May 29, 2015

Walking the Shadowline part 3: Critical Mass

This post will not be opening with a Marvel Age comic!

It's interesting that, though the main series' were cancelled due to low sales, the Shadowline was granted a prestige-format 7-issue series to finish out the first big storyline that had been building through the first 8 issues. I don't know much about the production side of comics, but I would guess that this single large-format issue on a monthly basis was less expensive than bi-monthly single issues. However, given that each issue is basically 2 issues of the previous series', meaning the same amount of scripting and art, it could only have been on actual physical production costs that any money was saved. Regardless, I'm glad they managed to give us at least one epic (pun intended) storyline before the characters (well, most of them) descended into limbo.

What's more interesting, though, is that in this format, the Shadowline Saga really finds its footing. The story is far more coherent, in that shared universe manner, than the previous issues, and we're treated to short interludes between chapters that highlight some of the minor characters to whom we've been introduced over the past year and a half of stories. These interludes come to be fundamental to the overall cohesion of the shared universe. With something like the Marvel U, or the DCU, there are enough titles that one can get both the superheroic and the mundane in large portions, enough to sketch, or sculpt, a believable fictional world. With only three titles, the Shadowline often had the feeling of taking place only around the main protagonists. The interludes in Critical Mass remind us that not only do the actions of the main characters have ramifications, but also that the minor characters have relatively vibrant lives of their own. Something like this could certainly have been incorporated into the main titles, but to have them right there, sandwiched between the larger chapters, makes those events far more immediate and important, rather than simply seeming to be a back-up feature.

With regard to the style of the stories, not much changes from the independent series to this anthologized one. The world is a grim place, and it only grows grimmer as Henry Clerk returns from the lobotomization to which Dr. Zero subjected him, and decides to destroy the United States. But for, y'know, the purpose of forcing Darwinian survival traits on the population. What I am quite curious about is whether or not the way this series plays out is how things would have played out if a) the comics had remained discrete entities, and b) if the Shadowline had somehow been able to continue, whether through large-scale events like this one or through smaller monthly comics. The status quo at the series end is slightly, but only slightly, different. Zero is still Zero, though we see a more human side of him (a statement he'd almost certainly take as a great insult), Michael Devlin is far more comfortable with his role as the Knight, and Lenore and Victor are more comfortable with their public Powerline personas. Where would they all go from here? We'll never know, I guess.

One last thing really struck me about the final parts of this story. There is a scene on board a cargo plane where the main characters are all gathered for the first time. Lenore has some vague recollections of having met Zero in the Black Forest in Germany, and she stumbles upon him changing into his costume just before the climactic confrontation. They flirt, and that's that. Now, each story, since their beginnings, has been narrated in the caption boxes in the first person, so we get not only the interactions, but the internalities, of each character. This same scene is told three times, each time from a different focal point. And, surprisingly since Chichester and Clark scripted all of them, the dialogue is different depending on which focal character we're witnessing the scene through. And the art is different too. Not just in that it's different stylistically, but also in the composition of the scene. In one version a character is present, in another that same character is not. Think about this for a second. Does this mean that not only the captioned dialogue, but also the visual-linguistic elements of the panels is parsed through a particular focal character? Are we not only getting their point of view in their words, but also in what is represented visually? Like we're seeing a memory that is not quite perfect? I love this idea, which also kind of hints that the whole story is being told from some future point by each of the narrative voices in each of the series. It gives me, at the very least, another perspective from which to read the stories next time I go back.

That's about it for the Shadowline. A comment from reader Brad in part 2 of this series alerted me to the fact that the Shadows will be showing up in the Squadron Sinister series spinning out of Secret Wars this summer, so I'm pretty excited for that. The hope, of course, is that all kinds of people will want to know who those characters are, and what their stories are, and we'll see a reprint of all of the issues, and maybe a continuation of the Shadowline Saga. Until then, if you have friends who want to know who they are, and what they do, send them over.

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