After a year of Catholic superhero vampire antics, Aboriginal and Egyptian god fights and the darkness wielding exploits of an immortal British rake, James Robinson’s “The Shade” maxi-series from DC Comics is coming to a close with the retelling of Shade’s origin in issue #12.
Following the adventures of the sometimes villain, sometimes hero Richard Swift, also known as the Shade, the maxi-series jumped back and forth in time to explore the character’s family history as the current day Richard tracked down those responsible for an attempt on his life. Bringing in everyone from Deathstroke and Starman to the vampire La Sangre, the series featured art by a rotating roster of talented artists such as Javier Pulido, Frazer Irving, Gene Ha, Jill Thompson, Cully Hamner and Darwyn Cooke.
As the maxi-series draws to a close Robinson looked back on his Shade story with CBR News, speaking about his decision to end with Shade’s “birth,” his regrets about the series’ near cancellation and his ideas for more Shade stories — including a team-up with Gotham’s Dark Knight!
CBR News: The very last issue of the twelve issue maxi-series is out soon and it tells the story of Shade’s origin. What made you want to end at the beginning for Shade?
James Robinson: It worked in terms of the story structure. By jumping back each time from the 1940s to turn of the century Paris to his origin, I could only tell that story at that point when you knew that much about the character. Had I done it the other way around it wouldn’t have worked in terms of the overall maxi-series. It was fun; if you look at the title of the three “Time’s Past” segments in issue #4 I actually call it “A Family Affair Part III” and then “Part Two” is with Jill Thompson and the last one, which is issue #12, is entitled “Family Affair Part One.” So I was actually playing with the idea of doing reverse narrative at the beginning. You really need to have read all eleven issues to fully enjoy and appreciate what the origin is. Had I started with the origin, it would have been a different story than what I was revealing in the first issue. It was fitting to end with the origin.
Also it was equally fitting to end it with Gene Ha doing the artwork, it’s beautiful. Apart from doing a really lovely “Time’s Past” that I was proud of in “Starman,” he also did a chapter in the “Starman” romance annual I did — all the annuals were pulp-themed so I chose romance because I thought it would be the hardest. He also did issue #1 of the “Shade” miniseries that was part of the original “Starman” series and was collected in one of the omnibuses. So the idea of having him do the origin felt thematically right, as did having the last image of the Shade be the first moment of that miniseries with him doing art for both.
I also want to say the coloring by Art Lyon is absolutely stunning. I’ve been very lucky with the colorists I’ve had for the entire maxi-series, and whenever I’ve talked about “Shade” I’ve forgotten to mention how great the coloring is — so this is my chance to do it and to thank Art for doing a great job!
Is working on one story collaborating with many different artists something you’d want to do again — either with more “Starman” characters or something completely new?
I always liked the idea. That was one of the things I was most proud of with “Starman” and the “Shade” miniseries I did in the past was the way I and Archie Goodwin, who was my editor, and Peter Tomasi when he was the editor who followed Archie, would either try and get an artist that suited the story I was telling or I would literally hone the story around who the artist was. It’s an exciting thing to do and it’s a great challenge — I think it makes for a more satisfying comic book. It was also, quite frankly, a way to ensure you can get some great names in the book because there isn’t a single one of the artists who worked on the maxi-series that would have wanted to do twelve issues, but you can get three issues out of someone. You can get an issue out of Darwyn Cooke or Gene Ha or Jill Thompson.
In fact I have another idea for the Shade — a Shade and Batman story with little flashbacks to the past. I don’t know if DC will ever let me do it because sales on “The Shade” were not particularly high, but if I ever got the chance my idea would be to have the main story told by one artist for five issues, but then each issue is to have six pages of flashback portrayed by different cool artists. So yes, I like that form of storytelling and I would like to do it again, and if I ever got the opportunity I’d like to do the Shade again. I love writing the characters and I was very relieved after so many years away from him to be able to pick up the “quilled pen” and write in his voice again pretty effortlessly.
With this series you were playing around with the idea of blood and family and even religious iconography. Looking at the whole maxi-series do you feel this is your definitive Shade story?
It’s interesting, the more I write the character the more I realize I don’t think there is a definitive Shade story. There are just so many different aspects and he’s lived so long with different changes of heart and changes of opinion in his life. This focuses on his family, an aspect of his life we didn’t realize was even there, but there are other stories I could tell with this focusing on aspects of who he is and what he is.
You mentioned the religion in comics; it’s just an interesting thing to me that in the DC Universe Mr. Terrific, Michael Holt, was an atheist but when you have The Spectre around and Deadman and all these characters, you really can’t doubt the existence of god. It’s an interesting world where religion and faith and metaphysical stuff isn’t something you can debate. It’s apparent, like leaves growing on a tree. I had a lot of fun creating La Sangre. When I created her I wanted this cool little vampire character, but then someone pointed out to me that what I’d done no one had really done before — she’s happy with who she is. Vampires, if they aren’t evil and enjoy being evil, are often mope-y and sad and tortured the way good vampires tend to be. But La Sangre is a superhero that protects Barcelona and is happy. Making her a Catholic at the same time was fun and playing with what we think of in terms of vampirism and faith and everything else. So I enjoyed making that a subtext I’m glad you picked up on.
Similarly, a lot of the story was specifically tied into place and time, like the Egyptian Gods being under the British Museum. Did you have this in mind going in, or was it organic?
Stuff like that organically comes from the areas. For everything you plan there’s something that falls into place. People talk about “Starman” as this thing where every little plot point was sewn up and everything was neat and tidy at the end, but I would say at least thirty percent of what I put into “Starman” was stuff that sprang out of nowhere and then made to work. I remember reading an interview with Neil Gaiman about “Sandman” and even he said that while a lot of it was plotted, some things just popped in his head and he made work. I’m sure every creator of a long series would say the same. With regards to the Shade maxi-series, some of it I absolutely had worked out ahead of time and other bits of it I was like, “Where did that come from?” Originally the Masonic cabal in Issues #9-11 was going to employ demonic forces, and this is an example of what I mean — I was thinking, “That’s fine but I feel like I’ve seen Masons worshipping demons and whatnot before.” Suddenly out of nowhere the British Museum, and the fact England was so obsessed with Egyptology in the ’20s and ’30s especially, popped in my head.
Knowing I had Frazer Irving doing the art helped as well. I was like, “What if we tried to do Jack Kirby doing the Egyptian Gods — Galactus meets the Egyptian Gods?” I had been aware of Frazer’s work for a long time, and seeing how he was doing the color and composition and everything else on that lovely “Xombi” series he did right before “Shade” helped me think this is how we should change it to feel fresh and new. It allowed me to one minute have the Shade walking through London and next have a double page spread of these Egyptian Gods blasting Egyptian people centuries ago!
Heading into the final issue, what’s your overall feeling on the maxi-series? Do you have any regrets or wishes for more time with Shade?
I think I had plenty of time and I think had DC made the series part of the New 52 launch it might have sold a bit better. However, being off away from that allowed me a bit of independence and freedom to really make “The Shade” the series it was supposed to be. What I’m proud of is, I made it! [Laughs] There was a good possibility the book would be cancelled with issue #8 based on the projected sales decline — there’s a formula you can work out how books are going to sell or not sell. I took a gamble and told people who were waiting for the graphic novel collection if this book doesn’t hold its sales, it isn’t going to make it to issue #12. Enough people came onboard the book and supported it to have all twelve issues come out. Thanks to Dan DiDio for taking the gamble, saying we should see this series through to the end. I’m very proud and thankful the Shade has this following of readers who kept it going for all twelve issues. I would of loved to have seen it collected as an omnibus, but down the line if enough people buy the trade maybe one day that will happen. We’ll see!
James Robinson’s final issue of “The Shade” maxi-series goes on sale September 12.