Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Reprint This! 18. Shade the Changing Man

Reprint This! is a periodic feature where I talk about some out-of-print comic book gems that are not available in collected form for readers to enjoy. This is hoping to let rights owners know that, yes, readers are out here, and we'd like to buy the things we can't get at this time!

Despite such an enormous variety of books available these days, and genuine efforts to present the material in reasonably-priced, archival volumes, there are still countless fabulous series from the US, Britain and Japan which are overdue for new editions. I've selected two dozen titles which should be on bookshelves, but at this time are not.

One title that's been missing in action for years is Steve Ditko's SHADE THE CHANGING MAN, an eight-issue series from Ditko's mid-70s return to DC Comics. While the publisher would later find new uses for the character and incorporate him into their mainstream superhero universe, the original run was a stand-alone science fiction epic, the action split between Earth and the other-dimensional planet of Meta, populated by characters in angular, colorful clothing with bizarre weaponry and armor. Easily one of the strangest series from a major publisher at the time, Shade is fondly remembered by readers with an eye for the odd.

Rac Shade was an agent in Meta's secret service, and Mellu his fiance. While investigating a political scheme at the behest of Meta's president, Shade was framed for the attempted murder of Mellu's parents, who are left crippled by the explosion. Sentenced to death, Shade escapes and finds a special vest, meant for miners in another dimension, which uses a powerful force field to protect its wearer.

That little summary simplifies matters greatly, and doesn't hint at how very weird this series is. The treasonous plot against Meta's government is controlled by something called "Sude," the Supreme Decider, which is a huge sphere with a face painted on it and big robotic arms. None of the insurgents stop to wonder who might be in the sphere, they just take their orders from a great big tinkertoy. After defeating a criminal called Khaos, Shade falls into a "color coma." People wear purple and yellow robes with big, bushy red beards and are thought to be inconspicuous. When Mellu cracks and leads a team of agents to bring Shade to justice, she loses it so spectacularly, you wonder whether she could even make it washing dishes, never mind be a trusted government agent. And frankly, the hallucination-generating vest is incredibly weird. No wonder the Metan authorities banned the thing.

Steve Ditko is, of course, best known as the creator or co-creator of such characters as Spider-Man and Dr. Strange for Marvel, and the Creeper and Hawk & Dove for DC, along with several superheroes at a now-defucnt rival publisher, Charlton, such as Captain Atom and the Question. Ditko is also well-remembered for the self-published series Mr. A. One of the finest draftsmen in the field, and an inspiration to so many other artists, it's not surprising that Shade the Changing Man is visually compelling on every page. However, it was a very difficult series to follow, albeit quite rewarding. Ditko's use of flashbacks throughout the issues to explain the backstory makes it tough to assemble the chronology, particularly if you missed an issue. The comic was assembled "Marvel-style," with Ditko creating the art based on his plot and then giving it to writer Michael Fleisher (best known for his mid-70s work on The Spectre) to dialogue, and the scripting occasionally feels stilted and unnatural.

Shade's refusal to give a quarter to its audience resulted in low sales, and after eight issues (published every other month), the title was abruptly cancelled during a major contraction of the publisher's line. (This was the "DC Implosion" which has proven an irresistable topic of gossip and speculation for fans over the last three decades.) A ninth issue was completed and on the printer's door before the axe fell. It was only ever published in a low-print run house anthology book to protect the trademarks.

Shade wasn't appreciated at the time, but as interest in Ditko's work and career grows, it is a huge shame that DC has not brought more of his work into print. Admittedly, Shade is a fairly obscure character with none of the superhero universe appeal of the Creeper or the Question, who will probably be collected before Shade gets a shot, but I'm holding out for a neat little 160-page color collection of this neat little title. Heck, make it 176 pages and you can add not only the covers and a short essay by one of Ditko's fans, but also the eight-page Odd Man backup story that was intended for the ninth issue and later appeared, truncated, in an issue of Detective Comics that took me forever to track down. So how about it, DC?

(Originally posted November 27, 2007, 12:14 at hipsterdad's livejournal.)

No comments:

Post a Comment