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Then and Noir: Valiant's Reclaiming of Shadowman, and of the '90s

Mike Cassella

In the '90s, Valiant set the bar for comics very high by blending together modern art and characterization with storytelling modes of classic horror comics from the '70s. But did they set the bar impossibly high? Even for their own relaunch 20 years after?

Once upon a time, the '90s were screaming with comic start-ups all convinced they’d struck the chord for a “next big thing” in the industry. Some rightfully had, such as Image and Dark Horse Comics, while others only saw momentary lightning strikes that were really just flashes in the pan (none even come to mind outside of the Ultraverse which should tell you everything you need to know about that era). It seemed that every month I’d grab another copy of Wizard and there’d be an advertisement for another creation that’d never see a fifth issue or another feature on a company that would not make it past two years in business. This is a cynical view on an era filled with ambition, but it was just like any boom time in an industry: too much, too fast, with too little to show for it. There was one company, though, that managed to carve a small slice of the pie for itself and stay in our collective consciousnesses because of their achievements despite their imminent failure: Valiant Comics.

There’s a lot to be said for the Valiant Comics brand. The brainchild of veteran and pioneer Jim Shooter, the universe was to have a cohesive continuity and related event-style annual crossovers with characters that all had shared backstory. Being that he was the mastermind of Marvel’s New Universe, this seemed to be his attempt to revive what had probably seemed to him at the time as "missed direction". Shooter combined the purchase of the Gold Key comic characters such as Solar: Man of the Atom, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, and Magnus: Robot Fighter with his own original creations like X-O Manowar, Harbinger, and Shadowman to form the basis of Valiant’s initial line of comics.

How the comic line eventually fell apart and imploded is a story anyone with access to Wikipedia can investigate, but it should be pointed out that when it was being published, Shadowman sold over 100,000 issues a month, which at the time was better than most of the Big Two’s flagship characters. Shooter had created a line of scifi/fantasy characters that took the European art style for story-telling and combined it with the American cohesive universe to take readers on a successful few years of comics adventures.

The crux to the type of books Valiant tried to tell was that the ideas of old were actually awesome and just needed to be updated. How else could you explain Magnus Robot Fighter and his infamous… outfit? Shadowman played on the ideas espoused by the old horror comics of the 70s such as Creepy and Swamp Thing and Phantom Stranger and placed them in New Orleans and its oh-so-never-overdone-no-sir voodoo mythology. Shadowman’s protagonist, the jazz musician Jack Boniface, discovered his heritage as the newest bearer of the Shadowman mantle and the powers and duties that came with it. He was tasked with taking on the evil Master Darque and his machinations to become the all-powerful being that anyone calling themselves Master Darque would probably have as a life goal.

Comparing the classic Shadowman comics to the titular character’s new book under the recently resurrected Valiant label is not just a comparison of the evolution of storytelling and artistic techniques but of comics as a whole. The issue #1 of the '90s jumped right from the introduction of Boniface and basic characteristics of his personality to his origin and subsequent use of superpowers. Since the '90s and the advent of “decompressed” storytelling, issue #1 of the new Shadowman book spends all 20 pages setting up the backstory and new villains of the title.

It’s all about emotional investment and the slow build of events. And this technique mimics the effect that cinematic storytelling techniques have had. It's a smart play by New Valiant. Cinematic storytelling modes prove to be more accessible to most readers, much more so than the storytelling techniques of classic comics Shooter imparted in Old Valiant. Whereas classic comics storytelling techniques worked to bring readers back to a "comics" sensibility in the '90s, the media landscape of today is far more vertically integrated, and transmedia elements like cinematic storytelling definitely make for greater audience accessibility.

We as readers under a modern delivery of these stories look back on the '90s versions as if they’re just as old-fashioned as the '60s Marvel comics of old and it’s hard to see what’s more dated: the writing or the way that Shooter kept the great David Lapham from using the style that made his Stray Bullet’s comics so relevant to the medium.

Another area of comparison is what constitutes the horror portion of the books. The classic Shadowman comics utilize villains that seem right out of a Don McGregor/Gene Colan issue of Dracula with very little emphasis put on what makes these characters or situations actually frightening. Master Darque is weaving spells and placing curses and plotting… but really what’s so terrifying about any of that? Baron Mordo and Dormanmu were doing much more imaginative schemes back in Lee and Ditko’s Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme comics.

Compare that to the modern Shadowman where in the first issue we’re introduced to the truly goretastic Mr. Twist who uses the body parts of dismembered corpses to build his form and then launches pieces of himself at police officers to possess them and use them as puppets for his consciousness. The whole bit is straight out of the movie Slither and thanks to Patrick Zircher’s art is portrayed just like a modern day horror movie would play it. Thus when Boniface becomes Shadowman (albeit on the final page), we’re well aware of what he’ll be facing and are psyched to see what will happen.

Another difference lies in the way that the classic Shadowman comics usually relied on a protagonist with little thought to a supporting cast. In the first issues of the book, the only character to really aid Boniface is becoming Shadowman is his maid, Nettie who has a history with the legacy of the mantle. Compare that to the modern book where we over the course of the issue we’re introduced to at least three characters who will more than likely play a role in being this Boniface’s team of experts and confidants.

Finally, a truly major difference in the book is the way in which they give us information about the aspects of the Shadowman legacy. Back in the '90s, it was more important to introduce the character, jump right to the action, and then build on the story from there, introducing bits and pieces of the history as the issues went on, building on each piece to keep the audience interested. Marvel’s Darkhawk is a perfect example of this style wherein the character is barely introduced to us as a three-dimensional protagonist yet we’re supposed to care when he’s tossed into a conflict, receives superpowers, defeats the immediate bad guys and is then left to wonder how these powers came to be and what they mean. The answers to those questions aren’t even explained in the first few issues of the book nor are any supporting characters introduced to reinforce or support our protagonist, just to continue to inspire angst in him.

Meanwhile in any modern comic, we’re introduced to every aspect of the character’s backstory that we can possibly be given, including the immediate antagonist, while the appearance of them in costume and/or displaying their recent abilities doesn’t occur until the final page of the book. For another Marvel example, look at the Scarlet Spider series and its first issue. It follows a very similar track to the first issue of the new Shadowman.

Now, in no way am I saying that one storytelling style is superior. I personally just want solid writing and great art with a cool character that makes me want to pick up the next issue each month. You can kickstart that book however you want as long as you can pull me in and keep me there. The real testament to that, though, is going to be if your book’s real purpose can be displayed in that introductory issue without needing another four or five to sell me on the title. That’s writing for the trade and really shouldn’t be executed outside the Big Two since, frankly, your start-up comic probably needs as many readers upfront as possible.

Personally, based on how each issue introduces their version of Shadowman, I’d stick it out with the modern version for a few more rather than give my support to the classic. Part of that is just how modern comics have affected me and how Valiant’s format couldn’t even grab me when I was reading comic in the '90s. Zircher is a more dynamic artist than whatever style they’d convinced Lapham to use and the look and feel of the character makes more sense than the classic version. Couple that with the modern comic creating such a great horror hook with Mr. Twist (versus any villain that the classic series attempted to sell me on in the three issues I looked back at). To top it off, there is something really intriguing about his potential supporting cast and I’d love to see how they play out as well. No, this version of Boniface isn’t any less two-dimensional than the old one and no, the book does little to tell us why we should be afraid of Master Darque in either series, but I’d be really interested to see where this comic goes as opposed to waiting for the old Shadowman to become more interesting.

All in all, Valiant comics of the '90s set the bar very high in terms of concept for a generation of readers. They showed that classic tropes and modern trends could be juxtaposed to tell great stories that had nothing to do with the Big Two and weren’t driven by different personalities like Image Comics. The characters had tremendous potential that I feel the modern imprint is utilizing very well in their very calculated integration into the market place. After reading Shadowman, I’d be interested to see what the modern versions of Harbinger and X-O Manowar are like. I know that I’ll be back to see what happens to Shadowman and his (hopefully) entertaining title.

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