The second title in DC Comics‘ Gerard Way-helmed imprint, Young Animal, is “Shade, the Changing Girl” by Cecil Castellucci, Marley Zarcone, and Kelly Fitzpatrick. And while the star of the series builds directly on Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo’s interpretation of the character (which in turn built on the Steve Ditko creation), this is more than a simple retread of what we’ve seen before.
In the Beginning, There Was Rac Shade
Steve Ditko’s original creation in 1977 gave us Rac Shade, an escapee from the world of Meta. At its core, there’s surprisingly little of Ditko’s weirdness on display here. Rac Shade’s main weapon is the Miraco-Vest (often shortened to the M-Vest) which created a force field that made Shade look like a massive distorted and monstrous version of himself, in addition to other abilities as needed from the plot. (Usually this involved either flying, or behaving like a traditional force field that repelled attacks.) Most notable in Ditko’s short-lived series was the idea that Meta was not just another planet, but also in a different dimension than Earth, separated by a realm called the Zero-Zone. Rac Shade tried to clear his name from false charges of treason (including those leveled against him by his fiancée Mellu Loron), but at the end of his series (cancelled after eight issues as part of the infamous DC Implosion), Shade leaps into the normally-deadly Area of Madness within the Zero-Zone and is never seen again.
Or rather, was never seen again until John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell revived the character in “Suicide Squad” #16, revealing that Shade has been alive and well within the Area of Madness all this time. The character ended up a member of the Suicide Squad for almost two years, desperate to return home even as he’s unable to do so. Ultimately, Shade turns traitor in an attempt to do just that by assisting the villain Lashina in her plan in exchange for getting off of Earth once and for all. Shade and Lashina’s accomplices and victims alike end up on Apokolips, however, and while Shade survives the experience, he is presumably teleported back to Meta by Darkseid at the end of “Suicide Squad” #36 and is never seen again. Or rather, this version of Shade was gone. But half a year later, the character would be revamped into a more memorable edition.
This Way Lies Madness
Milligan and Bachalo’s “Shade, the Changing Man” #1 in July 1990 gave us a brand-new version of Shade. The character’s name was the same, he was still from the other-dimensional Meta, he had something called the M-Vest, and there was still an Area of Madness. But despite all of that, this character was radically different.
Here, the M-Vest was the Madness Vest, and Shade was a slightly depressive poet who was sent through the dimensions to inhabit the body of a freshly dead serial killer. His goal was to stop the dreaded American Scream. Using the M-Vest, Shade could literally warp reality around him through the power of madness; at the same time, the American Scream was doing the same thing in a sinister fashion across the country. Shade, accompanied by Kathy George (whose parents were killed by the murderer whose body Shade inhabited), went on a year and a half long road trip across the United States before finally destroying the American Scream. From there the series continued, forming part of the original six titles that the Vertigo imprint was founded upon, with the series’ only constant being that nothing was constant. Shade regularly changed appearance (and briefly, gender), the supporting cast rotated through, and in the end Shade himself rewrote history in a desperate attempt to spare Kathy and her parents their deaths even though it theoretically could erase his own existence from the universe.
This incarnation of Shade did make one brief appearance at the start of the New 52, appearing in the Milligan-written “Justice League Dark.” Here, Shade’s attempt to save Kathy has gone horribly awry, with the character still deceased but manifesting as part of Shade’s madness. With Milligan departing the series after eight issues, though, the character abruptly left the series with him, heading once more into the Area of Madness, accompanied by a version of Kathy who swears that she’s real and won’t leave him again.
Shade… Loma Shade
Castellucci, Zarcone and Fitzpatrick have built on what’s come before with Loma Shade, a young woman who idolized the poetry of Rac Shade, and who is determined to emulate him by stealing the M-Vest and travelling to Earth into a stolen body of her own. Zarcone draws the Madness Vest as Bachalo did, like a big floppy overcoat with strange ovals that swirl around on its surface. And just like how Milligan’s Shade slid into a body that no one would want back to life, Loma Shade has found the body of someone even more horrifying than a serial killer: a spoiled high schooler.
Megan Boyer nearly drowned at the end of her sophomore year, and her parents had finally pulled the plug on their daughter after being told that the brain-dead girl had no hope to survive. It’s Megan that Loma’s slid into, and saying that her parents are distinctly unhappy about Megan coming back is an understatement. But as we start to get glimpses of Loma’s host’s past life, the pieces don’t quite add up. Megan was apparently popular, but none of her friends were willing to see her released from the hospital. Additionally, Megan was part of a winning synchronized swim team — something that takes immense endurance and swimming skills — and yet she nearly drowned. Castellucci is laying out a very different kind of madness here, one that is rooted in everyday American teenage life.
Along those lines, Castellucci gives us a much more fantastical Meta than we’ve seen to date, operating as a direct contrast to the seemingly normal Earth. This version of Meta has humanoid animals walking around alongside humans; Loma has a strange bird-like head with a crest that looks like a Carnivale mask, while her best friend Lepuck is sort of blob-like with strange octopus-styled tentacles for arms and three-toed feet. With the head of the agency looking for the Madness Vest a human named Mellu Loron (the name of Ditko’s Shade’s fiancée), though, there are still links to the earlier Meta present within Castellucci’s script.
We’re only seeing the earliest glimmers of what this Madness Vest can do, but with reality rippling around Loma Shade as she tries to integrate into her new life — even as both her new parents and friends brace themselves for the idea that Loma’s host body, the awful Megan Boyer, is somehow still living — it’s clear that we’re going to see a lot of insanity in the upcoming issues. Which is more insane, though: Meta, or an American high school? If this first issue is any hint, that’s quite debatable. With enough links to both previous “Shade, the Changing Man” incarnations, as well as brand-new material to keep this from being a simple retread, there’s a hook for everyone here. Where it goes next, though? Well, only a madman would try to guess.