I had been hearing good things about Garth Ennis’s ongoing Shadow series at Dynamite, so I finally decided to check it out. I was extremely hesitant to read it because Ennis is one of my least favorite writers. I know he’s very talented, but his work is usually far too ugly and vicious to be worthwhile for me. About the only times I enjoy his work is when he’s kept on a tight leash (see, for example, the exceptional Dan Dare mini-series he penned). Still, I do love these old pulp characters, and I decided to give it a chance. I thought that I’d share my ruminations here with anyone who is interested. I won’t make a regular feature out of reviews, but I’ll probably offer them occasionally, as the mood strikes me.
I’ve read the first volume, Fire of Creation, and I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of what the book is all about by this point. There is a lot here that I really, really like. In fact, there is so much here that I like, that I really wish it was being written by someone other than Garth Ennis, someone with a little class and a little subtlety. There is everything here to make a good Shadow ongoing. You’ve got a great blend of the old pulps, the radio show, and even the interesting aspects of the movie. You’ve got plenty of personality in the villains, interesting mysteries, good action, and a mostly solid 30s feel. The art by Aaron Campbell is serviceable, if a bit muddy, in the standard Dynamite house style, and it has some really spectacularly lovely and evocative Alex Ross covers. Honestly, the cover may be the best part of the series. The Shadow has never looked so good.
All of that is good, and all of that makes me really want to like this book. The trouble is that Garth Ennis…well, Ennises it all up. It’s crude, ugly, tawdry, and full of the type of base material I just don’t want in my adventure stories. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Ennis would discard the radio show’s classic romantic tension between The Shadow and Margo Lane in favor of a cynical, emotionally abusive sexual relationship. That was disappointing to me, but hardly unexpected. (I’m fairly certain that bitter, cynical, and unhealthy romantic relationships are all that he knows how to write.) The repeated dialog reminding us that one of the villains is a child molester is something else altogether. It’s a dirty world that these characters inhabit, and one whose ugliness intrudes whenever I start to enjoy the setting. I don’t mind the warlord governed areas of China being violent and brutal, but some subtlety in the storytelling could accomplish the same ends much more enjoyably. I’m reminded of the gritty realism of the excellent Green Hornet: Year One series, which dealt with the Ravaging of Nanjing and the brutality of Japanese occupation in China, but did it with a lighter touch.
In terms of the protagonists, they are like everything else in the book, both interesting and a little repellent. I love the idea of the Shadow having a personal stake in his classic catchphrase, “who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” I really like the idea brought up (to the best of my knowledge for the first time) in the movie, that he lived a terrible life before becoming the Shadow in an attempt to redeem himself. Who knows? He knows because he has been to the depths of human depravity, but he has dedicated himself to purging such evils from the world as recompense. I think that’s a great backstory for the character, and I love that Ennis decided to pursue it, just as I love the Shadow’s preoccupation with redemption and atonement. There is a compelling character in there, and Ennis does a pretty good job with it in the small amount of space he provides that element. Nonetheless, the viciousness of other aspects of the character, especially his relationship with Margo, is troubling and unappealing. The Shadow is downright emotionally abusive to her, and the dialog they share is almost enough to make me put down the book all by itself.
In the end, I don’t think I’m going to really enjoy this series, though perhaps it will pick up after Ennis’s departure at the end of this volume. If you’re like me and prefer a bit more class and hope in your books, this probably isn’t for you. If you don’t mind the uglier aspects of Ennis’s writing, then there is probably a decent book to be found here. The grimness of these types of stories, the baseness of their content, well, it all just ends up being too much for me and, I would argue, too much for the character. There’s a particularly telling moment towards the middle of the collection, in which a well-meaning but rather foolish character complains that the dangerous mission the protagonists had undertaken was nothing at all like what he expected. He remarks that he expected it “to be more…rip-roaring.” The contempt with which the Shadow greets this statement is so thick that one can’t help but imagine a sneer on the author’s face as he wrote those words. There is, in almost every line of this book, just such a contempt for the earnest, pure-hearted, and yes, ‘rip-roaring,’ adventure fare that make the old pulp stories so endearing. It’s an attitude that I don’t share, as I place a bit more stock in the heroic spirit and its value. I give this first volume 2 1/2 Minutemen out of 5, a good plot but repugnant execution.