Note: Robert Napton is the writer for several Dynamite Entertainment titles including WARLORD OF MARS: DEJAH THORIS.
ROBERT NAPTON: Matt, the very title of the comic says it all, "The Shadow Year One." You have the opportunity to fill in a missing gap in the Shadow's illustrious history. What did you want to reveal about the character that we didn't know before and what sources from the canon did you draw upon?
MATT WAGNER: Well, I’ve spoken before about what an enormous fan I’ve been of The Shadow for a very long time and how the character had such a huge impact on my early days as a comics fan. So when the opportunity arose for me to make this incredibly significant contribution to The Shadow’s published lineage, I literally leapt at the chance.
In the original Shadow pulp novels, there’s initially no origin story at all; we’re immediately thrust into The Shadow’s adventures with his costumed persona already fully formed and functioning in his role as a crime-fighter. It took another six years before The Shadow’s creator, Walter Gibson, revealed the character’s mysterious back-story. So, it occurred to me that what was missing from this lengthy legacy was a “Year One” tale, the story of how the man who ultimately becomes The Shadow first returns to the States from his years spent abroad and establishes his crusade against evil. I figured certain elements of his M.O would already be in place but not yet developed into the familiar character that we know and love.
So, I started with a scene set in the jungles of Cambodia because I wanted to show that, even though he’s pursuing his particularly merciless quest for justice, he wouldn’t yet have the hat and cloak and clothing that make up his traditional costume but are so obviously part of a Western urban environment. Also, if you’ll notice, in the first several issues, whenever we see him facing off against bad guys, you can tell he’s working his way up to his two most famous catch-phrases (“Who knows what evil…” and “The weed of crime…”)—he hasn’t quite those down yet.
Another aspect I thought was a very important balance to strike, was maintaining some sense of mystery about the character…in a story that unveils his origin—not so easy to do! When I wrote THE GREEN HORNET: YEAR ONE for Dynamite a few years back, I was dealing with a character whose secret identity (Britt Reid) was a journalist so it made sense to explore and expose every single aspect of his origin. We see how he meets Kato, how they form their secret identities, get their weapons, their hideout, etc… That’s not the case here and I felt it was very important to keep The Shadow in the shadows.
Thus, what we do learn about his background and his motivations is very oblique, told in snatches and fragments and often through other characters in the narrative. I also thought it was important to refine all of the more famous versions of The Shadow into our particular version of the character. So, what I’m doing doesn’t exactly follow the Gibson pulp novels as the absolute canon, although I do consider them the most significant source. I’m also trying to incorporate various aspects of the radio show which was, arguably, even more influential in the public’s perception of our hero.
For instance, in the pulps, The Shadow is something like a crime-busting stage magician, utilizing illusionary tricks and a ninja-like ability to pass unnoticed in the darkness. In the radio show, that became “the power to cloud men’s minds” so that he can just outright turn invisible (a brilliant motif for a medium with no visual components). My version kind of strides the line between the two; he’s got a range of psychic abilities but he’s not telekinetic and can’t just disappear outright. His powers are limited and are generally based around misdirection although he also has some limited telepathy and clairvoyance.
Another influence for my take on the character was the fact that, to many younger readers, their only exposure to The Shadow was through the 1994 Alec Baldwin movie and, truthfully, there are elements of that film that I thought added some nice texture to The Shadow’s legend. Specifically, I really liked the fact that The Shadow had some personal darkness of his own to conquer in the past. That added a depth and internal conflict to the character that I thought really strengthened his heroism. So again, I’ve tried to distill all of these elements from his long and vibrant history into my version of The Shadow. One of the bits of which I’m proudest is in the second issue, wherein Margo (as our narrator) explains why The Shadow laughs. It’s not because he’s maniacal. It stems from the fact that, due to the darkness in his own past, he understands that redemption isn’t lightly granted nor easily attained. When The Shadow laughs, he’s sneering at the criminals’ arrogance that they can escape his relentless justice…or at their insincere, last-minute pleas for mercy in the face of his pitiless judgment.
RN: Margo Lane plays a key role in this series as the narrator. What about her point of view interested you as our way into the story?
MW: Well, to maintain some sense of The Shadow’s mystery, I thought it was imperative that we not have access to his internal thoughts. We should never be inside The Shadow’s head because, as a character, he’s beyond our mundane understanding and motivations. It’s the same reason that Dr. Watson narrates the Sherlock Holmes tales. Still, I wanted to keep him down-to-earth and human; he’s not an all-powerful demi-god. So, I turned to the character of Margo Lane as our conduit into The Shadow’s persona. Margo’s a good example of the melding I mentioned between the various versions of the character’s incarnations. She was initially a construct of the radio program because, given the nature of that medium, Lamont Cranston needed someone to talk to and it needed to be an intimate relationship not just a cop or fellow detective. Believe me, audiences of that day knew exactly what “constant friend and companion” actually meant! Margo was only introduced as a character in the pulps after many years and even then only at the insistence of Gibson’s publishers who wanted to capitalize on the radio show’s success.
Here again, I honed our version of Margo into something between these two versions; she enters into The Shadow’s circle very early on but she meets him in a way that’s consistent with her introduction in the pulps. An aspect that I added to the character is that fact that she’s something of a fallen woman, a former socialite who’s been a “friend and companion” to a succession of wealthy men but, by the time of our story, has fairly run out of options. The point here was that I wanted to provide Margo with a certain dark aspect to her past that would make not only make her feel some connection to The Shadow’s history but also make her vulnerable and susceptible to entering a life of danger and covert intrigue. She feels inexplicably drawn to this extraordinary and driven man even as she feels herself inexorably compelled into the dark world he represents.
RN: You mentioned to me you had never written a story set in the 1930s before this one, which surprised me. You have a lot of fun in Year One crafting dialogue and character voices that are very much of that time period. How do you get yourself into that space?
MW: Ha! Actually, you’re misremembering that, amigo. I said I’d never drawn a story set in the 1930s and that was in reference to the upcoming SHADOW VS GRENDEL crossover event that I’m both drawing as well as writing. And, yeah…I think most people would be fairly surprised by that fact, considering how much stuff I have written that’s set in the ‘30s. After all, I wrote (co-wrote, actually, with Steven T. Seagle) SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE for over five years! And then there were the twelve issues of GREEN HORNET: YEAR ONE and, of course, my current run on THE SHADOW: YEAR ONE. So, all-in-all, that’s a lot of material set in that time period. At this point, I feel like I’ve got a pretty firm grip on the setting and language of that age but I do still try to keep myself refreshed by watching movies from that time and reading books that were contemporarily written in that time.
My parents were fairly late in having me and so they were actually teenagers and young adults during the ‘30s and ‘40s. As a result, I have a very real inherited nostalgia for that time and so I find it pretty easy to play in that narrative realm. And, let’s face, it was a great time for American style in all regards. Despite the Great Depression, the 1930s still stand as a shining point of American ingenuity and achievement. The architecture, the cars, the fashions…it all really shines during the ‘30s.
RN: The world of The Shadow is dense with villains and his network of helpers -- how did you decide who to revisit for this origin story?
MW: The very first Shadow pulp novels begins with a now-iconic scene of The Shadow saving the life of Harry Vincent who goes on to become his most active agent. Most readers assume that Harry is The Shadow’s first agent but that’s inaccurate. He later meets with another agent who is to serve as his main contact, Claude Fellowes. I didn’t want to re-do The Shadow’s saving of Harry (he actually stops him from committing suicide) since that’s already such a powerful scene in the pulp, so I decided we should instead see how The Shadow first recruits Claude Fellowes. Here again, The Shadow steps in to save Fellowes (from a group of gangsters) and then claims that they now share an irrevocable bond—“I am the tether to which your life is now bound!”
So far as the villain of our storyline is concerned, I wanted his pursuit of a particular bad guy to be the reason that The Shadow returns to America in the first place. I was determined to not use Shiwan Khan, who I find is just soooo overused as The Shadow’s main nemesis. I created an all-new villain who, we later find out, shares more than a few things in common with our hero, specifically a certain degree of psychic powers, which he’s been using to seed unrest and stir up an escalating gang war in the New York underworld. We’ve already met that villain (in issue #3) and he’s a particularly pulpy and gruesome character named Dr. Zorn; “zorn” is German for “wrath” and Shadow creator Walter Gibson had a recurring penchant for naming his villains with “Z” initials. I’m having a lot of fun with Zorn and, of course, their clash comes to an epic and action-packed climax!
RN: Artist Wilfredo Torres seems the perfect fit for this series and really meshes beautifully with your writing style here. What does he bring to the table that influences your scripts?
MW: Well, Wilfredo (who goes by “Fred” to his friends and family) is a perfectionist and so I know I’m always going to get just a picture-perfect translation of my scripts. He’s also amazing at staging any certain scene so that it plays out in a very “real world” manner. He’s also just aces at defining expressions and gestures so that the characters really seem to come to life and that’s always just great. Plus…he’s draws one incredibly bad-ass Shadow! I couldn’t be happier with our collaboration.
RN: Thanks Matt, it's been fun talking with you.
THE SHADOW: YEAR ONE #6 is on sale Wednesday, October 30.
Robert Place Napton is a comic book writer who has worked for such publishers as Image, Top Cow, Random House, and of course, Dynamite. His numerous projects for Dynamite Entertainment include the monthly series Warlord of Mars: Dejah Thoris. Before that he wrote Warlord of Mars: Fall of Barsoom, Warriors of Mars, Thun'da, Blackbeard: Legend of the Pyrate King, and Battlestar Galactica Origins: Adama.