One staple of James Robinson’s legendary Starman was “Times Past,” a set of stand-alone stories diving into the history of the Starman legacy and Opal City. It was a way to tell a fun adventure story, introduce some fascinating character traits, or deepen the mythology he was patiently building without using too much tedious exposition. So imagine my surprise and delight when I opened this month’s The Shade #4 and found myself enthralled by the Shade’s fantastic adventures in 1944, an excellent stand-alone adventure that deepens our understanding of the main plot while telling its own story and welcoming new readers.
World War II is in full swing when the issue begins. The Shade is largely ignoring the war, instead using the distraction to steal a ton of precious gems from the vaults of Opal City, but he is quickly drawn into a conspiracy to assassinate Darnell Caldecott, a wealthy British industrialist who was throwing his entire fortune into fighting the Nazis – and who happens to be the Shade’s grandson. Teaming up with various masked adventurers, the Shade works to stop the assassination attempt, an adventure that leads to some surprising revelations and the re-introduction of Madam Fatal, a mind-numbingly fascinating character created in 1940 and largely unused since then, and one I now need to read a whole lot more about.
With illustration by Darwyn Cooke and colors by Dave Stewart, you know the issue is, visually speaking, an absolute treat. Their way of covering the Shade’s face in shifting shadows is eerie and perfect, a neat visual reminder of both the character’s powers and his showy sense of style. They also excel at the action scenes, crafting dynamic, often creepy, tableaux of shadow run amuck. It would be worth the price of admission for the art alone.
I have been relatively rough on The Shade in my reviews so far. The downside, I suppose, of my love of Starman and immense respect for the fascinating, complex character Robinson crafted the Shade into in its pages. But The Shade #4 reaffirmed everything I loved about Starman – and perfected everything I’m still loving about the current The Shade maxi-series. It’s a pitch-perfect callback to long-lost World War II adventure stories that gave birth to many of our favorite superheroes that explains the Shade’s complex relationship with Caldecott, the presumed villain of the early issues of the series, while still telling an exciting tale. At his best, no one delves into the weird history of DC comics like James Robinson does – and this, unquestionably, is Robinson at his best.
The Shade #1