Continuing our look at Valiant Comics of the 1990s (two weeks ago we looked at Bloodshot), today we look at another classic Valiant title: Shadowman.
Shadowman is a strange comic, and not in the way that the creators wanted it to be. The series was created as the story of a jazz musician named Jack Boniface. Jack lives in New Orleans, where all kinds of mystical strangeness is afoot. One day he wanders out of a bar, where he has hooked up with a beautiful woman who had come to watch him play his saxophone many times in the previous few days. As the couple reach her apartment and do what young and attractive people tend to do, the woman reveals her true self to Jack: no, she doesn’t become a demon in bed; instead she becomes a demon in real life. This woman is some sort of evil, bizarre succubus.
Jack flees the apartment, barely with his life intact, and soon finds himself wandering the streets of The Big Easy, where he picks up a discarded Mardi Gras mask, puts it on, and is suddenly in contact with the spirit world. But is it really the spirit world or just a random delusion from a man who spends too much time in clubs and takes too much drugs? We soon get a bit of an answer to that question, as Jack is attacked by a strangely-dressed man with a sharp knife who wants to kill Jack for reasons that are left completely unstated.
This first issue, written by Steve Englehart and Jim Shooter and illustrated by David Lapham, has a delightfully grungy, street-level view of the Valiant Universe. Jack seems like a real person – flawed, selfish, and more obsessed with his music than the people around him – and his costume, such as it is, is just a set of black clothes that any self-respecting musician could wear without the slightest bit of embarrassment. Our protagonist doesn’t win his battle as much as he simply survives it, and the end of the story leaves readers uncertain about what will happen next. Jack could go any way, really – hero, villain or something definitively in between the two – and that’s a lot of the intrigue that leads a reader to read on to the next chapter.
And then immediately things start to fall apart for this seres, Englehart left Shadowman after creating the character because (according to a note on Englehart’s website), “Jim couldn’t stand the deviation from his style. He apologized profusely and sincerely, even telling me to tell people he’d been unable to follow through – but he just couldn’t be happy with a voice different from his own.” That leads to an immediate feeling of uncertainty, as the series immediately starts flipping between writers from issue to issue.
Six different writers are listed in the next six issues (often listed in pairs or trios) and Shadowman careens between approaches in that time frame that move the character further and further away from Englehart’s original presentation of the character. Shadowman #2 sees Jack start to go out night to seek out trouble—though in jeans and a yellow top, once again showing him as a bit of a regular man who dons a mask to seek out trouble. In the same issue, his housekeeper, Nettie, reveals herself as kind of mystical savant and tells Jack about his birthright as the Shadowman.
This all may have been part of Englehart’s longterm plan – if there’s one phrase that would sum up the longtime writer’s philosophy in comics, it would be “the rising and advancing of the spirit” – but here that quick revelation feels too abrupt to me, too much like the writer being anxious to move the story forward, nevermind the idea of moving the story ahead at its own pace. By the end of the issue, when Jack fights an ax murderer in the bayou swamps, Jack has put on a spandex costume that Nettie has made, and it’s clear that Jack has begun to think of himself as a hero of sorts.
Shadowman #3 brings one of the darkest stories ever published in comics, a horrific tale of pederasty and child murder that chills the spine to merely consider. For all its super-hero elements, Shadowman could be confrontational and deeply terrible; this issue shows one way that the street-level crime in the story could have gone, presaging in a way media like Law and Order: SVU. Again the ending is slightly vague and doesn’t follow what we want it to do –which is a very powerful way to keep readers involved.
And then came the crossover epic.
Here’s where things get complicated and a little bit strange. Small upstart publisher Valiant Comics really started to make their mark on the comics field with their first mega-crossover, Unity. We’ll undoubtedly talk about Unity more as this series goes on, but for now suffice it to say that this storyline brought together all of Valiant’s then-starring heroes in a giant action epic that crossed over between all their titles. Cosmic heroes like Solar, Man of the Atom met super-heroes like the Harbingers in a far future in which the entire galaxy is at risk. And of course Jack was right in the middle of it all.
The problem is that Jack truly shouldn’t be in the middle of all that cosmic action. He’s an ordinary guy –albeit one who has mysterious mystical powers – and he feels completely out of place in this epic story. There’s a sequence at the end of Shadowman #4 in which Jack is at the center of a cosmic space-beam firing battle that probably reads really well in context but which reads completely strangely in a grounded series of comics like these.
The saving grace of this oddball epic is that Jack meets the woman of his dreams in the far future, in the form of Eeya; as writers Bob Layton and Jim Shooter have Jack think, “Never saw a woman walk like her before. Nice pair… strong eyes…” Now isn’t that a romantic turn of phrase? But love emerges from Jack’s drooling about of Eeya’s breasts, and when he returns to his 20th century world, the pathos of Jack missing his true love, probably forever, is a moving counterpoint to a completely ridiculous hillbilly story (with art by the great Steve Ditko, unfortunately on the decline phase of his career).
Thus the first six chapters of the Valiant Masters Shadowman volume are all over the place, literally. Jack is in swamps and he’s in the future. He’s a hero and he’s a lover and he’s all kinds of inconsistent. Finally the last two chapters of this collection point the direction that the series will go for the rest of its run. Bob Hall takes over as writer (though he has different artists on each issue – issue eight has the twelfth different artist in eight issues) and Shadowman finally starts getting into motion. The mythology builds, new roots are being put down, and at last there’s a sense that Jack is someone whose adventures we want to follow.
If there ever is a volume two of the Valiant Masters of Shadowman, it will be a real classic. But unfortunately this volume is a mess. It’s sloppy and inconsistent but has a few moments of shining, glorious delight amidst the inconsistencies. Valiant put out some wonderful comics during its heyday, and even these mediocre books show why that’s true.