Friday, June 05, 2015

I Will Make You Reapers Of Men: The Gospel, According To Helfer & Baker's The Shadow

Part 1, Part 2. And now ...

12 figures in mourning; 14 including the Shadow's sons.

If the superheros of the '80s seemed to be suffering from Messiah Complexes, it was little wonder: most, if not all, endured a death-and-resurrection story-line. Spider-Man took a two-week dirt nap, in J.M. DeMatteis' psychonautic 'stravaganza, Kraven's Last Hunt:

And, of course, rumours of Batman's final demise were greatly exaggerated in the concluding chapter of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Soop might have won by a heart-attack, but Bruce Wayne's ticker returned to form once the body was committed to the earth.

But in both these cases, as in most others, the "death" in question was a ruse: Spidey got tranked by Kraven; Bats staged his own take-down, with one of those death-faking drugs common to serials of all stripes.

Was The Shadow's death a similar narrative sleight-of hand? In the final issue of The Seven Deadly Finns, Andrew Helfer gave readers of his letters column this to look forward to:

Readers searching the forthcoming pages for some glimmer of hope were treated to glorious scenes of The Master's corpse being subjected to indignity and abuse in increasing measure -- bounced down a Himalayan mountain...

...riddled with bullets, while being used as a shield...

...and finally decapitated by a helicopter:

While writer and artist ramped up the irreverence toward the title character, The Shadow's grieving agents were abruptly changing their tune and pointing their attitude in the opposite direction.

In the preceding episodes, The Master may have proven himself, again and again, to be a hard man, reaping where he had not sown, and gathering where he had scattered no seed.* But now that he's removed from the narrative, his disciples discover, for the first time, how pathetic their lives were before being enlisted in The Shadow's service, and how much worse they've become since his death. The betrayer feels this absence most keenly of all:

Wait: "My Little Pony"?
The agents decide to address the Shadow-shaped void in their lives by taking up his Uzis and committing themselves to his ways. It is a less-than-seamless transition.

The work continues apace, albeit via ever-chaotic means. The agents are faced with a singular crisis of identity -- without His, they don't have one of their own. Not one that agrees with them, at any rate.

The Shadow's head is eventually re-animated, his identity and unassailable self-regard very much intact. When joined to a Robocop-like body, he finally becomes the killing-machine he's always considered himself to be.

The Master's final act on the final page of the final issue is to recruit yet another of society's rejects. His sons' reaction is altogether reasonable:

The Shadow as Christ-figure is rich with ironies. For starters, his behaviour is pretty much of the Messianic variety that Jesus' original audience was hoping for -- ruthlessly violent toward all oppressors, and even the occasional innocent bystander, in the aim of re-establishing a more agreeable order. For these messiahs, transformation, if it occurs at all, is strictly superficial -- a precondition that's perfect for comic books, and cause for lots of impious fun when staged by the likes of Helfer & Baker.

For me there is a deeper and more pleasing irony present, in the Shadow-Messiah's most defining characteristic: his meta-cluelessness. His followers ascribe staggering powers to the man, and while he does prove himself a capable tactician as well as adept improvisor when the need arises, his continuous monologue of self-narration is frequently at odds with the larger narrative on display. Consider again how he kills Artimus Finn, the last of the "Seven Deadlies," unintentionally, by merely taking an elevator to the next floor:

The Shadow narrates the story as one where he is finally in charge of all fates. The story we read suggests his fate is assisted by no small dose of . . . luck? Or perhaps by an over-arching narrative design, of which he is -- by design -- ignorant? By this point, I start to wonder if Baker & Helfer weren't gearing up for a po-mo meta-meta-reversal, a la Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck.

"Are you IN ... genius?"
Jesus in the Gospels was, of course, a master at affecting meta-cluelessness. To take just one example from his Sermon On The Mount, here is how he cautions his listeners against considering themselves more compassionate than their Heavenly Father: "Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?" One imagines jokers like Helfer and Baker giddily spinning this insight into absurdist comedy -- "Or, if he asks not to drink of the cup, is never the less..."

But then this is indeed how the gospel writers (of Matthew and Luke, at any rate) very intentionally frame the proposition of God's perceived deficit of mercy. Whether one registers this frame ironically or not depends upon the ears of the listener.

The beauty of the Helfer-Baker Shadow-Messiah story-line lies in the reflection of the fun-house mirror they hold up to the canonical gospels. It's ridiculous fun, minus the ridicule. And that is why, in my near half-century of reading comic books, this series remains my favourite to date.

Pester your local independent comic book store for copies. Or go Amazon. Or grok on the HD glory of their digital enhancement via comiXology.

Scan of the original -- not a Comixology capture.


DarkoV said...

Darrell, a fine piece of comparative literature here. Made me want to start a Kickstarter campaign to head to the Middle East to start massive excavations for scrolls of gospel comics rendered by Matthew and Luke. ANy suggestions as to where I should start digging?

Darrell Reimer said...

I can certainly tell you what to avoid: the various Gospel "comics" published by earnest Evangelical presses, circa 1975. All of 'em advocates of an Aryan Jesus; none of 'em with any sensitivity in their funny-bones.