The Very End of Empire: PopMatters’ Exclusive with “Shade’s” James Robinson

“One of the things about the Shade that I always found interesting,” James Robinson begins, and there’s a kind of building-up. In my mind I imagine great machines powered by steam, machines of bespoke engineering from a bygone day, now already just slightly out of reach. Beyond even his landmark run on Superman and the Justice League (Cry For Justice is arguably the most under-appreciated character drama of the past few years) and the Justice Society, Starman, Opal City and the Shade is where the idea of James Robinson was born. James Robinson as a master storyteller who hands you entire worlds in brightly-lit slices of 22 pages.

And the Shade, the new 12-part maxiseries that spins out of the renewed interest from 2010’s Starman #81 (a Blackest Night tie-in), is a homecoming of sorts. Not just for Robinson himself, but for the myriad of silent fans of the place that Robinson built slowly over the course of seven years. Shade’s an interesting character. Perhaps one of the most subtle reboots in comics fiction. Like Ted Knight and Mikaal Tomas and other characters who appeared as part of the supporting cast in Starman, Shade was a character with a background in DC. He had been a small-time Flash villain. Not the Silver Age Flash, not a Heatwave henchman, or a Captain Cold comrade, but an antagonist to the Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick.

What Robinson evolved from this relatively minor character was astounding, but possible without the broader project he attempted and succeeded at with Starman. Take Ted Knight, kooky Golden Age science hero Starman. A second-tier hero in the All Star Squadron, he often read like he could be more interesting in a solo-career, in a solo-book. By the mid-’90s, after the events of Zero Hour, too much time had arguably passed to make a solo book of Ted Knight. But the launch of Starman would see Ted Knight reimagined in a bold and decisive way. What if it’s a generation later? What if Ted Knight has now long since retired from Starman, without having retired the identity? What if Ted Knight had begun to take steps to turn Starman into a legacy hero, an identity passed down from generation to generation? And what if, the current possessor of the Starman identity, Ted’s faithful son David, was gunned down in the line of duty? Would that push Ted’s wayward son Jack closer towards accepting the family heritage?

This intergenerational drama of Shakespearean proportions played out against the backdrop of Opal City, an art deco wonderland, and home to the Shade. In contradistinction to the garish caricature who often fought Jay Garrick’s Flash, Shade was written as what his long life would have afforded him a chance to become. The Shade was a gentleman in repose, a sophisticated man retired from the world. As his shadow-powers had made him functionally immortal, his morality began to evolve, and not necessarily in ways everyone can be comfortable with. His skirmishes with Jay Garrick were a kind of a sport to him. He enjoyed the joust, and larceny seemed like a convenient way to get his kicks. But as time passed even this began to lose its allure. The one steadfast thing however, remained Opal and his love for the city. So when the same criminal gang responsible for drawing Jack Knight into the fray threatened the city itself, Shade stepped in to interdict. And this action would see an 80-issue long character arc and moral renewal in the Shade.

We conduct the interview at a crucial moment in the most recent Shade series. This Shade charts a very different evolution. Now that Shade has had that moral renewal, what happens when the ghosts from the past come baying at his heels? What of the consequences of some of his more reckless moments? What if they now come to hold him to a greater account? James and I speak at the very moment when Shade acknowledges his adoptive daughter, the Barcelona -based vampire-superhero, La Sangra. It is a crucial moment in the character’s ongoing return to humanity.

“You’ll see the events of 1901, (events alluded to when he and the demon talked obliquely in issue #7), these are the memories that finally begin to make him truly aware of some of his irresponsibilities, I don’t think ‘misdeeds’, although deserting his family is of course a misdeed. But his larger irresponsibilities lies with the fact that he wasn’t the person he should have been to his ex-wife and his family and all of that. And as you’ll be seeing in issues nine through 11, this is very much about how he’s coming to terms with that. It’s the sad irony that everything that’s happened up until this point, happened as the result of a bad seed within his own family, wouldn’t have necessarily happened. Or possibly wouldn’t have happened. So, there was all that. But at that same time, quite honestly that line wrote itself.”

Robinson is speaking about a very specific moment that had been brought up during the question. To track down the person in his own family hellbent on assassinating him, Shade has had to make a deal with his own great grandson, a deal for his own blood, which now has been all but replaced by the shadowstuff from which he draws his powers and his immortality. Shade might no longer be in possession of his own blood, but his adoptive vampire daughter might, La Sangra, herself the immortal protector of Barcelona.

It’s amid the Gaud√≠ inspired urban landscape that perhaps the final, most irreversible radian of Shade’s character arc plays out. Nearly a century ago, Shade had rescued La Sangra, as an infant, from a ship-load of pirate vampires. In the process he had killed every vampire aboard that ship and carried La Sangra away to Spain. And while he’s always maintained an association with her, he’s similarly always rebuked her for looking on him as a father figure. By the end of his Barcelona adventure, an escapade shared with La Sangra to bring down a religious zealot bent on detonating a “soul bomb”, Shade responds to La Sangra now-tedious calling him “father” in a most unanticipated way. He acknowledges the relation by calling her “daughter”.

Robinson’s own words, even as I retype them for this feature read as a kind of confessional. Not in the sense that too much of the game has been given away. Not in the sense that he divulges privileged information. But rather, in the sense that this response speaks deep volumes about Robinson’s own creative process. “The line wrote itself”: it’s hard not to read Robinson as the first visitor to a distant land. Hard not to read into this reply the idea that like the true fans of this book, of these characters and of Robinson’s fluid, beautiful storytelling itself, that Robinson too believes in the vivid, vibrant, secret lives and hidden worlds of the characters he writes. The idea that he’s gotten there first, and returns to us as a traveler to report what he’s seen.

It is both strange and deeply comforting reading knowing the inner thinking of a writer the caliber of James Robinson, and reading a book the quality of Shade on the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic. Titanic represents humankind’s very last, possibly its most dangerous flirtation with the idea of empire. It’s not simply a case, that following the sinking of the ship, nascent America wouldn’t inherit British formulations of empire, or British ambitions at empire would be unable to transgress the idea of America. It’s more accurately the case, that the core idea of empire simply exhausts itself with the sinking of the Titanic.

This is exactly what Daniel Mendelsohn was getting at in his New Yorker article, “Unsinkable”, of April 16th this year, when he spoke about how tantalizing the “what ifs” were to him. It’s the same idea he recognizes in Downton Abbey co-creator, Julian Fellowes’ mini-series Titanic. And it’s the same notion that Scott Fitzgerald walked into, like ghost from the pages of history, that there’s no such thing as second acts to American lives.

If anything, Shade reads like a refugee, carried ashore to Newfoundland, wrapped in the warming blankets of the New World. But not a refugee from any kind of sinking of an unsinkable ship. But a refugee from the very end of empire, one welcomed into the idea that America is a place where everybody here, comes from somewhere worse.

Shade #8 releases today. My thanks to Ann Pryor for cueing my in on Daniel Mendelsohn’s excellent piece.