For a recent ‘book club’ segment on the DC3cast, Vince suggested we read the first ten issues of “Shade, the Changing Man.” I had read these issues in college almost 20 years ago, and so vaguely remembered the events but, obviously, they hit me quite differently on this reading. The three issues that stuck with me the most were the first three, a convenient coincidence because Elias reviewed #4 back in December. And, with “Shade, the Changing Woman” launching this week from Young Animal, it seemed as good a time as any to look back on the Vertigo series with a gender-swapped name.
Written by Peter Milligan
Penciled by Chris Bachalo
Inked by Mark Pennington
Colored by Daniel Vozzo
Lettered by Todd Klein
Shade must convince someone of his true identity before people from his home dimension can unleash madness across America. But the only one he’s convinced so far is the daughter of a serial killer’s victim–the same condemned killer he now inhabits.
The first thing that struck me upon re-reading these issues are how clearly ‘American’ this story is, despite being written by the British Peter Milligan. The book almost instantly tackles race, gun violence, Kennedy worship, and capital punishment, all extraordinarily American topics. This first arc, though on the surface a psychedelic tale of an alien and the distortion of reality, is really an examination of what it means to be American in the early 1990s. And on that token alone, this is a fascinating book.
Milligan and artist Chris Bachalo don’t waste any of their precious space being overly expository or spoon feeding the audience anything. What starts off as a straight tale of a murder and punishment quickly turns into a metaphysical mind fuck, with aliens and the manipulation of atoms and dead folks appearing out of thin air, almost without warning. If you were handed the comic without a cover, it would be an absolutely confounding experience once you hit the page turn of Grenzer becoming Shade.
But it is because Bachalo and Milligan don’t sugar coat anything that these first few issues work so well. I’ve seen a lot of folks talk about how these three issues are where the team was working out their kinks before the ‘complete’ thought of #4, but I wholeheartedly disagree. The fourth issue may be where the reader catches up to the creators, but that doesn’t make these first three issues any less powerful.
The protagonist of these first few issues is undoubtedly Kathy, the woman who’s parents and boyfriend were killed early in the first issue. She’s the reader’s proxy in this story, someone trying to grapple with what is happening in front of her. The advantage the reader has, however, is that we get to see everything beautifully illustrated by Bachalo.
Bachalo’s artwork is amazingly fluid, shifting from reasonably realistic to utterly surreal in a matter of panels. The transitions, aided in no small part by colorist Daniel Vozzo, are jarring, but intentionally so. Things just tend to happen around Shade, whether it is a costumed hero appearing out of thin air, or the room going all neon and angular. Bachalo’s artwork gets taken to a new level in the second issue, when he has the unenviable task of having to draw John F. Kennedy in various forms – photograph, giant sculpture, corpse – and does so in a way that doesn’t feel stiff and photo-realistic nor too far from what one should expect from Kennedy.
The fluidity with which all of these various styles and bonkers images that Bachalo has to illustrate within one or two issues is truly amazing. Bachalo’s art is still forming at this stage in his career, and you can see his influences (specifically Sam Kieth in parts) show themselves a little more than they will later in his career. That’s not a knock on him at all; in fact, I like the rawness he brings to the work. Sometimes you can tell when a talent is working at the exact edge of their talent, giving absolutely everything they have. That’s how this book feels from Bachalo, chocked full of everything he has.Continued below
Milligan’s exploration of the American psyche, from the perspective of a literal alien, is a masterclass in storytelling where you’re doing very little actual telling. Shade is just learning how to use his vest, and Kathy is asking questions that he simply can’t answer you. The book throws the reader off the deep end in a number of ways, letting the tone and visuals of the book take the lead, and Milligan is happy to abdicate the focus. His scripting is tight in terms of minimal dialogue, but loose enough to let Bachalo run wild.
When reading these first few issues, it becomes abundantly clear how strong of a voice Karen Berger and Vertigo allowed these creators to keep. Berger, in these first few, formative Vertigo years, really stocked Vertigo with creators she believed in, and the track record speaks for itself. If you reaction to reading these three issues is anything other than “I want to read more,” I don’t know what you want out of comics.