by Etienne Paul, CMRO Contributing Writer
The Shadow / Green Hornet Volume 1
Written by Michael Uslan, Art by Keith Burns and Tony Alvina
Published: July 2013
I was actually looking really forward to this book; Dynamite has been on quite a roll for me producing some of my favourite comics of recent years from Dejah Thoris to Chaos. From being a devout hater of pulp and especially modern comics based on those characters, they have very much changed my opinion. Wade’s Green Hornet comic has been a fantastic example of this with his clever dialogue and the beautiful modern art style it gave me an entirely new appreciation for this era of comics. Many of the other books I have read, even new ones, seek to copy the style of the 40′s comics with its limited colours, rigid grid and unimaginative drawing. What this allows me to do is appreciate the clothing, cars and architecture of the time period without fighting my way past archaic printing dots and 3 colour Dick Tracy style artwork.
This book is just plain weird, for the most part because it cannot seem to work out what it wants to be. Having admitted that I am not the greatest fan of pulp stories, I am leaving myself open to ridicule when I say this, but this is totally not what I expect to see. We have the 1930-40s time setting; we have strange gadgets, helicopters before their time and karate chopping sidekicks; but what I do not expect is magic, technomancy and the Nazi’s invading the USA. If I was going to describe this book in a sentence, it starts off interesting and mysterious, becomes clever and then just turns plain silly.
The President of the USA is conscripting rich and powerful people to help him prepare for the Second World War. Now, this for me is a bit of an issue because it becomes retrospective storytelling. Roosevelt himself did coin that phrase, but not until 1941, two years after this book is set and it certainly was not in common usage until a few years later. However we have the Green Hornet spouting phrases like ‘If we lose Roosevelt we probably lose the next World War’, which really annoyed me. There are plenty of other ‘future’ events which are placed into this book, such as the urban legend of alligators in the sewers, a story which was not in existence until a book published in 1959 made it common knowledge. Now obviously this is a comic and it is allowed to mess with history, however it is not merely the facts that annoyed me, but the language in which they are written. If we take the Green Hornet quote about losing the war, he is saying that while he is fighting a giant crocodile, it is just so cumbersome and unnecessary; it feels like something someone would write, but not what someone would say. All of the language in the book is like that, a cross between conversation and plot dump and it is so reminiscent of the silver age comics where the writer did not trust the artist to tell the story, but felt that he had to spell it out for everyone as well.
The irony is this book starts so well and I had really high hopes for it. You have the two alter egos of the Shadow and Green Hornet meeting, unaware of the others secret identity, being asked to help out Roosevelt because of their connections to the media and charity. We then have introductions between their associates, with Margo and Nori discovering they both went to the same boarding school and clearly did not like each other. These interactions and the later ones between the Hornet and the Shadow, were what I was hoping the book would form around. For the first half of the volume that is exactly what happens as otherwise friends become enemies who realise they are on the same side and come together to fight the common enemy; however it is the other plot strand which spoils the book.
Now we have Tesla creating a death ray, that is fine the real one did all sorts of weird stuff, but he is using a Girasol which is a crystal formed from the heart of a star and it all gets very mystical. I know the Shadow can often go off in that direction and his ‘powers’ are right on the border between mysterious and outright magic, but the rest of the book descends very much into the latter. The strangest part is that I prefer the Shadow to the Green Hornet because he has more levels to his background, but in this comic my preferences were reversed. I found the parts centring on the Green Hornet were much more grounded and less reliant on hand waving away problems. However it is the ending which really killed this for me as they decent under Manhattan and discover a place akin to the world in the book ‘Journey to the centre of the earth’ with monsters, burial grounds and strangely enough a sky underground.
There are some modern comics which delight in referencing anything they can from modern pop culture. They will throw in a pop star, president and sportsman while referencing brand beverages and have people hitting on the latest Z-list celebrity. This entire book does exactly that, but using facts from 1940s USA and, most importantly, doing it badly. I have mentions a couple like Roosevelt coining the phrase World War 2, but doing it too early, but they also throw in other references to shows of the time, like the Wizard of Oz; charity programs, like the March of Dimes; and topical people like Walter Cronkite. This entire book reads like a snapshot of American history and the writer/ letterer was so keen to let you know that they had half done their research by putting all those little things into speech bubbles and bolding the names.
This book could have been fantastic and the concept was there to have a great story. They should have kept the parts with the two heroes meeting as civilians, and getting along, but meeting as ‘capes’ and finding themselves on different sides. They should have done away with the over the top secondary plot and the entire 5th comic which would have meant I was not subjected to two characters doing Star Wars force lightning impersonations with their magical rings. But most importantly the writer needs to learn to let the artist do his job, stop telling us what is happening, make all those clever little things you have researched enter the story naturally, or just do not include them. Make sure the artist can do a good rendition of a young Walter Cronkite and leave it as an Easter egg for people who recognise him, but don’t beat me over the head with his name just to show how clever you are.