The Shadow isn’t a superhero. Let’s just make that clear. He’s really not even a nice guy. The best versions of the Shadow have always embraced this fact. The Shadow has had a somewhat bumpy road in comics. If you try to write him as “Batman with guns” you’ve missed the point. The Shadow is as elusive as his namesake, and thrives on deception, which is why nailing down an origin story for him is a tricky proposition. Luckily, Matt Wagner’s Shadow: Year One from Dynamite seems to understand all of this, and doesn’t try to insert some hackneyed “quest for justice” narrative into the picture, nor does it over explain the Shadow’s background or motivations.
Built right into the Shadow’s story are a number of pitfalls that could seriously hamper any attempt to tell a definitive origin. For starters, there’s the “secret identity” problem. The Shadow is Lamont Cranston, socialite. Or is he Kent Allard, mercenary adventurer? He’s both. He’s also neither. In the same way that much of the Shadow’s sleuthing comes in his “civilian” identity, his background can be a rather fluid proposition. It took years for the Shadow pulps to flesh out his backstory in any capacity, and even more before they resolved the Allard/Cranston dilemma. And even that was confusing.
My favorite Shadow origin is the one depicted in Howard Chaykin’s Shadow: Blood and Judgment, originally published by DC in 1985, but currently available in a handsome collected edition from Dynamite. While it’s unlikely that any of that version (which, among other things, depicted Allard and Cranston as drug-runners before Allard was trained in physical and psychic arts in the mythical city of Shamballa and the extraordinarily corrupt Cranston, well…got the short end of things) will be referenced or survive into Matt Wagner’s Shadow: Year One, it’s clear that the ambiguity of the Cranston/Allard duality will continue for at least another issue, and that Wagner has a good handle on what a forbidding, sinister figure that the Shadow is. There’s just enough here to make me wonder if any of that origin will make the transition, as Shadow: Year One #1 does appear to pick up roughly where the origin sequence of Blood and Judgment left off, which is right around the time that Allard officially adopts the Cranston identity. Confused yet? You should be!
Shadow: Year One opens in Cambodia, 1929, where we see a rather differently-attired Shadow doing what he does best: striking terror into the criminals he stalks. Oh, and killing them. He likes that. We then move to New York City in 1930, the day after the stock market crash, where Lamont Cranston is arriving back home after a long absence. Ah, but is this Lamont Cranston, or is it Kent Allard in the guise of Lamont Cranston. You see how slippery that the Shadow and his world are? To make things even more interesting, there’s a reporter who is trying to get an interview with Lamont Cranston, and senses that things aren’t what they appear to be. Shadow fans, of course, know the truth of Cranston’s identity, but new readers will be, quite deliberately, left wondering.
There’s also the matter of the Shadow’s supporting cast. The Shadow’s companion (not girlfriend, not sidekick) Margo Lane is a crucial part of any incarnation of the character. This is a woman who can keep up with the Shadow, who can see the truth in the deceptions, and who clearly isn’t queasy about the violent life that her companion leads. It makes sense, then, that Shadow: Year One would take some time to establish her properly. To the best of my knowledge, other than the unfortunately inconsistent Shadow feature film from 1994, fans have never really been treated to an examination of Margo’s motivations, or the beginning of their relationship at all. Here, Margo is already attracted to dangerous men, and we get to see how this sets up her first meeting with the Shadow. Note that I said “with the Shadow” and not “with Lamont Cranston.”
Of course, Matt Wagner is a natural fit for this tale of the Shadow’s early days, and Dynamite is the company to do it. Wagner’s Green Hornet: Year One (also from Dynamite) was about as perfect an origin story as you could have hoped for. When you consider that, of the fedora and trench coat crime fighting set, the Shadow is more compelling than the Hornet, then Shadow: Year One starts to look even more intriguing. If Wagner can work the same magic here, then Shadow: Year One could potentially become the highlight of the character’s comics history.
Wilfredo Torres’ art is good, but not distinguished. He’s got some big shoes to fill, considering who has worked on the Shadow through the years. It doesn’t help that the book’s writer, Matt Wagner, is an accomplished artist, and I can’t help but wonder what this book would have looked like had it been illustrated by Wagner himself. However, Torres isn’t given a hell of a lot to do in this issue, as the vast majority of the comic takes place in apartments, homes, and social clubs. Perhaps in future issues, particularly when he’s given the opportunity to depict the Shadow in all of his iconic, eerie glory, he can step out of the (ahem) shadow of luminaries like Rozen, Steranko, Chaykin, and Kaluta (not to mention guys like Bill Sienkiewicz and Kyle Baker). Hopefully, as the series continues, Torres will get a chance to shine.
Shadow: Year One #1 despite being understandably heavy on the set-up looks very promising. For longtime Shadow fans like me, Wagner and Torres have preserved the aura of mystery that surrounds the character, his origin, and his identities, while also revealing a little more about his background. There’s no “nudge/wink” factor in Shadow: Year One. There’s no ham-handed “and here’s the first time that he says his catch-phrase” or “look how the Shadow got his ring.” While I do expect we’ll see him gathering his agents together in the course of this series, if it’s handled with the elegance and subtlety of this first issue, then all will be well. After all, the last thing you want to do with the Shadow, even when telling an origin story, is reveal too much.