Peter Milligan’s (and, to a certain extent, Chris Bachalo’s) masterpiece gets the spotlight!
Shade, the Changing Man by Peter Milligan (writer), Chris Bachalo (penciller, issues #1-9, 11-13, 15-21, 23-26, 33-39, 42-45, 47, 49-50), Bill Jaaska (penciller, issue #10), Bryan Talbot (penciller, issue #14), Jan Duursema (penciller, issue #20), Brendan McCarthy (artist, issue #22), Colleen Doran (penciller, issues #27-29, 31-32), Duncan Eagleson (penciller, issue #30), Glyn Dillon (artist, issues #34, 38, 40-41, 45), Peter Gross (artist, issue #36), Scot Eaton (penciller, issue #39), Philip Bond (penciller, issue #40, 43, 48), Steve Yeowell (artist, issue #42), Mark Buckingham (penciller, issues #49-50, 54-57, 59-60; inker, issues #30-31), Sean Phillips (artist, issues #51-53), Michael Lark (penciller, issues #56, 58-59), Richard Case (penciller, issues #61-63, 65-70), Andy Pritchett (penciller, issue #62), Jamie Tolagson (penciller, issues #64, 67), Mark Pennington (inker, issues #1-16, 18-21, 23-29, 68), Rick Bryant (inker, issues #17, 20, 33-39, 42-45, 47, 49-50, 54-57, 59-63), Pablo Marcos (inker, issue #32), Dick Giordano (inker, issue #53), Rafael Kayanan (inker, issues #64, 67), Phil Gascoine (inker, issues #69-70), Daniel Vozzo (colorist, issues #1-41, 45-70), David Hornung (colorist, issues #42-44), Todd Klein (letterer, issues #1-29, 31-40, 42-54), Albert de Guzman (letterer, issue #30), Richard Starkings (letterer, issue #41), and Sean Konot (letterer, issues #55-70).
SPOILERS, I guess. That’s what happens when you write about a series that’s been over for a while! (Plus, you can always click the images to enlarge them. I don’t always mention that, but it’s true!)
Shade was kind of the red-headed stepchild of Vertigo (if you’ll pardon the allusion) in its early days – it wasn’t Sandman, Swamp Thing, or Hellblazer, and it didn’t have the Morrisonian pedigree of Animal Man or Doom Patrol. It was also a hard comic to pin down, because of all of those early Vertigo books, Peter Milligan didn’t really seem to care about plot all that much.
Sandman was the baroque, mythic epic; Swamp Thing and Hellblazer were the old-time horror comics (although Swamp Thing had strayed somewhat far from horror in those pre-Millar days); by that time Animal Man was the new-school horror book; and Doom Patrol was the weird comic. Shade seemed to be “Doom Patrol Lite,” and perhaps that turned people off. Milligan seemed to veer all over the map quite a bit – he indulged in some weird stuff, but he also threw some horror at us just for fun. Milligan’s tone has always been a bit hard for people to completely love, it seems, because his work often feels more clinical than many other writers, and that’s not a feeling that endears a writer to large sections of the populace. Shade confounds readers because of the fact that Milligan doesn’t care that much about plot. He knew he needed a hook, so early in the series he came up with the American Scream and built a long, 18-issue plot around it. After that storyline ended, however, Shade started to drift. The book lasted over four more years, but Milligan never really cared all that much about plots after that. He came up with them, of course, but they seemed like distractions from what he was really interested in. The other Vertigo books were very plot-heavy, and while that didn’t mean they couldn’t have excellent character work, they had an inevitability to them. Shade meandered, and that makes it often frustrating, especially after issue #50 but even before that turning point. The reason for this rather aimless direction is because Milligan was far more interested in writing what is one of the most magnificent love stories in comics as well as one of the most complex examination of what it means to be human that we’ve seen in the form.
Other writers emphasize the fact that they’re writing about relationships. By couching his comic in terms of “madness,” Milligan is able to trick us into thinking this is just all weird stuff. But Shade, Kathy, and Lenny are a beautiful and powerful love triangle (to a degree), and while Milligan usually writes about identity (it’s kind of his thing), he’s never done it more thoroughly in Shade.
Milligan uses Ditko’s Shade, who starred in a brief series in the late 1970s, as his vehicle. Early on in the series, the letters are rather humorous, as John Ostrander used Shade in Suicide Squad and his last appearance there was about six months before Milligan’s series began, and many people tried to fit this Shade (who was theoretically the same character) with that Shade. Milligan, however, took this version of the character to strange new places – in the first issue, Rac Shade, a “madness agent” from the planet Meta, had to take over the body of a human, so he entered Troy Grenzer, a serial killer who was about to be executed. Grenzer, we learn in the first issue, killed the parents of a young woman named Kathy George, who had delayed her arrival at her parents’ house to have sex with her boyfriend, a black man named Roger. When they reached her parents’ house, Roger tried to wrestle Grenzer to the ground, but a white policeman shot him in the back of the head because he thought Roger was the killer.
When Shade takes over Grenzer’s body, he finds Kathy, who had come to the prison for Grenzer’s execution. Shade manages to convince Kathy that he’s not actually Grenzer, and so their adventure begins, as the police, naturally, think that Grenzer somehow got away and kidnapped Kathy.
It’s not the optimal way to begin a relationship, but it will do. Early on, Shade and Kathy are trying to escape the authorities, represented by FBI Agent Stringer, and Milligan constantly throws them into the “madness,” so their relationship develops slowly. In issue #2 we find out that Troy Grenzer isn’t exactly dead – there’s some “residue” left over, so Grenzer occasionally comes out and, well, threatens Kathy with horrible death. Kathy, obviously, doesn’t take kindly to Shade’s reassurances that it’s under control, but the madness keeps showing up and making sure they stay together. In issue #4, Milligan gives us the first indication that their relationship is going to be something different than we’ve seen before – after they escape from FBI custody, Shade is taking a shower and Kathy asks him about Meta and what exactly is going on – not that Shade knows anything, as his memory is a bit sketchy about what he’s supposed to do (and it’s not really that important, anyway – Milligan uses Meta quite often, but it’s really not that much alien from Earth, and Shade’s mission on Earth ends in issue #18, when he defeats the American Scream). She says, “Before I get involved with a man, I like to know as much about him as possible.” When Shade questions what she means, she says, “Shit, that’s what’s going to happen, isn’t it? It shouldn’t. It’s crazy. But I always know. I’ve a kinda internal alarm. It’s ringing like mad now.” The series is always a bit self-aware, but this is more than that – Milligan understands that proximity is crucial in establishing a romance, and even if the obstacles seem great, Kathy knows that she’s going to get past the circumstances of her meeting Shade and eventually end up with him. It’s a brutally fatalistic attitude, but it’s not necessarily a depressing one.
Shade isn’t a bad guy, after all, and it’s not unnatural to think that Kathy will come to see that. But Milligan lets us know that even though there will be romance, it’s going to be a far more mundane romance than we might expect, full of stops and starts and U-turns.
Shade is usually our point-of-view character, so we discover early on that he considers Kathy a life-line – he’s alone in this world, remember, and he learns early on that getting back to his original body (which his mentor on Meta, Wizor, told him would be waiting for him) might be a bit difficult – and so he doesn’t want to lose her. Milligan isn’t too heavy-handed about it, but it’s interesting that for several issues as Shade and Kathy get closer, the characters don’t talk about the fact that Shade is confusing love with need – Kathy is the only person he knows on Earth, and he can’t “settle down” and make other friends because he has his mission to do something about the “madness” that’s infected America. The idea of intense circumstances leading to romance is a cliché in fiction, of course – Sandra Bullock makes a comment about it in Speed, after all – and Milligan does a nice job examining that. His characters are too flawed and terrified to discuss it, of course, which makes them normal.
The American Scream story arc often means that Shade and Kathy aren’t even the stars of the individual stories – they just show up and “fix” things as best as they can. Milligan moves their relationship along, somewhat haltingly, and issue #4 is even “Shade’s origin story” – apparently the book was originally pitched as a four-issue mini-series, so that would be a decent place to end if had it not been upgraded.
So in issues #2-3 we get an examination of the Kennedy assassination with Duane Trilby writing a book about it, not dealing with the death of his daughter. In issues #5-6 Milligan turns his eye to the hypocrisy of Hollywood. Issue #7 is about homeless people in New York. Issues #8-9 take Shade away from Kathy and into the mind of a aging hippie, whose Paradise isn’t quite as wonderful as everyone thinks. Issue #8 is notable as Milligan introduced the world to Lenny Shapiro, who eventually joined Shade and Kathy on their journeys. Finally, issue #10 took us to middle America and “normal” people trying to impose their own version of “normality” on the world, with disastrous results. All of these early stories range from fairly bland propaganda – issue #10 most notably – to kernels of good ideas that don’t quite sing. Issue #7, “The Nameless,” is probably the best of the lot, mostly because Milligan doesn’t try to hard to make a grand statement about why America is screwed up, he just shows us a certain character at the end of their rope and twists the knife a bit, linking it back to Kathy, who has her own problems. Then, in issue #9, part of Shade’s unconscious – which looks like a giant baby – shows up in Lenny’s apartment and tells Kathy it loves her. Milligan, using the “madness,” does a nice job showing how the buried parts of people often know something before the conscious mind – Shade doesn’t realize or can’t admit that he loves Kathy, but part of him knows it, even though it just “slipped out,” as the giant baby tells Kathy. By the end of the issue, Shade and Kathy are back together, and Milligan again shows that this will be a bumpy romance – Kathy and Shade are in bed together – fully clothed – but their sudden knowledge is hanging over them. Kathy turns on the light and says, “This is stupid. Maybe we should just get it out of the way, huh?” Most writers of fiction equate love with sexual tension, when they’re two different things, but Milligan is bold enough to have his characters talk about it, and Kathy’s matter-of-fact tone about it is somewhat sad, as she definitely equates love with sex (so does Shade, but not at this moment, as he’s unsure what she’s talking about). They’re interrupted at this moment, but the foundation is there.
The romance really starts taking shape in “Edge of Vision,” the three-part story arc in issues #11-13 that really kicks the series into high gear, as Milligan, while still working within the boundaries of “madness” that he created, begins to focus more on the characters and how they relate to each other.
Someone is killing couples in a similar fashion to Troy Grenzer, and the female victims all have first names that begin with “K.” Agent Stringer asks Shade for help, and when he returns to Kathy (joined by Lenny, who “officially” joins the cast in this issue), he lies to her and she knows it. Milligan’s dialogue here is perfect; Kathy says, “Always the hardest, isn’t it? After that they get easier. They start to come natural.” He asks her what she’s talking about, and she says, “Lying, Shade. I guess this is the first time you’ve really lied to me.” It won’t be the last, and what makes Kathy’s awareness of it in this instant so tragic is that both of them are now aware that the relationship isn’t really built on completely unselfish ground. Kathy doesn’t even think it ought to be – in a later issue, she chides Lenny for being so brutally honest by asking what’s wrong with some “safe” lies. But at this point, we see that Kathy and Shade are taking tentative steps toward being a couple, and neither is sure what that means. At the end of issue #11, Shade comes face-to-face with Troy Grenzer, who has apparently come back to life. The residue of Grenzer’s personality inside Shade harnessed some of the madness and created a body that he can keep together for a time, and he wants his actual body – the one Shade is using – back. He, of course, has been killing the people, and it’s why Shade feels so linked to the murderer. For the purposes of the relationship between Shade and Kathy, the important point is that Grenzer manages to “hijack” Shade’s body and pretend to be him, and of course he goes straight back to the hotel and has sex with Kathy. Of course, she enjoys it – when the “real” Shade finally figures out what happens and returns in the morning, she tells him, “You know, I didn’t think it’d be this good. … You were wilder than I thought you’d be.” Shade can’t handle that, and he eventually tells Lenny what happened. Again, Milligan shows how well he understands human relationships, as Lenny points out that Shade doesn’t really feel sorry for Kathy, even though she’s been wronged. Shade really feels sorry for himself because he’s angry that Grenzer was such a good lover. It’s petty, but Shade can’t escape the feeling.
Before he can talk to Kathy about it, though, she decides to leave him, and when he and Lenny find her again, she’s gone too far into her alcoholism, and they can only get her into a rehab clinic, where Shade decides to leave her in Lenny’s care. It’s just a brief caesura in their relationship, but Milligan again shows that the path of love never runs straight.
Shade does see Kathy soon enough, and in issue #15, they make love for the “first time.” Kathy, of course, thinks they’ve already had sex, but Shade knows that was Grenzer. Of course, it’s different – Kathy says that the first time, they were just “screwing like animals,” but this time was nicer, but Shade himself claims to know that she was disappointed. It’s an old cliché in fiction – the different ways men make love to women, and what women prefer – but Milligan has done a nice job setting it up. Of course, because of the madness, Kathy can find out what happened, as she does, and when she confronts Lenny about it, she tells her friend that she doesn’t need protecting from the truth. The irony of the statement – of course she needs protecting from the truth, because a page later the truth drives her to drink, as she hides from the truth – is one reason why Shade is such an interesting comic. The tension between these characters wanting to know the truth and wanting to hide in lies is very well done, and this is just one such instance.
Milligan wraps up the American Scream storyline in issue #18, and he also sends Kathy to her uncle’s farm in Montana, because she doesn’t want to hang out with Shade much at that moment. In issue #20, Milligan brings them back together, and he also introduces another controversial element to the story – Lenny kisses Kathy.
They become lovers soon after, and some of the readers didn’t like it, as evidenced by the letters in the back of the book. On the one hand, it’s a fairly clichéd move, but coming so soon after Kathy and Shade became lovers, Milligan is showing how terrified Kathy is of becoming too close to one person. It appeared some people objected more to the fact that Kathy was always portrayed as staunchly heterosexual, but Milligan obviously had a different idea, and while he doesn’t get too far into the idea of sexual fluidity, it’s definitely wrapped up in the characters’ quests for identity. It’s also interesting that Kathy and Lenny don’t last as a couple for some of the same reasons that Kathy and Shade initially don’t last – the characters aren’t ready for a grown-up relationship, and they lose interest in “playing” at them. Kathy knows that Lenny is good for her – she tells Shade so in issue #31 – but it’s interesting that Milligan makes Shade the conservative one in the group. Kathy says that Shade has been good for her, too, but Shade thinks that Lenny has influenced her too much. Later, Shade can’t even conceive of the process of aborting a baby, and he reacts poorly when Kathy says she’s going to have one. He’s not too conservative, obviously, but he still can’t let go of an ideal of a perfect relationship with Kathy, even as he claims he has. He’s torn by desires that he’s scared to act upon, and he’s guilty because he has them. It makes Shade a bit more wishy-washy than we might want, but it also drives him forward in his love for Kathy.
When the threesome moves into the “Hotel Shade” in issue #33, Milligan is ready to move to a new phase in the relationships that define the book. Shade has been killed (again), and when he returns, he’s a bit weirder than he has been before (which is saying something).
Then Kathy is killed, but she also comes back. The relative stability of the hotel means that the three characters are trapped with each other a bit more than they have been before – yes, they’ve been together, but they haven’t had a permanent home, and now they do, and Milligan immediately starts bouncing them off each other even more than before. As usual, he’s exploring whether these characters are really in love or whether they’re just lusting after each other – what happens when they need to sit down and confront their feelings rather than just moving on? Kathy and Lenny are still together, but their relationship isn’t as stable as it once was. Milligan brings in a strange child who seems to make everyone act on their basest instincts, which leads to a lot of truth that the characters would rather keep hidden. Milligan, in typical fashion, doesn’t really have the characters deal with this, even as Shade foreshadows Kathy’s pregnancy by shouting out that he wants children. When he picks up the romantic angle of the story, it’s in issue #41, when Kathy finds out she’s pregnant at an awkward time in her relationship with Shade, as he’s just pulled the soul of Pandora out of the ether and fallen head over heels in love with her (unfortunately for Shade, she doesn’t survive the issue). Milligan, as usual, cuts to the core of the triangle almost as an aside – when Lenny tells Shade he’s always putting women on a pedestal (in this case, it’s literal), Shade answers that she and Kathy are “jealous of two people falling in love,” because they “are busily falling out of love!” Shade’s right, and Lenny and Kathy know it, but it’s another example of these characters not really understanding how to deal with their feelings. They’re all intoxicated by the idea of falling in love, but none of them are all that comfortable with the idea of being in love. This is why they have so many problems.
Kathy’s pregnancy leads to issue #42, where the three characters argue about abortion – Shade can’t believe that Kathy would even consider it, mainly because he’s never heard of it before and can’t believe it’s legal.
As usual, before anything can be resolved, Milligan throws them into another odd situation, as they’re dragged backward in time, picking up John Constantine (the 1979 version) along the way. They end up in the late 1600s, where Lenny and Kathy are accused of witchcraft. Milligan finally allows Shade to understand his issues with Kathy, and when they return to the present, he tells Kathy that he loves her, but not as a real person. Lenny describes it succinctly: “So you’re saying that you’re falling hopelessly in love with Kathy but you’re scared of falling for a real grown-up person.” This has been the theme throughout the book, and the fact that it takes until issue #45 for someone says it out loud speaks to how well Milligan has been able to imply it. Kathy decides to have the baby, which angers Lenny, and of course draws Kathy and Shade closer to each other. We find out soon enough that Lenny is angry because she had a daughter whom she abandoned years earlier, but at that moment, it seems like she’s just being petty. And as foreshadowing, Milligan brings in one of the angels who saved Shade when he died in issue #32 and has him tell Shade that Kathy’s baby needs to be killed so the angels can use its body. They want to use the body as a vehicle for their own creation. The angels held onto part of Shade’s soul to blackmail him, and now they’re trying to do just that. So Kathy’s pregnancy is fraught with tension. Neither Lenny nor, indeed, Shade can handle it, and in issue #46, they both abandon Kathy – Lenny runs off with a piece of living art named Shimmy and Shade runs off after having a tryst with a resurrected Pandora, whom he then leaves. It’s not their finest hour.
Of course they return, and Lilly, Lenny’s daughter, shows up as well, but they don’t stay long. Shade travels to Meta, meets the Devil, and returns to the Hotel after months have passed – Kathy is almost at her due date.
Shade and Kathy’s romance is put on hold as Shade tries to deal with the angels, but in issue #49, Milligan gives us another one of those devastating statements that he occasionally comes up with – Kathy feels abandoned as her world slowly spins out of control. She tells Shade about a time when she was a teenager at a party with her parents’ friends, and she had sex with a boy she didn’t know. She felt “liberated,” but then the boy threw a 20-dollar bill at her and changed the entire prism through which she viewed the act. Later, she’s in bed trying to sleep, but she can’t because she feels so alone. Milligan writes that she’s “in need of human warmth … but sometimes it’s easier to make love to a stranger than to ask a friend to hold you.” It’s a beautiful statement, and it’s another way to sum up the theme of the romance of these three characters – they’re so “liberated” that they can’t give in, and if they come close to giving in, they run away. Reading it now, it’s obvious that Milligan is leading us horribly toward Kathy’s death, but it doesn’t change the fact that the real tragedy of Kathy, Shade, and Lenny is that they could never quite say what they meant and they could never quite commit.
Kathy is killed in issue #50, and the group shatters. Shimmy dies, Pandora decides to become a statue again, and Lenny blames Shade for Kathy’s death. Kathy’s son survives, but Shade isn’t interested in him.
I have heard that Milligan regrets killing Kathy and/or not ending the series at issue #50 (I can’t find an interview on-line where he says that), but if he had to continue it, he probably needed to do something to change the dynamic. He had taken the love triangle about as far as it could go, and killing Kathy allowed him to examine grief and the way people deal with loss. Something had to happen to shake things up, and while killing Kathy was an extreme way to go, it does give the book a good shaking up. Initially, Shade tries (and fails) to commit suicide, but soon both he and Lenny see different women whom they believe is Kathy, reincarnated. They move past that (although Milligan does imply that perhaps Shade did see Kathy, but he never returns to that particular character) and get on with their lives. Shade raises George, the child he and Kathy had, but George ages very quickly and dies in issue #57 (although Shade takes his soul and keeps it safe, so George is later reborn). Kathy haunts the book, as a new character, Andrea Merdoch, wants to write a book about Shade and she keeps trying to figure out what’s special about Kathy. The fact that there isn’t really anything special about Kathy makes Andrea very angry. Shade loses his heart (literally) but when he has a chance to get it back, he decides he doesn’t need it. It’s not terribly subtle of Milligan, but it does show how much in pain Shade still is – he’d rather live without his heart than deal with his feelings for Kathy. Lenny and Andrea convince him to put it back in, but by then, they’ve poisoned it (they’re a bit angry at Shade) in the hopes that he’ll be able to feel all of the horror he’s brought into people’s lives.
He finally does, and this leads to the final three issues of the series, where he goes back in time and saves Kathy. It might feel like a cop-out, but Milligan has set up the idea of time travel quite well, and he does a good job tying up some loose ends. All Shade does is stop Troy Grenzer from killing Kathy’s parents, and then he returns to the present and finds her in Montana, where she’s staying with her uncle and aunt. It takes some convincing, but she finally agrees to see him (we never see her, though – she’s inside the house and we stay with Shade outside), and Milligan sends them off with a happy ending. As meandering as the final 20 issues of the book can be, Shade and Kathy weren’t going to get a happy ending before issue #50, because Shade hadn’t had a chance to understand what she meant to him. Only after living without her and realizing how horrible it was could Shade make a commitment, and even at that point, he almost chickens out. Milligan does a nice job showing that their road might still be rocky, but they might have reached a point where they can make it work. (Although we never do find out what happened to Roger. Poor Roger. Let’s hope he and Kathy just drifted apart and he’s living a happy life with someone less crazy.)
These contentious love stories play out among a theme that Milligan often returns to, that of identity and what it means. Milligan has made the quest for identity the centerpiece of most of his best works, but because Shade is so sprawling and lengthy, he does more with it in this series than in others. It’s most obvious with the main characters, especially Shade, but almost every character has some kind of identity crisis, and it helps illuminate one of Milligan’s sneaky points that ties back into the love story, that of fluid sexuality.
Shade, of course, has the biggest problem with identity – his soul is trapped in the body of a killer, he falls in love with the daughter of the killer’s final victims, and parts of the killer’s soul keep coming back to haunt him. This comes to a head in “Edge of Vision,” as Shade isn’t sure if he’s killing people or if Troy Grenzer is, but he does manage to get Grenzer out of his head at the end of the arc. However, this story also takes him into his own head, where he discovers all the various facets of his personality, including “Hades,” the “evil” personality who cajoles Shade to “let him out” of his cage every so often. Hades might even be worse than Grenzer, because he’s part of Shade and Shade can’t blame his bad behavior on the fact that a serial killer is sharing head space with him. Milligan, by using Grenzer and then Hades, shows the side of Shade’s personality that he doesn’t want to let out – the animal without inhibitions. Grenzer, as noted, has sex with Kathy before Shade does, and when Shade finally does, Kathy notices the difference. Milligan is dealing in broad clichés here – the woman who claims to want a tender lover but digs the rough stuff; the man who feels inadequate because he’s not an animal in bed – but because he has set up Shade as a slightly effeminate character, it works better than we might expect. Shade wants to be “sensitive,” and because of the madness infecting him, he fears letting go of his darker aspects. His quest for “integration” – for lack of a better word – consumes the entire series. Milligan does a nice job showing that he never quite reconciles all the various parts of his personality, but by the end of the book, he’s better able to control them. There’s not an easy answer.
Hades, in fact, does end up getting Shade killed, as he is so predatory that he can’t ignore any strange occurrence, and in “The Road” (issues #20-25), Shade discovers that his body is, in fact, dead, and his soul managed to resurrect his body – but only temporarily.
He needs to find a new body, so Milligan finds one – a woman’s. The three-part “Shade, the Changing Woman” arc (issues #27-29) allows Milligan to engage in a twisted murder mystery, but it also adds another element to Shade’s quest for identity – is he a male in a woman’s body, or is he actually a woman? The idea of fluid sexuality plays into this arc as well – Milligan could have played the gender switch for laughs, and there are a few chuckles when Shade tries to get used to his new body, but for the most part, Milligan tries to imagine what a man would feel like if he had a different gendered body. Shade has sex, for instance, and he can’t comprehend the feeling of it. He flirts with a police officer and is horrified by the way he looks at him. Milligan will do this again later, when he places George’s soul in a girl’s body (Lenny’s daughter’s, in fact), and it’s a clever way to subvert our expectations. He plays the George/Lilly situation a little more for laughs, but that’s because George has the mind of a teenager, so he reacts more hormonally to having a female body than Shade does. It’s a bit more tragic, too, because George doesn’t know how to handle his emotions – in issue #70, he mentions that he was talking to a girl and he thought he was doing pretty well until she mentioned that her brother would like to meet “him.” When Shade gets all mopey about meeting Kathy again because he’s “too dirty” for her, George rants, “God give me the chance to be too dirty for a woman!” It’s a good line, not only because it’s funny, but because it reminds us that George has never had an identity, and yet he’s still more together than Shade is.
Part of the reason why Shade and Kathy’s relationship is doomed is because of Shade’s quest for identity. The final issues with Kathy, after they move into the Hotel Shade, are rife with this idea that Shade cannot commit to Kathy because he doesn’t know who he is. Milligan shows this in different ways, but it always comes back to the idea that Shade has no idea what he wants, and so he always ends up pushing Kathy away.
He makes duplicates of himself because he feels shut out of the Kathy/Lenny relationship, and this, once again, gets him into trouble when one of the duplicates decides he wants to be free. He believes that he wants a child so that he can define himself, but it’s just another selfish desire on his part, and when he gets a child, he has no idea how to handle it, nor does he seem interested in finding out. He manages to call down the spirit of Pandora, with whom he has uninhibited sex – Milligan makes Pandora a whore, turning the “Madonna/Whore” trope a bit too literal, but it’s just another indication that Shade has no idea how to approach Kathy, as she represents far too much “innocence” to him. After Kathy dies, Shade is so confused as to how to deal with it that he becomes a dance floor so he can ignore it. Michele, the woman who ends up dancing on him, confronts him about it, and he tells her he was trying to cut himself off from life. Milligan does a wonderful job showing how sad Shade has become, but at the same time, he also shows that Shade’s romantic soul will get him in trouble – Michele tells him she’ll teach him to dance, and Shade says, “I’m … I’m getting over this woman. Her name was Kathy. I’m not ready to …” and she cuts him off and says, “… Nor am I. It’s just dancing.” Shade invests so much meaning into everything he does that he’s unable to enjoy something simple like dancing, and he needs Michele at that moment to show him how to enjoy the small things. (Of course, he warns her that he’s dangerous, and she does die mainly because of him, but presumably the time traveling at the end brings her back to life.) Milligan continues to show Shade trying to reconcile his feelings for Kathy with his own ideas about identity, and it’s part of the reason why the final 20 issues of the book work even though they’re weaker than the earlier issues. Shade is spiraling, and not much can help him. His fling with Sinita, a girl he rescues in issue #61, is good for him in a strange way, because it lets him enjoy sex unashamedly for perhaps the first time, and it also lets him get past jealousy, as Sinita isn’t exactly faithful (nor does Shade care if she is).
For a good deal of his time with Sinita, he doesn’t actually have his heart, but it’s still a relatively integrated Shade, and he’s able to move beyond some of his earlier pettiness. Once again, it doesn’t mean he’s “whole” when he finally sees Kathy again, but he’s a lot better than he was when he knew her the first time.
In a long series and with a topic that Milligan is keenly interested in, it’s not surprising that many characters go through their own identity crises. What’s somewhat fascinating is that Kathy, really, doesn’t (not to any great extent, at least – I’ll note one exception below). She’s a problematic character is some respects – she’s rarely active in the book, simply reacting to others. Perhaps Milligan meant her to be a point-of-view character, but when Shade is the obvious lead, it’s hard to see why Kathy is often such a non-entity, allowing so many others to define her. Lenny, who’s the third main character, seems to have it so together that she wouldn’t have an identity crisis, so Milligan forces one upon her toward the end of the book, when she shares a mind with Andrea Merdoch. Before that, she has to confront her daughter, Lilly, which isn’t so much an identity crisis as a crisis about getting older – Milligan uses the idea of parenting to signify the loss of youth in this book with regard to all three of his main characters. While Kathy remains somewhat static and Lenny remains somewhat self-confident, Milligan gives us several other characters whose identities are slippery, from Duane Trilby, the writer in issues #2-3 who can’t deal with the death of his daughter, to John Constantine, who doesn’t want to face the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, so he takes himself back to the asylum to flee the real-world insanity about to be unleashed on England. In “Hollywood Babble On” (issues #5-6), Milligan examines the loss of identity that the movies create and how actors have to subsume their real lives into a pre-fabricated version that the public can accept. “The Nameless” (issue #7) is all about identity, as you can probably guess. Shade has to discover the identity of a homeless man before his despair can overwhelm New York and drag Kathy into a drunken hell, which she spends the next 10 issues or so struggling with, with varying degrees of success. Issue #10, “Invasion of the Normalcy Snatchers,” deals with conformity and tying your identity to a group consciousness that doesn’t allow for any differences.
All of these early stories are tied to the American Scream and the Area of Madness, which Shade is trying to defeat, and Milligan does a nice job showing how madness can both destroy identity and define it, as the characters are usually struggling against the madness by trying to discover who they really are. Even the American Scream itself is dealing with an identity crisis, as it’s not a true vision of America and therefore isn’t quite sure how to deal with the reality of the country it finds when it arrives.
In later issues, Milligan introduces other characters with identity problems, from a fictional version of himself (Miles Laimling – “Laimling” is an anagram of Milligan) to Shimmy, a living work of art, and Pandora, a living statue. Shimmy doesn’t quite know who he is, but Pandora falls in love with him anyway, and Milligan does a nice job contrasting her pure love with Shade and Kathy’s messy kind when she decides she’d rather be a statue than live with the pain of Shimmy’s death (after Shimmy dies, of course). In later issues, George’s rapid aging is also, in many ways, an identity crisis – he has no time to deal with the rush of hormones that hit him far too early, so he acts extremely inappropriately around Lilly. He experiences too much of life, too fast, so he never develops a proper identity. Ironically, only when his soul is placed in Lilly’s body does he slow down and is able to form an identity of his own, even if he’s stuck in a body of a female and he’s a heterosexual male. Milligan continues to write clever, short stories about identity crises – issues #65-67 set up his voyage back in time to save Kathy, but they also work as single-issue stories. “The Impossible Photograph” in issue #65, is yet another story about sexual fluidity and identity – who is Epiphany, the woman Shade falls deeply in love with (and who, of course, shares a name with another Milligan creation, John Constantine’s future wife), and who is Johnny Absurd, surrealist detective? How are they linked? Milligan tends to link sex with identity quite often, and he certainly does so in this series, and it’s impressive how many ways he can do it. The idea of identity as a bulwark against madness isn’t unique to Shade, but because Shade’s “infection” of madness is so prevalent in the series, Milligan is able to explore the idea more than in other series and more than other writers have.
Milligan asks us to consider what identity is, and he never gives us easy answers. It makes Shade, if you’ll forgive the pun, maddening on occasion, but it also means that we’re constantly reassessing what we know about the characters and ourselves. Even the most insane ideas in Shade are underpinned by devastating real-life events – from the actors in “Hollywood Babble On” to Kathy’s alcoholism, from Lenny’s fear of being a bad mother to the destruction of a marriage in “The Alligator People.” Milligan is often absurd in Shade, but he’s never too outré so that the tragedy behind the absurdity gets lost.
One of the reasons many fans thought the series lost steam after issue #50 had nothing to do with Milligan and everything to do with Chris Bachalo leaving the series for greener pastures at Marvel. Bachalo’s artwork, along with the inking of Mark Pennington and Rick Bryant and the coloring of Dan Vozzo, was a huge reason the book worked so well in its “first” incarnation. Shade was Bachalo’s first comics work (his issue of Sandman was published after he was hired for the book but before Shade #1 shipped), and it’s amazing how good he is from the beginning. His early artwork was more “realistic,” as his characters weren’t as distended as they later became, but his cartoony style was unusual enough that he could easily switch to the more idiosyncratic parts of the book without shifting too far out of context of the book. This balance allowed him to create a world of characters who feel real but still inhabit a world gone mad. He uses a lot of interesting tricks, too – in some of the early, more “dreamlike” scenes in the comic, he lightens the pencils and Pennington foregoes holding lines to add a faint nostalgic whiff to the artwork, contrasting it well with the more grounded “real-world” work. He also mixes multimedia into the book brilliantly, making sure it blends in with the pencil work so that it becomes part of the whole rather than existing apart from it, as is the case with some art.
This also makes the world seem “madder,” as the blending of the multimedia elements turns the world into more of a crazy-quilt than if Bachalo had drawn it to match the pencils. Soon after the book launched, Bachalo began to drift to more esoteric work, but what’s astonishing about the art on Shade is it never becomes incomprehensible. In issues #8-9, he stretches the layouts over two pages, usually with the dimension in which Shade is dealing with Arnold Major in the various hippie communes contrasting with Kathy and Lenny’s experiences in New York. By stretching the panels over the two pages, Bachalo makes Arnold’s communes feel a bit more languid – it feels as if Shade is taking a long time to get through them. Bachalo also begins to use go-go checks a bit more prominently in these issues (after subtly putting them in a few earlier issues), as they act as buffers between the two versions of reality shown in the issues. His characters also start to be slightly more exaggerated, as their faces begin to stretch just a bit when they’re emotionally charged. This was a long process, but it became more noticeable as the series progressed. Bachalo also begins adding more fanciful elements – the go-go checks are just the beginning, as he begins to drop stars and bubbles and other odd stuff into the artwork, moving Shade more into the realm of surrealism.
As I noted, what’s most impressive about Bachalo’s art is that it never becomes illegible, like it would in some later series (like Steampunk).
When the book went Vertigo, Bachalo came back after several issues’ absence (he was drawing the first Death mini-series), and his storytelling is still as clear as ever, even as the book became more and more crowded with weirdness. His panel layouts became even more esoteric – the Garden of Pain in issues #34-35, for instance, seems to bend physics and it actually makes the reader uncomfortable, as if they’re experiencing the pain of Brian Juno’s victims. It’s remarkable how Bachalo is able to twist the way we read the book without losing comprehensibility. Rick Bryant, his new inker, also does a nice job, especially when the gang (with John Constantine in tow) time travel back to the seventeenth century. The blacks in this dark age almost overwhelm the page, complementing Bachalo’s twisted vision of William Matheson’s world and his inability to see anything but witches. In issue #43, Philip Bond provides some of the artwork, and while Bond is a fine artist, he can’t match the gloom and terror that Bachalo and Bryant bring to the page. In Bachalo’s final story arc, “A Season in Hell,” it’s amazing how rough his pencils have become and how brutal Bryant’s inking has become, as the group slowly moves toward Kathy’s death. Even Mark Buckingham, who was aping Bachalo at this point when he pencilled, can’t match the master’s touches, like the woodcut-style smoke that curls from the burning Hotel Shade in issue #49 or the horrifying panel of Shade after Kathy dies. Bachalo could not keep up the pace of his earlier issues – of the first 26 issues in the series, he drew 22 by himself and needed help on only 1, while guest artists drew 3, but when he returned in issue #33, he completely drew only 6 of the final 18 issues of his run. Still, his work on the series is tremendous, and it’s too bad he didn’t stay to finish it with Milligan.
Bachalo’s work wouldn’t have had the same impact with Daniel Vozzo’s coloring. In my post about Sandman, I criticized Vozzo’s recoloring on the Absolute Editions, but Vozzo is still a very good colorist, and Shade is a good example of that. Shade began early in the digital coloring revolution, and Vozzo, as one of the pioneers of digital coloring, uses it very well on the series. We see Vozzo’s contribution early on, as Kathy walks through a strange landscape of aliens, but one that is certainly recognizable as the “real world.” On page 5 of issue #1, she opens the door to her parents’ house, and Bachalo gives us a 6-panel grid which shows the same drawing in each panel (and the same word balloon, but different narrative boxes).
She is colored like a regular person, as is the background outside the house, but the door and the walls are rust-colored, hinting at something terrible inside. The splash page that follows is completely red, as Troy Grenzer stands over the corpses of her parents, and Vozzo’s coloring choice overwhelms us with violence. The fact that he immediately switches back to “normal” colors makes the page even more powerful. Vozzo makes great use of the computer techniques, and it’s probably safe to say that Shade would not have had the same impact if it had been colored traditionally, because Milligan’s story is specifically concerned with the thin membrane between “reality” and “madness,” and digital coloring helps break down that divide. When Shade inhabits Troy Grenzer’s body in the electric chair, the weird, delicate colors help contrast the weirdness of the Area of Madness with the grittiness of the prison. Vozzo also does a lot of “scribbling,” for lack of a better word, in the background of a lot of panels – it indicates that the two worlds are bleeding into each other. While Shade isn’t a recent comic and therefore the coloring is still generally pretty bright, Vozzo does brighten the Metan parts as contrast, which works well. Vozzo does something else, too, which helps create the illusion of madness. We see it first in issue #1 when Shade levitates Troy Grenzer’s body and we get a big splash page of him floating above the bed. Vozzo colors his chest in red-and-white bands, but there are no holding lines, so that the color looks “imprinted” onto the picture (and probably is, in some kind of overlay fashion, although I don’t know exactly how the book was colored). Vozzo didn’t invent this technique, but he uses it very well in Shade to show how the madness infects the “real” world.
The judicious use of computer effects in the series creates a beautiful tableau that, along with Bachalo’s mesmerizing pencil work, makes Shade a visual feast that complements Milligan’s weird scripts very well.
The other artists who worked on Shade, unfortunately, can’t quite match what Bachalo brought to the table. There’s one exception – Brendan McCarthy, who provides covers for the early issues, draws issue #22, and while his style is different than Bachalo’s, he infuses the issue with the same kind of madness that Bachalo brings to the book, with crazy creatures and unreal page designs that immerse the reader in Shade’s strange time travel dream. McCarthy only drew the one issue, though, and the other artists, despite some good talent, struggled to give the book the visual impact that it had when Bachalo was working on it. The problem seems to be that none of the artists could match Bachalo’s rubbery yet realistic style – they were often a bit too stolid to make the madness really work. Even when some of them could draw the little beasties that manifested when Shade used his powers – Glyn Dillon could do it fairly well – they seemed too delineated, as if they belonged too much in the “real” world. Bachalo was able to show but not mix the various weird dimensions that Shade and the others traveled in, and that heightened the book’s weirdness. Someone like Bryan Talbot or Colleen Doran or Sean Phillips, while fine artists in their own right, made the madness a bit too mundane. Mark Buckingham, who deliberately tried to draw like Bachalo when he became the regular artist, was a bit better, but still not close to Bachalo, while Richard Case, the third “regular” artist on the book, was a bit more suited to the way Milligan was writing the book toward the end, as he didn’t need to be too fluid, just weird, and Case can do weird.
By the time Case came on board, there was less of the Bachalo dynamism needed, but Milligan wanted some more oddball design work, and Case is pretty good at that. It’s still too bad that none of the artists, as good as some of them were, could really match the kind of masterpiece that the Bachalo issues give us.
Shade did limp a bit to the finish line, but the final 20 issues are still part of a marvelous love story, one that is far more mature and fascinating than most that we see in comics. While Milligan couldn’t quite recapture the magic of the first 50 issues (and especially the first 26 issues), the entire series is a wonderful journey about the madness of love and the weirdness of identity. The fact that Milligan was lucky enough to get Bachalo to draw a lot of the series helps makes this an even more intense voyage. As this is a late-1980s/early 1990s DC comic, it has not been completely collected in trade paperback – the first 19 issues, which include the entire “American Scream” story and the Christmas issue, have been put out in three trades, but issues #20-70 remain uncollected. DC is terrible about getting a lot of their back catalog into trades, and that might account for the slightly lower profile Shade has among early Vertigo stuff. That shouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it, though – it’s a wonderful comic, and it’s far more emotionally affecting than you might expect. Now that Milligan is back with DC, they really should think about collecting the rest of it!
We’re moving through “S,” which means there’s going to be additions to the archives! Check them out, or wait for the next entry. I know it will begin with “S”!
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