In 1986, one of the oldest and most famous pulp icons made his way back to the stands in comics in the form of Howard Chaykin’s “The Shadow: Blood & Judgment.” It was not the first time the violent anti-hero had made the four-color leap, and it won’t be the last. But that series — a signature Chaykin project full of the writer/artist’s trademark style, black humor and gun violence — made waves with a contemporary revision of The Shadow that has been discussed and sought after by fans ever since. Originally published as a four-issue prestige format mini from DC Comics, the graphic novel of “Blood & Judgment” is back in stores this April from Dynamite Entertainment.
While the pre-release promotion Dynamite issued to whet reader appetites for the book brought “>glowing praise of the comic’s pulp energy from modern creators like Brian Michael Bendis and incoming “Shadow” writer Garth Ennis, Chaykin himself admitted that “Blood & Judgment’s” origins were far less romantic than the praise would make it seem. “The answers to the questions are of the kind that frequently make comic book fans’ heads explode,” the artist told CBR News. “But the answer to why I did it was because I was at the San Diego comic convention in 1985, and Dick Giordano — who’s one of my favorite people in the world — came over to me and asked if I’d be interested in doing the Shadow. As it turned out, I was moving to Southern California in October, and I wanted to set up a working first job for out there so I could keep my studio rolling once I got to California. It was a short piece with the four-issue run, and so that was a very sensible, logical thing to do. Bear in mind, my familiarity with the Shadow at that point was limited to the Michael Kaluta comic book and a couple of the books.
“I was never a fan of the material. I know you’re not supposed to say that. I’ve always been associated with a kind of pulpy sensibility, but I was never a big pulp reader. I never read the Doc Savage stuff or any of that stuff. The closest I got was that I was a huge Robert E. Howard fan, obviously. And I’m an enormous Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. One of the three legs of my career was reading ‘Princess of Mars’ when I was 13 years-old. But that’s about it.”
The graphic novel focuses on the Shadow’s core setup of a cloaked and mystic vigilante who relies on a network of indebted assistants to fight crime, but the particular’s of Chaykin’s take made for quite a different story. This Shadow was full of fully automatic gunplay, sci-fi set dressing and existential crises for the associates who had been drawn into the masked man’s world. “The reason I pulled him out of the period was because I thought it would be commercial suicide to do a period character at that point,” the artist said. “[I felt] that the reason the character had been identified with that period through that point was because it had been cancelled in 1949. To support that idea based on its failure seemed kind of counter intuitive. My feeling is that if Batman had been cancelled in 1945, he too would be perceived as a period character. So I thought it was important to figure out a way to do the character in a contemporary setting and a contemporary format.”
Chaykin’s choices proved divisive amongst longtime readers of the character. While the series sold well — earning an early graphic novel treatment and leading to an ongoing series by Andy Helfer, Bill Sienkiewicz and Kyle Baker — there were voices at the time that complained the book took the Shadow too far from his pulp roots. Looking back on that time, Chaykin said the complaints didn’t phase him and still don’t. “I thought the book was well received by the people I cared about. Comic book fandom is evenly divided between people who like comics in a general way and are fans of comics in general, and then there’s an entire spade of juvenilists who attach themselves to the old joke about the Golden Age of comics. ‘What’s the Golden Age of comics? 12!’ There’s this tremendous idea that their tastes were formed and refined at 12, and frankly, I’m not interested in supporting that sensibility. By the same token, if I’m going to be doing a mature readers product, I don’t feel the need to stand by the standards of a 12-year-old sensibility. I certainly feel the pain of the people who were offended by the material, but fuck ’em. Life is hard all over. I was hired to do a job, and I feel I did a pretty damn good job with the material I had to work with. I’m happy with the work. I know that I antagonize and piss people off, but it’s fine. Who cares?”
All in all, Chaykin said, “I like the idea of the character more than the character himself. I’m very curious to see what Garth Ennis does with the material. I’ve got one of the variant covers for Garth’s third issue on my desk as we speak. It’s what I’m working on this morning. So I’m not fascinated by the idea of the Shadow. Like Superman, like Batman — these aren’t really characters. They’re empty vessels for different writers and artists to pour into. And I’m okay with that. Frank Miller’s Batman is entirely different from Denny O’Neil’s Batman, and Frank’s Daredevil is entirely different from Gary Friedrich’s or Bob Brown’s. Its a matter of what you do with the character as you take them along and push them in different directions. So I feel that to be beholden to what was done before you is, frankly, a waste of time.”
That Chaykin’s “Shadow” work is now viewed as some of the best ever done with the character may come off as ironic considering his approach, the artist has often taken a workman-like view of his comics even as they go on to inspire his contemporaries. Those ideas will also be touched upon with Dyanmite’s incoming hardcover book “The Art of Howard Chaykin” which gives a visual and historical retrospective of the creator’s career as written by longtime editor and historian Robert Greenberger.
Chaykin himself viewed the approaching volume with heaps of humor. “I’m a democrat with a big D and a small d, and so I never really thought of something like this,” he said. “I’m in the pack, not out front. I’m a cult figure, and I accept that. It’s flattering to have a book like this, but does that mean I’m going to be dead soon? I hate to say this, but my first reaction when I heard I’d been nominated for the Eisner Hall of Fame award was ‘No good will come of this.’ I don’t flatter easily, and I prefer comfort and privacy to power and prestige. Give me the money and leave me alone.”
The artist kept his hands out of the creation of the book in its earliest phases partly because he doesn’t have the attachment to his original art in the way that someone like his former studiomate Walter Simonson does. “Walter has kept every piece he’s ever done minus a couple of things here or there. He owns a second home filled with artwork, I guess,” Chaykin laughed. “I work for reproduction. Once it’s done and in print, I’m done with it. I own very little of my own work. I just don’t care about it that much. Sorry if that hurts feelings. I have a lot of transparencies, and there have been places where they can track things down. Comically, they found a whole bunch of shit I didn’t want to be reprinted.”
In the end, Chaykin said the book and other recent reprint projects like it are a boon to him in more ways than one. “The fact is, I still have an ego and like to know that people out there and reading my work,” he said. “One of the things I realized in having my work out of print for so long was that it served as a secret inspiration for a lot of guys. The metaphor I used back then which I stand by is that it’s like the ‘Birth of the Cool’ sides that Miles Davis cut with Gil Evans back in the late 1940s which were not released commercially on disc until the late ’50s. By that time, they’d been heard on reel to reel by everybody in California so they were the lynchpin of an entire jazz movement. To a certain extent, a lot of work I did in the early ’80s has been a huge inspiration to a lot of talents who were able to do more attention getting and [famous] work out of that material. And there’s a lot to be said for ‘Gee, I’d like to get some of that attention.’ But at the same time, I’m comfortable with where my life is at.”
“The Shadow: Blood& Judgment” is available in April and “The Art of Howard Chaykin” is available in July.