Steve Ditko's Shade the Changing Man: The Ultimate Ditko OutsiderA column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Jason Sacks
Steve Ditko is famous for his characters who are outsiders in the worlds in which they live. Peter Parker was shunned by many of his high school classmates. Doctor Strange literally saved the Earth completely without the knowledge of humans. The Creeper and the Question were morally upright crusaders who never cared about being ostracized by society, and Mr. A was an even more extreme version of the Question.
But perhaps Ditko's most intriguing outsider is Rac Shade, the Changing Man of Ditko's short-lived 1970s series, which was collected in 2012 in The Steve Ditko Omnibus Volume One.
Rac Shade was a true outsider. He was a man on the run from authorities in two different worlds, trying desperately to clear himself of charges of treason while also trying desperately to defeat the evil-doers of his native dimension. The citizens of Earth would never recognize Shade's heroism – heck, they couldn't even appreciate the fact that Earth had a parallel dimensional counterpart. And the people of Meta thought of Shade as perhaps their most evil and notorious criminal, a man whose mere presence was a threat to his own home dimension.
Shade's situation was perhaps best summed up in the cover of issue two. He is under attack by three different characters. "Die, Shade, my enemy!" shouts the monstrous green and yellow character. "Die, Shade, my friend," shouts the humanoid man. "Die, Shade, my lover" shouts the blonde woman. All hands were against him, whether human or inhuman, whether an old friend or an old lover. Rac Shade was a man without allies, an outsider striving desperately to recapture his good name.
And yet, like all Ditko heroes, Shade fought with superhuman intensity to achieve his goals. No matter how daunting the obstacles, no matter how strong the barriers against him, a Ditko hero will always fight till his dying breath in order to prove the correctness of his struggle. Unlike most Ditko heroes, who often seem to prefer fighting as lone wolves, Shade is slowly able to enlist allies in his struggle. Even his ex-girlfriend, Mellu Loron, who spends early issues trying to kill Shade, later comes to believe his story and tries to help her lover.
Rac Shade is a fugitive on the run. As he describes in issue #2, page 3, "I was Meta's top security agent – until I was framed! But a freak accident catapulted me out of Meta's maximum security prison – and into the Zero Zone! I managed to break through the zonal barrier to my secret Earth apartment, where I recovered my unauthorized M-vest! My plan was to locate Kempo, the man who helped frame me!" Shade is therefore both an outsider in both the strange society of Meta in which he grew up and on our planet Earth.
He is a man in constant motion, fighting some of the most bizarre villains ever to populate the pages of a comic book. There is the Form, a disembodied gaseous woman in issue two, and the arrogant, invisible Cloak in issue seven. Issue six brings the flaming Khaos and the bizarre Dr. Z.Z., who has a giant sunburst on his face. And, most significantly, there is the mob leader the Supreme Decider, or SuDe, whose struggles against Shade take up much of the first five issues of this series.
SuDe ranks highly in the annals of bizarre Ditko villains. The villain looks like a giant, disembodied head with enormous teeth and long prehensile hands. It's almost impossible for readers to recognize at first that there is a person inside SuDe's giant head, which triggers a very disconcerting effect in the reader's mind. We are told that SuDe is short for the Supreme Decider, but what kind of Decider takes on such a bizarre shape? What kind of insane world is Meta when villains can look so strange?
It's both reassuring and frustrating as a reader to discover that SuDe actually has a person inside, and in fact is a person with whom readers are quite familiar (and yeah, I'm avoiding spoilers for a comic that came out 30 years ago.). The revelation is reassuring because it gives Meta a bit more of a feeling of reality. But it's frustrating because such a strange element would simply add to the bizarre verisimilitude of the dimension of Meta.
Meta is perhaps the most astonishingly odd world Ditko ever created. It resembles the sorts of completely odd otherdimensional worlds through which Doctor Strange pursued Baron Mordo. Cities sit perched atop cliffs, overflowing the edges as if they might tumble off at any time. There is an odd sort of natural beauty on the planet. There are things that look like trees and other things that look like water, but they are colored strangely and readers are given very few contextual clues about what those shapes represent. There are things that vaguely look like turtles but are apparently cars, hovercrafts that are reminiscent of lizards, and dimensional gateways that look organic. There's even a nightly eclipse that lasts fifteen minutes each day. The effect of all of this is world-building by way of George Herriman's Krazy Kat.
And inside that world, things seem sketchy as well. We're told there's a President of Meta, as well as a Senate, but readers never get a real sense of what the society is like. Even when Ditko goes to great lengths to explain the world of Meta in issue 8, his explanation raises more questions than it answers. "You know, of course, about our universe! About the Earth-zone and the meta-zone! And about the impenetrable barrier that encircles the meta-zone! A number of the planets in our zone are unfit for life! They are all surrounded by force barrier of varying strengths and intensities!" and on and on, answering some questions while raising still more.
Our hero Shade is a real man of that dimension, a pure crusader for truth and justice who will do anything to recover his name while also fighting evil forces that come from his native dimension. As a former insider of the political structure, he understands the forces of evil and how they interact with the forces of other dimensions. We also see that he's the only Metan who's ever passed through the horrifying Area of Madness without going insane. Again, like so many Ditko heroes, Shade has an incredible force of will.
In contrast with the dimension of Meta, our world feels somehow unreal and at the same time super-real. It's kind of upsetting to imagine the strange events that Shade experiences happening outside our window, but invisible to us, and it kind of upsets one's view of reality. A group of Metans have set up shop in a building that strongly resembles Doctor Strange's Sanctum Sanctorium. From that building they run the O.R.C., the Occult Research Center, a group with the paradoxical goals of making the dimension of Meta seem more unrealistic by trying to make it seem real. This is very clever plotting by Ditko, and speaks to the richness of this comic.
At the same time, however, it speaks to the daunting, off-putting complexity of this singular series. It's a common fault among fantasy authors that they often are in such a rush to show off their complex worlds that they forget to make their worlds relatable. That's probably the biggest flaw in Shade the Changing Man: it's simply too abstract for users to relate to. The world that Ditko creates is amazingly dense and complicated, with interesting rules and insights, but there is little for readers to grasp onto in order to relate to the world. Events pass by at a breakneck speed, which makes it difficult for readers to feel empathy for Rac Shade, his friends and enemies. Readers have no choice but to admire Shade, but we're also left desperate for a moment's pause to assess his real heroism.
One theme in Shade is dislocation - dislocation from family, friends, familiar surroundings, a prescribed role. Even the villains are extremely different from the villains that readers commonly find in heroic fiction, which causes dislocation in the reader's mind. Ultimately this theme produces a sort of neurotic uneasiness after reading this comic. The world that Ditko creates is so dramatically different from what we might be used to, so completely dislocated from normality, that it can upset one's view of reality.
Ultimately, after reading the nine issue run of Shade the Changing Man, the reader can feel like the real outsider. Rac Shade's worlds are intriguing and complex, but ultimately almost impossible to reconcile with a reader's daily life. It's not a bad comic by any means. Shade has some of the most beautiful Ditko art of his entire career, and the ambitious plot is often thrilling and always intriguing.
But ultimately this comic shares the same flaws as most of Ditko's solo work: it's simply too insular. We can see Ditko's passion on every page, but he just isn’t able to share that passion with readers.