This installment begins with another issue of Marvel Age, though this time the larger-format annual version of the news magazine. The annuals of this publication are occasionally worth a look, as they'll often include exclusive comics content. Such is the case with MAA #4, in which we're presented with a recap story of sorts by Chichester, Clark, and Cowan. Whether or not the Shadowline series were suffering low sales, and thus deemed in need of a boost in a more public forum, or if it was just enthusiasm for the line that prompted this little comic is hard to say. And, to be honest, not much is added to the overall story by this little interjection. I can only imagine that it was intended to drum up interest in the three main titles.
I don't think it worked, unfortunately.
With issue #5, both Doctor Zero and Powerline underwent shifts in artist. DZ lost Denys Cowan, who was replaced variously with Brett Ewins, Dan Spiegle, and Gary Kwapisz, where as the Powerline team lost David Ross and gained Gray Morrow. The quality of art doesn't change, to be fair. But one of the troubles comics face, especially comics such as these that do not feature well-known characters, is the loss of readers through an inability to follow a story because of inconsistent art.
Let me explain: though the costumes are quite iconic, in the pages of each issue, the main characters wear their costumes only seldom. Thus it's vital that there be consistency in their non-costumed appearances in order that one know who a given character is at a given time. Of course, context explains much, but not all, especially in a visual medium like comics. Add to this the characters that move from series to series who are also victim to this inconsistency, and the comics become a bit confusing. Even on this read through, easily my fourth or fifth since they were published, there were some characters that I couldn't immediately identify, though from the context it was clear that I was supposed to.
But, again, what of the actual stories. In this run (really a run-up to the solicited "Critical Mass" crossover), we see the various heroes taking on challenges inherent in the clash between humans and shadows. Michael Deviln takes his powered armour back to a village in Nicaragua in which he preached, and takes on guerillas while searching for his predecessor as Knight of St. George. The Powerline team takes on strange cases across the country, all the while trying to figure out how to take vengeance on the Ravenscore family for their brutal slaying of both Victor and Lenore's families. And Doctor Zero encounters a covert military group nicknamed "The Merchants," who manage to capture him and begin to analyze him before he escapes and makes known that The Merchants have joined Henry Clerk as enemies of "The Dragon." So the story is moving along, and has veered a bit from the thoroughly conjoined feel of the previous four issues. I think this was a wise move. With the bi-monthly publishing schedule, we'd basically been given 9 months of world-building with the first 4 issues of each series. Not to say that there weren't stories and plots interwoven through that world-building, but the establishment of the connectedness of the titles was obviously on the minds of the creators. The subsequent issues loosen that connection (but only a bit) and allow the characters, and by proxy the readers, to explore the world a little more, to build a sense of there being events taking place on this version of Earth (Earth 88194, according to the Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe) that don't all revolve around the conflicts between the orders and families of Shadows to whom we've been introduced.
With issue #8 of each series, however, things change. The regular writers and artists disappear, and we have what can only be described as fill-in issues, but these are fill-ins with the words "Final Issue" plastered on the covers. The text within tells the tale: "Due to dropping sales, it has become necessary to cancel Epic's Shadowline titles."
The news, however, is not all bad. Instead of continuing as three separate series, the storylines within each series are to be picked up and published in a monthly single volume entitled Critical Mass. It is to this epic (see what I did there?) story we'll move in the next installment. I'll consider what works and what doesn't, and what the ramifications of this kind of concurrent publishing for a crossover story might be for the mainstream crossovers that flood the market nowadays. Critical Mass is not a crossover series in the way that something like Secret Invasion or the current Secret Wars, but is instead the individual series taking part in the crossover published under a single title. I'll get into it more next time.