When Words Collide: Ennis' "Shadow" Script Review

Mon, February 20th, 2012 at 12:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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Alex Ross and John Cassaday provide two of the covers for Ennis' first "Shadow" issue

Though the comic book new cycle this winter has largely been dominated by the post-Watchmen-prequel-announcement hysteria and the dominoes of convention-sketching paranoia falling from the verdict in the Gary Friedrich case, there was a time -- a handful of weeks ago -- when comics pundits everywhere poked their heads up to say, "Wait, Garth Ennis is writing that new 'Shadow' series for Dynamite??? Huh!"

That was the big news for about a day, until matters of ethics and morality and Alan Moore and Ghost Rider took over the conversation, but if you recall those few hours back in mid-January when you pondered what a Garth Ennis-penned "Shadow" comic book might be like, you probably wondered which Garth Ennis would show up.

Would we get the Ennis of "Preacher" or "The Boys," with grotesque humor and vicious satire?

Would we get the Ennis of "War Stories" and "Battlefields," with a reverence for the past presented with uncompromising harshness?

Would we get the Ennis of "The Punisher"? And, for that matter, which one? The exaggeratedly absurd comedy of the Marvel Knights version or the dark, violent tragedy of the MAX incarnation?

The answer is: in the end, those are all false dichotomies, and all of those comics are aspects of the same writer, with different doses of absurdity or reality depending on the scenario. It's more of a sliding scale than an either/or. "Preacher" had its moments of stark reality to complement its over-the-top ridiculousness, and "Punisher MAX" had Barracuda to bring a sense of the preposterousness to what might have fallen into hyper-serious crime fiction. Ennis shifts between modes -- it's just that some series live closer to one end of the spectrum than the other.

A cover from the Shadow's pulp days

I've read the script for issue #1 of "The Shadow," and it's definitely Garth Ennis doing his best Garth Ennis impression. And though it tends toward Ennis' "War Stories" in this opening installment, there's still plenty of exaggerated moments in here. This is a character who uses psychic powers and mows down criminals with his .45 automatics. He may lend himself to reverence because he's an 80-year-old intellectual property, but he's a pulp antihero designed, from the beginning, to appeal to the basest human instincts. He's an angel of vengeance with a small army on his side.

I'm not going to go into the details of the Shadow's past, as a character and concept, because I'm going to presume that you all know the basics, or you can look it up just as easily as I can. But from what Garth Ennis has said in interviews, he first encountered the character at the same time I did: with the Howard Chaykin miniseries from DC in the mid-1980s. The collected edition of that Chaykin version of the Shadow is due for a rerelease from Dynamite to coincide with Ennis' new series, but the Chaykin Shadow comic has almost nothing in common with Ennis' Dynamite ongoing.

Chaykin sets his "Shadow" in the modern day, and that changes everything. He provides a sci-fi satire in the pages of his version, with flying cars and the super-science of Shambala and clones and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Ennis' version of "The Shadow" takes place on the brink of World War II, and it's less of a sci-fi satire than Old Testament noir. It's divine vengeance (minus the religious component) with darkness and fedoras and probable conspiracies and war crimes and a protagonist who cackles with guns blazing.

If Ennis took anything from the Chaykin influence, he took the lack of sentimentality in the story. The Shadow, and his alter ego Lamont Cranston, are no audience identification characters. They act as narrators, as guides, as leading figures, but they are both horrible in their own ways, even if what they do is for the general good.

I've never read any of the Walter Gibson pulps, so I'm completely unfamiliar with the classic prose stories of the character, but I do know that those Gibson "Shadow" tales spawned from the Shadow's origins as a mysterious radio host character. He was the old-timey radio version of the Crypt-Keeper, framing the narrative, until he became popular enough to warrant his own feature. Yet even in "The Shadow" from the late-1930s -- the RKO radio version -- with the young Orson Welles' unmistakable voice in the Shadow/Cranston role, the title character doesn't actually do a whole lot.

In those old radio shows, we tend to get 20 minutes of melodrama about some bad things happening and some mysterious circumstances, and five minutes of Lamont Cranston, and two minutes of the Shadow showing up to terrorize the evil-doers. They tend to be structured like "Perry Mason" or "Matlock" episodes, but the courtroom scenes are replaced by back-alley confrontations or sinister office showdowns.

Orson Welles performs for his 1938 Shadow radio serial

Action hero hijinx surely don't play very well on the radio, but conversations and declarations do, and so that's what we get from the RKO Shadow. And that's what Ennis seems to tap into here. In issue #1, his shadow doesn't spend page after page running after crooks and gunning them down. Instead, he shows up, seemingly out of nowhere (or in flashback) with .45s in hand, maniacal laughter and with narration that reads straight from the radio show. Ennis' Shadow is the RKO version come to the page, with a bit less melodramatic dialogue and a bit more elliptical mystery.

And in his Lamont Cranston persona, he's equally enigmatic. His relationship to his operatives -- for one of the most important features of the Shadow is that he has operatives in every walk of life, ready to do his bidding -- is anything but paternal. He's a puppet master, and he knows more than he reveals to his minions, or to the reader.

Ultimately, Garth Ennis' first issue for this new version of "The Shadow" presents a razor-sharp variation on what has come before, but with the possibilities for greater revelations to come. There are deeper mysteries implied in this opening issue, and the Shadow plays people, and the world around him, like a chess match, and Ennis is still setting up the pieces by the end of "The Shadow" #1.

But we haven't even had a Shadow comic in almost a generation. We're due for one. And this one from Dynamite, promising suitably-noirish art from Aaron Campbell to accompany the Ennis script, looks to be one worth reading.

If you're looking for your cackling anti-hero crime/espionage angel of vengeance thrillers, 
"The Shadow" is the right place.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, dynamite entertainment, the shadow, garth ennis, howard chaykin

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