Shadowman Volume One: Birthright

Reprinting Shadowman #1-4

Writer: Justin Jordan

Artists: Patrick Zircher, Brian Reber

Valiant Comics, $9.99, color, 112 pages

In the original Valiant era, I considered Shadowman to be the least of a pretty good lot. I have pretty much the same opinion of the new Shadowman in the new Valiant era.

Let me quickly say Shadowman isn't bad. But it suffers from two of the problems of the original series, which are 1) it's a magic book, and magic books lack coherence due to a lack of rules, and 2) it involves voodoo, which I find incredibly boring.

So much for the bad news. Because the rest of the news is pretty good!

For one thing, the art is better than the original series. I don't know much about Zircher and Reber, but they draw disgusting things so that they're genuinely disgusting, without sacrificing coherence. That is to say, when they draw a monster made up of writhing flesh from other beings, I can tell that I'm looking at a monster made up of writhing flesh from other beings. And, yes, it is disgusting, which it ought to be. Good work, Zircher and Reber! And they do the normal stuff well, also.

And that brings me to some more good news, which is that Shadowman isn't restricted to just voodoo, but instead embraces a much broader scope, essentially the afterlife of the Valiant universe. We have the usual blather about "the loa" and "Baron Samedi" and those other tired concepts that enjoyed a brief pop-culture moment in the '30s before their lameness became evident (but are still trotted out whenever a story is set in New Orleans). But Shadowman quickly moves beyond those concepts -- which do play a part, but only a small one. (Thank the loa!)

Also, the new Shadowman doesn't have the stupid-looking mask of his predecessor, nor the semi-lame secret identity of his predecessor. The new Shadowman has a mysterious past (with hints that actually look intriguing), plus an interesting supporting cast, comprised of two "abettors" whose job it is to help Shadowman, a competent and confident black girl with mild magic powers, and Peter Dinklage a dwarf who taught her those powers, has money and is handy at a workbench making weapons as well.

One thing I have excoriated over the years is a new superhero who becomes instantly combat-ready by virtue of putting on a costume. It's been used to death especially for super-heroines (Silver Age Batgirl, Hellcat), but I don't like it any better when it applies to male characters. The good news here is that our hero DOESN'T become super-capable and confident by putting on a costume; as his normal self he is deeply out of his depth, and demonstrates genuine (and understandable) fear. But he DOES become super-capable and confident when he becomes Shadowman, who appears to be an immortal conceptual being as much as a title. That elides the "how does the new hero manage to survive his first fight" problem, and also opens the door to bigger, broader concepts to come.

And I'm ready for that to happen. So far Shadowman is the runt of the litter, but it's a very good litter. And Shadowman has the potential to become a very big dog in the long run. As long as they keep the Marie LaVeau references to a minimum, I can probably hang with Shadowman.

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I've enjoyed this version of Shadowman probably a bit more than you, Cap. I've said elsewhere on this board that I always thought the original series should have been better than it was. I think this version has a much better look going on. I really do like the art as well. Patrick Zircher, if memory serves, has done some work for DC previously, and I always dug it.

I am usually wary of magical based books, but this has been fun. I don't find voodoo boring myself, but it isn't like I;m fascinated by it either. This is one of the only 2 series of the new Valiant I am reading.

What's the other one? I think they're all pretty good, to tell you the truth.

I shouldn't rag on voodoo as much as I do, but I do anyway. When I first started hearing voodoo references as the Li'l Capn, I thought the same thing as when I saw my first Earth-2 characters: "Cool! A whole new universe to explore!' But it turned out that the more I looked into voodoo, the less there was. It's a mish-mash of Christian, Caribbean and African religions, that isn't in any way a coherent belief system. "The loa" means one thing to one person, another thing to another. Baron Samedi (why a European title for a Caribbean deity?) is sometimes the god of death, sometimes a trickster god, sometimes both. (BTW, "Samedi" means Saturday in Haitian. I have no idea why he's named that.)

There are other loa, but do you know any? Their lack of appearance in pop culture leads me to believe that they're probably little more than a collection of names.

Voodoo -- or Voudon as it's sometimes called -- is really just a hodge-podge, and to try to make it an hierarchy or some other unified system is impossible. But comics writers try to do it anyway, in books like Tales of the Zombie and Brother Voodoo. It's such a clumsy stretch that it's almost painful, and I get frustrated when reading such things.

So hats off to Shadowman for using voodoo as a kind of framework without limiting the book to it. That's probably the best way to use it, as more a collection of rituals than an actual religion.

Patrick Zircher may have done some work for DC but I associate him most with Marvel's Thunderbolts.  He was the somewhat regular artist on that title after Bagley, around issue 50 or so. 

And Cap, I'm loving Shadowman.  It's my second favorite Valiant title right now after X-O Manowar.  I agree with you that the original series wasn't one of the best but the new series has gone a long way to correcting the earlier problems. 

Morrison used Voudoun very well in The Invisibles.  (Of course I'd say that!)  He was very sympathetic to it and used it as an intricate part of his story.  The great book he drew on that I read was Divine Horsemen, by Maya Derren, which delved deep into it as a belief system cobbled together by slaves from half-remembered earlier religions from all over Africa + Chrisitanity + native Caribean religions.  It has to be respected as something produced by people subjected to an unimaginable level of stress and trauma, cruelty and dislocation.

 

There is a crossword in Seven Soliders of Victory and one of the clues points to Voudoun as the key to much of what was going on there.  However, the idea of the Loas really throws a lot of light on what Morrison was doing in the 'sequel' Final Crisis, with different characters 'embodying' the divine New Gods as they each play their part in the ritual of the tale.  In that case Morrison was using Voudoun so subtly that perhaps you didn't even notice it enough to scoff at, Captain?

 

Derren described a spirituality and set of rituals that seemed to be effective in helping its believers make sense of their world.  The rag-dolls and pins and Zombies cliches seem to be a chronic debasement of the belief system according to Derren's book.  I think Chris has spent time in Haiti, and I'd like to ask him if Voudoun is still carried on in any form?  [Perhaps he takes a dim view of it as it may be ''the competition'? :-)  ]

The other one for me is Archer & Armstrong. I may check out some of the other titles later, but it is just hard for me to commit to a new franchise when the comics are $4 a pop. Also, I was never a fan of the original X-O and Harbinger, so it was easy to skip them this time too. 

I am buying just as many ongoing series from Valiant as I am from Marvel right now, so they have that going for them.

Figserello: I think Chris has spent time in Haiti, and I'd like to ask him if Voudoun is still carried on in any form?  [Perhaps he takes a dim view of it as it may be ''the competition'? :-)  ]


Yes, I've been to Haiti a couple of times.  Voodoo is an active, regularly practiced religion there.  Haitian Christians view Voodoo as a considerable threat to their culture, their faith and their reputation in the world.  But, as American and Canadian outsiders, we were somewhat fascinated by it on a cultural level.  This year, I happened to witness a Voodoo ritual.  It was nighttime parade with a lot of brass instruments, shouting, clapping, stomping, and animals and people wearing hats with candles or dioramas on them (one diorama appeared to be a graveyard in miniature).  And yes, I meant that some of the dioramas were placed on the backs of animals such as pigs. 

Captain Comics: But it turned out that the more I looked into voodoo, the less there was. It's a mish-mash of Christian, Caribbean and African religions, that isn't in any way a coherent belief system.

Figserello: Derren described a spirituality and set of rituals that seemed to be effective in helping its believers make sense of their world.  The rag-dolls and pins and Zombies cliches seem to be a chronic debasement of the belief system according to Derren's book.


I'm not exactly an expert, though I've obviously had closer view of Voodoo than most people.  Cap, I think your description of Voodoo is quite accurate.  It is a composite religion, drawing rituals, imagery and beliefs from a multitude of sources.  The early slaves brought over from Africa were forbidden to practice their native religions and so they developed a new system in which they could honor their old gods and old ways under a veneer of Christian iconography that would fool their masters.  Eventually, this developed into its own unique belief system- the composite religion known as Voodoo, distinct from Christianity and African and Caribbean religions.  Yet, because of its underground nature, Voodoo didn't develop uniformly and so there are regional differences that are often contradictory. 

As Figserello notes, Voodoo remains popular because it offers the powerless both a way to make sense of the world and, more specifically to Voodoo, a sense of control over the world.  Believers manipulate the world through rituals, curses and spells.  This is especially appealing to those who have no other source of power- social, political or economic.  

Very interesting.  Thanks Chris.  Derren's book seemed to be saying that the religion was dying out, but that seems not to be the case.  I have an interest in anthropology and different belief systems and mythology, so that looks like quite a privilege to me, to be able to see some of it first hand.  Dioramas on the backs of pigs, indeed!

 

That they were wary of Christianity is hardly surprising.  Anyone in the slaves' position would have balked at the notion of adopting the religion of the cruel monsters who worked them to death and broke up their families.  It's also not hard to see how so much of their religion involved personalising Death and dealing with it up close.  Death and mortality would have been something they would have had to deal with almost daily.  But it did give western pulp writers plenty of grist for their garish mills!

 

And of course, Christianity itself and virtually every other religion I've read about is a composite belief system. Frazier's The Golden Bough highlights the many ways Chrisitanity adopted and adapted pagan beliefs and rituals.  A look at early church history shows that it took some serious top-down, state-sponsored, persecutions and public executions to reign in and centrally systematise the wonderful panoply of early Christian sects, such as Gnosticism.  (Just to take the religion most of us are familiar with, rather than singling Christianity out for approbium.)

Thanks for the close-up view of voodoo, Chris. Great insight, as usual.

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