[17 April 2012]
PopMatters Comics Editor
It’s a strange heady brew but I drink it down with gusto, this brew of having to read James Robinson’s The Shade on the centennial of Titanic. It’s like exactly the right things got broken, and in exactly the right way. It’s like remembering for the very first time what exactly the Idea of America is up against. It’s exactly like something John’s been saying to me for some weeks now. But we’ll get to that a little later.
The important thing to understand, right from the get-go, is that this 12-issue maxi-series is about James Robinson as much as it is about his creation, The Shade, Richard Swift. I know purists will argue… no, not purists, purists will immediately see what I’m driving at, it’s stickler’s who’ll argue the point and won’t concede it. The Shade wasn’t James’ creation they’ll say. In fact The Shade’s got a long and rather intricate history of punch and counterpunch with the original Flash, he of metal helmet and wing-tipped running boots. The Shade used to be a seemingly formidable opponent to Jay Garrick’s power of super-speed. After all, what good is speed if a total blackness engulfs you, neutralizing your capacity to see where you run?
But although they’re the same character, the roguish Englishman who tormented the original Flash, and the reserved gentleman who leisurely enjoys the freedoms of art deco wonderland, Opal City, James Robinson’s Shade isn’t really The Shade of yore. James’ Shade, is much more refined, much more sophisticated, much more entrenched in Empire. And much, much more divisive a character than any kind of garish bank-robbing thrillseeker could ever hope to be. This Shade, James’ Shade, came from James’ magical reinvention of the Starman character following on from Starman #0 originally published during 1994’s “Zero Hour” event. (Ye gads!, has it been that long? There’s an entirely secret Empire to this as well).
In the mid-‘90s what James did with Starman, a Golden Age B-lister, the science hero Ted Knight, was entirely reinvent him as a legacy hero. “There must always be a Starman”, was something readers came to understand early on. Issue Zero opened with David Knight taking up, literally, the mantle of his father, replete with that ‘50s red, and green and gold and brown color scheme, and that ridiculous fin atop the red hood. David was the good son, and his character flaw was being accepting of the ritual without understanding the spirit of the legacy. David for his pains got shot through the chest in the opening pages of Issue Zero.
Jack, Ted Knight’s other son, was different. He had to be forced into the role he’d always rebelled against. And taking up the mantle, he only did so to protect the memory of his mother. But taking up the mantle didn’t mean accepting the costume. If his father was the Starman of science and reasoning, of astronomy, then Jack would the Starman of astrology, of intuition and art. Into this mix of the dynastic superhero, James Robinson co-opted The Shade. A villain of sorts. But James reinvented him as an immortal retiree sometimes taking to crime more as sport. This Shade had fallen in love with Opal City, and was now entering a different phase where he sought seclusion from the world. It was the threats to Opal that spurred him into action, and drew him into the evolving career of young Jack Knight as Starman.
Over the course of Starman’s 70-plus issues, and the original four-part mini, The Shade (which chronicled Shade’s century long battle with the vicious scions of the Ludlow family), we saw the Shade’s darker, more passionate side ignited. Here was a Shade beset by an almost infinite nostalgia, the lingering quietude of an Empire that never faded. Richard Swift, the man who would eventually become The Shade had once enjoyed an all-too-human existence. But that was during lifetimes of Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, and across the sea, the lifetime of Samuel Colt. Things would be worse now.
But in all those years of Starman, through all that Old World Charm, it was hard to begin to even formulate the question, what is it exactly Richard Swift was retiring from. Why would the one place on Earth he so loved, be an art deco city far, far from Empire’s long, luxuriant kiss? It’s now, with this maxi-series that we begin to glimpse at answers.
This book has drawn me in and not let me go since around the third issue. Issues one and two, Shade in Opal, conversing with old friends (that sparkling, neo-Empire, Rat Pack style of Bobo Bennetti is just pitch perfect) and then shipping off to Germany to interrogate a source (James Bond-stylized PI, Von Hammer) were just to get the story moving. But it was issue #3’s “Dreamtime” that really drew me in.
Those first pages of Shade recalling his first trip to Sydney, a trip made before he learned to travel long distances by moving through the Shadow-Realm, that are purely intoxicating. And it’s those pages that so capture the ideal of Empire. Empire is what happen after the explorers and the soldiers blaze through new places. Traditional European paradigms of colonization almost always ensured that there would never be pioneers, that the land would never be settled in the way the American psyche has come to understand the move West. Instead, traditional European colonization meant occupying the land, and managing the local populations, deals with some and soldiers for some others.
Shade’s first time in Australia in maybe a generation converges so beautifully with what John’s been saying these last few weeks to me, over and again, that I’m almost ready to shed tears in response to this symmetry. “Every collective identity imposed Empire,” John’s said, “is a marker of a defeated people”. And I read those pages of Shade in Sydney, and I read how locals there self-identify as Awabakal, and speak of the Arrernte peoples, and I note how Shade himself is likably dismissive of these names at first, opting instead for the generic, and false and deeply damaging “aboriginal”. The art and the elegance of this movingly political statement is almost too much for a piece of throwaway literature we expect a comicbook to be.
And it is a silent and enduring victory over an ugly thinking about a great medium. A medium hijacked by a competitor of DC’s (as recently as 2008), who introduced a 21st century biker girl, a hell-on-wheels vision in denim and leather, who still offered “Your ability to target the puniest and most inebriated of opponents was being most commendable”. A 21st century woman who spoke those words and others in a racially slurred mode of dialog shouldn’t have to be tolerated. The Shade is a victory of that kind of thinking.
But even more than the drama of postcolonial identities, James Robinson taps a vein of what Empire truly means. Here in these most recent issues, Shade has traveled to Barcelona, where he encounters a vampiress whose life he once saved, now posing as a superhero among the streets bedecorate with artwork of Antonio Gaudí. It’s here that, carried aloft by how we encountered Sydney and Botany Bay, we finally begin to feel Empire’s long and lingering kiss, its secret objective. And in watching La Sangra and Shade, her “father” oppose religious zealot The Inquisitor and his “soul bomb”, that you finally get that sense that Empire is all-consuming, but also a giant psychic factory for the production of safety.
The only reason soldiers follow on from explorers in Empire, is because Empire by its very nature depends on pushing out the alien, the “unsafe”, the Other. Empire is an ongoing experiment in normalizing, and “defanging”, in removing the edge from anything that has the potential for difference. It’s a civilization conceived of around the principles of there being no edge. No edge in terms of space, because all space must be consumed and reframed as Imperial space. But also no edge in terms of history, that any potential disruption, anything edgy, would need to be tamed and tempered, and essentially undone. And it’s strange and deeply rewarding to have to read this drama at the centennial of Titanic when the Ambitions of Empire failed at a crucial moment, and Empire itself suffered a severe psychic backlash. Had Titanic succeeded, who knows where Richard Swift would have found to retire to.
Issue #7 concludes the second act of this Shade maxi-series. These last issues will see Shade travel to London to confront directly his most recent nemesis who seems to have gained control of a corporate dynasty founded by the great-great-grandson of Shade himself. Then, we hope, a return to America is on the cards. To live the kind of life where the word “security” isn’t prefaced by the unseen, but acceptable notion of “maximum”.