Shadowman Volume 1: Spirits Within Review (Valiant Masters)
by Steve Englehart, Bob Hall, Bob Layton, Faye Perozich, Jim Shooter, Steve Ditko, David Lapham, Mark Moretti
What you get from Shadowman: Spirits Within is ultimately dependent on your expectations going into the book. Anyone who is unacquainted with the writing style and conventions of comics during this period (the early 1990’s) will probably find the lack of a cohesive story arc frustrating; however, if one instead views this book as a kind of appetizer for the original Shadowman series, it’s a fairly enjoyable reading experience.
Readers of the current title will notice a stark contrast with the original series. Birth Rites told a tightly-plotted story focusing on Shadowman’s origin and battle with Mr. Twist. In comparison, the first three issues of Spirits Within meander. Further, Jack Boniface’s sudden transformation into Shadowman is given no explanation other than his housekeeper, Nettie, mentioning that he has a “Loa” inside him—as to what exactly a “Loa” is, the reader is never told—in the second issue, whereas in the second issue of the current series, Dox gave a (overly) thorough description.
Many of these differences can be chalked up to modern comic book writing conventions versus those of the 1990’s. There are certainly advantages to both approaches; the vagueness of Shadowman’s powers make for an intriguing mystery. Writers Jim Shooter, Steve Englehart, and Faye Perazich smartly extend this mystery to Jack’s fighting style. Since he doesn’t actually know what he’s fully capable of, he fights as unpredictably as possible, which he likens to jazz music (instead of being a handyman, he’s a jazz musician). That being said, in terms of plot, the first three issues could have greatly benefited from a strong, compelling villain such as a Mr. Twist or a Master Darque. Instead, the antagonists from these issues are fairly generic, one-off crooks.
The fourth and fifth issues tie in to the “Unity”-crossover, and though the editors attempt to bring the readers up to speed as much as possible by including a “Unity”-timeline in the trade, these issues feel very out of place, mostly because one of the issues was close to the beginning and the other was close to the end of the 18-part crossover. While it’s nice to see Shadowman interact with the likes of Solar, Archer, and Armstrong, the collection would have been stronger had it skipped these issues and instead included Shadowman #8 and #9.
The first five issues of the title are not bad by any means, but the series noticeably improves when Bob Hall, who would serve as the writer (and later penciler) until #43, comes onboard with #6 (although, he is only credited with the dialogue for the issue, and doesn’t assume full writing duties until the following issue). While the story for #6 is another one-and-done , it has more a pulp feel, and the dialogue is infinitely better (legendary Valiant Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter did many things well, but writing dialogue was not one of them). The series really begins to hit its stride with #7, which was the first issue to really hint at a long-term plot. Further, Hall makes the comic feel more authentic by including references to actual locations around New Orleans. The final collected issue is the #0, which allows the reader to see Master Darque’s origin as well as introducing the idea that Jack Boniface was not the only Shadowman, rather it was assumed by a different person each generation. Although this may be the strongest part of Spirits Within, it’s also a strange inclusion given that it was published much later into the series, and, as of #7, Darque has yet to be introduced. Regardless, it’s a radically different take on Darque than the current iteration.
Overall, the issues collected in this book aren’t great per se, but the potential for greatness is evident. The writers have hinted at enough interesting possibilities to keep the readers around, and the New Orleans setting certainly gives the title a strong sense of atmosphere. Bob Hall would later sheer the book even further from the standard superhero title, which is why many readers are still sentimental about this series. Until later issues are collected, Spirits Within is simply a sampler for fans of the original series or readers of the current series interested in looking at the character’s roots.
During this period, Valiant Comics were known for their distinctive house style, which was based on the work of Barry Windsor-Smith and Bob Layton, and although Spirits Within contains the work of five separate pencilers (including the legendary Steve Ditko), the art has a fairly uniform appearance. It’s a far cry from the popular aesthetic of that period—the famous “Image style” of Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, et al.—but it works well for Shadowman. The coloring does seem muted and rather dull, but my understanding is that this was a universal problem in comics at this time due to the change to computer coloring (someone with a better knowledge of comics’ history can correct me if I’m mistaken). Adding credence to this, the collection does include several of David Lapham’s uncolored pages, which look great.
The best comics have always had a timeless quality about. Unlike, say, Watchmen or Walt Simonson’s Thor, the original Shadowman is very much rooted in its time. There are plenty of interesting ideas, and Jack Boniface is more developed in the first issue of this story than he was in the entirety of Birth Rites, but much of Spirits Within feels like a rough draft of what the character would eventually become. If one is able to think of it in this context, it’s an entertaining read, but this book is really intended for a specific audience, and it’s hard to recommend it to anyone outside that target group.