James Robinson disappeared from comics to Hollywood for a while after completing his magnum opus “Starman.” That didn’t work out so well (see “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” movie) and he eventually came back to us. That didn’t work out so well either for a while as his “One Year Later” storyline on “Batman” was marred by an awful anticlimax, his “Superman” and “Justice League” stories didn’t really set the world on fire, and the less said about “Cry For Justice” the better is what I’ve heard. However, now that he’s returned to Opal City and one of its most memorable inhabitants. If you’re like me and you enjoyed “Starman” then this will be worth your time, even if if you’re left with the feeling that it’s not quite all it could’ve been.
Someone wants to kill the Shade and they want him dead bad enough to send Deathstroke to do the job. Naturally, that fails and our protagonist -- certainly no hero -- begins making the rounds to find out who was behind it all. From the Australian outback, to the streets of Barcelona, and the underground of London we follow his leisurely stroll across the globe as he finds out that while he may have been done with his family ages ago, they’re not done with him.
The Shade’s journey is split up into three different arcs with a “Times Past” flashback between each filling in the backstory between them. These “mini-arcs” are filled with traditional superhero action which is competently executed if nothing else. You know the drill: Shade shows up, the fight starts, he displays a unique way of using his powers to outsmart the villain, he and his friends win and they all go home for tea. Well, maybe not that last bit, but it almost feels like that’s what should happen given the fairly languid pace this series proceeds at.
Now I understand there was some concern that the sales for this title weren’t all that great while it was being serialized. This was to the point where Robinson expressed concern online that the series wouldn’t make it through its planned twelve-issue run. That was likely a canny sales move on his part, but I can understand why people may have gotten bored with this series. “Starman” was good fun, but its appeal didn’t lie in its plotting. No, the main reason I kept reading it was because its main character, Jack Knight, was such an interesting, down-to-earth character in an extraordinary world. There was a “realness” (yes, I realize it’s a terrible word, but it’s all I’ve got right now) to him that was compelling and when you’ve got a character that strong to work with, you can get away with having plotting that was more often pedestrian than not.
The series did have a great supporting cast, though, and The Shade was clearly the first amongst equals there. As a former villain turned... not-villain he had an edge and debonair style to his actions that always made his appearances in “Starman” thoroughly entertaining. However, though he retains a lot of that style here it often feels like a little of his loquacious manner goes a long way. The man does love to talk and talk he does for pages and pages at a time. Fortunately Robinson keeps feeding him good lines so he doesn’t wear out his welcome entirely.
Still, you’re left with the feeling that The Shade works better as a supporting character than in his own series. Particularly one stretched to twelve issues. Yes, it may have seemed like giving Robinson a maxi-series to expand on this beloved character from “Starman” was a good idea but the mini-arcs wind up feeling bloated even at three issues each. I was left with the feeling that they all could’ve benefitted from having at least one issue knocked off from each of them and compressing the events into faster-paced two-parters. You can see this in action with the “Times Past” issues which tell satisfying done-in-one stories throughout the maxi-series.
They also feature their own artist as Darwyn Cooke, Jill Thompson and Gene Ha each illustrated a story while Cully Hamner, Javier Pulido and Frazer Irving handle each mini-arc. That’s quite a lineup there and each artist does not disappoint. While Hamner is the most conventional of the group, he still handles action as well as he did back when he gave us “RED.” Pulido continues to find ways to make his minimalist linework appear as stylish as possible while Irving dazzles with his spookiness and inventive layouts. As for Cooke, Thompson and Ha, they each make the most of their issues and show why they’re considered to be some of the best in the business. To be honest, I wouldn’t have complained if they had switched with Hamner, Pulido and Irving to do the mini-arcs while the others did the “Times Past” issues.
I did enjoy “The Shade,” but it was the kind of enjoyment that made me go “That was nice,” and put it on my shelf without a second though as I went on to something else. It offers up some standard-issue superhero fun, generally witty dialogue, and a deeper look at a memorable supporting character from “Starman” with some fantastic art. It also feels too long, frequently indulgent and that it would’ve benefitted from a more tightly edited plot. “The Shade” will certainly scratch the itch of anyone looking for a return to the world of Robinson’s “Starman” and I doubt that they’ll be left wanting or wanting any more after this. Which, I’ll concede, is a nifty achievement on the writer’s part.