The Shadow #100
By Francesco Francavilla, Victor Gischler, Stephen B. Scott, Salvator Aiala Studios, Howar Chaykin, Jesus Aburto, Michael Uslan, Giovanni Timpano, Marco Lesko, Matt Wagner, Brennan Wagner
Extra large, celebratory issues are always a mixed bag. This ends up especially true of The Shadow #100, a 48-page special issue that includes 5 different stories. Each of the different Shadow stories are written, illustrated, and colored by different creative teams so despite how well each tale might have stood up independently, they can’t help but end up compared to one another. In that regard the standouts of the issue are easily the opening and closing stories, mainly based on the quality of the art and color work at hand, though the intermediate stories are all enjoyable in their own right. Most of the stories at hand have ultimately very simplistic plots, just a lot of well-written riffs on the standard array of crime buster tropes that have informed Shadow stories since he first started on the radio. As a result the bigger selling point of the comic is very much in the art department, where a lot of the stories manage to truly shine.
The opening story, ‘The Laughing Corpse,’ is the best in the entire comic having been written, drawn, and colored by Francesco Francavilla. Francavilla is an incredible artistic talent with an amazing grasp on scene composition and color work. He favors an incredible palette of washed-out grays and browns that serve to highlight the ruddy crimsons and soft yellows that punctuate his work. His style carries with it a lot of natural references to the EC and DC horror comics of the 1950s; both in terms of general iconography and in the way he arranges each page. His predilections are most apparent in his style of setting panels at crooked angles or framing huge, looming objects in the foreground to emphasize the atmosphere of a scene rather than literal setting. All of this is why he was such an inspired choice for Afterlife With Archie and he brings that same A-game to The Shadow #100. In particular he manages to wed his lexicon of horror comic designs to some very noir inspired lighting and shading techniques, creating an atmosphere that walks the line between the Shadow’s normal world of hard-boiled pulp and the creepy chiller thriller genre that populated horror films in the Shadow’s heyday of the ‘30s.
The middle stories are less memorable overall and easily the book’s weakest point. The lengthiest of the bunch is ‘Black and White and Red All Over,’ written and drawn by Howard Chaykin. Chaykin’s writing is an interesting stand out, a very meta-tale about the Shadow existing in comic books in his own universe. It’s a fun idea, but fun is all Chaykin is looking to have out of it, playing the story mostly for laughs.
It doesn’t help that his artwork still has a lot of problems with foreshortening and perspective, especially in the backgrounds. He does strong work drawing characters and even though they’re heavily stylized Chaykin’s facial features are still a standout, but he always ends up scrunching his characters into flat, lifeless backgrounds. It also doesn’t help that this story is in color, Jesus Aburto tries his best to fill in Chaykin’s artwork, but ultimately these are designs that would’ve worked better in black and white. As a result a lot of the plaid suits and ink splotch designs leave panels feeling cluttered and busy.
The other middle stories are ultimately satisfying, but in no way memorable or engaging. There’s a lot of very good color and lighting work both from Marco Lesko and the Salvatore Aiala Studios, but it ends up with nothing to elevate. Both stories showcase a strong talent for realizing street lighting and using dynamic colors to tint entire scenes for effect, it’s just that the stories they’re attached to don’t leave a lasting impression.
Finally Matt Wagner writes and draws the final story with Brennan Wagner doing the colors. Matt Wagner takes an entirely different tract to storytelling from the others, filling up his section with gorgeous splash pages accompanying a purely text story. Each of the splash pages are wonderfully arranged featuring a carefully aligned collection of visual cues for the story. It’s similar in style to Francavilla’s approach only even more old school, drawing on the style that was endemic to the pulp stories and dime store novels of the ‘30s. This ends up a perfect fit for Wagner’s exaggerated style of character design and emphasis on bold, hard line work. It’s very reminiscent of Bruce Timm’s Batman: Strange Days anniversary short. Additionally, Wagner’s blend of lurid yet dramatic narration fits perfectly into The Shadow’s wheelhouse; honestly the whole story feels like a lost installment of Sandman Mystery Theater. Brennan Wagner also does a great job coloring, he’s worked a lot with Francavilla previously and brings a similar aesthetic to this story. The entire story is washed-out in sepia tone colors using red and silver for exclamation, similarly to Sin City. It all adds up to a very moody and well-composed piece that’s more of an exercise in atmosphere than anything else.
Overall The Shadow #100 is more passable than great. The opening and closing stories are strong standouts as I’ve said, but the bulk of material in the middle ends up tragically forgettable. What it really lacks is a sense of overarching cohesion, sometimes it wants to be a showcase of artwork using the Shadow as a convenient subject matter, sometimes it’s a meta-story revolving around the Shadow’s various media presences, and sometimes it’s just a very a simple crime fighter story. All these little pieces never add up to a coherent whole, leaving the reader undernourished by the end.