Times Past, Present, and Future: A Look Back at Starman, Part III
Before we continue, I should take this opportunity to talk about The Shade. As I mentioned in Part I, The Shade was a second-string villain who battled both the Golden Age and the Silver Age Flash. My knowledge of DC comics of the 1940s is very sketchy, so I cannot say when he first appeared. I've only seen him in the historic Flash #123, where the Silver Age Flash discovers a parallel world with his Golden Age counterpart. Since his re-introduction, The Shade continued to plague both scarlet speedsters in fanciful jousts before fading away into obscurity following the 'Crisis on Infinite Earths'.
(Forgive me if my language should seem strange now and then. It is an after-effect of reading The Shade's Dickens-style dialogue written in Robinson's poetic style.)
Robinson re-introduced The Shade as a cultured, refined, yet amoral citizen of Opal City, Starman's hometown. While he won't commit theft in Opal, he has no qualms over murdering those who threaten "his Opal". Abroad, he is a villain, black and deep. His public battles with the Flashes were often distractions to cover his true crimes. Sometimes, they were just for fun. The Shade has acquired a fortune through his long life of crimes committed both for himself and others willing to pay his fees.
And yet, much about The Shade is shrouded in mystery. His origin has never been revealed. A few clues have been dropped, such as how a hundred and four souls were involved in the creation of The Shade's power, that another man named Culp gained similar powers that night, and the scene was so fearful, it played upon the mind of its only witness: Charles Dickens, The Shade's friend.
Within the context of the 'Starman' series, The Shade plays two unique roles. One is the connection to the past. The Shade has kept a journal of his adventures since his "creation" in 1832. The "Times Past" stories of the series are introduced, often narrated, by excerpts from The Shade's Journal. He is the living link between the events of the past that still play a role in the present. As the series progresses, we see him as the only link to this present after our world and culture is gone and forgotten.
The second role The Shade plays is Jack Knight's dark counterpart. Like Jack, The Shade reluctantly becomes a hero. Or rather, becomes less of a villain. His motivations shift from personal gain, to civic pride, to survival, and finally a concern for innocent strangers. Over the course of the series, while Jack Knight changes from apathetic to noble, The Shade changes from villainous to heroic.
Looking back at the entire series, I wonder if The Shade might have been the second main character of the series. Certain events in The Shade's life had enormous impact upon the lives of Jack Knight, Opal City, and the rest of the series. Regrettably, many of these events were not told in 'Starman'. Instead they appeared in 'Showcase' and the 'Shade' mini-series. These books are increasingly difficult to find due to their low print runs and popularity with Starman fans. Hopefully, they will be reprinted in later trade collections.
But until that happens, you'll have to scavenge the long boxes of your local shops, scroll through pages of newsgroups and e-bay auctions, and even track down conventions to find these tales. Trust me, they are worth all the effort. (Well, the mini-series is. You could do without the 'Showcase' stories for a while.)
For those of you without the resources to do the above, here is a summary of what you're missing. Again, all stories are by James Robinson, unless otherwise noted:
Showcase '95 #12
Art: Wade Von Grawbadger
In this "Underworld Unleashed" crossover story, The Shade is "interrogating" a man who hired Merritt, the immortal with a demonic poster. The Shade is then approached by Neron, a demon who's been empowering supervillains in exchange for their souls. The Shade turns him down, saying he already has great power, immortality, and wealth. There's nothing Neron could offer him. Neron is so offended he promises "your worst nightmare...one day." That day has come and gone, in the "Grand Guignol". But I don't want to ruin it for those of you who haven't read it.
For completeness' sake, I'll list the other stories in this issue of a mercifully brief anthology series. There is a Supergirl story, penciled by Phil Jimenez, but NOT written by Peter David. It will be included in an upcoming Supergirl trade paperback. So if any of you are Supergirl or Jimenez fans who have this book, sell it, buy the trade, and give a 'Starman' fan a chance to read it! And for the two of you who liked 'Sovereign Seven', there's a story by Chris Claremont and Alan Davis where Maitresse frees Darkseid from The Wall. (I'm as lost as you are, and I read the danged thing. Twice!) Honestly, if it weren't for the Shade story, there'd be no reason to buy this.
Showcase '96 #4-5
Art: Matt Smith
Every year 'Showcase' had a theme for its stories. The theme for 1996 was team-ups. Yes, that year 'Showcase' gave you heroes like Guy Gardner and Steel fighting side-by-side. These two issues featured the Guardian working with Firebrand. No, not the young woman who fought with the All-Star Squadron in WWII, but a disfigured cop in a yellow and purple Ghost Rider-style armor who had his own series for all of six months. But wait! You can also see the Connor Hawke Green Arrow get beat up by Thorn, a mentally disturbed vigilante from Metropolis who appears in the Superman comics twice a decade! Wow.
The only nice thing I can say about these stories is Brian Augustyn wrote the Guardian/Firebrand team-up. Whether or not that's a compliment depends on your taste.
Once again, The Shade's story is the highlight of these books. During the Silver Age, (which, in current DCU continuity, took place in the early '80s), Dr. Fate asked for The Shade's help. It seems a cult called The Wise Fools were trying to recreate the event that gave The Shade his dark powers. To that end, they enlisted the aid of the only other person with The Shade's power: Culp. Dr. Fate's magic has little effect on the shadow substance, so he needs The Shade to distract the cult while he sends the power into a void dimension. The Shade agrees, provided he gets a shot at Culp.
This is the first time the reader learns about Culp, The Shade's longtime nemesis. His name doesn't come up in the monthly series until Issue #50, published over two years later. Culp is not seen, though. The Fools claim Culp ran off when he learned The Shade was coming. Those of you who've read "Grand Guignol" know the real reason Culp wasn't there.
When Dr. Fate appears in the first part of this story, the pages are divided into eight equal sized panels. This reminded me of the first Dr. Fate stories of the 1940s. They were also told in regularly sized panels, and drawn to evoke the feelings of medieval woodcuts. That nice bit of visual subtlety rewards those who are aware of DC comics history, much like a visual inside joke.
While these three stories play important roles in the 'Starman' series, it is not necessary to read them. The events that take place here are summarized quite nicely in the "Grand Guignol" story arc. So while you don't need these books, it is nice to have them; a luxury, if you will.
But while one could go from cradle to grave without ever laying eyes upon the 'Showcase' stories, it is 'The Shade' mini-series that no Starman fan can live without. 'The Shade' mini-series was launched in January of 1997, during the "Starman Month" promotional event. (That month also saw the release of Starman #29, a self-contained, ad-free, new reader-friendly comic, a Starman t-shirt, watch, tin badge, and the "Night & Day" TPB. A good month, to be sure.)
'The Shade' chronicles our dark villain's life-long rivalry with a family called Ludlows. The Ludlows had found The Shade, weakened and without memory shortly after his "creation" in 1832. (After he gained his power, he ceased being a mortal man, and became, simply, The Shade.) The events of that night led to every Ludlow ever born to swear vengeance upon The Shade for nearly two centuries.
The Shade #1-4
Art: Gene Ha, J. H. Williams III and Mick Gray, Bret Blevins, and Michael Zulli
After The Shade gains his dark powers, he his without memory of his self and his past. Our weakened friend is found by and taken to the home of Piers Ludlow. After several days convalescing, Piers and his family take The Shade to what they claim to be his home.
Upon entering the palatial mansion, we find Piers eldest son standing over the body of the home true owner. It turns out, Piers increases his wealth by forming partnerships, killing his partners, framing some derelict, and acquiring the deceased's fortune. The Shade was to be framed for this latest "acquisition”.
That's when The Shade discovers his power. The Ludlows are torn to shreds. Only the youngest children, twins, boy and girl, are left alive having been fortunate to be left at home. Over their family's grave, the twins swear revenge upon The Shade, and to pass that hatred down through the generations of Ludlows to follow.
We jump ahead to 1865, where the surviving Ludlow son attacks and badly wounds The Shade. He tells The Shade about the many children he and his sister have sired, and how they've all pledged to kill him. That proves to be more difficult than he realized.
There follows several pages of The Shade's cursive handwriting alongside pictures from various "encounters" with Ludlows. Among them, the Western lawman Scalphunter killing a Ludlow to repay a favor to The Shade; A betrayal by Marcus Ludlow who hid his true identity as he and The Shade searched for a lost city; The tale of Sanderson Ludlow, who came to know The Shade as such a good friend, that he killed himself rather than try to kill The Shade.
And then there was Marguerite. The Shade loved her in Paris, in 1931, and she loved him too. But her family hatred was so strong she tried to kill him, and knew she'd try again.
In 1951, Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash, announces his retirement as Keystone city's champion. He names as his successor the Spider, an arrow-casting hero from St. Louis. The Shade, intrigued by the opportunity for "new jousts", engages the Spider in several light-hearted battles. When not fighting the Spider, The Shade investigates him, uncovering his criminal past. What he doesn't learn is the Spider's lineage. He is a Ludlow, but he plans to destroy The Shade, not just kill him.
In the final chapter, we see the letter that first sent The Shade on this trip down memory lane. The wife of Craig Ludlow, the last surviving Ludlow, has written, asking for The Shade's help. Her husband had no intention of hurting The Shade, until his brother returned. The brother has been fanning the flames of the old Ludlow hatred, and she fears they'll consume the man she married. She wants The Shade to try and talk them out of whatever they're planning.
The Shade agrees to see her, not knowing how many he'll kill this time.
Gene Ha penciled, inked, and colored the first chapter of this story. And I must say that it is gorgeous! I pity those who haven't seen Gene's work outside of 'Top Ten'. I've avoided that book because seeing Gene's art obscured and clouded by another man's inks is a crime too awful to bear. Logically, I know that Gene Ha can't draw and color an entire comic every month, but my heart still longs for the next time he does. Until then, I must satisfy myself with the few stories he did for 'Starman', and 'JLA Annual' #1.
Since the duo of Williams and Gray have won several awards for their work on 'Promethea', any compliment I pay them will be redundant. They are so obviously talented that to say so isn't just pointing out the obvious, but to risk sounding like an idiot. I will take this opportunity to endorse their short-lived monthly series 'Chase' from DC comics. Although it ran for less than a year, the lead character, one Cameron Chase, continues to make her presence known in the DC universe, most recently in the 'Our World's at War Secret Files' special.
Reading issue #3 again, I am struck by the visual contrast between the Flash and The Shade. The Flash is bright and muscular, a broad red chest that tapers down and divides into two blue legs. He stands straight and true, fists clenched and jaw set; the very image of a hero. The Shade is a thin, lanky black shadow, all sharp angles leaning heavily on a cane. A good stiff wind might knock him over, if he's even there at all. I think the best hero/villain relationships are based on the fundamentally opposite natures of the combatants. But the visual contrast, (Batman's black to Joker's bright purple, Spider-Man's red and blue to Venom's solid black), may also be a key element in the antagonism between enemies.
There are two pages in this comic where the Spider speaks with a reporter named Linda Dalt. The consequences of these two pages, two pages, will not be seen until, that's right, "Grand Guignol".
The series includes a 2-page text story at the end of each issue. These text pieces, called "From the Shade's Journal", tell other tales about The Shade and the Ludlows. Issues 1 and 2 relate The Shade's battle with a Ludlow on a train. Issues 3 and 4 tell of The Shade attending a friend's wedding when a Ludlow violently interrupts. The ensuing chase brings The Shade close to death, and a meeting with the Devil.
The story, as a whole, shows how hatred can destroy a person and his family. The criminal acts of the Ludlows in 1832 led to their deaths at The Shade's hands. Their children, rather than risk exposing their family's crimes, spend their lives pursuing the destruction of one who is immortal and almost invincible. They infected their children with a malice that was passed down for generations. This theme of children fighting their parents' battles, of families and the past holding sway over the present, is key to the entire 'Starman' story. Just as Jack Knight feels obligated to continue the family tradition of being a super-hero, and Nash becomes the new Mist to avenge her father, The Shade found himself trapped in the legacy of a family. Worse still, it wasn't his family.
The mini-series shows The Shade change over time. He revels in his new dark powers, becomes melancholy over his immortal state, finds joy in learning there are others like him, (the superheroes and villains), and learns the value of mercy in time to meet Craig Ludlow.
By you may be thinking, "Do I really need to read these books?" I answer with the following quote from 'Showcase '96' #4: "The occurrences of that day resonate still in recent events. And I fear that they may be of even more concern in events yet to transpire." While these books contain short stories and small moments, it is these moments that lead to the largest and most destructive of events: The siege of Opal City in "Grand Guignol".
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