Being a fan of the Doc Savage books (albeit the Bantam paperback reprints rather than the original pulps) but not later comic books from Marvel and others, I didn't have any background in what David Avallone had done before he showed up to be the 20th anniversary guest at Doc Con.
I was surprised to discover at the event that not only was he the son of prolific pulp author Michael Avallone, some of whose books I own and have enjoyed, I'd been pronouncing their surname wrong for years. David turned out to be an interesting speaker and a chatty fellow, so I happily picked up a couple of his more intriguing graphic novels.
This one has an elevator pitch for a title, so I hardly need to explain what it's about. Yes, it's about the Shadow. In the Twilight Zone. But who's the Shadow? That was never quite as simple as it was in Doc Savage, whose name was always Clark Savage, Jr., trained from birth for the task he undertook. The Shadow, on the other hand, had different identities.
He's really a wartime fighter pilot called Kent Allard who takes on the challenge of fighting crime under different personae, most often that of socialite Lamont Cranston. In the pulps there was a real Cranston but he travels the world while Allard fights crime while using his name. He has other disguises too, but unlike Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, Kent Allard becomes a variety of other people who in turn become the Shadow.
And that tantalising nest of masks is what Avallone adopts as a framework for this graphic novel, a collection of four comic books published by Dynamite as a series in 2016.
As we begin, the character we see is the traditional caped Shadow, with his face wrapped in a crimson scarf and hidden below a slouch hat. He's leading a rout on an American Nazi rally in New York State in 1939 and he's particularly bloodthirsty here, taking down every Nazi who raises a gun in his direction with his own twin barrels. As Shrevy drives him, unmasking as Cranston, and his socialite agent, Margo Lane, away from Camp Siegfried, the Nazis hit them with poison gas and their car turns and spins.
Enter the recognisable voice of Rod Serling because Cranston wakes up in the Shadow's sanctum talking to himself. Well, he's talking to the Shadow. The two identities have blurred and, because the last thing he remembers is Margo berating him for risking the lives of many women and children by shooting into the crowd, he begins a strange introspective trip through the Twilight Zone.
I know a lot less about the Shadow than I do Doc Savage but I adored the way that Avallone used him as a way to explore the concept of identity. Kent Allard puts on a metaphorical mask to become Lamont Cranston, but does that mask help him play a part or become a part? As we begin, he's apparently forgotten that he's Kent Allard and is forgetting even to be Lamont Cranston. He's becoming the Shadow. At what point does the Shadow wear Cranston's mask rather than the other way around?
Those who know the character will understand that The Shadow began as the narrator of 'Detective Story Hour' on the radio. The character promptly shifted into his own pulp magazine to meet public demand. That's 1930 and 1931 respectively, but 1937 saw the Shadow return to radio in his very own show. "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"
Avallone ably trawls all this into the Twilight Zone. When Cranston, who has forgotten that the Shadow is a mask, barrels out of a window with his long-term enemy Shiwan Khan, he wakes up as a man named Preston, an actor playing the Shadow on radio. I'm sure that Avallone doesn't call him Orson Welles for legal reasons, just "a certain show business wunderkind with a very marketable voice", but that's who we're looking at, just as his co-star, Madge, whom he calls Mrs. Minafer, is Agnes Moorehead, who played that character in his adaptation of 'The Magnificent Ambersons'.
Preston has forgotten who he is, which leads to a successful recording of the show because, in effect, the Shadow played the Shadow. He leaves the studio in a Shadow costume, put on him for a promotional shot, and takes down a crook in the street being chased by the police. This allows for a young Michael Avallone, the author's father, to become part of this story in a magnificent way, asking as a thirteen-year-old child pertinent questions about the morality of the Shadow.
We dig deeper, to 'Arthur', or Walter B. Gibson, the author of most of the Shadow pulp novels, as he prepares to write the first one. He memorably finds himself transported onto the page, attacked by the blindfolded Lady Justice herself and typewriter keys hammering down the word JUSTICE onto his frail body. We dig further to Kent Allard and the origin story of the first book, 'The Living Shadow', before returning to Camp Siegfried and a suitable conclusion to the wraparound story after such reevaluation.
I dug this a lot. It taught me about the character of the Shadow and his depths, without requiring me to come in as a confirmed fan. The framework of the Twilight Zone also allowed Avallone to apply to the Shadow what he applied to others. As he points out in his introduction, "Ordinary people encounter the Shadow, and the Twilight Zone, and are judged: they have to face themselves and the consequences of who they are in their hearts." It feels so appropriate to take the mashup in that direction that I honestly can't think of a different way to do it.
The flaw here for me was the art of Dave Acosta. I like how he treats the action scenes and the more surreal moments, but I had some issues with the way he angled heads and facial features. It gave me the impression that he applied a comic book filter to photographs that wasn't as finely tuned as it could be, even though I have no idea what his techniques actually are.
Mostly this is about the writing. It's Avallone's show and Acosta brings it to visual life well enough and in full colour. If you're a fan of the Shadow, this is an interesting journey into his mind. If you're a fan of the Twilight Zone, this is an episode with a fantastic guest appearance. If you're a fan of neither, but you do at least know who and what they are, this will teach you something. Any which way, this is recommended. ~~ Hal C F Astell