While a popular member of the publisher’s stable, Shadowman to date has not enjoyed the sustained success of other Valiant characters like X-O Manowar and Bloodshot. After Justin Jordan left the title back in 2013, Shadowman has bounced around from forgettable miniseries to being simply forgotten. It’s been quite a fall from grace for a character that originally sustained a 40+ issue ongoing and had his own video game. But while Valiant didn’t publish a Shadowman comic for almost 5 years, writer Matt Kindt pushed the character forward with a covert run within the pages of Ninjak and The Rapture miniseries.
When Shadowman launched in 2013, the creative team of Justin Jordan and Patrick Zircher spent 10 issues establishing who Jack Boniface is and building up his world. And then Peter Milligan took over and squandered pretty much everything, leaving Jack as prisoner to the villainous Master Darque. It was a disappointment to readers, especially those that love Milligan’s other works (including Brittania at Valiant). However, Milligan’s disassemblage of Shadowman and the publisher’s apparent abandonment of the character left an opening for Matt Kindt to rebuild its mythology.
Kindt was already a veteran at the publisher having written Unity, Valiant’s answer to the Justice League and the Avengers, and the solo series for Ninjak, beginning in 2014. After a couple of arcs that lightly touched on the publisher’s supernatural leanings, Kindt’s 3rd Ninjak arc, “Operation: Deadside,” reintroduced readers to the Deadside and filled in Shadowman’s history since the conclusion of the Shadowman: End Times miniseries. The narrative of “Operation Deadside” is split between the core storyline and a backup that features a new character, Magpie, who is eventually revealed to be Jack Boniface.
Kindt placed a good amount of thought in having Jack assume the Magpie identity. The bird itself not only shares the black-and-white coloring of the Shadowman character, but the creature’s reputation in popular culture foreshadows the character’s actions and motivations. Although disproved by the scientific community, magpies are notorious for their thievery thanks to generations of tales in which their actions cause unexpected drama. Colloquially, a magpie may also refer to someone who collects or gathers things indiscriminately, sometimes at the behest of others. This is exactly who Magpie has become – he is a collector. He collects certain items because the villainous Master Darque has commanded it, and he collects others in order to free himself from Darque’s command.
Race plays a major role in the Magpie/Darque dynamic, as Jack Boniface is a black superhero and Darque is a white bad guy. This is actually one of the most inventive things Kindt did in picking up the threads of Milligan’s work, turning a low point for the character into a commentary on race relations. There’s a lot to unpack here that I’ll admit to be woefully unqualified to even broach, but I’ll do my best to at least address some of the more surface level details. For starters, the enchanted ropes that Darque uses to bind Jack (as Magpie) and force him to do his bidding parallels the bondage that has kept Aftrican Americans under oppression throughout the nation’s history – both literally and figuratively. Even as slavery ended in the 1860s, that did not stop cultural and institutional prejudices that sadly continue to this day. These injustices are so ingrained in American life, that in some parts young people of color simply accept this as normal. Even worse, some actually think that they deserve to be subject to racism because of their roots.
Despite being set up to fail, Jack is able to overcome and ultimately break the bonds that hold him. Yes, he does have help from Ninjak, but Jack does most of the heavy lifting in saving himself. While the idea of the black character succeeding because of a “white savior” is typically frowned upon, it can be forgiven as “Operation: Deadside” is a Ninjak story featuring Jack Boniface as a supporting character. Moreover, it highlights the fallacy of a core cultural belief in America – that anyone can succeed on their own if they work hard enough. In truth, anyone that succeeds had some form of help along the way. By accepting Ninjak’s help, Jack gets that extra boost that vaults him into success.
After “Operation: Deadside,” Shadowman would go untouched by the publisher until the 2017 miniseries Rapture, which would once again see the character cross paths with Ninjak and Punk Mambo, along with Tama, the young Geomancer first introduced at the end of 2014’s The Valiant. Unlike the previous story, Rapture is a full ensemble piece with each character getting their fair due. That means a significant chunk of the story is dedicated to Shadowman, specifically his path to redemption for his actions as Magpie.
When we meet Magpie/Shadowman/Jack Boniface (one character, as an audience surrogate, says “whatever he’s going by now”), he’s in MI6 custody. From the brief bit of dialogue, Kindt is able to fill in some of the gaps since “Operation: Deadside.” Boniface has been apparently charged with crimes and has been in service of the British government in order to work down his sentence. This in itself is peculiar, as the nature of those crimes aren’t known, and there was never an indication that his actions as Magpie in the Deadside would bear any consequences in the real world. It is questionable to have one of the few black characters in the Valiant Universe essentially be labeled a criminal. The idea that this young adult and POC be forced into servitude while other characters, such as The Eternal Warrior (arguably an “old white guy”), have killed countless people in the “real world” without so much as a slap on the wrist. Arguments could be made that this is unintentionally racist on the part of the creative team, or a commentary on systematic prejudices, but in the end it is merely a plot convenience as Rapture has a lot of ground to cover in its 4 issue length.
The main protagonist of Rapture is Babel, as in “Tower of…” from the Bible. Kindt does a little playing around the vagueness of the actual story (the Wikipedia entry is fascinating) to make Babel a force of defiance incarnate. From the moment we are introduced to him, Babel is fixated on breaking through from the Deadside to the “Liveside,” which is essentially a stand-in for heaven, and he sees Jack as an opportunity to succeed by manipulating his fragile mental state. A brief flashback to something from the Milligan run only reinforces how broken Shadowman was before Kindt took hold of him.
Rapture succeeds in completing the rehabilitation of Shadowman. Where “Operation: Deadside” freed the character from physical constraints, Rapture removed the psychological ones. Though he adopted the Magpie persona while under the thumb of Master Darque, he maintains it because he continues to see himself as a “bad guy,” or at the very least not a “good” one. Ultimately, Rapture becomes a story about accepting one’s own faults, learning from past mistakes, and self-forgiveness.
Through these 8 issues, Matt Kindt took a character that was essentially broken and rebuilt him from the ground up, allowing other creators to hit the ground running with new titles. Andy Diggle’s 2018 Shadowman title was well received. Eventually, comics will be returning to shops and digital storefronts and when they do, Valiant will resume their “Year of Heroes” initiative with the launch of Shadowman by Cullen Bunn, Jon Davis Hunt, and Jordie Bellaire. The future is bright for Shadowman, and that can largely be attributed to the underappreciated work of Kindt and his art teams.