic shop when this was coming out, and recall the book going from something we got 25 floor copies of to just 2 or 3 of the last issue, not counting the ones for holds customers.

The crazier it got, the more I liked it. I think it took me two full years before I totally gave up hope on seeing the promised conclusion.

One of the most underrated series of the 80’s and maybe ever. I have the originals but would love a TPB collection.

This was a delightfully off-center, humorous take on a somewhat stodgy character. The more amusing aspect of the whole situation is that Helfer possessed a rather unpleasant personality. I ran into him long ago at a Chicago Comicon and simply asked about the status of the (then-canceled) book. He gazed at me as if he was ready to punch me out for asking. I then asked if he could sign one of the issues I had brought along and became even more upset when he discovered neither of us had a pen.

I suspect that nowadays the large publishers are more careful deciding which creative types present themselves to the public on behalf of the company.

Helfer/Baker also did an amazing 2-issue prestige format Justice Inc. miniseries around this time. It’s just as bizarre and entertaining as their Shadow run and well worth reading for anybody who enjoyed the Shadow

Loved this series, especially the Baker issues. It was a hoot. The buildings in whatever mystical Eastern city they return the Shadow’s now headless body to are all big art deco jukeboxes.

Your description makes it sound as if Chaykin did The Shadow “right” while Helfer made him nasty and unlikeable. I own a copy of the Blood and Judgment trade, and lemme tell you buster, Chaykin’s Shadow is one of the more unlikeable bastard protagonists I can ever recall reading. Aside from the lack of overt sexuality and the cyborg stuff, Helfer’s run doesn’t sound that different from Chaykin’s.

This was one of the most hysterically entertaining runs of comics ever. I remember being really pissed that the promised conclusion was never released.

I loved this series. Unfortunately a couple years ago I had to raise some cash by Ebaying off a lot of comics, and my full run ended up having to go. Since then I’ve picked up stray issues here and there, but have not been able to put back together a full collection. If anyone has duplicate copies they’d be willing to trade, I’d be interested. You can email me your have/want lists to kurt@kurtparsons.com. Thanks!

Having read more of the original Shadow stories, I tend to dislike what Chaykin did. Not that they’re bad comics, just bad Shadow comics. With that said, I love the Helfer/ Baker run; it’s utterly insane and one of the great examples of taking lemons and making lemonade.

The Shadow rights are interesting in the late 80s; Marvel released Hitler’s Astrologer at the same time this was running at DC. I guess they had non-exclusive rights to the character.

For my part, I found this run virtually unreadable, while the Shadow Strikes was excellent. A few others have pointed this out, but based on the description of this title in the article, I wouldn’t suspect the author was describing a book that he liked. I was thinking I should give it another read through, based on the appreciation here, but it’s pretty much been recounted as I remember it, and just clearly isn’t an interpretation of the Shadow I’m interested in.

Leo (@shikida)

August 3, 2011 at 9:40 pm

one of my favorites. thanks for the excellent post

This was an outstanding series. I was disappointed after reading the last issue that the series was not concluded.
I hope Dynamite Entertainment , who currently hold the license, dusts this one off and decides to commission and then publish the conclusion of this fine series.

There are plans for Dynamite to reprint Chaykin’s four issue series, perhaps if that proves successful, they may decide to continue their program. I would buy a reprint of the first 6 issues as this would be an opportunity to recolor the series.

As for the Shadow Strikes, it was a good series so far as both Eduardo Barreto and Gerard Jones were working on it, but the art dipped badly in quality under Rod Wigham’s tenure and the last few issues were pretty much fill in quality. It would also have been much better to steer away from an origin story, which they tried to do with the last two issues.

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