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"At this point I started to lie. And as I lied, I realized I might be telling the truth. This often happens to me."
—Shade, The Passion Child
Originally a short-lived series created by Steve Ditko, Shade ran for 8 issues (June, 1977-September, 1978) before its sudden cancellation. The protagonist later turned up in the Suicide Squad, where he was a regular cast member from issue #16 to #37 (August, 1988-January, 1990). Like many other Silver Age heroes he then got a thorough Continuity Reboot under DC's Vertigo imprint; the alien fugitive with a technological gizmo was replaced by a soulful poet from a parallel world who could warp reality.
The reboot was written in 1990 under Britwave author Peter Milligan and then-fledgling artist Chris Bachalo. Like the work of previous British authors Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, the series was highly experimental, combining history, mythology, literary allusions, and genre deconstruction. The series would run seventy issues, reaching its conclusion in 1996.
The series focuses on Shade, a dimensional traveler with reality-altering powers. In the Vertigo title, he is unceremoniously dropped into our dimension, where he becomes involved in the life of a young woman named Kathy, still reeling from the brutal murder of her boyfriend and parents. He soon turns her life upside-down as he fights against physical manifestations of madness, of his own desires, and of the breakdown of American culture. He fights fire with fire by harnessing the power of Madness using the "Madness Vest" (the "M-Vest" in the Ditko era). However, things quickly turn more complicated...
The externalization of shifting ideas forms a central theme throughout the series, exploring belief, creation, madness, and the instability of identity. The focus of the series was usually on character interaction, psychological changes, and human relationships, even as the overarching plot grew increasingly climactic and fantastical. The series never shied away from controversy, dealing openly with transgenderism, homosexuality, murder, and interracial relationships.
The series has a cult following, but can be difficult to find, although the first 19 issues have been republished in TPBs. In 2003, original author Peter Milligan teamed with Madman artist Mike Allred to write a one-off Shade story for Vertigo's tenth anniversary special.
Recent years have seen Shade making appearances in some of Milligan's other DC work - his Hellblazer run, Flashpoint miniseries "Secret Seven", and Justice League Dark. Notably, the latter two see Shade incorporated into the main DCU.
The series provides examples of:
- Affably Evil: The Devil, who comes across as a civilized, cultured gentleman who eventually stabs Shade in the back. He is the Devil, after all.
- Alternate Universe - Meta.
- Another Dimension: Our hero's unusual provenance.
- Author Avatar: Shade's cultural confusion in America echoed Peter Milligan's own.
- Not to mention the fact that Shade's reality altering powers are presented as an allegory for the authorial act of creation.
- Ax Crazy: Troy Grenzer and the supermarket gunman in the sheepskin jacket. Shade also has a short bout of it during his deal with the Devil.
Kathy: You haven't... given up your soul or anything?
- Back From the Dead - Shade at least once, but the distinction somewhat blurs after he begins making trips to the Land of the Dead regularly.
- Beat Still My Heart: Shade's heart is stolen by a squatter in his home after a battle. He embarks on a half-hearted rescue of it and when he finally catches up to it, has a heart-to-heart talk with it. And then steps on it when he decides he's better off heartless. It appears from time to time, still beating, moving under its own power, and even has internal monologues.
- Bitter Wedding Speech: Subverted. Lenny is invited to her uncle's wedding, years after he babysat her as a child, and masturbated while watching her sleep. She has everyone's attention when she gets onto the table in front of the married couple, expecting a speech. She simply unfastens her dress and lets it fall off her with a smirk on her face. The reception ended in family violence.
- Blessed with Suck / Cursed with Awesome
- Changed My Jumper: On the rare examples of time-travel, it was easily Handwaved by Shade only appearing to personalities known to stay under the influence of substances, sometimes including hallucinogens. In one unique aversion, all of Hotel Shade and everything inside reverted gradually to earlier analogues and fashions, until they finally arrived in colonial Salem. Constantine mused on the fit of various underwear through history.
- Continuity Nod - Meta's Ditkosian mythology referred to Steve Ditko's work on the title, largely thrown out of canon during Peter Milligan's run.
- Deadpan Snarker: Lenny, who, upon losing this ability attempts suicide.
- Dogged Nice Guy - Shade's earliest incarnation, called sweet and sensitive, faces disappointments with Kathy and abuse from Lenny
- Dream Land: the Area (originally 'The Area of Madness') is expanded to become the land of dreams, the land of the dead, the place where all human consciousness gravitates.
- Dysfunction Junction - played straight with some characters, subverted by other characters who are just trying to seem more interesting than their actual background would suggest, and inverted by others who come across perfectly stable in spite of having every reason to go mad.
- Emotionless Girl: The Passionchild, an androgynous pretty boy who incited emotion to the psychotic degree in everyone around him, but never expressed anything. He didn't even speak until Shade cracked into his inner world, and found nothing.
Passionchild: I find nothing out there. I find nothing in here too, but it's my nothing.
- Enemy Within: For Shade (thanks to the power of madness) Hades became an Enemy Without and an Ensemble Darkhorse in the same story arc. He also seemed to become less threatening and more helpful, so perhaps it's for the best that he vanished the scene before Spikeification set in.
- Executive Meddling - First when DC demanded the comic continue past Milligan's intended conclusion at the end of the Angels story arc. Again when the comic was canceled during the Roots of Madness story arc.
- Expository Hairstyle Change: Every time Shade dies
- Gender Bender: Shade's consciousness leaps into the body of a recently murdered woman. Unfortunately, he was unable to alter her body to resemble his old one until he solved her murder and put her soul at rest. This led to various comical scenes with Shade experiencing the Male Gaze, his first period and sex as a woman.
- Genre Savvy - Lenny, later the incarnation of Pandora
- Green Rocks: The Power of Madness.
- Important Haircut: Kathy's came after getting over the loss of Shade and becoming romantically attached to Lenny. The editor confessed in the letters page that she had also gone through several hairstyles of her own while getting over emotional pains. Kathy returned to long, natural hair while pregnant with Shade's child and since she was murdered not long after, that's how she's always remembered.
- And then there's Shade himself, who gets a new haircut every time he dies.
- According to Milligan, hair is a major theme of the series.
- It Runs on Nonsensoleum: "It runs on pure madness!" Things like Angel Catchers and Time Machines are built from unlikely whirlwinds of parts, arranged in implausible configurations, and powered by Shade's insane faith that they would work. For a time, even Shade's own body was formed and held together with madness.
- Mad Artist
- Medium Awareness: A movie camera infected by the American Scream shows awareness of both film and comic conventions. And the narration during 'The Great American Story' calls much attention to panel framing and transition, then at the end the writer character reveals his name to be an anagram of Peter Milligan (and is suddenly rendered much slimmer and younger), implying that he was the narrator.
- Name's the Same: There's a former Justice Society enemy turned antihero in the mainstream DC Universe who also goes by Shade.
- Painting the Fourth Wall - in issue #39.
- Plausible Deniability: In the first Suicide Squad series, Shade told about an incredibly confusing conspiracy that was going on in his home dimension. When Shade and the Squad confronted the conspirators on Earth, one of the Squad members asked what to do when the police arrived. Shade replied to tell the police the truth and they will brush it off as a delusional fantasy.
- Power Born of Madness: prime example of the Reality Warper ("forge what you need on the smithy of your soul".) Shade began merely poetic, and therefore only insane to his native culture, so he was able to survive being flung through the Area of Madness relatively sane. With time on Earth, he got much madder.
- Reality Warper: Shade
- Ret-Gone: In the final issues of the series, Shade (and Milligan) attempted to invert this, and remove Kathy's tragic backstory and murder.
- Rewriting Reality: One arc features an inversion: anything that frustrated writer Miles Laimling wrote would be fictional, even if it were true before. Miles drew inspiration from personalities around him, and as their traits became more lifelike in his fiction, those traits would fade from the individuals they were inspired from.
- Sarcasm Failure: Lenny is always good for a snark, no matter how dire the situation. Her Sarcasm Failure was a result of an author, an unwitting personality plunderer, who had written her into his book, and shocked her enough to drive her to a suicide attempt.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The series ends with Shade rewriting history so that none of the events of the comic ever happened, leaving one character (who had gone back in time with him) missing, his son trapped permanently in a female body and he himself unable to reconnect with his lost love. There is a slightly upbeat moment in the last panel, but if you think about it, it's unlikely to have worked out the way he wanted it to...
- Sociopathic Hero - Shade's second incarnation as a madman, but even moreso the third incarnation after losing his heart.
- Split Personality
- Superpower Lottery: Shade could create hallucinations, create physical objects, change himself, change others, bring himself back from the dead, teleport, make and grow interdimensional spaces, and even travel through time itself! A few reasons why this worked:
- Non-heroic comic book. That means all other characters get no gimmicks, so their character development have to be focused on character. And so you had purely normal, believable personalities who were at least as interesting as the guy with the powers, or moreso.
- Shade's powers were just as often the plaything of his own issue-riddled subconscious. And the more adept Shade got at using his powers, the more colossally his fucked up mind could fashion a Mind Screw.
- The Mad Hatter
- The Mentally Disturbed
- Too Kinky to Torture: Version 3 of Milligan's Shade expresses enthusiasm for the idea of being tortured, as long as it's being done by an expert.
- Weirdness Magnet: Shade and his crew end up living in 'Hotel Shade', which the Angels told him would "draw madness to it like a magnet." Even John Constantine paid a visit.
- What Do You Mean It Wasn't Made on Drugs?
- Who Dunnit to Me?: Story Arc 'The Road'.
- Who Shot JFK?: The second and third issue give us a Sphinx with JFK's head that asks people this question and eats them when they're unable to answer. The JFK-Sphinx's madness is fueled by a Kennedy admirer-turned conspiracy theorist. In the end, he's forced to ask the question, and says we're all responsible, for letting the President's death overshadow his life, but the real truth is confronting the manifestation of his obsession allows him to come to terms with the death of his young daughter, which he can only blame on life's unfairness.
- Who Would Want to Watch Us?: In the final issues, after DC had decided to cancel, Lenny is describing Shade to her father.
Lenny's father: What is he, Superman?