Wednesday, October 10, 2007

[Influences] The Shadow

'Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!'

And with those iconic words and a sinister laugh, I was introduced to the world of Lamont Cranston, the Shadow, who was a pulp fiction precursor to Batman: Wealthy playboy by day, crime fighting vigilante by night.

The big difference being that unlike Batman or Doc Savage, the Shadow had no qualms about killing people with his two-fisted pair of .45s.

This was all well before John Woo made Chow Yun Fat an iconic action star in Hong Kong in films like A Better Tomorrow and its sequels:

"The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay..." was a signature line the Shadow used in both the pulp fiction stories as well as the radio dramas that featured the voice talents of many great actors including Orson Welles of Citizen Kane and The Third Man fame:

The Shadow clearly had an influence on much of what we would consider contemporary superhero narrative structure today: A mysterious past and dual identity.

Even a network of elite agents hidden in 'ordinary' jobs around the world from Moe Shrevnitz the cab driver to Margo Lane his beautiful socialite 'friend and companion,' and Dr. Roy Tam, his Asian American physician.

The Shadow had a rogues gallery of one-time and recurring villains ranging from Benedict Stark 'The Prince of Darkness' and Shiwan Khan, 'Master of the Orient.'

Make no mistake:
Writers all the way up to the present steep the Shadow's story with Asian elements from adventures in Chinatown to the roots of the Shadow's powers (in one interpretation, he is a paladin of Shamballah, the sacred, secret kingdom hidden in Asia like Shangri La) and they've had varying levels of sensitivity to multicultural issues and how well characters like Dr. Tam and Shiwan Khan are fleshed out.

But, much as the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Shakespeare and many others can be appreciated with an understanding of the times they were writing in and their personal characters, so too, I think there is much to be enjoyed in the tales of the Shadow.

I'm in a particular minority on this, but the work of Andy Helfer during the DC comics run of the early 1990s remains a personal favorite of mine for its dark humor and for introducing me to the work of master artists Bill Sienkiwicz and Kyle Baker (the author of my favorite Why I Hate Saturn.)

Helfer's run, while since declared heretical by most ardent fans of the classic Shadow, was still one that left a memorable impression on me when the comic book shelves were flooded with X-men and Spiderman stories.

Personally, I think they still hold up quite well as enjoyable reads.

When DC relaunched the series a few years later, we found a more restrained take that was also enjoyable, but never hit the over-the-top looniness of Helfer's take, which was distinctive for its radical departure from Howard Chaykin's four-issue mini-series, itself quite a transgressive interpretation.

Chaykin brought the Shadow to the late 20th century, no longer packing blazing .45s but a pair of mini-Uzis in a heady cocktail of sex, death, violence and miniature nukes.

Back then, Howard Chaykin brought an amazing sexy and urban sensibility to comics that was innovative and helped push the medium forward to what we have today.

You can of course check out the wikipedia entries and other resources on the net for the full run-down on the Shadow, so I'm not going to go into all of his powers and history.

But I will say:

In many ways, the Shadow was a welcome relief from goody goody two shoes characters, arguably even a predecessor of the Punisher, in that he was a 'no fooling around' dark anti-hero more interested in 'justice' than law.

The 1994 movie was terrible, except for giving Tim Curry something to do. :) But the trailer was REALLY promising:


But as an overall influence on my writing?

I easily have to acknowledge the Shadow as a formative part of my youth that showed me, among other things, how one blends world history, pop culture and dark humor together. And you can spot that within On The Other Side Of The Eye if you look.

Or a few photos of me currently circulating around the internet, apparently. But that's neither here nor there.

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