I’ll Assign This Treason Case to You

For a guy whose hi-tech vest literally harnesses the power of madness Rac Shade kind of has a stick up his ass. That seems very much the point? He can travel through the Zone of Madness and remain unaffected, after all. Guy’s got a solid sense of reality.

Sanity is very much a binary choice in the original run of Shade the Changing Man. The story is almost Lovecraftian in terms of the attention paid to the sanity of its hero. The difference is, of course, that madness is inevitable in Lovecraft’s world – inevitable at least for any human who persists in seeking forbidden knowledge. Madness for Steve Ditko here appears to be a malady against which a superior specimen – aided by superior technology, in this instance – might somehow resist.

Why is this preoccupation with madness and sanity so important to this series? Shade is a paranoid book. Literally every member of the cast is suspicious of every other member of the cast, down to parents, children, and lovers. Everyone in the Meta – the rather faceless and indistinct alternate dimension that Shade calls home – is a cop of some kind, or a criminal, or a criminal masquerading as a cop. If you’re not actively working with the Metan government to stamp out crime then you are probably a criminal yourself, let’s just say.

The reader will search in vain for any sign on the part of the author that the obsessively carceral world of Meta is not in fact the oppressive dystopia it appears on first, second, and eighth blush. Every third word out of every character’s mouth is an accusation of treason – perhaps an exaggeration, but only just. The Metan Secret Service, of which Shade served as a member, doesn’t really appear to have a set remit other than the general homeland protection shtick. Business is paranoid hypernationalism without a specific focus besides its own perpetuation and business is very good.

I imagine the Metan Secret Service finds lots of decadence and corruption everywhere it looks. A major plot point for the series is the mass incarceration of the Meta’s criminals in another another dimension – the Zero Zone, which isn’t the Phantom Zone. People in this book are absolutely obsessed with making sure there are enough people in jail. It isn’t funny at all. There do not appear to be two wet farts worth of due process in the whole fucking dimension, and no one ever cares about that in any way shape or form. It would be possible to retell the story in these original nine issues from the perspective of any of those escaped villains and produce a perfectly legible photocopy of V for Vendetta.

That’s the pull-quote for the original Shade, and it’s perhaps not one that gels well with later incarnations of the book or character: this is V for Vendetta from the point of view of one of the Fingermen. Rac Shade is a member of the secret police force in a hyperparanoid dystopia, framed for a crime he didn’t commit, who somehow uses the opportunity to become even more of a cop because he’s being chased by other cops. He breaks out of prison and heads to Earth, where the Meta already has a beachhead set up for the purpose of . . . well, you know, it’s hard to imagine that the Meta wouldn’t just find a pretext to invade Earth one of these days. The only thing that might stop them is their own government being constantly paralyzed and under threat of coup due to fascist autocracies being inherently unstable.

There’s no getting around that the Meta is a fucking awful place. It looks terrible. Perhaps the banality of the décor is not the fault of the citizens of the Meta so much as the artist who was (let us be completely frank) putting less work into imaginative designs than he would have some fifteen years earlier. There’s nothing visually to mark the place other than some borrowed Alex Raymond backdrops and recycled costuming. Ditko appears to be purposefully spoofing his earlier work in places, with Shade’s Earth-bound Metan enemies at the “Occult Research Center” hanging out in a building identical to the Sanctum Sanctorum. Not subtle. Nor the fake guru with the beard hawking magazines in the mid-70s – not exactly Funky Flashman but only because Ditko wasn’t really putting so much effort into secondary characters this time around.

Nor really the primary characters, truth be told. It’s a weakness that no one in this book is at all likeable. The main character is a cipher, but left to his own devices all Ditko’s solo protagonists are ciphers made to run through a rat’s nest of noir plotting in search of opportunities to steamroll any goons who get in the way of justice. Ditko’s heroes don’t have much in the way of rich interior lives – to return to a theme, however, that seems very much the point?

It is difficult to overstate just how paranoid a book this is. It sometimes appears as if the story is composed of page after page of close-ups of people’s faces caught in moments of desperate rage or terrifying fear, their eyes teeny tiny pupils floating in massive seas of negative space. There isn’t a lot of room for anything more tender than that. The book’s female lead Mellu Loren spends almost every on-panel moment vowing to kill Shade for treason (for which he was framed), which tears her up a bit considering they were lovers. But really only just a bit, because she’s a good cop.

Perhaps Shade is a bit of a mess. It suffers the odd fate of being didactic without being topical, meaning the narrative itself arrives at a hectoring and frantic tone that seems to have no real agenda other than the business of its too-convoluted-by-half paranoid shaggy dog story. It’s telling that a premise that seems like it should be a wall-to-wall psychedelic explosion actually still manages to boil down, in its creator’s hands, to a guy in a leotard bashing into a bunch of goons in a warehouse. There’s a lot of that, just like literally every other Steve Ditko story that could possibly shoehorn in a shot of the hero carombing around the joists of a warehouse like a dispassionate Randian billiard ball of fury.

Pay attention to what the story says: his vest has strange powers that are directly influenced by the viewer’s perceptions. As Shade himself describes the phenomenon in the first issue, “Pulsating energy emanating from the vest’s force field distorts people’s perceptions of me in accordance with their mental state. . . . Their shock and fear are combining with the pulsations to make me appear weird . . . distorted . . . !” The goons getting creamed on-panel are rightly freaked the fuck out at the sight of a dude’s arms and legs getting weirdly distended and monstrous. Another artist could make a lot of hay out of the idea of a power set like this. The book seems to struggle sometimes to remember that we actually might like to see something cool happen. But sometimes – sigh, often – the story seems to go out of its way to remind us that it’s just regular ol’ Rac Shade, interdimensional narc, exploiting the weak minds of the depraved criminal class to bring about their undoing. He’s just a normal muscle guy in a red jumper and blue slacks, taking out the trash with his two fists of freedom. Madness is weakness. To be avoided and rebuffed.

There is something parsimonious in Ditko’s solo approach. Shade is a story of creatures hemmed in by circumstances and straining against the barriers of dimensions like they were intrusive panel borders. The characters seem more aware of how horrible their universe is than their creator, it must be said. The environment is dense, confusing, but also always just a little bit shabbier than you expect. Here, Ditko seems to say, here is the bare minimum of what one needs to put together an adventure story. In this context anything more than watching a square-jawed cipher maintain his inexplicable moral high ground against a world of faceless mediocrities seems pure decadence.

There’s a directness to the visual storytelling that belies Ditko’s overly-complex plot. If it’s hard to hold on the stakes in Shade’s world of interdimensional espionage, it’s easy at least to follow the action from panel to panel. At this point in his career – Shade ran for eight issues in 1977 and 1978 – Ditko had already stripped away a tremendous amount of clutter from his style. That urge for directness is the primary motor for much of his later work. Everything fussy and extraneous must go, and had already gone a while back.

The problem is that artists, particularly artists who come to prominence as collaborators, often misjudge what is fussy and extraneous in their own work. Ditko has a very set and certain idea of what good heroic fiction is supposed to look like and what it’s supposed to accomplish. He talks at length throughout his solo career on this topic. Thankfully we have enough evidence to say that Ditko’s approach, with intentionally empty-headed heroes running through the motions of adventure with the surety of a finely tuned watch, tends towards flat and cramped stories.

The idea runs throughout his work that heroism isn’t any action or actions a person commits, but something a lot more dry and often dramatically inert: a commitment to right thinking that leads invariably and without friction to right action. Rac Shade never wavers once in his commitment to clear his name and clear the upper echelons of Metan society from corruption. Shade’s sobriety and decisiveness shine. He can walk through madness unaffected and use it as a weapon against the weak-minded, after all.

So what is important here? What is there in these comics to warrant remembrance?

For me, with Ditko, it always comes down to his line.

With Ditko there’s never a moment where you’re allowed to forget that you’re looking at a drawing a man made with his own two hands by applying actual pencil and ink to actual paper. It seems a type of honesty, this scrupulous insistence on stripping everything down to its barest components. His later essayistic comics make a lot of use of text as a graphic element. This always draws for me the natural comparison to Dave Sim, another creator whose work has become increasingly didactic as they have aged, and who similarly does not scruple against using plain text to communicate where more efficient than simply drawing a picture.

Open up a random issue of Shade the Changing Man, flip to a random page. Any page. Pay no attention to whatever is in the word balloons – chances are good it will be flat exposition to describe whatever’s happening in the panel. That’s necessary with Ditko because sometimes his visual shorthand could be simply inscrutable. But look at that page without any attempt to actually follow the story. What do you notice about the drawings? Well, some of them are really basic. Maybe even kind of ugly. He couldn’t draw a sexy girl to save his life – I’m sorry, he was hopeless at it, and I will die on that hill – and he had two basic face types for men: heroes with actual facial features, and villains with a few discontented stabs of ink where their personality should be.  

His attempts at simplicity sometimes veer into illegibility: the best example of this in the present volume is Shade’s occasional punching bag The Cloak. He’s an invisible character whose presence is delineated by abstract shapes and lines which sometimes fail to cohere into something that makes sense to look at (a process not helped by late 1970s reproduction and printing technologies). Sometimes his attempts at simplicity really are just weird: the book’s major crime lord – “Sude,” short for Supreme Decider – hides behind a robot disguise that is really just a round red face with two arms sticking out of it. It doesn’t even seem to qualify as a design so much as an absence of a design, literally the most utilitarian-seeming execution possible of that idea.

But look at that page, whichever page you’re looking at. Look at the flat planes of color that occupy most of the place of texture in Ditko’s work. Look at the relentless focus on gesture, look at how all of his characters talk with their hands. Whatever you’re looking at is the most efficient execution of that idea that Ditko could think of at the time. Anything more than the absolute bare minimum of lines necessary to create the proper inference of physical relations of objects within the panel appears completely extraneous to purpose.

Look even at the mood imparted by the detail work on splash pages. If he takes the time to put in crosshatching to build mood, the lines will still have been placed with the same precise attention to efficiency as every other line in the book. There’s never a sense that you’re looking at anything other than a Steve Ditko drawing because the whole point is that every single line on the page – save for the letters – is as pure a reflection of Ditko’s peculiar skill as his handwriting.

If an artist wants to know how to use a brush, I will tell them to look at any page Ditko ever drew, and with a jeweler’s loupe: you can practically see the bristle of every brushstroke, if you know how to look you can actually see the physical motion with which his hand laid down the ink. That’s feathering. When Ditko does it you fucking well know why they call it “feathering”: because you’re making a shape like a feather with your brush.

Ditko’s feathering is at all times absolutely perfect, perfectly efficient, and yet also a little bit awkward. That element of awkwardness is elemental. People are never, for any reason, comfortable in his stories. Peter Parker is a miserable SOB even after he loses the glasses and gets a little swag in his step. It’s not until Jazzy Johnny took over that you could believe Peter could learn to take the stick out and listen to whatever jazz bullshit he kept on to impress Gwen. Probably pretended to have favorite Gil Evans arrangements. It wasn’t until Ditko left the building that, likewise, Doc Strange got some game.

There’s not a lot of joy in Ditko’s stories. That’s a depressing and perhaps a weighted observation. But it’s still true: everyone in Meta is pretty miserable. The only genuine affection we see, I think, is a flashback between two people whose relationship has since devolved to the level of “vows to murder on a regular basis.” People in Ditko stories have no chill.

No joy, no chill. But there is still a bit of sex, for all that. The (very minor) tragedy of Shade is that as much as the early issues meander, the last few do show a tiny bit of direction. There are directions Ditko could have taken the character that would have veered away from the relentless focus on the simultaneously disconcerting and bewilderingly vague internal politics of the Meta. One of those directions is teased in Ditko’s last Shade story, published after the DC Implosion as part of the infamous Cancelled Comics Cavalcade. That issue, the otherwise unpublished #9, cast Shade – on his way still to save Earth and Meta from something or other, the plot was getting to be a bit hairy at this point – as a freedom fighter enslaved by a warlord in the Zero Zone, which isn’t the Phantom Zone. But there’s also a bit of “wonderful” BDSM imagery as Shade is locked in manacles by the warlord Zexie, who declares that Shade “will serve me well – once [he] has been appropriately harnessed and disciplined by my collar of obedience!” The price paid for getting out of town and getting out of the paranoid main plot was apparently falling into an uncomfortably thirsty side plot. So maybe “a bit of direction” is overstating the case.

Steve Ditko spent the later decades of his career stripping every extraneous element from his style in search of the most effective and efficient form for communicating his ideas. As stories his Shade the Changing Man don’t hold up at all, if we’re being frank. The plots are both overstuffed and undernourished. He’s in a transitive phase, which is a weird thing to say about someone who was already considered passé at the time with still four decades of work ahead of him. What matters to him maybe isn’t what matters to the reader, or maybe what matters only incidentally. The book is strange and frantic, the tone perhaps unintentionally oppressive. 

The energy here comes from watching Ditko still learning on the fly, still trying to see how many elements of his style were absolutely necessary, and what he could pare away while remaining legible. Turns out he could pare away a lot.