Since this column began, there’s been one series I’ve been itching to share. I’ve mentioned it before here and there, but I think I’ve finally found the right context to present it in. In 1987, writer Andrew Helfer teamed up with artist Bill Sienkiewicz (and later Kyle Baker) to continue Howard Chaykin’s version of The Shadow for DC Comics. Helfer’s take was bizarre, ambitious, tightly woven and wickedly funny. It was a dark humour, pulpy post-modern masterpiece that was criminally underappreciated in its time and quickly cancelled in 1989. These days you can find it in the bargain bin for super cheap. Buy it.
The Shadow was a pitch-black comedy that turned a rather popular, well established pulp hero on his ear, much to his fans’ dismay. Years later it’s considered a classic. For those that aren’t getting the whole picture yet, let’s look at some examples you’re probably familiar with.
In 1996, Jim Carrey was on top of the world. For my young, immature brain, he was the king of comedy and as far as I was concerned, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was the funniest thing in the world (The Simpsons notwithstanding). I’m sure plenty of folks agreed with me because Carrey would continue to flail his arms uncontrollably in The Mask, Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls and Dumb and Dumber. Granted, some of his films age better than others (and in this column, I’ve officially referenced Dumb and Dumber more often than Batman) but one movie was set to destroy his career for good. The Cable Guy might be my favourite Jim Carrey movie to date.
If you saw The Cable Guy when it first came to theatres in 1996, chances are you hated it. Most people did, anyways. Directed by Ben Stiller and starring Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller’s antithesis, The Cable Guy paid Jim Carrey a cool $20 million for his role. Unfortunately, audiences weren’t ready for the dark, twisted yet uproariously hilarious villain Carrey would portray. Something about The Cable Guy simply did not click.
The movie followed Broderick’s shy, forgiving-to-a-fault everyman as he attempted to woo the girl of his dreams. Enter Carrey as the cable installing loner who got in the way at every given chance. Highlights include an outing to Medieval Times that goes terribly awry, the karaoke night to end all karaoke nights, playing community basketball with Jack Black and a chilling look into a generation raised on television. Carrey’s character is both pathetic and the stuff of nightmares. Social boundaries are nonexistent. What could have been another outlet for Carrey’s flailing (and flail he does) proves to be a much smarter, albeit disturbing comedy. Luckily the film’s failure didn’t spell the end for Jim Carrey, as he would go on to star in equal parts crap (Fun with Dick and Jane; Yes Man) and gold (Man on the Moon; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
Hopefully you’ve been able to catch The Cable Guy in recent years, because it’s aged incredibly well and raised quite the fan base. Who would have thought taking an incredibly popular actor and throwing him into a risky dark comedy that threw audience expectation out the door would at first be a complete failure, then a cult classic? This formula sounds familiar.
Somewhere down the road I hope audiences will wake up to another black comedy classic that also happened to fall on its face upon release— Observe and Report. Funny story, actually:
In 2009, Seth Rogen was something akin to his generation’s Jim Carrey. After starring in 2007’s Knocked Up, he became a household name. He followed that up by co-writing Superbad, getting voice work in Horton Hears a Who (coincidentally with Carrey) and Kung-Fu Panda, starring in Pineapple Express and even making his way into the Kevin Smith realm with Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Where Carrey became the expected cartoon clown, Rogen could only be seen as the lovable slacker/stoner.
Observe and Report was not what audiences were expecting. Rogen played a mall cop (and this was released around the same time as Paul Blart, only making it funnier) who took his job very, very seriously. He was a little overweight, had gross delusions of grandeur and awful taste in women, but wasn’t exactly incompetent. When a flasher threatened the safety of his mall and the cops thought they could handle the case alone, Rogen’s mall cop went off the deep end. To most, this was the movie’s biggest fault. Honestly, I think this is where things got really interesting.
Where audiences were expecting a one-dimensional joke machine, Rogen gave them a complex character. His mall cop was bipolar, but about halfway through he decided to go off his medication. Trying out for the police academy, he excelled physically and proved more than able to handle himself in a fight. At first glance he’s a pathetic, working class schmuck. As the film developed he became a complex, dangerous yet sympathetic anti-hero. An examination of mental illness, dreams unachieved, misguided desires and responsibility, Observe and Report also managed to be a very funny, often shocking dark comedy. I don’t think it has found its audience yet, but when it does, you can bet it will be the next Cable Guy. Or the next Shadow.
I’ve discussed some movies that followed (or hopefully will follow) a path similar to Helfer’s Shadow, but I’ve yet to go into real detail about this series I love so dearly. I guess it’s about that time.
First, the context: This Shadow series followed Howard Chaykin’s revamp mini of the same name. Where the classic Shadow mythos put our stalker of crime in the pulp area, Chaykin envisioned him in modern times. Again, emphasis was placed on his recruitment of agents, his past travels in East Asia and his minor psychic powers, but where the traditional Shadow would wield pistols in the darkness, Chaykin’s version carried uzis and the occasional rocket launcher. I won’t go into too much Shadow history, but do some research and you’ll find plenty to enjoy. Chaykin’s Shadow was successful with the “dark, drastic reimagining” crowd, but others (including the character’s rights owners) found it off-putting.
Next, the art: the first six issues of Helfer’s The Shadow were illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz during his more experimental phase. Lines were scratchy, panels were filled to the brim and everything was just abstractly awesome. It wasn’t Sienkiewicz’s most tightly designed package, but it looked great nonetheless. Following that we got one issue from Marshall Rogers.
I don’t need to tell you it was equally amazing, albeit in a completely different style. The remaining issues would be drawn by my personal favourite—Kyle Baker. This alone is why I picked up the series in the first place. Baker’s cartooning is just terrific without his signature “I must change my style every 5 minutes.” If you’ve ever read The Cowboy Wally Show you know what to expect here. Baker’s art has always had its highs and lows, but in The Shadow the quality was consistent. I believe Joe Orlando also illustrated an annual, though it pains me to inform you it was entirely forgettable.
Despite a cast of art all-stars, the real treat here is the writing. At first, Helfer’s roster of characters seems overwhelming. Agents are introduced and given varied, pitch-perfect characterizations, but the sheer amount of information that is poured into each issue relies on the sharp eye of the reader. One of my favourite parts about this Shadow series is Helfer’s fearlessness when it came to introducing characters. The Shadow himself is brilliantly cast as a questionable, mysterious psychopath with great dialogue and always an unexpected action ahead of him. His Asian-born sons were 1980s obsessed and hilarious. His agents were many and just when you thought you had a handle on the cast, Helfer would throw in a new scene stealer. A Rastafarian cab driver, overweight female wrestler and private eye gumshoe all unexpectedly joined as the series progressed and if you thought a character would be used for a single purpose, you were quickly mistaken. I often go back and reread The Shadow simply to experience its unparalleled characters again and again.
The plot was thick as a brick too! In one 6 issue story arc Helfer did more than we can expect in a year’s worth of Avengers. Twists and turns were just the beginning. Helfer used his great cast to prove that anything could happen. Threats came, went and came again. Clues in early issues pointed to mysteries solved later. Just to show how unconventional they could get, Helfer ended the series by cutting off The Shadow’s head and placing it on a robot’s body. The entire series maintained a steady level of dark humour, but that move would attest to some serious notoriety.
If you have yet to enjoy The Shadow from 1987, make it your business to do so. You won’t find it collected anywhere (that I know of), but the back issues should be reasonably priced and easy to obtain. If you haven’t seen The Cable Guy in a while, trust me; it’s worth watching again. If you’ve never seen Observe and Report or simply didn’t care for it the first time, throw your preconceptions aside and take a chance. These grossly underrated pitch-black comedies weren’t appreciated in their day—let’s take the time and appreciate them now.