The Red-Headed Poet: Peter Milligan's Changing Man
The POW! and KABOOM! of childhood superheroes is only one of the defining moments of my comic fandom. The other is my discovery of DC Comics’ "mature readers" books -- those that became the first wave of their Vertigo imprint in the early 1990s. They began with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing before splintering into a dozen variations, notably the Swamp Thing spin-off Hellblazer; Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol; and, of course, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It had the kind of fans that wrote terrible Morpheus-inspired poetry for its letter columns, and became so ubiquitous that even Gaiman joked that Sandman was passed around relationships like a venereal disease.
Because they had a foot in the familiar DC Universe -- hey, Sandman met the Martian Manhunter long before he met Shakespeare, remember? -- these comics were a comforting bridge between corporate superhero comics and more alternative, sometimes creator-owned fare. Many of these titles remain in print, their collections selling well all these years later. But there’s one book from this era that has always been overlooked. It’s the red-headed stepchild of the Vertigo line, featuring a red-headed poet from another world: Peter Milligan’s Shade, The Changing Man. One lonely collection came out years back, but Vertigo is now finally releasing volumes collecting the first major storyline: Shade versus The American Scream.
Legendary artist, infamous oddball, and Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko invented Shade back in 1978. He was a sci-fi fugitive from the planet Meta armed with something called the "M-Vest" that allowed him to warp reality. You don’t need to know a thing about the original series to read Milligan’s work, though there are artistic echoes of Ditko scattered throughout. (At one point, Shade even says he’s dreaming “the saga of Shade, the Changing Man, mixing Deetkosian mythology with my own sorry life...") Like many other preexisting characters who were handed over to what would later become Vertigo, Shade was given the Alan Moore Makeover. It goes like this: you find an obscure DC Comics character, insert them into a dark fantasy-slash-horror series, and finally, crank up the wordcount. It’s important the art is plastered with decidedly "literary" narration.
So here’s Shade’s story, redux: a young woman named Kathy George has gone mad after her parents were brutally murdered by a serial killer, Troy Grenzer. She waits outside the prison at the moment of Grenzer’s eventual execution by electric chair -- only to discover that Shade has taken over the killer’s now-empty body at the last moment. Shade explains: “I'm not the person you think I am. My name is Shade. I'm only using this body. I caused a localized trauma in reality when I entered it. I hope it didn't disturb you. This is earth, right? I've come from the area of madness. Quite a journey.”
Shade and Kathy find themselves confronted by the American Scream: a hallucinatory skeleton dressed like Uncle Sam that’s the embodiment of everything insane in the USA. "The scream that's inside me, you, all of us,” explains a doctor whose legs have recently turned to worms. (Don’t ask.) “The scream that's inside America. He's come to set it free.” It’s the high concept that drives the opening few arcs of Shade. Someone’s private madness becomes horrifically public thanks to the American Scream, and our heroes attempt to find out who’s responsible. Or what is responsible -- they discover that inanimate objects can go crazy too.
The artist for these early issues -- and the signature artist for the series -- is Chris Bachalo, and it’s his career-best work. He becomes more adventurous as Shade continues, too, with sharp angles, patterns creeping through panel borders, and trademark concentric circles infecting everything in sight. (Years later, his stylized excess remained pretty, but became pretty incomprehensible as far as actual storytelling goes.) He used early computer-generated effects for his art, too, with Shade’s powers of madness rendered as red and yellow smears and his eccentric coat a shifting rainbow. In fact, Shade, The Changing Man is a neon rave party compared to the serious gloom colouring of the other Vertigo titles. Later artists would push the book’s wide-eyed pop-sensibility even further.
Once its narrative hoop-jumping is out of the way, the plague of madness is an excuse for Milligan to cast an alien eye over popular culture. Shade and Kathy confront the JFK Sphinx in Dallas: an enormous, shattered stone head that eats anyone who can’t solve the conspiracy around his death. They fight movie monsters in Hollywood and forgotten garbage people in New York and a cross-eyed LSD burn-out -- and interdimensional god -- in San Francisco. Luckily, Shade’s already been trained in our pop culture on his homeworld. (I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion this entire revamp was inspired by the fact that Shade’s planet bears the perfect name for it: “Meta.”) I say "our" popular culture even as I’m writing this in the opposite hemisphere’s summer to the United States’s winter; Shade is sunk deep in the peculiarly American dreamscape, but then again, aren’t we all?
Cultural trivia isn’t enough to prepare him for the reality of life on earth. "I don't understand anything,” says Shade. “They put me in a deep culture tank, but I think they must have left something out." Apparently, there’s a deep culture tank for France, too, and it’s “a little easier to digest.” Milligan makes no pretense to decide what counts as "real" America and what doesn’t. If it’s on TV, then it’s real enough. Later in the series, the idea of an old-fashioned Great American Novel is mocked relentlessly, with an anagrammed Milligan himself appearing as a writer who praises his own work as "Steinbeckian." Shade, The Changing Man would always prefer to be Warhol over Steinbeck. Maybe 32 Campbell's Soup Cans – or, better still, Little Electric Chair.
A DC representative told me that no decision has been made about collecting the rest of the series’ seventy issues. If they don’t, you’ll miss out on Milligan getting bored of the American Scream and shifting the book in dozen strange directions. Like Shade, Kathy, and Lenny deciding to run a sitcom-style hotel of inexplicable events. Or a machine constructed out of household furniture and called "Anjelica Huston." Or Shade’s secret headquarters under a crack in the sidewalk in Manhattan’s Times Square. And maybe Shade freaking out James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, if only for the following gag: “And then the screaming began in Ernest. And in Jim.” Unlike most ongoing titles which require forward motion -- or at least the chugging illusion of the same -- Shade often works best when it’s indulging in wild, unpredictable tangents.
How do you keep a character with the power to warp reality itself interesting for a five-year run? Doppelgangers! Shade not only finds the leftovers of killer Troy Grenzer living inside him, but also a meaner version of himself (unfortunately named Hades) that he lets free in emergencies. His dead skin cells sometimes form new versions of himself based on yesterday’s mood, too. And as Shade turns from a horror comic into a playful soap opera about shifting identities, Shade’s mutable body means he becomes a woman, a household lamp, a JFK clone, and a dance floor. He’s killed and resurrected and killed again. He often can’t tell where he stops and others begin, or which stories belong to who and why. Shade’s a delicate soul, at least at first, selected for the mission to earth because of his creativity. "I wore a loud cravat and read poetry..." he says, embarrassed.
That’s why, despite all its blood and madness and elaborate alien fashion, Shade always managed to hurt my heart. It has some of the lurid serial-killer-style narration that seemed to be obligatory for all these comics at the time, but Milligan has a knack for allowing painful honesty to shine through his characters’ quippery. When Kathy starts sleeping with Lenny -- the Wildean third-wheel of their relationship who gets all the best lines -- Shade admits: "I know I'm a writhing mass of pettiness and demons and jealousy, but what can I do?" He’s tortured, sure, but Milligan understands something about angst that many writers never grasp. Being tortured doesn’t make you mysterious; pain mostly just makes you timid, scared. Wearing all the black in the world doesn’t make that less true.
Shade eventually transforms once more, convincing everyone that he no longer cares. He ditches his sensitive soul for easy, glib madness. He tries to keep his heart in a locked box, too, but it keeps sneaking out burrowing back into his chest. (The fact that my previous sentence is not a metaphor, but literally what happens in the issue, is exactly why I love comic books.) It’s mirrored in the way that while other Vertigo comics were clamoring to be taken seriously through sex, violence, and fancy literary allusions, Shade, The Changing Man demanded the opposite. Here’s Milligan’s own introduction to issue #51:
Anyone who has followed Shade with an intimate eye over the last fifty episodes, or even those who have jumped gaily aboard midway through our journey, might have understood this truth: that the real theme of this book is not madness, nor love, nor hatred, nor loss… though all of these have had their place. The real theme of Shade, The Changing Man is… hair. Hair styles, to be exact. And though this might sound glib, it has a serious intent, for was it not Shakespeare who suggested that to comprehend the fashion of hair is to comprehend the world?
Peter Milligan’s writing post-Shade never found quite the same success as his contemporaries in the so-called "British Invasion." He never projected the same love of superhero hyperbole that endeared Grant Morrison to the mainstream. (Although here are two Milligan takes on superheroes well worth your time: a spooky run of Batman stories in Detective Comics in 1991, and his defiantly shallow celebrity mutants of Marvel’s X-Statix, ten years later.) Right now, he’s making a splashy return to Vertigo: he’s the latest writer on their long-running urban horror comic Hellblazer, about to release a graphic novel The Bronx Kill for the new Vertigo Crime imprint, and has his own creator-owned title, Greek Street, that’s still finding its feet.
I worry that I’ve made Shade sound perfect, and God knows it’s not. When you’re cherry-picking from seventy issues of old stories instead of a single graphic novel, you’ll always recount the highlights instead of the disappointing guest artists or too-on-the-nose satirical failures or the attempts at horror that fall flat. Milligan’s willingness to shred the book’s status quo at the slightest provocation has to be admired, though, as does how his tight narration and quotable dialogue gave Shade a glossy sheen, no matter who happened to be the artist that month.
This week, I was struck by the last line of a weighty essay by French theorist Thierry Groensteen. While discussing comic book’s relationship with childhood, he admits that this kind of critical writing might be “…doing nothing more than holding out our hands to the kids we used to be.” In that same time-travelling spirit, then, I’d like to reach out to my adolescent self. He thought that the meaning of life was contained within his latest haircut, too. If he’s still living inside me, like Shade’s subconscious serial killer, he’d want me to say thanks for five years of mad stories that once meant the world to him.
Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He's in the middle of a Ph.D. on superhero stories, and wrote a few embarrassing letters to early '90s comic books himself. Find him at www.martynpedler.com