May 1, 2015

Walking the Shadowline part 1: Into the Light

The last piece of Shadowline ephemera I acquired was only recently, at the amazing Purple Gorilla Comics at the Crossroads Market here in Calgary. It's issue #62 of Marvel Age, the Marvel Comics news organ of the eighties and nineties.

I have to admit, I was pretty excited to get it. I'd recently finished reading the Critical Mass series, had discovered a short story in a Marvel Age Annual, and found that this was one of the only other comics that somehow featured these characters. I'd hoped for a brief glimpse at the universe prior to the events of Doctor Zero #1, but alas, the only related content is an interview with some of the writers and editors behind the line. The cover's pretty great, though.

The cover of Doctor Zero #1 is beautiful. Anyone familiar with Bill Sienciewicz's work on The New Mutants wasn't surprised at the gorgeous covers of the first three Shadow Line books.

(A quick note on "Shadow" and "Line." In some cases, i.e., the header of the first issue of Doctor Zero, the words Shadow and Line are separated. Once we get to Critical Mass, the two are on separate lines but are linked with a hyphen. In the interest of the ambiguity of whether it's "Shadowline or "Shadow Line," I'll be fluctuating between the two, depending on my understanding of how the term is used.)

These first four issues of each series give us our introductions not only to the main characters, but to the world they inhabit. Right from the beginning, Chichester and Clark are not shy about showing off the fact that these books are deeply interconnected. Lenore, Victor, and Ripley, the main cast of Powerline appear at the very end of Doctor Zero #1, and Michael Deviln, of St. George makes a brief appearance in Powerline #1. There are constant references to characters and events that cross from one title to another. In fact, the only real constants of each book are the main characters themselves. Their world shifts around them, issue to issue, title to title, but they remain constant, the lens of our focalization.

As such, each book has a decidedly different character. I was chatting with a friend about these titles the other day, and I'd suggested them as something that could be considered part of the legacy of Watchmen. The Shadow Line comics are terse, bleak, political thrillers that are firmly grounded in the strange world of Reagan-era politics in much the same way Watchmen was mired in Thatcher's Britain. The characters are not perfect specimens of hyper-masculinity. Granted, Doctor Zero manages to pass himself off as this, but his ironic distance from it is makes it disturbing and charming. There's something a bit metatextual about Doctor Zero. He passes himself off as a hero in order to manipulate world events. Dressed up in superheroic fiction, he runs the planet. I think that the place where these books fail where Watchmen succeeded is in the sense of wonder that is attached to the superhero genre. Watchmen is the bleakest of the bleak, but there are still moments of wonder. Dr. Manhattan's clockwork palace rising out of the Martian desert is pretty spectacular. It never forgets it's a superhero comic. The Shadowline comics work to deny the superheroic tropes, which is fine, but let's note that generic tropes become generic tropes because they're somehow definitionary of a particular genre.
So that's the character they have in common, then, this crushing bleakness without any glimmers of hope, or even of momentary escape. To me, this is the major flaw that likely led to their cancellation. I'm pretty sure even at 14 I knew there was such a thing as too much angst. And I'd read The Dark Knight Returns.

But the individual atmospheres of the three titles are really pretty great. Zero is solid, paranoid Cold War discourse. In Zero and his antagonist Henry Clerk we have two extremes of right-wing politics fighting to determine the fate of the world. I'm not sure of the politics of the Epic editorial offices at the time, but that's a pretty great metaphor for the politics of the time. The Cowan/Sienkiewicz artwork is jagged and jarring, but suits the tone perfectly. Sienkiewicz's inks are shadowy and menacing, and the surreality of the images mirrors exquisitely the surreality of the stage upon which Zero's adventures take place. As we come to understand more about Zero, the weight of time that rests on him, the scope of his narrative becomes even more surreal. These first four issues are the only ones that have the Cowan/Sienkiewicz team-up, unfortunately. Which brings me to the second major flaw of the line as a whole.

Midway through it's first year, the artistic teams on all the books shifted. I'm unsure of why this was. Perhaps the revenue coming back from the line wasn't up to paying top tier artists. Whatever happened, the shift threw off the coherence of the line as a whole. Ostensibly, when searching for artists for the three books, the editors would have looked for art styles that complimented one another. The initial teams did, but I think that when the teams shifted, there wasn't enough time to put together that coherent a team. And as such, the coherence of the books deteriorates.

But what about the books themselves?

 As I've noted, Doctor Zero is a helter-skelter of Cold War political gamesmanship, and it largely succeeds at what it attempts. Zero is an awful creature, but he displays the occasional redeeming quality that gives one hope that somewhere beneath that callous, unfathomably ancient shell there beats a heart that cares and pities. And that's exactly what Zero wants you to think. I think of all the Shadow Line characters, Zero's design is the best. But that's because, in the first issue, we see the steps Zero himself goes through, the design teams and focus groups to carefully craft an image that he can present to the common mass of humanity.
Zero works best when we have the juxtaposition panels, where he is performing some feat of heroism and at the same time, in his captions, decrying the very people he saves. Zero is an asshole who has you fooled into thinking there's a core of gold in him.

Sometimes heroes. Often Monsters.

Powerline, on the other hand, is meant to offer us the opposite of Doctor Zero, Shadows who perform feats for the common good from an altruistic point of view. This too, however, is shown to be a sham, a performance that the two members of the group, Lenore Castle and Victor Guilliermos, have trouble adapting to. Couple with this that in Powerline we get that most famous of superheroic tropes, the orphaned hero, further coupled with the fact that this trope plays out over the course of the whole series, and the bright light that was meant to shine out of the shadows looks every bit as contrived as Zero's. I also have to note that the two main characters of Powerline are the characters I have the least investment in in this universe. Again, I wonder if it's because the book goes out of its way to eschew the sorts of stories we might see in The New Mutants or The New Teen Titans, and thus misses some of the useful metaphors for adolescence that the superheroic tale can provide. Ostensibly the most interesting character in this series is the third "member" of the group, ex-pro wrestler Ripley Weaver. It's his idea to set up the kids as Powerline, and he who wrestles with what he's doing to them and why.

Rounding out the titles is a series starring a human, rather than a shadow, the conflicted priest Michael Devlin, who dons the mantle of the Knight of St. George. Deviln's story is, of all the pseudo-separate narratives in the Shadow Line, the most cohesive. Indeed, he is gifted with the final words in Critical Mass, and his arc describes the journey not simply of a man coming to terms with a previously unknown reality existing next to his own, but also with his own crisis of faith. Devlin's recruitment by the Order of St. George also closes a loop we begin to witness in the final pages of Doctor Zero #1. Zero murders Deviln's predecessor, thus opening the way for this knight. The intertextuality of the three series is emblematized by this movement of environment amongst the three first issues, and though it waxes and wanes depending on the individual stories, it is never far from the surface.

All this said, then, what are the first issues actually like?

Unsurprisingly, they're comics still trying to find their voices. We could make the argument that, really, they never do find it, hence the cancellation of the line, but I'm not sure that's a claim that I wish to make. The way we should look at these first 12 issues is that they are attempting something unattempted (as far as I can tell) in superhero comics up to this point: the creation out of whole cloth of a shared narrative superhero universe. By the time these comics were published, the shared universes of Marvel and DC had, at the very least, about 35 years of intertextual history. Bear in mind that the Shadowline appears after the conclusions of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars, the major crossover texts of the eighties, and well before such shared superhero stories as the Image or Valiant universes. So the initial issues are not only attempting to establish characters, but also continuity. Not an easy prospect, and it comes through in the first few issues of each title. Secondary characters are introduced who move between titles, and often more time is spent setting a scene than might happen in a mainstream comic of the same era. It is for this reason that when I re-read these series I read them in publication order. For the year and a half of their original run the order of series ran Doctor Zero, Powerline, St. George. While one was certainly not expected to read them this way, and the narratives are, for the most part, nicely self-enclosed, treating them as individual chapters in a larger story, and reading them in chapter order, so to speak, demonstrated more than each individual series was capable of the way in which this larger universe was constructed.

But that's enough for now. We'll see how this "chaptering" of each series plays out in Critical Mass, but there's the second half of each series to deal with first. As the Shadows walk into the light, the best question to ask is what does it illuminate, both about them, and about us?

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