“Shade The Changing Man” is a varied and strange comic-book story in various parts. Here I’m mainly discussing the later run of Shade, written by Peter Milligan. There were two runs of Shade The Changing Man -- a limited DC run that began in July 1977 and ended in June 1979, and then there was an unlimited DC/Vertigo run that started in July 1990 and ended in April 1996.
The original DC run of Shade The Changing Man was a 12-part mini-series written by Steve Ditko. In traditional 70s comics style, this Shade was garishly colored, and almost campy in its futuristic storyline. Rac Shade, an escaped prisoner who was once the Chief Security Expert of a powerful society on the planet Meta, is cast by a bizarre accident into “the zero-zone”, a strange middle dimension between Meta and Earth. While there, he finds a way to manifest on earth, where he retrieves his illegal “M-Vest”, which gives him strange powers. Meanwhile, a powerful Metan elder named Wizor recruits a woman named Mellu to help find Rac; it turns out that she was Rac’s partner and lover before he was imprisoned, but she is very angry with him because she thinks he killed her parents. Also, powerful criminal lords have also discovered how to manifest on Earth, and Shade fights them while seeking the Metan who framed him.
The later DC/Vertigo run of Shade The Changing Man, an unlimited run written by Peter Milligan, was very different. This disappointed many fans of the original 12-parter, and though Milligan tied up contradictions between the differing storylines in issue #22, many of those fans were not satisfied (though I personally think that the second run was the better work, by far). Artists who have worked on the pages of Shade include Chris Bachalo, Mark Pennington, Rick Bryant, Scott Eaton, Sean Phillips, Glyn Dillon, Philip Bond, Case, Jamie Tolagson, Rafael Kayanan, and Mark Buckingham.
In this later storyline, which totaled 70 issues, Rac Shade is still an escaped prisoner and ex-Security Chief from Meta -- but in the first issue we see him possessing the body of a psychopathic killer named Troy Grenzer who is about to die in the electric chair. After this is done, Shade-in-Troy escapes, taking with him a young woman named Kathy; she was the daughter of the last people that Grenzer killed, and was there to watch him die. From there, the story runs in a strange arc that is sometimes fascinating, sometimes humorous, sometimes bewildering, and usually quite surreal. The first 18 issues are fundamentally typical action/quest types of stories, involving a shadowy meta-being referred to as The American Scream... Shade and Kathy become familiar while chasing and fighting this malevolent being that seeks to warp and corrupt America. This cycle includes such antagonists and obstacles as a massive apparition of JFK’s shattered head, a mysterious being who draws people into a madness in which they become part of trite Hollywood movies, a sentient mass of New York refuse that mourns the city’s lost and nameless masses, a tripped-out hippie would-be messiah, a pipe-smoking 50s-Americana tyrant, and many other forms of madness besides.
In the surreal and psychedelic stories that make up the 70-issue run of Shade The Changing Man, Shade and Kathy meet Lenny, a jaded and eccentric goth-ish woman who has a penchant for armed robbery. Shade confronts his darker, primal, Shadow self... deals with troubles from a police agent who is tracking him down... faces off hordes of pacman-like demon-blobs who are trying to eat away at his past... searches out the depths of some dark and terrifying truth that he’s trying to hide from himself... finds out that Kathy and Lenny are having a secret affair, and that they want to get away from him... inhabits the body of a woman when his old male body dies... solves the mystery of a dead twin... dies again and, with some help from scheming angels, takes up the body of a madman... moves into a mansion that suffers from bizarre phenomena due to being at some sort of Madness Nexus... fights off a psychopath who worships pain... resists the powers of a child the angels sent to drive him crazy, a child whom he finally kills... creates a golem-succubus-angel from a statue and a summoning contraption... finds out he’s a father, and meets John Constantine and travels to a witch trial in the past... loses his heart, and seeks out an ancient alchemical secret object in various swamps and jungles... meets The Devil and nearly gets caught up in his infernal schemes... struggles to make some sort of peace with Kathy... deals with some oddness from a flaky-skin doppelganger... suffers a terrible loss... becomes infected with a strange madness-fever... meets his son... and the proverbial “much, much more”.
The things I particularly like about Shade: Firstly, I’ll go ahead and make the general disclaimer, which is to say, despite the fact that these are comic books, they are not what many people think. Vertigo (along with other publishers) has consistently put out stories that are not only geared toward adults, but are vastly different than the typical spandex-clad superhero stories that one sees in most comics. Vertigo stories are complex psychological tales, woven with mythological threads and starkly human patterns of behavior.
But what I particularly liked about Shade? Here’s just a few things. I liked the fact that not everyone got along in these stories, that they weren’t all chummy all the time, but that this didn’t mean an automatic default to predictable soap-drama and bitchiness... the conflict between characters was human and realistic, ridiculous little issues that catch and build and become flareups, jealousies, insecurities, all skillfully depicted without overstatement. I love the wild and slightly mad surrealism, the feeling of a person at the edge of reality, not quite fully with a grip, living in a slightly sideways-shunted personal dimension of sorts, trying to interact with people who he cares about but who are ultimately parts of other worlds. I love the selfish, innocent, independent and honest strangeness, the passion and the ugliness, the tapestry of intentions gone awry and efforts wasted, the very human and very normal elements woven into a bizarre and otherworldly storyline. I love the vibrant beauty that underlies the characters, the happenings, the fundamental reality of Shade’s pervasive reality.
...I just plain want a coat like his.
Damn, that’s a cool coat.