First, the bad news: if you haven't been reading "The Shade" up until now, jumping on board for issue #9 of 12 might leave you a little lost. Here's the good news, though: "The Shade" #9 is such a beautiful comic that if you bought it for just the visuals I think you'd still be happy.
Frazer Irving is the second to last artist for "The Shade" and its 12-issue run, tackling issues #9-11. (Gene Ha will wrap up the art duties for "The Shade" #12.) Like the four artists to come before him, Irving's art is outstanding with a presentation that you can stare at for hours. Look, for example, at page 11. On its surface it's nothing more than a transition page; Lord Dudley Caldecott arrives at his destination (a travel book store) and enters a private elevator that heads down. What we get, though, is just beautiful.
Looking at the backgrounds of that page, Irving has carefully chosen a muted color palette for the page. Limiting the colors to just a few hues (and Irving isn't afraid to expand that number elsewhere, so this is clearly a conscious decision) gives London a slightly drab, ordinary feel to it. In doing so, Irving is creating a contrast to what came before (the bright oranges and reds of Silverfin and the Shade), as well as the orange glow of the pages that follow. As the colors brighten, the world becomes more robust and interesting, more than just the mundane streets. The panels themselves also look great; Irving knows when to keep background figures as just that, carefully turning them into just silhouettes, or when they should get slightly more detail. The interior of the store looks excellent as well, and by the time we enter the elevator shaft we have a strong feel for what this world looks like. Irving also stages something as simple as an elevator ride well; by giving us a bird's eye view, we get the immediate impression of the elevator going down (rather than up), and the shadowy figure of the Shade swirling around the elevator itself is marvelous. And as for the final panel, with Dudley leaving the elevator, it's a portrait of a character that is more well-realized than we often get in entire comics. It makes him look imposing and dangerous, and it's perfect for what's next to follow.
The thing is, the entire book looks this good. When Irving draws an opening two-page spread of attacking Egyptian deities in ancient Egypt, it looks amazing; they come across as immensely powerful and mighty, even as hordes strike against them. Dudley and Dusty getting ready for the first ritual of the day also works well; not only because of the attention to the carpet and furnishing of their expensive home, but because of how at-ease Irving puts you right before the moment of truth. And as for the Shade himself, well, those black swirls of smoke are entrancing, actual living tendrils of darkness that uncoil across the page.
Writer James Robinson does a good job here too, but this far into the series it makes sense that he's less concerned with new readers. Still, he does his share of introducing people to what's going on, and while there isn't a huge information dump on the overall storyline, enough bits are provided to remind readers just what's happened up until this point. It's also refreshing that he's still got some plotting tricks up his sleeve this late in the game; it would be easy for "The Shade" to have slumped into predictability, but instead there's enough present to surprise and delight the reader.
"The Shade" has been a thoroughly enjoyable and high quality mini-series since its debut, and "The Shade" #9 continues that level of excellence. I'm looking forward to a collection of "The Shade" that can sit next to my "Starman Omnibus" volumes on my bookshelf (having it match would sure be nice, hint hint). "The Shade" is a series that you'll want to be able to sit down and read again and again.