by Robert Greenberger
I contend that 1986 was DC’s greatest publishing year and one of the projects coming out that magical year was a brutal adaptation of The Shadow from Howard Chaykin, one of the most interesting creators at work during that period.
For those less familiar, the Shadow was a name given to the radio narrator of Detective Story Hour, using stories taken from Street & Smith’s detective pulp magazines. Such was the 1930 show’s success that eager readers asked newsstand operators for the Shadow magazine so S&S went ahead and created one. Walter B. Gibson, a tireless writer, was asked to turn a name into a character, launching a self-titled pulp on April 1, 1931. The series was so successful it went to twice-monthly publication and spawned a radio series followed by comic books, movie serials, and even a comic strip.
Many comic readers first discovered The Shadow when he guest starred in an issue of Batman as a precursor to the wonderful series from writers Denny O’Neil and Michael Uslan and artists Michael Kaluta and Frank Robbins. The O’Neil/Kaluta stories were once collected but that book is sadly long out of print. Anyway, in the mid-1980s, DC once more obtained the comic book rights and handed the character to Editor Andy Helfer, who tapped Chaykin for the role.
Coming off his acclaimed run on American Flagg!, Chaykin wanted to stretch and felt the pulp crime fighter was what he needed. “The character was extremely violent in its time,” Chaykin told me in the delayed but forthcoming The Art of Howard Chaykin. “That bit of the guy being inside the water cooler came directly from one of the Shadow stories.”
The reference is to the single scene anyone familiar with the four issue miniseries recalls. The Shadow: Blood & Judgment went on to spark a discussion over the rising tide of graphic violence in comics but it also made people pay attention to the character for the first time in years. A fan-favorite, Chaykin’s work on Flagg! led to solid sales on what might otherwise have been a middling release.
“I still don’t see what was so controversial about it. The book had been a commercial failure as a pastiche of the period material. The reason the Shadow was perceived as a 1930s character was because it was canceled in the early fifties. Had Superman or Batman gone through the same process and been revived, they also would have had that same period quality to them. I wanted to bring the material to a contemporary audience that had no interest in period material. And of course I pissed off Harlan Ellison.”
While the character has remained a beloved figure in pop culture, his comic book appearances have been limited. Anthony Tollin has kept the flame alive with his superb series of pulp reprints (which I also highly recommend you order). The collection of this storyline was an early entry in DC’s bookstore program and has been out of print for something like 20 years. Now that Dynamite Entertainment is collecting Chaykin’s works and also has the license to the Shadow, the time had come to bring back this 120-page project.
Dynamite’s press release on the project has a stellar array of today’s talents talk about how influential and downright entertaining the story was with Brian Michael Bendis saying, “This is my all-time favorite Howard Chaykin comic book. This is him at the tip-tip-top of his game and, yeah I’ll say it, the best Shadow story ever published!” Jason Aaron added, “Chaykin at his ballsiest and most dynamic. This is how the Shadow should be done.”
And from what we hear, that’s exactly the model Garth Ennis is following with the new Dynamite ongoing series. In fact, Ennis was part of the quote parade, saying, “Howard Chaykin was one of the few who dared to make mainstream comics different back in the eighties; it was guys like him, Alan Moore and Frank Miller who made sure there’d be no going back. Howard’s work on The Shadow is amongst his very best: razor-sharp character work, sizzling dialogue and an unsurpassed sense of layout and design.”