Something I Made Myself Into: Exclusive with "Shade" Creator James Robinson
The 12-issue mini-series The Shade is possibly writer James Robinson's final return to the world-within-a-world of Opal City and its unique cast of characters. Robinson takes the time to offer frank and unique insights into a book that is the culmination of decades of writing…
It's a feeling that hits long before I close the final cover on the collected edition and put the handsome volume down. Long before I try to forget how masterful a storyteller James Robinson is and how expertly he can craft the finer emotional nuances of character-driven engagements, and how I may be able to just put the book down and get back to my life. But I don't just get back to my life. The book sits on my deliberately-so, very tiny writing table. And in a few moments from now I'll be thumbing through the collected edition again, a volume that holds each of the 12 chapters of the original Shade mini-series in a slim, neat, bundle, and I'll begin once again to pick out my favorite, favorite moments.
Maybe something from dead in the middle. Maybe in Barcelona where Shade recalls how he rescued La Roja nearly two centuries ago, and how she's now transformed herself into a teen vampire superhero. Maybe something from earlier on, the chilling conversation with german private eye and all-round action hero Von Hammer wherein Von Hammer admits being contracted to find samples of the Shade's blood. Who could want such a thing? And who could even know about the Shade once having had blood?
Or maybe something from near the very end. Maybe the Shade's assassination of Dudley Caldecott, rendered gorgeously by Frazer Irving in a way that such a scene as no right to be. Robinson's own laconically arcane and poetic language laces in a sense of finality that bleeds across to the book's closing chapter where the Shade writes something that has the final of his final confession. That final page in the penultimate chapter of the Shade really seems to grapple with the emotional core of the book in its entirety. Robinson's words evoke a sense of the ugly task of dealing with one's descendants after they've run amok as being nothing more than a trifle:
I was sad to kill Dudley.
Did he deserve it? Yes, absolutely, but he was still my blood.
It set me to wondering, this, his death… if whether things might have been different, had I not become the Shade.
If I'd lived and died in Victorian London…would my children and theirs have walked a gentler and less eventful road?
But it's the fool who ponders on "what ifs" and "might have beens" for overly long.
I did become… I am the Shade. The events that created me happened. And you know…
…perhaps it is time I put quill to paper and related those ghastly events so that, aired out, they might finally rest.
When we circuit the conversation around to exactly that transformation whereby Richard Swift lets go of himself and begins to embrace the idea of becoming the Shade, we do so by talking about class and to have come out of Victorian England, a world dominated and segregated by the idea of class. We wend our way through this path partly because James is very gracious and will indulge my much-farther-afield attempts to intellectualize what is primarily an emotionally-wrought narrative. But we also do so partly because James is a deep and meditative intellect who will himself bear the risk of traversing the broader paths of grand ideas in favor of the very narrow and very labyrinthine paths that will with great certainty move one from Point A to Point B.
"When it comes to the Shade and class," James begins, "That was really one of the things that I enjoyed about him. It's not as if he is an upper-class villain who's above everything. But it's something that's really happened to him over his transformation. The character that he was when he was Richard Swift, was an importer's agent. He was basically a middle class guy. And by killing Richard Swift so to speak, he basically created this new character that could create his own class, and a new persona. Back then of course, class was incredibly divisive and it was something that you lived with. There was the lower class and the upper class, and in Victorian Times, with affluence that came from the Industrial Revolution and what-not, you've got this middle class really beginning to take shape. And that was how it was. And that as kind of how it was even when I was growing up.
"Maybe some of that's still around in some places, but I get the sense that it's blown away finally. But for the Shade and his world, it hasn't. And that's one of the things I liked about the Shade--he's this character that's not completely true to who he was, but he's having a lot of fun being this new creation that became the reality for him when he became the Shade, 10 years after the events that take place in issue 12 of the mini-series you've just read."
It's something about what James says about the Shade not escaping class, and yet, having made the considered effort to re-construct himself that leads me to think of Fitzgerald. There's the perfect quote to be had in Lan Tran's essay, "1925: The Great Gatsby", appearing in A New Literary History of America:
The distinction in the book between Tom's East Egg and Gatsby's West Egg community is also geographically analogous to the American regions associated with old money (East) and new opportunity (West). Likewise in those days, the majority of immigrants had left statelier, old countries of Europe to the East and come to the gleaming new land of opportunity in the West. Here, however, despite their hard work and efforts to improve themselves, they were still seen as threatening interlopers and were treated with suspicion and animosity…
But the New Literary History is out of reach and I can't quite get to the quote by memory. And when the I finally manage to suggest that the Shade might be a meditation on Gatsby, it correlation appears clumsily interjected into the middle of an entirely different train of thought. James picks it up as closes down that earlier meditation on the role of class with respect to the idea of Empire. "Did I hear you mention Jay Gatsby and the different classes? I think that that's… it isn't so much about the class system, it's really about one man's transformation, isn't it? And the fact that he has partially created himself. I hadn't really thought about that, but it's a very interesting parallel. There certainly is a Gatsby-esque quality to the Shade. However, I think the difference would be, that Gatsby if I'm recalling the book that I've read a couple of times, but a while ago, that Gatsby is half transformed. He drags his own past with him and he can't rid himself of his past in his own head. And that becomes his own undoing. Whereas the Shade has already done that and successfully moved on from that. And ironically, it's in the 12-part mini-series that you see him finally dealing with some of the repercussions of the past that he shouldn't have shrugged off quite so cavalierly. So the Gatsby stuff is interesting, because it says something about the difference between the two characters. I don't know if it says something about the difference between the American and the English personalities, but it definitely says something about the difference between the two characters."
It's statements like the last that give a fuller view of James' deep skill in moving the narrative forward by engaging emotional arcs. An idea that's almost echoed by Paul Auster who says in an interview with Brooklyn Rail:
Literature is something else all together. I believe that it’s dangerous for novelists or poets to entangle themselves directly with politics in their work. I’m not saying that we don’t all have a right and a need and sometimes a duty to speak out as citizens, but the value of fiction—let’s just confine ourselves to that for the moment—is that it’s about the individual, the dignity and importance of the individual. Once you start dealing in ideas that are too large or too abstract, you can’t make art that will touch anyone, and then it’s valueless. No matter how angry I am right now, for example, I believe my job as a writer is to stick to my guns and keep writing my little stories.
There's really no way to confront James Robinson other than to credit him with Fitzgerald's own definition of first-rate intelligence--the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time. Ending the interview also means confronting the ending of the Shade -- how has James been able to bring the Shade to finding such a happy ending amid the Walter Benjamin-esque wreckage of his life the mini-series has guided us through? There's a chuckle on the other side of the line and a firm, friendly, inviting tone. "That's life really, isn't it, in a nutshell? We all of us walk the knife edge between happiness and grief everyday. So that's life really. That's what I was trying to say."