When you take the Shadow out of Walter Gibson’s pulp paper playground and hurl him into comics or movies, the major question that creators have to face head on, like the Shadow’s blazing .45 automatics, is how they visualize the cloaked, two-gun, mockingly laughing night stalker.
It’s like the Howard the Duck movie based on Steve Gerber’s creation: If you don’t have the duck right, all the hard work, and all the glitz in the world is never going to obscure the fact that you don’t have the duck.
If you like the 1994 film version of the Shadow, all you need to know is that Shout! Factory has released a beautiful print of it on Blu-ray. The Shadow is now in high def and widescreen. Visually it is immaculate to my seen-through-glasses eyes. Shout! has done what a fan of the film would want; they released the film intact, with bonus extras of interviews with all the principal players responsible for bringing this version of the cloaked avenger to the screen.
Watching the film on Blu-ray reminded me of some of my initial reactions when I saw it in a movie theater.
Russell Mulcahy first came to my attention as a director of music videos. He displayed a visual virtuosity of moody imagery with Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which was superbly edited and filled with haunted energy — a combination perfect for the Shadow.
Alec Baldwin played the Shadow. In the 1990s, Baldwin, as many actors did, was obviously looking for a film franchise to star in. He had starred as James Lee Burke’s character Dave Robicheaux in Heaven’s Prisoners, as would Tommy Lee Jones many years later in In the Electric Mist. Neither his portrayal of the Shadow nor of Robicheaux led to a film series, but he and Kim Basinger put plenty of sex into a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, before their passion went passionately bad. Baldwin’s career was in the spotlight; he seldom reminisced about the Shadow, but he survived with enterprising endeavors through the ensuing decades, while his private life turned to turbulent paper and television tabloid sensationalist headlines.
So, why didn’t this version of the Shadow turn into a successful series of films? It has splendid visuals, opulent sets, and a lot of star power. The writer David Koepp was on a winning streak with films like Jurassic Park. It sounded like a sure thing.
But there are seldom surefire things in the entertainment business, no matter how much research the people who do not create do to predict a major league hit.
Once in the 1980s when Marvel Comics had a big hit with a series they had not expected to become such a phenomenal seller, the suits actually scolded editorial because they did not warn them they were going to have such a bonanza – as if the editors or anyone else could predict what would sell through the roof. If they did have a magic formula that always worked, wouldn’t they use it all the time?
I have a theory about the Shadow.
The Shadow is like Popeye.
Yes, I know that sounds absurd when you first read it, but it goes back to both character’s origins. Elsie Segar’s Popeye is noted for a number of slogans that have stayed throughout the decades. Popeye’s simple declaration that “I yam what I yam an’ tha’s all that I yam” sums the sailor up. You don’t have dig any further to know who he is and what he is. He’s Popeye, and he does what he does, and he doesn’t descend into any severe emotional crisis about himself.
The primary question when approaching making a film about Walter Gibson’s Shadow is: How do you visualize the Shadow? The second question is: How much do you show of the Shadow?
When we first see the Shadow confronting a gang of ruthless thugs who are about to kill someone, we hear his infamous bodiless voice. On the radio, Orson Welles as the Shadow, often laughs with sinister quietness, lingering and unnerving to villains; Baldwin’s amplified laugh is merely loud and heartless.
The Shadow first appears as if out of a shroud of mist, which is not a bad visual, but it is a brief couple of seconds of seeing the reason most people come to watch a picture called The Shadow. It’s as if he formed out of the mist, one instant of flesh-and-bone embodiment, but then all too quickly vanished.
Some cuts later, after the leader of the mob sprays the bridge area with machine gun bullets, we have an iconic image of the Shadow standing full figure, black robed, black slouch hat, crimson bright scarf over the lower part of his face, smoking automatics in his gloved hands.
This is an effective, iconic opening to showcase the Shadow.
Unfortunately, we won’t see much of him in that fashion again.
The first half hour is a kind of crazed crash course in Walter Gibson’s the Shadow, trying to capture the various intricacies of the series as it evolved in the pulps over the years. We are abruptly introduced to the concept of the Shadow having agents who are positioned about the city to inform him of criminal skullduggery. Shrevy, the cab driver who chauffeurs the Shadow to crime scenes as one of his agents, takes him to one of Lamont Cranston’s favorite Gibson inspired pulp hangouts, The Cobalt Club.
The Shadow dines with Jonathan Winters and clouds Winters’s mind with ease and manipulates him to think what the Shadow and/or Lamont wants him to think.
Its great seeing Jonathan Winters, and one wishes he had more to do in this film. The sequence with Winters brings in to play the age-old question that if the Shadow can compel people to do whatever he wants them to, why the hell doesn’t he just use that ability on the bad guys when they are threatening life and limb of innocent victims? Gibson never used an ability like this so cavalierly.
At the Cobalt Club, Lamont in suit and tux because he changed in the back of Shrevy’s cab, meets Margo Lane. Margo is really a character from the popular 1930s and ’40s radio version of the Shadow. It seems as if all the bases are covered.
In later incarnations in comic books, some creators would feel the necessity to psychoanalyze the Shadow, and his ruthless attack on mobsters, in fact feeling that he had to be psychotic.
But here’s the thing, here is where we link Elsie Segar and Popeye, but now with Walter B. Gibson, who wrote the monthly Shadow novels for years, wrote them on separate typewriters, switched typewriters when his fingertips became too bloody to continue on one machine in order to make that monthly deadline.
For all the film’s adherence to the Shadow in the Orient in the 1920s, I don’t believe for one moment that he does any of what he does out of guilt, or that he would use friends for bloody sacrifice, just as I never bought for one second that he is a psychopath. He is the Shadow.
And so encapsulating different aspects of the Shadow’s life that Gibson created over the years, they are also conveyed with motivations Gibson would never have contemplated.
The Shadow is what he is.
He never abuses his power. He is on the side of those who are threatened, oppressed, or who have no recourse to fight against the powers that are against them.
Gibson was an expert in magic, and none of that magic appears in this film. It looks beautiful. If you don’t love the Shadow for who the creator meant him to be then you’ll probably have a fine time with this version.
Walter Gibson was a master at writing the Shadow. The sequences with gangster tough guy dialogue is often laughable, but when it comes to presenting the Shadow, he is so in tune with the ways to create images in the readers’ minds.
And in the end, there is a pleasure in seeing how Walter Gibson the writer, the magician pulled off the trick.
Check out some of Walter Gibson’s Shadow novels, especially ones graced with a Steranko cover painting. Steranko didn’t have to play shrink with the Shadow. He understood Gibson.
I’ll tell you a story about me, Jim, Walter Gibson and the Shadow.
But that’s another story.
There’s always another story.
Copyright © 2014 by Don McGregor
I’ve written the Introduction for Leonard Starr’s On Stage – Vol. 12, one of my all-time favorite comics. You can find it here.
And here’s just a bit of the Intro:
In Leonard Starr’s world people clash in sometimes subtle, sometimes cruelly violent ways, much the way it is in real life. The people in Starr’s strip not only had different personalities, but came into conflict with different ways of seeing life, and of living. The exchange of ideas were as important as any physical action, and Starr by the 1960s managed to carry a philosophical discussion of opposites for days on end, without losing sight of his story or the people. He also kept On Stage visually stimulating throughout. Starr’s ability to show subtle changes of facial expression or body language were lovely to behold.
Leonard Starr’s writing was unique in comics.
He could be as evocative as Milton Caniff.
He could be as startling as Chester Gould.
On Stage was often drama with figures in physical as well as ethical collision.
The hardcover edition of Detectives Inc. is still available. Continued sales on the series can help make the new Detectives Inc.: A Fear of Perverse Photos/A Repercussion of Violent Reprisal a reality. You can order Detectives Inc. from Amazon.
And new things are about to happen at donmcgregor.com.
Don McGregor is coming to Asbury Park Comicon April 12 & 13! Creator of one of the first American graphic novels, Detectives Inc. Tickets at http://www.asburyparkcomicon.com/ You may not have realized it; it’s been a little bit buried. But bring your copies of Detectives Inc. and Sabre and Ragamuffins and I’ll personalize and autograph them for you. And we’ll talk about comics.