In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, DC tried to capitalize on the success of Alan Moore’s reinterpretation of Swamp Thing by bringing on other British writers and giving them other obscure cancelled characters to work their magic on, with varied degrees of success. Some of these were Animal Man and Kid Eternity (written by Grant Morrison), Black Orchid and Sandman (written by Neil Gaiman).
Andthen there was Shade, the Changing Man, written by Peter Milligan with art by Chris Bachalo and Mark Pennington.
The first issue of the new Shade makes it clear that this will be an entirely different book from the original Ditko version (discussed in last week’s Vault). Kathy George is a woman who is haunted by illusions, some of which look like Ditko characters from the original miniseries. We learn that, three years ago, Kathy took her boyfriend Roger down to Louisiana to meet her parents. Two problems with that plan: number one, her parents were freshly killed by a serial murderer named Troy Grenzer, who then got into a struggle with Roger. And number two, Roger was black and this was THE SOUTH, so when the cop arrived, he shot Roger instead of the real murderer. And so Kathy went crazy…
Three years later, as Troy Grenzer is being executed, he levitates through the straps of the electric chair and vanishes, reappearing near Kathy. He tells her that he is not Grenzer, but someone named Shade. His body is trapped in the Area of Madness, so his mind has possessed the body of Grenzer. So Kathy drives him to Texas, where they hole up in a motel. Shade explains that he has the powers of the M-Vest (which stands for “Madness Vest”), and helps her find a catharsis and achieve closure by allowing her to finally kill an illusory Grenzer.
Meanwhile, there are disturbing things going on at a mental hospital.
And if the opening about THE SOUTH wasn’t enough to clue you in, by now you should realize that Milligan is not out to write a simply entertaining story. He’s going to educate America about the American Condition, which is, apparently, pretty bad, so bad that the American Dream has become the American Scream! Quick, call Letterman!
In issue two, we’re introduced to Duane Trilby, who is obsessed with the Kennedy Assassination. Shade and Kathy are drawn to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where a giant head poses the Sphinx-like question, “Who killed JFK?” and devours those who get it wrong. And we see a brief demonstration of Shade’s illusion-body effect from the original Ditko series.
So then, there’s a whole bunch of rigamarole with illusory Kennedys, people changing appearances, Duane hallucinating about his dead daughter telling him about the sacrifice of the God-King, which culminates in Duane conquering the Kennedy-Sphinx by answering the riddle thusly…
Only it wasn’t Duane who answered the riddle, but Shade, who explains how he switched places with Duane in a breathless Speed Racer-style monologue that’s really hard to follow, but who cares, because the point is, America killed Kennedy, y’all. We’re all guilty.
Next thing you know, Shade is drawn back into the Area of Madness, and Kathy has to save him, which requires a retelling of his origin. And unlike Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing reinterpretation–which added a completely revolutionary subtext to the original origin without changing really any of the details–in Milligan’s telling, Shade was not a secret agent unfairly framed, but a sensitive, poetic young soul, not unlike Lord Byron, who was recruited for a secret project by a dastardly figure called Wizor (one of the illusory figures constantly appearing around Shade and the only character other than Shade to appear from the original book so far).
And at this point, I was getting pretty tired of the whole thing. I wasn’t much interested in being preached to about America’s perceived sins by some Brit, I thought the book was confusing-bordering-on-boring, and I didn’t like the way the book tried to capitalize on Ditko’s original story while dismissing it in almost every detail. I wanted to read a book about a science-fictiony super-hero fighting science-fictiony villains, not a book about a sensitive young poet battling madness with the “smithy of his soul.” It amazes me to this day that the book lasted for 70 issues.