Apr 15, 2015

Walking the Shadowline Introduction: Out of the Darkness

The Shadow Dwellers
"They were almost human.
Their evolution paralleled ours, though they evolved swifter and a great deal better.
Individually, they were superior but they were no match for the great tide of humankind that came in time to rule the Earth.
So they became a shadow race, living among us, speaking our languages, but secretly, eternally apart. Sometimes as protectors, sometimes as predators.

Over the centuries, they became the stuff of our legends and our myths. Sometimes heroes. Often monsters.

But as the Twentieth Century moved nearer and nearer its close, the world had shrunk to the point that there was little room for living in secret and the power of humankind had grown to doomsday proportions. There was a more pressing need than ever to emerge, to make themselves felt; to influence, to control the destiny of the planet they shared with us.Scattered over the Earth, separated from each other by centuries of secrecy and hiding, torn by their own feuds and personal strife, the need to emerge was answered in ways as varied as the people of the shadows themselves varied. But it was answered. Cautiously, recklessly, with responsibility and without, they entered into the mainstream of human life.

Sometimes heroes. Often monsters."


April 1988 saw the publication of the first title in Epic Comics' short-lived "Shadow Line Saga." Written by D.G. Chichester and Margaret Clark, the inside cover, quoted in full above, left no doubt in anyone's mind that this was going to be a very dark look at the superhero. I was 14 when it came out. I'd never read Watchmen, though vaguely knew of it. I'd read the first issue of The Dark Knight Returns, but never bothered getting the rest. In '88, I was reading The Uncanny X-Men, The Avengers, The New Mutants. Good comics, but certainly not serious. But there was always something to the idea of being one of the first people to read a particular hero, as there must have been for the likes of Superman, or Spider-Man. I'd tried it a couple of years before, with Marvel's "New Universe," but there were a lot of comics in that line, and I just couldn't keep up. And, to be honest, some of them really weren't great. Here were four (maybe five) heroes, only three titles, and, from the get-go, intimate intertwining in each others' stories. It also came out bi-monthly, so it wasn't a huge financial burden.

And did I mention how dark it was?

And I'll be perfectly up front about my reasons for posting about the Shadow Line right now, and that's that they've shown up on a preview of the cover of the upcoming Marvel mega-event, or whatever they're calling it, "Secret Wars." Right down the center, Zero, Powerline, St. George. And I think that's Nightmask I see near them. Cool. But if I hadn't seen that picture, it might have been years, or decades, before I came back to them.

So what went wrong? Each of the Shadow Line titles lasted only 8 issues, though given their bi-monthly schedule, that stretched over a year and a half from April 1988 to August 1989. There had been teases in the later issues for an upcoming event, "Critical Mass," but then issue #8 of Doctor Zero shipped with the words "Final Issue" emblazoned on the front. Inside was an editorial citing dwindling sales as having caused the cancellation of each title. But all was not lost. The aforementioned "Critical Mass" was instead going to become the series Critical Mass. Published monthly from January to July, 1990, the series, which I'll talk about in a subsequent post, consisted of two chapters, each devoted to one of the main characters (Zero, Powerline, St. George), and shorter "forewords" or "interludes," devoted to a minor character from another series.

And then they disappeared. Back into the shadows.


So what happened? They are, as you can see from these covers, very stylish. The five main characters across the series (Doctor  Zero; Lenore Castle, Victor Guilliermos, Ripley Weaver [Powerline]; Michael Devlin [St. George]) are engaging, very different from the superheroic norm at that time. Vertigo Comics was still 5 years off when the Shadow Line started. There really was nothing like it coming from a major publisher at the time. But until a couple of weeks ago, I would not have been able to tell you the proper names of any of the main characters, nor really what happens to them over the course of their adventures. I stopped buying them at the age of 15, with the final issue of St. George in 1989, and only ever thought fleetingly about Critical Mass, and what might have happened to those characters. Two years ago, having moved to Calgary, I found a great warehouse-style comic store (the sadly defunct Dark Phoenix Comics retail location) and came across all seven issues of Critical Mass. I immediately bought them, thought for a while about reading them, and then filed them in my collection. Until that picture.

They are dated. Let's make no mistake about that. They are mired in Reagan-era politics, Nicaragua, characters whose inner-monologues are short, chopped sentences. Very grim.

But they're also very good. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to talk a bit about the good, the bad, and the simply inscrutable. The next two posts will look at half a year each of the original run. Though going through some jarring artistic changes, the vision of the entire line is very clear. After that I'll look at the Critical Mass series, and talk about where our heroes(?) end up, and what the change to prestige format may have helped and hindered with the series. In the interim I'd urge anyone intrigued by who those characters were on the "Secret Wars" preview picture, or anyone who likes obscure little corners of the superhero field, to seek these out and give them a read.

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