Back in January, I reviewed Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Force – New Beginnings collection, and in that review, I mentioned that I was a fan of Milligan from a book called Shade, The Changing Man. Well, now it’s time to get a little MAD and look at some Shade!
Peter Milligan, Chris Bachalo, and Mark Pennington – Shade, The Changing Man – The American Scream (2003/2009)
Sometime in the early 1990s, I don’t recall exactly when, I was wandering around a mall bookstore when I saw a weird comic in a spinner rack. It was called Shade, The Changing Man, and it had a fat Santa Claus looking guy on the cover with the words “It Sees You When You’re Sleeping” across the top of the page. (Issue #19.) I bought it, enjoyed it, and looked for more issues. Although I never got a complete run, the issues I did find were weird and kind of creepy and pretty violent, with dream imagery and lots of talk of “madness.”
This book, The American Scream, collects the first six issues of the revamped comic, (Shade was originally created by Steve Ditko in the late ‘70s, but I’ve never read any of those stories,) and follows the tragic story of Kathy George. Kathy, driving into the deep south so that her fiancé can meet her parents, arrives to find a serial killer has murdered her parents and is still in the house. He attacks Kathy, and her fiancé, Roger, leaps to her defense, just as the police arrive and shoot and kill Roger—who is of African descent.
After this horrifying incident, Kathy is institutionalized—until her parents’ estate runs out of money and she is let go. She travels to the prison where the man who killed her parents is about to be fried in the electric chair, but something goes wrong and instead of dying, his body is possessed by an extra-dimensional being, Shade, who claims to have come to Earth to help fight against a growing MADNESS that has taken root here. And from this point on, the series gets DARK and WEIRD…
Bizarre phantom creatures, JFK conspiracy theories, giant heads of statues moving through town eating people, multi-dimensional intrigue, and MURDER… Lots of murder. Where The Sandman is more mythical with some violent scenes, Shade is over-the-top violent with some psychological terror and social taboo busting thrown in for good measure. The stories are all connected by the theme of “madness,” but other than that, at least in this collection, the continuity is mostly like hopping from nightmare to nightmare. I should say, the book is fun—it’s extremely dark, but fun!
Part of what makes this book so enjoyable is Chris Bachalo’s art style, which has a scratchy, noir line at times and makes very effective use of both repetition and shadow. When the “madness” gets extreme, then wild psychedelic colors and massive distortion creeps into the imagery, both of which are quite effective at disorienting the reader. Unlike some books which try to be “weird,” however, this book never seems very hard to follow—even when where it’s going is somewhere horrible or disturbing.
A few warnings, this book is obviously intended of mature readers, dealing with adult themes as well as extreme violence. There are also drug references and sexual content, and even a few bits that might trip some P.C. sensitivity meters, particularly for those who are sensitive to LGBTQ issues. But to take on racial issues, have a strong female character (Kathy is NOT just a damsel in distress), and deal with complex psychological issues in a fairly mainstream comic in the early 1990s, NOW, that seems pretty brave to me. Beyond just being a weird and creepy book, Milligan and company DID bring up some disturbing, real life problems! So, if you’re brave enough to handle the violence and conspiracy talk and disturbing social concerns, and you ALSO like weird, multi-dimensional, alien poets who want to save the planet from INSANITY, then Shade is going to be a very enjoyable read for you!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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