DITKO WEEK morphs into Day Seven with a look at Ditko’s strangest creation. As always, the archive is available here.
181. Shade, the Changing Man
No, really, I mean it. Stranger than Dr. Strange.
The premise for Ditko’s original Shade went something like this: Rac Shade, a fugitive from Meta, another dimension, escapes to Earth and dons an illegal and experimental M-Vest in order to clear his name– he’s been framed for treason, you see. The M-Vest gave him a force field and also distorted his appearance, “changing” him into a frightening warped figure, depending on the mind of those observing him. It was a marvelously insane little book, featuring pan-dimensional conspiracies, a locale that resembled Stephen Strange’s swingin’ pad, a Clea-like love interest, and truly weird and frightening villains, like the floating, swirling Form, the invisible geometric nightmare Cloak, a giant red Pac-Man-with-arms Sude, which was just a mech sort of thing housing the love interest’s evil mom, the mad Dr. Z.Z., and the “Lord of Destruction” himself, Khaos. Yeah, the book was quite mad, like a crazy love child between Ditko’s Dr. Strange and the Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves, or something.
The Shade page at Ditko Looked Up explains further:
Shade moved along at an a bolt-action pace that was as swift as anything that’s been seen in comics in the last ten years. Characters were introduced and discarded like cards in a game of draw poker. What began as a basically simple plot with several emebellishments soon became a tale of cross and double-cross involving virtually every level of the Metan government. Shade, convicted of treason and attempted murder and sought after for his theft of the M-Vest, was pursued by Mellu, his former fiancee, who believed him to be reasonsible for the crippling of her parents. Mellu was an N-Agent dispatched by the Metan government to track Shade down after he fled to Earth and “negate” him. Her contact in the Earth-Zone (which is how the inhabitants of the Meta-Zone refer to our dimension) was a red-bearded Metan named Wizor, who posed as an occulist, but whose mission was to mantain a receiving station for Metans travelling from one dimension to another. This small cast of characters grew rapidly, until it included Col. Kross and Sgt. Barak (Metan security agents who were Shade’s friends), Dr. Sagan (a research scientist and psychologist, who was also a friend of Shade’s), and a bumper crop of villians: the sinister Col. Lopak, the deadly team of Lt. Emp and Captain Mejan (who helped frame Shade), the bizarre Form, the explosive Khaos, and Sude, the Supreme Decider – secret head of the Metan crime structure who was ultimately revealed to be Mellu’s mother.
Shade only lasted eight issues. Like most visionary DC books at the time, it was a victim of the DC Implosion. A ninth issue had been completed, and also featured a back-up strip introducing Ditko’s wonderfully odd Oddman– this issue showed up in the second Cancelled Comics Cavalcade, along with an unpublished Ditko Creeper story.
The first Shade later appeared in Suicide Squad, but his plots were wrapped up there. It would take a different kind of writer to revitalize the concept, and that writer was Peter Milligan. His mature readers Shade the Changing Man series that would carry on to launch the Vertigo imprint was much beloved and lasted an amazing 70 issues. It featured some great art by Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, Sean Phillips, and more. And it featured some of the best covers ever, by Brendan McCarthy, among others.
What was this one about? Well, it starts with a girl named Kathy, whose parents are murdered by a psycho. On the day of his execution, the murderer becomes possessed, transformed, by an extra-dimensional being calling himself Shade and claiming to wear a reality-warping M-Vest that brings madness to life. He and Kathy meet up, and over the course of the series, fall in love and go on strange adventures. I haven’t read much of it, but it was definitely a weird– really weird– surreal series. Shade was often killed and reborn into new forms and bodies, including a woman, once– sort of like Doctor Who on Mescaline. The series did quite well and is fondly remembered, yet there’s only one trade paperback out! C’mon, DC/Vertigo! What are you waiting for?
In either of its incarnations, Shade the Changing Man was a bizarre but supremely interesting and innovative comic that pushed at the boundaries of the form and wasn’t afraid to get really, really weird. So whether you want to remember it as an overlooked Ditko classic (much like Kirby and OMAC), or the quintessential Vertigo series under the pen of Peter Milligan, you’re remembering a good comic. Me, I like both premises, and wouldn’t be surprised if we saw yet another Shade reinvention sometime in the future.
Be back tomorrow for even more Ditko goodness. One week just ain’t enough!