DC just released a TON of Vertigo titles on its DCU Infinite Ultra* service. So I figured I'd take a look at some Vertigo books I haven't read for a while -- probably not since they came out. I'm not the biggest re-reader. First up: Shade the Changing Man, originally by Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo.
*Has there ever been a worse name for anything?
The first issue sets up the premise. Kathy George, fresh from a madhouse, is wracked with guilt. She feels responsible for her parents dying, and her fiance dying, all in the same day. (She and her fiance, Roger, stopped off for a quickie on their way to meet her parents back home in Louisiana. Which meant they weren't around when serial killer Tory Grenzer invaded their home and killed them. And it also meant that when they finally arrived, Grenzer attacked them -- and some cops saw the situation and thought Roger, who was Black, was the assailant, and shot and killed him. Hence the madhouse.)
Cops erring on the side of racism is certainly a plot point that stands the test of time.
Anyway, Kathy's been released -- her parents' estate ran out of money to continue her treatments, which also holds up better than ever -- and she goes to Louisiana to be near the penitentiary when Grenzer is executed. But for some reason Rac Shade escapes Meta through the Zone of Madness and possesses Grenzer's body. An electric chair comes to life. Things explode. Kathy and Shade wind up going on the lam, after further hallucinations convince Kathy that Shade's for real. The plan (and premise of the series at this point -- is for Kathy and Shade to road-trip around the country to points of madness.
First stop: Dallas Texas, to look into the JFK assassination! This comprises issues 2 and 3. Duane Trilby, a JFK conspiracy writer, starts getting faces of conspirators appearing on his skin, and the madness starts to seep into the greater Dallas area, including a giant JFK head appearing in Dealy Plaza asking the new riddle of the Sphynx: WHO KILLED JFK? In confronting this, for a while Kathy and Shade sidestep back in time into John and Jackie Kennedy; Trilby saves JFK's life. Thigs go haywire and get trippy,* as Trilby's daughter (or Shade, in the form of Trilby's daughter) starts exploring alternative theories on why JFK was killed, and what would have happened if he hadn't been. Ultimately, the story posits that JFK was a god-king that America set up and then intentionally destroyed as a sacrifice to its REAL god -- the greenback dollar.
*"Things go haywire and get trippy": I'll probably be saying things like this a lot when reading this series. If anyone wants to go deep in the weeds about how they get trippy, I'll be happy to talk about it (this one involves, at one point, a shooting gallery of JFK busts), but for the purposes of plot synopses, "things get trippy" is probably going to do a lot of heavy lifting and keep me from getting bogged down in the weeds.
We're left with some FBI agents confronting Kathy while Shade has been drawn back to Meta, and only exists as a 2-dimensional colored silhouette in this reality.
One of the things I'll find interesting in this read is watching Milligan -- an Englishman -- contend with Americana as an outsider, through the persona of Shade, another outsider. And also, it'll be interesting to see which parts of Americana have continued since the early 90s, and which were a product of their time. JFK assassination theories are still around, of course, but they seem less prevalent and urgent than they did then, when so many of the players were still around. Of course, conspiracists themselves have just moved on to fresher subjects.
Great re-read choice, Rob. I read these a few years after publication (I think I got the entire run from bargain bins at cons, because there were no TPB collections). I don't think I'm sufficiently motivated to follow along, but who knows. Maybe your commentary will suck me in!
Thanks, Mark! We'll see if I can keep it going.
I read issue 4 today, by the same creative team. Including Todd Klein on letters, and I have to say his work is also instrumental in making this feel like early Vertigo (even though this is, like early Sandman, actually pre-Vertigo).
Much of this issue is a flashback, as Shade is trapped in the Area of Madness (a space between Meta and Earth that's been corrupted by Earth's leaking madness), and confronts for the first time The American Scream. But more important, he has a flashback of his time on Meta, his early poetic/romantic tendencies that were surgically removed from him by the Lasers of Faith so he could become a productive member of society. (These tendencies were first discovered when he crept into the bedroom of Radhu, a girl he had a crush on, as a young man -- and while the Metan solution to this is drastic, that's still Not Cool, Shade!) Anyway, Shade get's recruited to be an agent of Meta sent to Earth, but Metans could only stay there for around 3 hours. Shade doesn't even really know what his job is -- but he talks to an older agent who lets slip that the agents are basically living Lasers of Faith, who basically lobotomize earthlings to remove their madness. Which doesn't sound great, overall.
Anyway, Shade gets picked for a pilot program where he can displace a human and inhabit the world for 3 months, and they've picked Troy Grenzer since he was about to die anyway. Which brings us back to issue 1. But Shade also learns (or at least sees) that his advisor -- Vizor -- has let his original body die, and he has nowhere to go back in Meta.
Also, Kathy was taken in by the feds, but while she's in the interrogation room with Shade's silhouette (actually a portal to the area of madness), she steps inside it, then pulls shade out... and they wind up in Arizona (I think), where they get a hotel room, Shade tells Kathy what little he knows about his past, Kathy seems certain they'll hook up, and Shade makes new clothes for himself out of the madness energy, particularly the sweet multi-colored overcoat he wears.
Next stop looks like Hollywood!
Issues 5 and 6 take place in Hollywood, and are mostly concerned with how fake everything is. The macho leading man is also a child-killer (and perhaps pedophile; it's unclear). The "serious" actress has had plastic surgery (horrors!) and was once in a porno. The genial everyman actor goes to drug-filled gay orgies. The hot new starlet slept her way to the top, and regrets giving up her kid for adoption. (The vignettes featuring these characters mirror the quick character studies in Sandman's 24 Hours story, published about a year and a half earlier, where everyone there also has a dark secret.)
I swear, sometimes Vertigo books seem like they're written by (and more likely for) Holden Caulfield. Everyone's a goddam phony. The biggest sin is hypocrisy. (Although boy, when these books address sex, there always seems to be a lot of shame attached. Early Vertigo loves to scold... or maybe that's just Milligan.)
Ultimately, Shade starts directing all the madness in town -- everyone's being filmed, everyone's showing up in each other's films, things get twisty -- by writing a screenplay to harness it. Then he finds the movie camera that's gone insane (the madness has started affecting inanimate objects now) and smashes it.
One bit of the overall story: At one point, Kathy sees a film of her parents being killed by Troy Grenzer. It really shakes her up. Also: in the beginning of issue 6, Kathy is really, really focused on getting a drink -- so much so that Shade comments on it. I can't remember, but does the storyline eventually reveal that she's an alcoholic? If so, this is where that story thread starts rolling.
Issue 7 is titled "Wretched Refuse" and makes an allegorical connection between homeless people and the garbage barges sailing up and down the Hudson river, looking for a place to drop tons of garbage. A prisoner works on one of the barges for a day, and discovers they're taking people, too, dead vagrants with no ID, to be buried in a potter's field. The American Scream gets hold of this angst and starts animating the garbage in the city. Shade and Kathy are drawn to NYC by this, and are soon separated in the chaos. Shade eventually finds one of the dead men, discovers his name, and somehow the prisoner now knows the name and stops the animated garbage tornadoes. Unfortunately, Kathy is still missing -- and she had a rough night, blackout drunk in an Alphabet City apartment. (There was a little more talk about Kathy drinking too much in the beginning of the issue, so it definitely seems like we're going down that alcoholic road in her story.) And by the end of the issue, it looks like Shade's going to be summoned away again (to San Francisco) before being reunited with Kathy.
Finally got back to this, reading issue 8. Shade's off in some groovy San Francisco vibe, trying to be convinced by guru Arnold Major to help the American Scream spread madness so civilization can be reborn. Kathy wakes up on the street, realizes the garbage man has hastened her alcoholic tendencies, decides to not have a drink today, goes looking for Shade, comes up empty but looks for an old classmate for help and finds Lenny Shapiro in his old apartment. Lenny welcomes her in and they get drunk. Lenny is goth... and maybe nonbinary, I think? Her pronouns are she/her, and she says "I started questioning my sexual identity, and my sexual identity didn't have the right answers." In any case, she's Lenny, and IIRC she's a breath of fresh air. They hang out together and discuss the encroaching weirdness; eventually Lenny robs a cab driver. Shade tries to reach out for Kathy, and eventually manifests in Lenny's apartment like a giant pink baby.
The hallucinatory territories Shade spends most of his time in this issue are nicely colored in desaturated hues, courtesy of Danny Vozzo.
I probably should have read to the end of this story, but the introduction of Lenny is a big deal -- she's the last of the series' 3 central characters to be introduced, which means the book might be starting to find its shape. We'll see.
....and, issue 9. Shade uses his connection to Kathy to escape from Arnold Major's various communes, and Kathy and Lenny are attacked by the church of Pan-Weirdness, who claim Shade and Kathy are the Anti-Weird, whatever that is. I recall that somewhere down the line, I decided for a while that this book just wasn't for me, and it might be happening sooner rather than later here. The book's mission statement is pretty much weirdness for weirdness's sake, and I have a feeling it would connect more with teens and 20-somethings trying to figure out their place in the world than with a guy in his 50s who may not have all those answers, but knows enough to not look for them in a shock-value superhero retread. If this doesn't start to cohere a bit more by issue 12, I might jump ship to another book for a while.