“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” This phrase, followed by chilling, rictus laughter initiated every radio drama starring the pulp hero known as The Shadow. I grew up listening to cassette tapes of these radio plays on long family car rides, and was enamored with The Shadow for much of my youth: the idea of a man who can win by outsmarting his opponents and clouding their minds, while prying into their psyches was unlike any other hero in my childhood.
Flash forward almost two decades later and my relationship with Lamont Cranston had almost completely evaporated. I’d listen to a radio play now and then, and flip through a few pages of comics starring the character in my local comic shop. Thanks to Comic Bento, however, I got the chance to check out The Shadow Volume 1: The Fire of Creation. This comic took my childhood vision of the character and flipped it on its head in the best possible way.
The year: 1938. The place: New York City. It is the eve of the Second World War, but already in China the armies of Imperial Japan cut a swathe of horrific atrocities. A high ranking Japanese official named Kondo arrives in New York with a secret mission, but he and his men are dispatched by the masked avenger known as The Shadow. Extracting information from the dying man, The Shadow learns Kondo’s elder brother is pursuing a mission to procure the pieces of a deadly weapon for Emperor Hirohito himself.
By day, The Shadow masquerades as wealthy man-about-town Lamont Cranston. Joined by his colleague Margo Lane, Cranston heads to China in order to stop Kondo and his allies from procuring a deadly cargo: Uranium-235! But the Japanese aren’t the only enemy The Shadow will have to contend with, as bandit warlord “Buffalo” Wong and his forces, along with suspicious CIA agent Finnegan, hound his every move.
Garth Ennis, acclaimed writer of the Vertigo title Preacher, supplies his brilliant prose for The Shadow. Ennis provides all the trademark aspects of The Shadow, including his mystical powers, but ratchets them up somewhat, adding new skills to the character’s arsenal. Far from making the character seem overpowered, these abilities lend themselves well to the persona of the 75+ year old character.
“The Fire of Creation” is a well-structured story. Ennis wastes no pages, ensuring that each moment or event serves to amplify the central narrative or expound upon character motivations. We learn very little about the true nature of Lamont Cranston, but the glimpses we receive of his past are enough to teach us about a man seeking redemption through the eradication of evil. The villains are horrific, and it’s easy to hate Kondo for his vicious tendencies. Nevertheless, Kondo receives well-rounded characterization; it’s enjoyable to see a foe who prefers to win by tactics and treachery.
The Shadow himself has some great pieces of dialogue throughout the comic, making a few references to original lines from the radio show. Much of the dialogue is clever and flows well, with two exceptions: Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane. Perhaps my lack of knowledge of upper class 1930s American diction is showing, but I felt both of them spoke in an English manner, using statements and mannerisms that didn’t seem to fit with their home country. Nevertheless, these moments were seldom and certainly overshadow by the solid conversations peppered throughout the volume.
Aaron Campbell’s pencil work forms the foundation of “The Fire of Creation.” His style is pointed, stark, and a little rough, perfect for a pulp-era story exploring the evil humans can commit, and the vengeance that must follow. Every from the aircraft and ships, to the buildings, and, of course, the characters are rendered beautifully.
Colorist Carlos Lopez backs up Campbell’s work, and is especially notable in scenes where The Shadow’s red cloak contrasts with the black of his suit and the night sky. Rob Steen, the collection’s letterer, provides strong work as well, his well executed caption boxes and use of special text for The Shadow’s laughter adding notable touches that improve the experience. Campbell’s only detriment is that characters’ faces look very similar in some scenes, making it difficult at first glance to differentiate between Lamon Cranston and Pat Finnegan.
The covers within “The Fire of Creation” are a feast for the eyes. Every issue has a cover painted by Alex Ross, one of the most distinctive comic book artists alive today. His beautiful style provides exceptional imagery. Furthermore, famed artists such as Howard Chaykin and John Cassaday provide some of the variant covers, pictured at the rear of the collection.
The Shadow Volume 1: The Fire of Creation is an exceptional comic. I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish, and am glad my love of this classic character was rekindled. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the character, loves of noir and pulp stories will find some special within this volume.
-exceptional plotting and dialogue
-strong character work
-stunning visuals that evoke the time period
-moments of odd diction
-difficult to differentiate faces in some scenes
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