The artistic line-up for “The Shade” has been an embarrassment of riches, but of the six different artists lined up to collaborate with James Robinson, it’s been Jill Thompson whose contribution I’ve looked forward to the most. Happily, she doesn’t disappoint.
Lately, Thompson’s work in comics has been confined to her painted pages for “Beasts of Burden” with writer Evan Dorkin. Don’t get me wrong, “Beasts of Burden” is fantastic from start to finish; it’s got smart writing and those painted pages are to die for — but I remember first encountering Thompson back on her run on “Wonder Woman” in the early ’90s, and every now and then I miss seeing her pencils and inks on the comics page. That’s what we get with “The Shade” #8, and I can’t help but feel that at some point when I wasn’t looking she’d tweaked her style a bit and turned out something even more beautiful than before.
The first two pages are a prime example of Thompson’s storytelling abilities. The first starts with a tight close-up on the Shade’s face and for the first three panels we stay in that close focus. As he turns his head to the left and to the right, Thompson makes it quite clear what’s going on in Robinson’s script even though we can’t see anything but his face. His initial gaze is focused on the person off the edge of the panel, a calm gaze. From there as he turns to the unseen servers in the establishment, we can see his eyes slightly unfocused, his eyelids halfway down in an almost-stupor of relaxation and slight alteration. And then, for the third panel as he stops and thinks about his request a bit more, his gaze refocuses and sharpens a bit, the fog lifting just as quickly as it went away. It gives us so much about the Shade’s frame of mind and we’re only halfway through the six-paneled page. From there as Thompson pulls back the reader’s viewpoint, we start to see the opulent pillows, the sides of the divan, and finally Yvette as she comes with the pipe for the Shade. It prepares us for turning the page and seeing the utter opulence of 1901 Paris. The sprawled and relaxed patrons, the curls of smoke, the gorgeous furnishings and walls and yes, the artfully dressed serving women that are designed to visually please the patrons. By the time we’ve gone to the third page (and the beautiful slow pulling in to the Shade’s eye so that we can see it suddenly widen in recognition in that final panel), Thompson’s drawn the reader fully into the story and its setting.
Thompson’s art here feels slightly softer and more rounded than before. I’ve always liked her art, but I’m entranced by this slightly changed approach on Thompson’s behalf. Before there was always a certain tightness of her art, the lines quite close together with just the hint of an angle in each turn. That’s gone now, with relaxed drawings that still have all those same basic shapes that Thompson would use in years past, but with an additional level of grace that I don’t remember being present. Thompson’s pencils and inks before were great, but now they’re outstanding. By the time you get to the blood-soaked streets of St. Dubris and you see her tackling architecture of a small town with the same charm and skill, well, it’s hard to not find one’s self wishing for an entire graphic novel or two drawn in this manner from Thompson.
It doesn’t hurt that Robinson’s story matches the strength of Thompson’s art in “The Shade” #8. Back in the “Starman” days, the Times Past stories were always something that had an extra little kick to the script and that’s true for “The Shade” as well. The story stands on its own well, even as it fits into the overall story for “The Shade” mini-series. It’s got a lot of charm as the Shade meets with his descendant and defeats a nasty little monster; reading “The Shade” makes me wish it were an ongoing series rather than set to wrap up with just four more issues. There’s an old-world voice that Robinson uses when writing “The Shade” (and “Starman”) that isn’t quite like anything else on the market right now and reading this comic reminds me of how badly it’s missed.
Even if you aren’t reading “The Shade” (and if not, shame on you), you might want to take a look at this issue to see what Thompson’s been up to when we weren’t paying attention. I suspect you’ll be surprised, because no matter how good you already think she is, the reality is that now she’s even better. Comics like “The Shade” #8 demonstrate just how great this medium can be.