Friday, May 29, 2015

Jacobean Slapstick: Helfer & Baker's The Shadow

(Continuing from Part 1)

A telling exchange occurs in the second chapter of Shadows & Light, Andrew Helfer's first six-issue story-run for The Shadow, rendered by Bill Sienkiewicz. It follows the conclusion of the previous issue's cliff-hanger, Cranston-Shadow commenting on the hair-raising escape with a blithe near-indifference. Mavis, a newer recruit who has just pulled his fat from the fire, snaps:

It doesn't seem like much -- it's possibly the quietest moment in a story bracketed by considerable flash and snap -- but it's remarkable for two reasons. It distinguishes Helfer's vision for the title character from his predecessor's, and it marks just how long a view Helfer had for the story-line he'd only recently set in motion.

Howard Chaykin's resurrection of the Shadow posited Cranston as an uber-Alpha Male, against whom no regular human could offer anything but superficial resistance. Helfer retains the Shadow's uncanny powers of persuasion, but makes it clear it has limits -- limits which Cranston-Shadow is aware of, thus making him reliant on agents who, of their own free will, choose to call him "Master." Their limits are the hero's limits, also. Good thing he has a "contingency plan" for when things get unruly.

By the time Kyle Baker takes the artist's chair, "unruly" is becoming the norm. Agents are getting increasingly uppity:

And circumstances seem to require "The Master" to initiate contingency plans with greater frequency. At one point, The Shadow fires his Uzis on yet another washed-up loser he's recruited, fully intending to kill the man -- The Shadow doesn't recognize him, because this is the first they've met. The master-disciple relationship is off to a rocky start -- best initiate another contingency plan.

Cranston-Shadow's chess-piece maneuvering is looking decidedly rusty. Fortunately, his chosen nemeses -- an Irish-mafia family named the Finns -- possess no chess-playing skills whatsoever. Here the six surviving Deadly Finns "mourn" the first Finn the Shadow has dispatched, a lethargic and indulgent slug -- Errol, who represents "Sloth," of course.

Perhaps this is the moment to explore how Kyle Baker enlivens Helfer's scripts and story-boards. This is the next eight(ish)-panel page:

Reading Helfer-Baker back in the day left me with a distinct sense of on-the-fly improvisation. Reading them 25 years later, it's clearly nothing of the kind. Baker's literalist approach to Helfer's story-boards provides a comic framing that is the cool precursor to Seinfeld, which was still a half-decade to come.

That sense of improvisation was probably encouraged by Baker's skills as an artist, which he freely admits were rudimentary at the time. His characterization does have a childlike simplicity, but it contributes to the cheekiness of the humor. Facially, Baker's characters either speak with closed mouths, or howl with enormous gawps. All figures have an absurd plasticity, including The Shadow. Only when he appears as Cranston does Baker bother to render him remotely realistically, penning him in rough approximation of the Chaykin style.

This is not the preferred representation, however -- for The Shadow, or (one senses) for Baker or even Helfer. Although Baker's Shadow can still muster a threatening mien, more often than not the cloak and hat take on a swaddling characteristic, suggesting their implied threat and mystery mean more to the (often shrunken) man within them than to the world at large.

In the 80s, the Brooding Hero was on the ascendant, thanks to Frank Miller's surly Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. But no-one did "brooding" quite so petulantly as Helfer-Baker's Shadow. Thus is our near-anti-hero transformed from fascist with a rocket launcher to puppet-master of dubious qualifications.

The villains are certainly "bad guys," selfishly committed to the propagation of their representative vices. But in their pitiful defensive improvisations they become as humanely sympathetic as the Shadow and his agents. It's as if we're watching a Chuck Jones cartoon show, with the roles reversed: Wile E. Coyote is catching and roasting every Road Runner in the desert.

By story's end, The Shadow's manipulations appear to be largely victorious -- the Finns are all felled, and dozens of their minions are mowed down by the Shadow himself. Throughout the bathetic romp, Cranston-Shadow recites his own chorus of triumph and self-glorification, made ironic by his evident lack of awareness. He remains a deadly presence, to be sure, but much of the triple-digit body count is unrelated to his activity. It's like Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" has gone psychotic.

The Seven Deadly Finns concludes in the manner of all great story-arcs: our hero is betrayed by a follower, killed by a villain, then . . . six issues are devoted to the physical abuse of his corpse, while his followers grow ever more erratic in their behavior.

Part 3, the endnote to all this, is over here. If your appetite has been whetted, you may read these adventures in print, available at Amazon, among others. Or, take the more highly recommended route, and get the digital editions, brilliantly recolored in high definition, at Comixology, here.

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