Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Shadow, Volume 1: The Fire of Creation Review (Garth Ennis, Aaron Campbell)

Garth Ennis attempts to revitalise the Golden Age superhero, The Shadow, in The Fires of Creation… and doesn’t quite pull it off. 

Wealthy man-about-town, Lamont Cranston, is secretly The Shadow, a dude with a cape, a scarf, hat and a red ring, with two guns, who shoots bad guys! He’s also got powers over death and… he might also BE death? I don’t know jack about this character and Ennis doesn’t do any origin-type explaining, so who knows? 

Set in 1938, The Shadow targets the Kondo brothers, men who committed atrocities during the Rape of Nanking (we’re thankfully spared the visuals) and are looking for uranium. The quest takes him from America to Japanese-occupied China in a blood-soaked tale of vengeance.

Ennis highlights the Japanese occupation of parts of China which, between 1931 and 1945, saw the deaths of 15 million Chinese at the hands of the Japanese forces and some of the worst crimes against humanity in history. It’s a sobering premise that gloomily hangs over the comic. 

This is a classic Ennis book: WW2-themed, street-level protagonist, revenge-heavy, righteous plot, and extremely violent. The Shadow is in some ways an earlier version of The Punisher, a character Ennis excelled at writing. I also really enjoyed his WW2 comics, War Stories and Battlefields. 

So why doesn’t The Shadow thrill in the same way as an Ennis-written Frank Castle comic does? It has partly to do with The Shadow having superpowers. Frank has an arsenal of weapons but he’s still just a man, so he has to use ingenuity when faced with overwhelming odds. Shadow uses his teleportation/mind control/death’s stuff(?) powers to get the upper hand and then shoots everyone with his guns. It’s less exciting when things are made easier for the hero.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward: Shadow and co. are chasing the bad guys into China to kill them and take whatever valuables they’re going to use to gain the upper hand once WW2 kicks off. But Ennis really overwrites the story. Every character has paragraphs and paragraphs to say on every page and it doesn’t add up to much - the plot remains the same, there’s just a lot of blather to wade through before things happen. And, actually, the plot is never that interesting to begin with. 

But then neither are any of the characters. Besides not really knowing what The Shadow can do, I didn’t come away thinking he was particularly special. In some ways it’s interesting because this character appeared nearly a decade before Batman and it’s clear Bill Finger was influenced heavily by Lamont Cranston in creating Bruce Wayne. But Batman/Bruce Wayne is a much more interesting character than The Shadow in every way and that doesn’t change even with a writer as brilliant as Garth Ennis in the driving seat. 

Aaron Campbell’s art is fine and appropriately realistic - like a lot of Ennis’ real-world comics, a lot of research effort has gone into making everything look genuine. 

I usually like Garth Ennis’ work but The Shadow fell totally flat for me. This is one undead Golden Age character who should probably die.

The Shadow, Volume 1: The Fire of Creation

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