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Shade The Changing Man:
The American Scream

I can't say I remember what it was like when DC launched its Vertigo Comics label. I was somewhere approaching my first decade of life, and my comic book tastes lent themselves more to Spider-Man than Hellblazer. I can imagine though, when comic readers were first introduced to Neil Gaiman's personification of the dream world in Sandman, or the brutal methods and lax morals of John Constantine in Hellblazer, that there was some moment when everyone stood back and said, "Everything just changed. Comics got serious."

Whether they changed a lot is up for debate (the Indies and the Underground comics from the 60s and 70s were certainly "serious" and had been tackling taboo subject matter for years before Vertigo), but one has to say that Vertigo brought with it a new sensibility to mainstream comic books and to DC Comics.

Of course, DC recognizes this and happily keeps printing many of its Vertigo series, several times over, so that each new generation of comic buyers gets a fair shot to discover the more mature side of three-color ink. But not all Vertigo series have seen reprint (and thankfully so, anyone remember Vamps? Shudder).

Shade the Changing Man was one of the earliest titles out of Vertigo, and perhaps because of that, the recent collection seems to be incredibly dated in comparison to modern comics.

It's the story of Shade, sort of a transdimensional exchange student, who has come to earth from his home dimension of Meta. He can't make the journey physically, so he opts to put his Self into the body of a man already condemned to die. Troy Grenzer, serial killer and proud of it, is sentenced to die. Upon his death, Shade jumps into his body and takes up residence.

Enter Kathy George, daughter of two of Grenzer's victims and former mental patient, who Shade convinces to help him on his quest to stop The Madness (later to be saddled with the titular moniker of The American Scream) from harming both Earth and Shade's home dimension. Did I mention that Shade uses a device called the M-Vest to manifest his own delusions as a way to fight the Madness? Oh, well he does.

I'll admit that the Vertigo formula is there: find an out-there concept (in this case, a rethink of a Steve Ditko creation), throw in lots of material about the bestial nature of man and the less-than-virtuous parts of the human psyche, and then push "Blend." And the book does have some entertaining aspects to it, but the whole thing feels tired and boring.

Peter Milligan's (you know him from X-Force/X-Statix fame) writing has no flare in this work. The characters of Shade and Kathy, besides being vehicles for Milligan to write a story about the dirtier aspects of American culture, are about as interesting as cardboard cutouts. Kathy is a detached lunatic supposedly, but goes from "crazy" to moderately manageable in the span of maybe four pages. Aside from the grisly scenes involving her parents, Kathy doesn't have emotion or depth, and ends up becoming scenery, or an exposition robot at times.

Shade, okay he's weird, but not enough. In fact, Shade is utterly sane and incredibly boring for a guy who wandered through the Madness in-between Meta and Earth. I really would have preferred Milligan to take him to some lofty level of psychosis, just to keep it interesting (a good example would be the sometimes suicidal Orphan from Milligan's X-Statix).

For reasons that I'm sure go back to the days when we were just another jewel in Her Majesty's crown, Milligan wants to comment on American culture using his outsider (or in this case, British) perspective. Maybe back in the early 1990s it was shocking to see the underbelly of Hollywood exposed (pederast movie stars, actresses sleeping with producers for parts, closeted homosexuality in so-called "family man" actors, etc.) but now its just blasé.

And forgive me if I sound un-American (wouldn't want to run afoul of that witch hunting tool called the Patriot Act), but I don't really care who shot JFK. Yes, he was a fairly good president (before you blaze me with hate mail, try and remember the Bay of Pigs), and given more time, might have done some spectacular things, but the vast amount of conspiracy theories surrounding his unfortunate demise is bordering on ridiculous. While Milligan admits as much in the comic, taking nearly half of the collection to do so was too much, not to mention that his ultimate conclusion on who shot JFK reeks of sloppy writing.

The artwork is terrible. Chris Bachalo (notably of X-Men fame, and Steampunk non-fame) was the artist on this book and it was at a time when he had not hit his very recognizable visual groove. His regular work is always dynamic and interesting, but he drew Shade as if he were trying to cross a dash of P. Craig Russell with the artist pool from the now defunct EC Comics. His lines aren't clear, his characters aren't concrete in your mind, and even worse is that, aside from some of his background visuals, nothing drawn in the book is exciting. Nothing grabs your attention and makes you look. The inks by Mark Pennington just make it worse: everything is grainy, and not in the good "film noir" way. Already obscured faces become more obscured when Pennington steps in.

It's a really bad book that has a somewhat interesting hook, but lacks any good narrative or character work, all wrapped up in sub par artwork. Also, DC, as it tends to do with its Vertigo books, overcharges you at a whopping $17.95 for only six issues worth of comics. It's not even close to being worth your time or money to read it.

This is one part of the Vertigo lineup that should have stayed on file in the microfilm archives, and not be taking up rack space at your local comic shop. Gosh I'm angry today. Must be the fact that I'm on the East Coast, and didn't get to go to San Diego ComicCon, like some of the Fanboy Planet staff. I'm a bitter, bitter man.

(editor's note: As always, Mister Sparling's opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of Fanboy Planet, especially if the Justice Department is reading this. And we say to him about the Con: suck it up, big man. Get well soon.)

Shade The Changing Man: The American Scream

Robert Sparling

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