Since “Shade the Changing Girl” has been on hiatus since September and we’re now entering the holiday season, I thought that this would be a good time to look back on what is, arguably, Vertigo’s wackiest and most surreal series, “Shade the Changing Man.” Even though I have only read it in the last year, this is a series that is close to my heart. Moreover, while I will do my best to avoid them, this is the “end of an arc” so be wary of spoilers.
Written by Peter Milligan
Illustrated by Chris Bachalo and Mark Pennington
Colored by Daniel Vozzo
Lettered by Todd Klein
Shade learns the secret of the Madness Vest and his mysterious background, while America’s nervous breakdown continues to tear the nation apart.
I first encountered the character of Shade the Changing Man in the pages of Milligan’s “Justice League Dark” and, after his unceremonious disappearance in that, I clamored for more Shade. Yet, with each passing issue, it became more and more clear that he wasn’t going to show up again.
So, I forgot about him for a while until a couple years later when, while browsing the used comics at my Barnes and Noble, I saw a couple issues of the original Vertigo series. I was overjoyed! Yet, for all my enthusiasm, I was never able to track down the issues of his original series for an affordable price.
Cut to many years later and, with the anticipated publication of “Shade the Changing Girl,” ComiXology had put the entirety of Milligan and Bachalo’s original series on sale. So, I bit the bullet and bought the whole series, digging into it and consuming the whole series over the course of a week. By the time I had completed it, I was struck by just how well the series holds up and how many of the issues he addresses have still not gone away.
However, instead of picking one of those one-shots, I chose “Shade the Changing Man” #4. This is an issue of revelations and of introspection, introducing us to the villain of the story and giving us the rest of Rac Shade’s backstory as well acting as an epilogue to the first three-issue arc, which was about a man and his obsession with the conspiracy theories surrounding the JFK assassination. If that sounded pretty out there, you haven’t even heard the half of it.
I selected this issue, instead of the first one or any of the later one-shots, because this is where the series really finds its footing. Shade stops fumbling around and starts to turn into, well, not a hero but an active protagonist and, although the same can’t be said for Kathy in this issue, she does have her own mental revelation.
Interestingly enough, the issue itself is technically a flashback, with the villain, a skeletal uncle Sam who inhabits the area of madness called the American Scream (just roll with it), drawing it out of Shade as Shade tries to cling to what’s left of his mind. It’s a well set up issue, with Shade wandering the empty, mud filled wasteland for what seems like years, decades, centuries, (as time does not work the same there). It wears him down and Milligan uses this as the perfect excuse to give us the backstory for Shade in a way that doesn’t feel forced while also making us question the legitimacy of Shade’s recounting of his past. The narration and the events seem to be at odds, especially with what Shade believes to be romantic.
Milligan also uses this as an excuse to really dial up the pretension on his captions, as Shade is supposed to be a romantic poet from Meta, his original planet, and, honestly, trying to accurately describe Shade’s past quickly is an effort in futility. The actual events are something that could only occur in a comic where a man has to harness the power of madness in order to stop the physical manifestations of other people’s madness – told you this was a weird one.
But Milligan is able to craft a believable, or at least easily comprehensible, story around Shade, presenting this other world that we don’t understand as sane and normal, when it clearly is neither of those things. This doesn’t mean the story is perfect, far from it, but in the context of the larger narrative, this issue does a fantastic job of transitioning Shade and Kathy away from reluctant, confused partners to active collaborators fighting against a very specific enemy.Continued below
Well, even though I say that Kathy is now an active collaborator, she really doesn’t have much to do this issue. She spends most of the issue yelling for Shade from the confines of her holding cell and then, once she saves Shade from the area of madness, she just asks Shade questions about his time in the area of madness, clarifying it for the readers. The clarification is necessary, especially for a series as wild as this one, but it makes Kathy weaker as a character. She does complete part of the process of getting over the death of her parents and coming to terms with Shade being in the body of her parent’s murderer but that is more an acceptance of her current situation than any true growth.
The other hit or miss part of this comic is Bachalo’s art. When he is rendering the surreal, crazy imagery of the area of madness, he excels. The image of the American Scream is one that has stuck with me ever since I read it. He is imposing and unsettling due to Bachalo’s rough linework and inking. The same goes for the melting mud version of Shade. His eyes are melted shut and his mouth, perpetually trapped in a scream, hangs open as we zoom into it and jump back into Shade’s memories.
However, when Bachalo attempts to render the realistic Kathy or Shade back on Earth, they look off. Bachalo has a hard time keeping his characters looking consistent and as such, their faces tend to distort from panel to panel. He conveys a lot of great emotions with them but it’s jarring when someone’s hair seems to recede for a panel and their mouth twists inwards, so it looks like their entire face structure has changed.
All in all, though, this issue is an early turning point for the comic. It is the first large scale revelation for Shade and Kathy while also changing what they thought was going to be their status quo. It is a great example of how to do backstory as a reveal instead of just as information. I highly recommend you check out the first 18 issues (it’s the entirety of the American Scream arc) of this series and see why Shade is such a varied and fantastic series, even if bits of it have not aged as well as they could have.