Sometimes we just want to talk about old comics we found in bargain bins or antique stores or in our garages. Is that so wrong? Today we’re looking back at The Shadow: Blood & Judgment, a four issue miniseries by Howard Chaykin that had the awesomely surly creator bringing the pulp icon into the ’80s kicking and screaming.
Back when I was a decidedly less cynical young comics reader, my favorite thing to do was go to Annapolis’ local comic shop The Twilight Zone and sort through their take on the bargain bin, where you could get three comics for a dollar or sometimes four depending on who was working the register. I was all about Spider-Man in those days, but I watched reruns of Batman with my mom and anytime a Batman comic would appear in the bin, I’d happily snag it. I’m pretty sure this is where my first exposure to Howard Chaykin’s take on The Shadow came from, because most of the backissues in that bin were from the late ’80s and DC ran this insane looking house ad in all their titles in 1986 that in retrospect I’m pretty sure was just this cover:
It’s important to keep in mind that I was buying these back issues in 1994, which was when that awful Alec Baldwin take on The Shadow was hitting theatres, so the only Shadow exposure I had was this frankly boring as all fuck poster running in ads in the comics I’d get at the grocery store:
Adolescent me almost certainly knew this was the same Shadow, but I remember being confused about one Shadow looking like Indiana Jones meets Rambo while the other looked like Green Hornet minus the kick ass sidekick. The only creators I knew at the time were Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, so I definitely didn’t understand the significance of that “by Howard Chaykin” credit prominently placed on the cover, and in the ’90s Chaykin was largely absent from comics anyway, particularly Big Two stuff, which was all I had access to as a kid. You hear a lot of talk about Chaykin’s art as inherently ugly, and it’s true that he does know how to make the human form seem both hideous and gorgeously Art Deco, but everything about that cover drew me in, to the point that I’d stare at it longer than I would read some of the comics it popped up in. It’s a simple image, just a standard pulp cover complete with a brick wall and heaps of shadowing. But there’s also a lot to take in, from the hawksbilled shadow to the “Strange Creature in Black” poster that has yet another face reflected in it. The Shadow seems handsome and almost happy with that smirk, but the threat of the dual Uzis and that menacing pull quote stating “God help the guilty” make it clear this might not be such a fun ride. The only indication that this is a modern take on the Shadow, set in the giddily self-centered ’80s, are the Uzis and that blocky, early computer generated logo. Otherwise, this would appear to be to a fun pulpy adventure from a different era. It took me two decades to finally read the miniseries, and in a way that’s for the best because even by Chaykin standards, “Blood and Judgment” is a brutal work and nearly none of that fun pulp adventuring hinted at on the cover makes its way inside.
Part of that is due to Chaykin’s admitted aims with the series. In an interview with Joe Orlando included in original trade, Chaykin confesses “The Shadow himself is not very interesting to me, but the people around him are,” explaining that it was the challenge of the character that drew him to the project, particularly the opportunity it provided Chaykin to explore the “random and unpleasant violence” The Shadow engages in and how it’s different from the glorified violence modern superhero readers expect. Tellingly, Chaykin states “I wasn’t real comfortable with the violence I was doing, but it was necessary for the story.” It’s extremely important to keep in mind this is Howard Chaykin stating this and even though this was relatively early in his career as a writer, Chaykin was a master of exploring the real world ramifications of intense brutality, albeit frequently filtered through a pulp lens as was also the case with American Flagg! But Chaykin wasn’t just pulling this violence from the then new grim and gritty era he helped kick off, this was violence that came from The Shadow’s own history, particularly the work Ted Tinsley did with the character after the character’s sort of creator Walter Gibson stepped away. For Chaykin, Tinsley’s work was “more interesting,” his stories “more perverse and violent,” and that perspective on the character and the juxtaposition with his vile methods and the idealism of the people that surround The Shadow in his “network” provided plenty of material for Chaykin to work with.
“Blood and Judgment” opens with the majority of that original network getting killed off in horrifying ways, whether it’s a former source turned mystery novelist getting impaled on an arrow at a murder mystery theatre party or a man crammed into a water cooler at his office or an elderly businessman at a retirement community having his face blown completely off, Chaykin doesn’t just want to renovate the world of The Shadow, he wants to demolish the bulk of what came before in order to strip the character and his world down to the barest of elements in order to make it fit Chaykin’s retro modern aesthetic.
These scenes of sadistic violence are juxtaposed with a more traditional pulp narrative, as The Shadow and his sons scale the Himalayas gathering resources for their trip back to New York City and Shadow operative Harry Vincent’s daughter Mavis stumbles across the plot that has been set into action against her father and the rest of the network. Mavis, currently working as a federal agent specializing in investigating crime statistics, is the most shrewd operator in the series, a no bullshit data detective who determines the killings are a ruse to bring The Shadow out of hiding. Of course, by the time Mavis figures this out, most of The Shadow’s allies have been dispersed, leaving her as a resistant sidekick of sorts while her father and the other survivors, including Margo Lane, spend the bulk of the miniseries making it clear how much they loathe The Shadow, and not just because he hasn’t aged like they have. In its time, “Blood and Judgment” was a relatively popular miniseries, but from the moment it was published it rankled Shadow fans, who felt that it was a blasphemous work, turning their beloved pulp icon into, as Chaykin puts it, “an arrogant S.O.B,” who utilized his vast armaments more than his wits.
With a few decades of hindsight, though, “Blood and Judgment” basically functions as a preemptive fuck you to the grim and gritty era. Pretty much every single character in the comic, hero and villain alike, absolutely loathes The Shadow. The decades The Shadow spent in self-imposed exile made his allies feel as though they’d been unceremoniously dumped like garbage while his enemies, at least those still living, found their lives basically defined by their hatred of him. The Shadow appears to get a perverse thrill out of all that hatred and Chaykin cleverly makes The Shadow’s arch-nemesis in the comic a miraculously still living Lamont Cranston, the rich sociopathic brat who inadvertently led The Shadow as Kent Allard to discover Shambala. The conflict with Cranston forces The Shadow to fight the past he had abandoned, a past that was largely fictional anyway, as none of the layers of identities The Shadow had utilized are remotely real– not even his original identity as Kent Allard, which is given a brief flashback here and then largely ignored for the rest of the story. The post-1986 wave of grim and gritty comics largely excised the bleak, apocalyptic humor that coated works like “Blood and Judgment,” and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns as well as its more explicitly satirical kin Martha Washington, which is a shame because today “Blood and Judgment” stands out as one of the most incendiary critiques of heroics I’ve ever read.
For starters, Cranston is a complete joke of a villain. Cuckolded by his own lab-bred “son” and his Shadow-obsessed wife, Cranston’s plan is to use a hilariously phallic nuke to hold the US hostage (seriously, at several points Chaykin frames it so that the nuke appears to be coming out of Cranston Jr.’s crotch) and force The Shadow to take him back to Shambala and the miracle scientists that surgically enhanced The Shadow. Cranston thinks these scientists can place his brain in the body of his genetically engineered son so that he can gain a new lease on life but the problem is that The Shadow doesn’t give a shit about humanity. In the saddest conclusion to a high stakes nuclear showdown you’ll ever see, Cranston realizes this too late when The Shadow’s response to Cranston aiming a nuclear warhead at the population is The Shadow’s declaration that he doesn’t care what happens to all those people because he answers to “a higher authority.” Then Cranston gets plugged by his wife, who in turn has her advances on The Shadow shot down shortly before Cranston Jr. smashes her skull with his hands. Did I mention how brutal this comic is? Although it is worth noting that The Shadow does show mercy at one point…to a pair of attack dogs.
That ending stands in stark contrast to Watchmen, which was somewhat bleak but ultimately stands as a work dedicated to the sacrifices of utilitarianism and how they contradict democracy’s dedication to the individual. And while The Dark Knight Returns is an equally cynical, media-focused condemnation of ’80s excess, “Blood and Judgment” flat out refuses to believe we should inherently trust our old, embittered heroes. If anything, “Blood and Judgment” seems to be a total condemnation of heroics in general. Even though The Shadow (sort of) saves us all from nuclear devastation, he’s the reason we were on the precipice of nuclear holocaust anyway, and the final showdown offers unquestionable proof that he doesn’t give a fuck what happens to mankind because he’s got his own shit to deal with. No other creators seem to have so willfully embraced this selfishness of the hero as Chaykin does here, and it’s no wonder he makes it clear in the intro that he also hates this character. When The Shadow decides to stay in New York a little while longer in the end, you can almost feel the disappointment of all the other characters in the scene.
That said, “Blood and Jugment” is as fun as it is brutal. Chaykin is on fire with his character designs and backgrounds here, creating a punked up, neon Art Deco aesthetic for New York that juxtaposes The Shadow’s embrace of darkness. Not only are the henchmen that The Shadow faces decked out in punk and New Wave attire, at one point The Shadow ambushes a henchman who also fronts a hit New Wave band by fronting a punk band himself. That sounds like a joke Chaykin is playing on a snotty genre, except classic punk’s inherent nihilism fits perfectly with The Shadow’s own rejection of humanity. Even the rampant sexism and misogyny displayed by The Shadow– which Chaykin defends in that interview by pointing out The Shadow went from the misogynist ’50s to living more or less alone on a mountain before returning to modern NYC– eventually mutates into a dominance/submission angle that gets more about BDSM right in its two page appearance than all of Fifty Shades of Grey. Chaykin also had a lot of fun with each of the series covers, with each of the four becoming more and more modern until the final cover is all neon, skyscrapers and abstract humanoid shapes, like the best album cover Peter Saville never did. That unapologetically pulp cover may have caught my eye as a kid, but it’s more of a fake out than anything, a tease of a Shadow that you think you know before the interior pages curb stomp that image and toss it into the street, bleeding.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover