Shade The Changing Man vol.1: The American Scream

Vertigo is probably my favorite comic book imprint, Made up of comics by DC for mature readers that also have a tendency to have stories not involving superheroes, Vertigo has included some of my favorite series, including "The Sandman," "Lucifer," "Transmetropolitan" and many others. I have sampled several of the different series in my time as a comics fan, particularly the small group that started the imprint off, in the late 80s and early 90s, made up mostly of reboots of old cancelled superheroes from the 1970s that had a tendency to go in strange, decidedly non-superhero, directions.

I had heard of this series, "Shade the Changing Man," but didn't know all that much about it until I encountered it in a bookstore, reissued in a new series of trade paperbacks.What I discovered was a strange, unsettling, but very interesting story.

The story  concerns a young woman named Kathy George whose parents and boyfriend are killed by a psychopathic killer named Troy Grenzer. Grenzer is caught and condemned to death, but, on the day of his execution, something...odd happens. Reality seems to break down, the electric chair comes alive, and Grenzer's body mysteriously disappeared. Outside, where Kathy is sitting in her car, she is suddenly surprised by an individual who looks like Grenzer, but who insists he is in fact another entity named Shade who is using Grenzer's body to come to Earth to defeat a monstrous creature called the American Scream, made up of the repressed insanity of all Americans.

After Shade manages to convince Kathy that he isn't Grenzer, the rest of the volume follows the duo dodging the police (who think Shade is Grenzer, escaped from his execution) while defeating the American Scream when it tries to use people's insanity to destroy the world.

The comic is very trippy. This is particularly true whenever the Scream gets its hooks into someone: to give one example, an obsessed JFK fanatic in Dallas, begins to manifest the heads of all the people in the car when JFK was assassinated, each repeating their famous lines over and over again, and also creates a giant JFK head constantly asking who killed him, eating anyone who can't answer. The constant shifts (Shade's physical features often change, and more than once he forgets who he actually is) make the story both confusing and engrossing, as it becomes deliciously tangled up in its own logic. The colors used are also unsettling. I rarely like the coloring used in comics in the 80s and 90s, which in my opinion is often way too garish and separates what's happening on the page with reality too much. But the strange, not-quite right color scheme here fits perfectly, giving an air of unease that works well for the surreality of the series.

Shade as a character is not my favorite. This is just the first volume, and we do get some character development as we go along, but he's way too much of a blank, as if Peter Milligan, the writer, wasn't quite sure what he wanted from his hero when he started the story. This unfortunately makes it rather hard to relate to him. Kathy, on the other hand, is an interesting character, a woman who's not quite sure she's sane, and who is more than a little creeped out by the fact that her traveling companion looks remarkably like the man responsible for the deaths of everyone she cared about, while simultaneously being fascinated by him. I also liked the two detectives following our heroes, who don't quite know what's going on but do know it's something strange, and who are dogged in their pursuit for some sort of answer that makes sense. They never really come off as antagonists, merely another pair trying to figure out the mystery who occasionally work at cross-purposes to our heroes.

All in all, this series has potential. It's not the strongest of the early Vertigo titles (that honor going to "The Sandman," in my opinion), but it is an interesting idea done well enough for me to want to read more to see what will happen. Read it if you want to discover a very trippy and quite interesting story that is strange but fascinating.  

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billyaustindillon 6 years ago

Great overview - I am familiar with Sandman and you have got me keen to look further - I definitely need to check Shade out.

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