By all accounts, the New 52 has been a huge success for DC Comics. The relaunch has reinvigorated sales across the board. It's brought forgotten franchises and characters to the fore like never before, yet creatively, I can't help but consider that ancient saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Take the Shade — not to be confused with Shade, The Changing Man: he was an outright villain initially, then an anti-hero, and in the mid-90s - when last we heard of him, excepting cameo appearances in Brightest Day and Blackest Night - a mentor to James Robinson's renowned reinvention of Starman. But whether the Shade was using his unearthly powers for good or evil, or some nefarious purpose betwixt the two, he's always seemed a self-important leftover of another era.
I wasn't always so cynical. Well, I was, but when I heard DC were planning to bring the Shade back as the star of his own series, with none other than James Robinson at the helm... for a while there, I had hope.
But folks? Don't fall for it. The Shade, I'm afraid, is the same as he's ever been, which is to say old, cold, and so full of himself one wonders why he hasn't ascended into the heavens already.
Of course, great stories can still be told about terrible people, and I was ready for this series to take its place amongst them. In my view, Robinson is a woefully underrated writer, and some of the artists involved in the New 52 take on The Shade were worth getting excited about independently. Count amongst the creatives: Darwyn Cooke, of Richard Stark's Parker fame and Before Watchmen infamy; Scary Godmother creator Jill Thompson; Top 10's Gene Ha; not to mention Cully Hamner; Javier Pullido; and Frazer Irving.
Unsurprisingly, then, The Shade looks fantastic. But here's the thing: in comic books - a storytelling medium wherein narratives are complemented by aesthetics, and vice versa - incredible art doesn't immediately equal a must-read series. Must-see, maybe - thus The Shade is absolutely that - but the experience of reading it is... testing.
It starts pretty poorly. With the Shade lamenting the month of October. With the so-called Master of Darkness' girlfriend threatening to leave him unless he has another bloody adventure already. I can only imagine Hope O'Dare wants some time away from her miserable man - soon enough we will sympathise - but as of the offing, their relationship feels false. Small mercy, then, that the author abandons it whole-hog once the actual story gets going, but given its essential irrelevance, why begin with it? Why not in medias res?
The whole of the opening arc, in fact, feels like a poor man's prologue. But don't stop believing, because from here on out, The Shade gets incrementally better. Beginning with the first installment of the three-part Times Past - which occurs in reverse throughout the series, until it begins again in the final issue - the Shade becomes embroiled in a plot involving his blood, both figuratively and literally. It transpires that this is a story about family; about the ties that bind us and how we strive to escape our origins, eclipsing ancient legacies with our own; and about how much easier it is to be evil than do good.
This last sets the scene for a legitimately interesting reflection of our man's murky origins: recombined insight into the circumstances surrounding his dark powers, and his life before he became the Shade. If the series started here, I'd recommend it to you almost wholeheartedly, but whilst it ends very well, I fear it puts its worst foot forward.
Overall, Robinson simply takes too long to find his stride, and even when he has, The Shade comes across somewhat overwrought. Push through the iffy offing and patient readers might find a lot to like, but given the limited scope of this limited series - a trade paperback edition of which will be available in early 2013 - The Shade misses the target as often as it hits it, squandering at least as much of its promise as it spends well. Bear that in mind before you buy in.