Legendary pulp and radio anti-hero The Shadow may know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, but only Matt Wagner knows what secrets lurk in the past of the pulp hero. This February, the acclaimed cartoonist pens the eight-issue "The Shadow: Year One" from Dynamite Entertainment, and the revelations held within will both hew closely to the characters origins and take on their own original twists. The series is drawn by Wilfredo Torres with covers from the likes of Alex Ross, Howard Chaykin, Chris Samnee and Wagner himself.
"It's a thrill to be able to dig in and expose all the stuff I know about the Shadow, which is quite a bit, and yet also bring a whole new bunch of stuff to the table," Wagner told CBR. The writer behind other pulp origin hits like "Green Hornet: Year One" and "Sandman Mystery Theater" explained that his love for the Shadow goes back far, but most of all he's trying to respect the character's mysterious qualities.
Below, Wagner explains how the Shadow came to be both on and off the page, what new villain he'll be bringing to the mix, how his collaborators are changing what's come before and much more.
CBR News: Matt, you've got such a strong background in pulp heroes as a creator and fan that I've got to assume you've got some history with the Shadow. Where did you first cross paths with the character?
Wagner's origin for The Shadow combined pre-existing lore with all-new twists
Matt Wagner: My history with the Shadow goes way back. I first heard "The Shadow" when I was about 12 or 13 in the mid '70s. At that point, several companies had reissued the original radio shows on LP vinyl. I was able to find some of those, and my parents were of the World War II generation, so they had actually listened to "The Shadow" on the radio when they were young. Around the same time, DC published the [Mike] Kaluta series and Pyramid Books started re-releasing some of the pulp novels in mass market paperback form with those great covers by Jim Steranko. So there was a lot available to me all of the sudden, and I really, really lapped that up. I grew to love The Shadow. Here was this dark and mysterious character that seemed to embody all the motifs I loved about Batman and Zorro and a host of other characters. I didn't realize at the time that The Shadow was a precursor of that archtype.
Since you've got that association with the cackling, gun-toting vigilante, what kicked things over to get you doing a new series for Dynamite?
When Dynamite first got the rights to the character, [Publisher] Nick Barrucci called me up and said, "Do you want to work on this?" He knows how much I love not only the time period but also this sort of narrative. At the time, I was deeply enmeshed in the project I'm currently doing for Legendary Comics -- "The Tower Chronicles," so, it just killed me to say I couldn't do it, because the Shadow is one of my oldest, dearest, most beloved characters. I've had a pretty lucky run of things in this industry wherein I've got my own playground of titles and characters I can play in and be the god of that particular universe while also getting to write and illustrate my childhood favorites too. And the Shadow was the one toy still high up on the shelf that I'd never gotten to play with.
I eventually got far enough ahead on "The Tower Chronicles" that I had some free time and was able to call Nick and say, "I want to do something, but I want to do something different. I don't just want to follow up Garth [Ennis'] run and do issues 12 through 18 of the continuing series or whatever it"ll be. Since I have a history of doing Year One stories with you guys -- Zorro's origin and Green Hornet's Year One -- let's take a Year One approach to the Shadow." I really had to convince Nick that this was a good approach -- but then I found a take on it that he really bit on hard."
So what's the "origin of the origin," then? Is there something in the background of the Shadow that needed to be explained or detailed in a new way?
When the Shadow was first created, it was kind of an afterthought. He was originally a narrator on a radio show that Street & Smith, his original publisher, produced called "Detective Stories Weekly" wherein they had a narrator who would read a story out of their pulp magazine, "Detective Stories Monthly." It was just an advertising thing where they'd entice you to buy the magazine. But the narrator soon developed a persona; he started reading the stories in a spooky voice and calling himself the Shadow. Well, before long, people were coming to the newsstand looking for "The Shadow" magazine.
To secure their copyright, Street & Smith quickly rushed out some issues to get the title on the stands. By sheer luck and happenstance, there was a writer who was turning in another story at the office that day named Walter Gibson. Gibson would later write under the byline of "Maxwell Grant," which was a company imposed pseudonym. So they just gave it to him, and they didn't even have many requirements. It just had to be about a spooky guy called the Shadow, and at least part of it had to be set in Chinatown because they didn't even want to generate any new art -- they planned on reusing an older pulp cover for the new magazine, and the old cover had a Chinese guy on it.
Little did they know how lucky they were, because Gibson ended up creating everything about the Shadow as he came to be. He went on to write 320-plus novels of the Shadow and created one of the greatest and most enduring icons of popular fiction. But as a result -- because it came together such a slapdash fashion -- the character never had a proper origin, per se. Years went by, and Gibson started to reveal more and more background about the Shadow, but there was never a story that revealed how he came from his global travels -- he was in World War I and lived in the Orient for a while and worked for the Czar in Russia -- but there was never a story about how he came back to America and took up his fight against crime. About how he took on this costumed persona as the Shadow. That's the story I'm going to tell, and I couldn't be happier.
So this is kind of a mash-up version of ideas we've learned from the radio and pulp Shadows.
As I mentioned earlier, The Shadow began as a radio show narrator but was later developed into an immensely popular show that showcased his own adventures. The radio Shadow and the pulp Shadow were quite different, since the radio show gave him the actual power to become invisible. For a medium that had no visual component, that was a really brilliant and effective idea. But the pulp Shadow never had the power to fully disappear. We're doing "our" version of the Shadow. It's not really the radio version or the pulp version. It's greatly informed by the pulp version and follows that motif, but we're also incorporating a bit of what Howard [Chaykin] did in his book and using some of what Garth [Ennis] did with his initial run at Dynamite. So I'm distilling a bunch of elements into one. Rick Lai's book, "A Chronology of Shadows," was really helpful as a reference there.
Another big difference between the radio and pulp versions of The Shadow is the essence of his true identity. On the radio, he's the alter-ego of Lamont Cranston, a typical wealthy playboy of the Bruce Wayne mold. But his identity in the pups is much more complicated, so new readers will certainly have fun trying to discern exactly who The Shadow really is. He seems to be Lamont Cranston, but we make it clear fairly early on, that's not really the case. I'm also considering the fact that he was a spy during World War I and the intervening years from there and when he comes back to the States. I figured there had to be a crucial event that brought him back, and of course, with the Shadow you've got a certain sense of psychic premonition that can be involved.
The first Shadow magazine premiered early in 1931, so in my storyline I have him coming back in 1929. I figured there had to be some specific threat that brought him back. America was already in the midst of Prohibition, and that was slowly coming towards its end. Prohibition was viewed as a failed experiment that led to a very rich and well-organized criminal class. Booze was still available practically everywhere and generally out in the open. So I have Cranston first setting foot on American soil the day after the stock market crash, which came to be called "Black Tuesday." I figured the combination of Prohibition and financial hardship and desperation of the impending Great Depression would be the perfect setup for this great wave of crime that would call him back to the States.
So if we've got this tension surrounding our lead character, who's our point of view into this world? Whose story do we follow?
Our narrative conduit for this storyline is Margot Lane. Of course, I'm always looking for the human element in all the stories I tell, and what sold Nick on this idea was that everything would be from Margot's point of view. All the caption narrations are hers, and that represents another instance where we're doing our version to change things around. Margot was a creation of the radio show because the Shadow needed someone to talk to. She wasn't featured the pulps for a long time, and then eventually the publishers convinced Gibson to bring her in. But in our story, we have her coming in and meeting Lamont very early on, so everything is told from her perspective of him and his very unusual persona and his crusade against crime.
Then what are the elements you wanted to play with most to bring the Shadow to his final form? What kind of revelations are you looking to make about his background?
Above all else, The Shadow is a Man of Mystery, so I'm really treading a tightrope with this sort of origin tale because I can't too overtly explain things. He still has to be a mysterious persona, otherwise you rob him of all the cool stuff that makes him interesting. I think an easy thing to compare this to is what I did with Green Hornet. The Green Hornet's alter ego of Britt Reid is a journalist, so it made sense to literally spell out everything in detail, from the gun to his car to his relationship with Kato and so on. Thus, in making this narrative from Margot's point of view I'm still able to keep a little distance and show things rather obliquely. I don't spell things out quite as literally, but you will be able to connect the dots and figure things out. I have a sequence at the end of issue #2 that I was very happy with when I finished writing it because I sat back and went, "Wow -- I just explained the Shadow's laugh!"
Does the Prohibition era storyline mean that we'll be dealing mostly with gangsters here, or is there an arch villain waiting in the wings?
I have gangsters I created for this series, but I also have a supervillain. The supervillain has to be equally a mystery as The Shadow himself. And I'll say straight up front, it will not be Shiwan Khan. That's like The Shadow's Lex Luthor to Superman, and putting him in would be like "Really? Again?" He's just the most overused villain in the character's long history, so I have a brand new villain who will be unveiled slowly. That's another factor that brings him back to the States. He's been chasing this villain since even before he was the Shadow we now know.
Lastly, you've got a number of collaborators here, first and foremost artist Wilfredo Torres. I know in the past you've had some pretty pulpy collaborators on your Dynamite books. What's Torres' style like for this series, and how do all your artists fit into the puzzle of "The Shadow: Year One"?
On both my previous Dynamite series, I was lucky to work with some incredible artists. With "Zorro" I started work with Francesco Francavilla, and then went to Aaron Campbell for "Green Hornet." Both of those guys were absolute breakthrough talents and had a great skill for portraying those time periods in a fresh an interesting fashion. Wilfredo came to me through my buddy John K. Snyder, who drew my last-written run of "Zorro" and with whom I've worked so many times in the past. We were chatting on the phone, and I was talking about trying to find an interesting artist, and John said, "Go look at this guy's blog. I think you"ll like it." I contacted Fred (as Wilfredo goes by), and he did some initial character sketches, and everything just seemed to click tremendously.
Another cool element to the series is that my son is coloring the book. He's 22, and his name is Brennan Wagner. He's also coloring the latest "Sherlock Holmes" series for Dynamite, written by Leah Moore and John Reppion. So these are his two big breakthrough coloring gigs. He also recently colored a cover I did for the "Before Watchmen: Moloch" series. It's all coming together really, really nicely, and it looks terrific.
As with many Dynamite books, this series will have a variety of variant covers. I'm providing art for the series as well as Fred. Alex Ross is doing covers as well, and I've got to say, without tooting our own horn too much here, I think these are some of most atmospheric and evocative covers I've seen Alex do in a long time. It's not superheroes in spandex, but he's turned in some gorgeous covers. He just did a really sexy one for an upcoming issue, and Nick has asked him to incorporate Margot into every one because she's the point of view character, which is really turning out terrific.
All in all, I'm getting the chance to play with probably my favorite pop culture on all time, and I think we're really doing justice to such a classic legacy!
"The Shadow: Year One" #1 ships this February from Dynamite Entertainment.